The American Dream and the Debts It Has to Pay First

There has been a militant part of our religious organization insisting that distinguishing between legal and illegal residents constitutes above all else a racist commitment to some kind of national purity. Maybe it’s about language, maybe it’s about color, whatever: people like me, who believe in having and protecting national borders are being written out of the faith community without an open-minded consideration of what we have to say. Our words are considered “rationalizations of prejudice” and that’s the end of it.

Note to UUA: my current pledge level reflects the attitude you are showing toward my reflections.

But, for any who may wish to hear what I have to say, here it is:

I believe in a government which provides fair and meaningful assistance to its citizens in times of need. Some of those times of need are very long and without any way to redress the problem. There are longterm disabilities, there are people with low earning potential, there are people who simply don’t know how to function in society.  All of them have a right to live and to live reasonably well.

In believing these supports to be the job of government, I accept the right of government to demand the means of providing these supports from those who are in a position to hand over some surplus. Twenty years behind a cash register has shown me that not all economic self-interest is rational or large-minded.  You can spot the person who’s going to fight hardest for the sale price because “I just couldn’t get here yesterday,” or who left their coupons at home and wants you to risk your job by giving a price reduction. You can spot them because they are better dressed and have more packages. In short, they are greedy folks and they don’t care who they steamroll to be their own Santa Claus.  So I want the Congress and IRS to stand up to these folks exactly like my store manager does: “Ma’am (or Sir), if I made exceptions for everyone, I’d be out of business.”

But the government has its rights, and so do those from whom these taxes are levied.  We have a right to see the coupon at the cash register before we apply the double discount.  We have a right to favor store credit card holders because they guarantee the bank loans for next season’s inventory.  In government, those coupons and cards are called “citizenship.”

Every now and then, at my cash register, when I know there’s a good coupon out there, and the customer says they forgot their coupon, I will ask to see their store card. Since coupons and card color are both calibrated to the customer’s overall spending rate, I know that the person with certain color cards really did leave coupons at home, and I’ll give them the discount if they ask.  It’s the same way with refugee status. I know there are certain situations, such as being an out GLBT person, or a woman who has been accused of adultery, likewise some religious minorities, that in some countries poses an immediate prospect of death by sanctioned mob violence.  For these people I propose refugee status, regardless of  family reunion or country of origin criteria.

But I’m hard on economic migrants. That’s because I have lived most of my life in cities which suck down their residents like quicksand.  The laziness of the poor has always been a myth, going back to the days when slaveowners hated the way their hostages made a rational calculation of how little unpaid labor they could get away with churning out.  Social capital was denied to slaves, who were not allowed family ties or family time.  This deprivation then moved into the industrial system, for the benefit of owners who wished to live as if labor was free and freely given.

It is this population, the folks who have one hand on the ladder and both feet in the quicksand, which has been put upon by the myth that America is a country where anyone can get rich. It is this population which fought back with the union movement, answering violence with violence when the greedy tried to get away with yet another generation of theft.

From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, in the name of the greedy, US presidents and Congresses sold this population the filthy lie that if they would use personal debt to build up some social capital then somehow the robber bosses would suddenly want to give you better jobs. No one needed to unionize, because the bosses would just be more comfortable with you when you owned your own house, wore better clothes and gambled the same way they do in Las Vegas.  Your debts would somehow evaporate, just like it says in Leviticus and the Lord’s Prayer, because look how much those rich folks go to church and give to philanthropy. But it turns out that endowing a new building at the Business School is not the same as ponying up for Food Stamps. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They’re not giving for what you need, they’re giving for what impresses their friends; they give just like they spend.

And so a population of Americans who once were stuck are now actively moving downward. It is not because they have less ambition, talent or social skills than they did in the past. Rather, it’s because their bosses found other easily-identifiable people who would do the same jobs for less, moving those bosses a little closer to THEIR American Dream of infinite advancement through the efforts of unpaid labor. First the unions were busted, and now the folks who worked at scab rates are being laid off in favor of folks whose countries have absolutely no means of  supporting anything like the fairness, equality and prosperity which constitute the American Dream.

It is worth noting that the international elite has put us into a new era of weak nation-states. Did Switzerland open too many bank accounts? You’ve still got a home in the Caymans. Do EPA and OSHA have too many rules for your company’s comfort and profit? You can always obtain dirty pieces offshore and assemble them here, for that precious “Made in USA” label.  There’s no one around who can leverage a boycott of “Assembled in USA of Foreign Materials” and make the manufacturers come back to the land of rules and rights. The Congressis bought and paid for, and so, apparently, does our president wish to be.

But enforcing strong national borders in receiving nations is one of the best things we can do for sending nations. Every brain drain nation ought to be front and center insisting that the US and other developed nations enforce our immigration laws from top to bottom. In return, they ought to insist on rules for quality of life that equal our own, so that their best and brightest can look forward to such pleasures as clean water and breathable air. Most economic migrants want to be at home, often go home, and often return home for their sunset years.  We need to make sure their nations are suitable homes in their earning years as well.

But to close out the best and brightest of other nations would be, in effect, to force our government to invest in our downwardly mobile at a level that would amounts to foreign aid.  Actually, foreign aid is pretty much what it is.  If you live in a gated community, fly in timeshare jets and recreate at a country club, you never see the children and parents of your cleaners and servers and even the safety crew of your airplane.  It isn’t language but greed which has made so many of our neighborhoods unpalatable to our greedy.

That’s why I do not see “Standing on the Side of Love” as a synonym for open borders. We don’t even have equal marriage in all fifty states yet, much less at the federal level.  And how do we say we are supporting the formerly-unionized when we aren’t standing up for federalization of the benefits and protections for which their fathers and mothers fought so hard? Forget expanding federal benefits to the level the unions have enjoyed: at this point, we’re trying to prevent our politicians of both parties from taking away the safety net you used to rely on if you didn’t have a union.

So here’s the quick summary: people already here are losing what they worked for and thought they were handing on to their children. Other folks are coming here to undercut the wage levels that might give first and last jobs to citizens for whom times are hard.  The president wants us all to go back to school, as if that somehow make the greedy want to give us great sums of their money.

“Americans first” does not sound very Universalist.  But in a world of finite resources, we have to think locally, act locally, and enforce laws which require everyone else to take care of their own as well.  It’s not one world, it’s a big quilt of habitats that each group of inhabitants has to take care of.

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4 thoughts on “The American Dream and the Debts It Has to Pay First

  1. Fascinating. I’m still mulling it over. At a macroeconomic level, it seems to make complete sense.

    • Very interesting; thanks for the stats. While I’ve been on vacation at a family reunion, we’ve been noting with alarm the census information about the unprecedented racial gap in wealth in 2009-10. No group suffered a greater decline than Hispanics, although African-Americans took a big hit as well. While not surprising (last hired, first fired), it reminds us that many of the Americans suffering worst in this “recession” are not Caucasian. African-American numbers are due to get worse, thanks to their disproportionate participation in state-funded government services. I am still pondering all this. The quick takeaway is that people who are trying to use race as a predictor of citizenship or economic contribution need to find another marker. That’s what I’m looking for.

  2. “But in a world of finite resources, we have to think locally, act locally” – As long as we don’t take care in the big challenge to leave this earth you are right.

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