[Changes: As per almost usual, this post has been tinkered with since it first went up.]

Now I remember how I used to have time to read all of the magazines I subscribe to: the gerbil stepper. It might not work for everyone, but I can get lost in an Atlantic article about how China will one day rule us all even as I’m sweating and gasping on one of these machines, and suddenly I’ll look down at the timer and ten minutes will have gone by. If I just look at the televisions, each minute feels like a year and my lungs feel like they’re considering jumping up through my neck to throttle my brain before the “news” and “talk shows” make us all any stupider. (If you think you hear a vague echo of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that last bit of figurative language, I think you are correct, but I can’t be bothered to go look it up.)

On Tuesday I read in the June 11/18 New Yorker a brief piece by James Surowiecki about how thrilled we should all be by the president’s immigration-reform plan, in particular this whole “guest worker” thing. He sums up his viewpoint in the final paragraph:

“[T]he [guest-worker] program’s costs to American workers are negligible, the gains for the guest workers are enormous [compared to what they’d earn making the same product in their home countries for export to the U.S.], and the U.S. economy will benefit.”

I can’t comment on the second two points; they sound possible (although doesn’t the second point involve a lot of assumptions about what kind of work the immigrant in question would be doing back home?); I really don’t know. But something struck me about the article’s analysis of why “costs to American workers [would be] negligible.” Surowiecki’s main point is that a guest worker program won’t depress non-guest-workers’ wages, because “immigrants tend to work in different industries than native workers, and have different skills, and so they often end up complementing native workers, rather than competing with them.” He cites the inevitable “recent study” that found immigration “actually boost[ing] the wages of most American workers; its only negative effect was a small one, on the wages of workers without a high-school diploma.” (Italics mine.)

That’s all Surowiecki has to say on the subject; he’s quick to move on to another sweeping statement about how a guest-worker program will “benefit…the economy.” But I’d like to return my italics, above. I guess Surowiecki’s point in the passage leading up to my italics is just one way of saying something that we hear all the time: immigrants are willing to take jobs that Americans don’t want to do. But Surowiecki’s (man, I’m getting tired of typing out this guy’s alphabet-soup-like name) throwaway comment about “workers without a high school diploma” maybe being affected a little implies that such (American) workers are, in fact, willing to do these jobs and so would indeed face competition from guest workers. But no big deal, right? Who doesn’t have a high school diploma? Know anyone?

In Baltimore City, where any reference to public-school education should in all fairness include quotation marks around the word “education,” something like two thirds of the adult African-American population doesn’t have a high school diploma. And, at least somewhat as a result, there are neighborhoods in the city where well over half of the adults of working age don’t have jobs. (This is a statistic that is hidden when people discuss “the unemployment rate,” because the unemployment rate is really the rate of “people who don’t have jobs but have actively sought one in the last month”; if you’ve given up looking – which is easy to imagine people doing in a city that has hemorrhaged as many blue-collar jobs as Baltimore has in the last decade or two – you’re no longer counted as “unemployed.” So, paradoxically, if an area had a high “unemployment rate” for a while, and there just didn’t turn out to be very many jobs and lots of people got discouraged and stopped looking, the “unemployment rate” would suddenly improve! And the politicians could throw a party! Yay!)

Anyway, I’m not building up to a particularly devastating, well-thought-out point here. I just wanted to say that there are a lot of people sitting on doorsteps in Baltimore. I bet a lot of them – not all, but a lot – would rather be working. Maybe we could talk about certain things that some of these people are not taking responsibility for, but, before you judge them too harshly, you should really try to understand the effects of generational poverty and the resulting difference between someone who is unemployed but had good role models and has an education and job experience and knowledge of how to take advantage of things like libraries and otherwise possesses a sense that Life Could Be Better, and someone who is unemployed and everyone they know is unemployed and their parents were unemployed and they’ve never been through a job interview and have never written a resume and don’t know that everyone looks for jobs on-line these days and they could do that for free at the library, and so on.

And my point is that Surowiecki’s point seems to be that such people will, as a result of the guest-worker program, face even more competition for jobs than they currently do (from illegal immigrants, I guess). And that sounds awful for America’s cities, because continued mass unemployment ain’t cheap either: as just one example, a mayoral commission found that, in those same neighborhoods with the staggering rates of people not working, HIV-infection rates in certain age groups are comparable to rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Not to mention crime and blight (not exactly attractive to people who are considering moving and paying taxes here), and on and on.

So, on behalf of America’s urban underclass, I find myself wishing there weren’t a single illegal immigrant in the country, not to mention thinking that a guest-worker program wouldn’t really help things. (Although maybe it would. It would presumably be illegal to pay those guest workers less than minimum wage, so maybe that really means less competition with American diploma-less workers. God, I don’t know. Shows what I get for writing these things before breakfast.)

But anyway, we have these pesky illegal immigrants, so what shall we do with them? Damned if I know, although I must say that certain parties to the current debate act as if the immigrants aren’t here yet, or could be efficiently flushed from the country if necessary. In fact, there are anywhere from 7 to 20 million of them inside our borders, a situation that is just in a different scale from anything that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency – with only about 15,000 total staff members – is prepared to deal with as an enforcement problem. (And, of course, only a much smaller subset of those 15,000 can be sent out to check the kitchen of your favorite restaurant and the grounds-crew break room at your country club and the like). So we have to decide what to do about the fact that America has 7-20 million residents who are here illegally, many of them children who had no choice in the matter.

Should we just say “tough luck” and refuse to give them any legitimate way to interact with our society and institutions, so that they are forced to work in the shadow economy and are afraid to call the police when they are robbed or raped or otherwise taken advantage of (not to mention simply underpaid or otherwise treated like slave labor)? So that they are tempted to turn to crime themselves? [FN 1]

But if we don’t say “tough luck,” won’t they just keep coming? Or is that not such a bad thing? (The big corporations certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing – hence the Republican Party’s schizophrenia on the issue – but then, they’re thinking about their wallets, not the texture of civil society.)

Again, damned if I know.

Speaking of jobs not many people want, I was crossing 25th Street (yes, on my way to the Safeway) when my eye was caught by the sign on the door of a beautiful, late model, fire-engine-red pickup truck with a tradesman’s hutch on the back.

“Explosives Experts.”

I though about taking a picture but decided to just keep walking. But I wanted to commend this company on its choice of name, though. I can just imagine skimming through the phone book: “Bob’s Bombs.” “Explosive-R-Us.” “Big Bangs, Inc.” “Discount Detonations.”

“Explosives Experts.”

Which one would you pick?

In the evening, Kevin stopped by to inspect the strawberry patch. We seem to be just hitting the tipping point: the whole patch was stippled with the blood-red color of ripe berries. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be the only fans. Of the forty or so berries that were ripe enough to pick, about half were half-eaten. Most of the damage looks as if it were caused by something like a worm boring straight in, but some of the berries showed what I thought were obvious tooth marks. Kevin also spotted something he says are spider-mite eggs, which could be a problem as well. This weekend, I was planning on going to Home Depot anyway, so I’ll check out their poison aisle and see what can be done about this. “You sir! A bottle of your finest poison, and make it snappy!”

And later in the evening, my brother turned on the television in an idle moment and we were suddenly transfixed by America’s Got Talent. This is actually a semi-amusing show, as these things go, because of its vaudeville-like revue style, in which you never know what kind of act is going to show up next. (And, in fact, many of the acts are distinctly vaudevillian.) But the main amusement is in watching “the Hoff’s” train continue to wreck. He behaves so strangely, and yet seems aware of his strangeness, like he knows it’s part of the show. “Thrill to his pallor and flamboyance! Will it all come crashing down – tonight?” And what’s with all the cheering? I know, I know, there’s a producer stalking the aisles with a stack of cue cards and a whip, inciting the audience to it, but how do they summon up such enthusiasm, even if it is faked? Some of the acts are genuinely, impressively talented, but not to an extent that leads me to even consider shrieking with ecstasy.

Maybe, as always, You Just Have To Be There.



FN 1: This is a good point to bring up the disconnect between the reputation liberals have as being too soft and do-goody (“Hug the prisoners and give them money!” “Hug the illegal immigrants and give them money!”) and what it is that liberal social policy is actually trying to achieve. It’s not that we want to be nice to everyone, it’s that we want to try things that might actually work, such as providing job training to prison inmates and trying to turn prisons into something other than the hellish psychopath breeding grounds and trade schools for criminals that they are now. Similarly, the thinking behind trying to in some way integrate illegal immigrants into this society has to do with not allowing criminal enterprises to flourish using this cheap labor (not to mention gaining an unfair market advantage over companies trying to follow the law) and not getting robbed by an illegal immigrant who has decided he has no other option to be able to afford to buy his passport back, etc. [FN 2] We get a bad rap because sometimes our ideas don’t look “tough,” but maybe it requires toughness to accept the possibility of being made fun of for not looking tough in the course of actually trying something new.

Actually, never mind, that last sentence just sounds defensive.

FN 2: But let me just point out here that the “we” I’m talking about – that is interested in integrating illegal immigrants in some way into society – does not include Mr. Bush and this guest-worker thing, although – since, these days, the “real” conservatives are in the process of tripping over themselves backpedaling away from their erstwhile golden boy – I bet that if the guest-worker thing goes through, it gets tarred as a “liberal” idea touted by Mr. Never-Really-Was-A-Conservative, just like the nation got stuck with the Republican version of welfare back in the 1960s but the idea of paying people not to form stable family units somehow became associated with “the liberals.” [FN 3]

FN 3: Footnotes within footnotes? I must think I’m David Foster Wallace or something. (Look for the sentence beginning “His most notable rhetorical move. . .”)