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November 20, 2005

The First Rungs of the Ladder

It’s tempting to blame the recent problems in France on some combination of disguised Gallic racism and Muslim militancy; tempting and probably partly right but not very useful and way too smug.  Like France, we have third world ghettos in the midst of our first world affluence; Hurricana Katrina lifted the lid off existing social pathology in New Orleans (as well as plenty of other problems).  But Newark and Trenton and Camden here in New Jersey and many other US cities harbor similar problems.

In the very short term, France seemed to quickly learn what it took us four hot summers to master in the US: order has to be maintained.  The residents of ghettos suffer more than anyone else in a riot.  When I was a young National Guardsman in Chicago, black mothers begged us to shoot the black boys on the roofs who were throwing bricks down at fire trucks; arson was these mothers’ terror, especially when they were at work and their children were at home.  Neither the mothers or the boys knew we had no bullets.

In the longer term, a whole society suffers when there are pockets of chronic unemployment and despair.  The problem is greatly intensified when the majority of people in these pockets of misery are visibly ethnically different than those in the affluence which surrounds them.  No matter how much or how little a role racism had in creating the disparities, racism blossoms when the disparities exist. THEY make our streets unsafe; THEY won’t let us get ahead; THEY don’t want to work; THEY won’t give us jobs.

Economic assimilation is very difficult in a society which is not creating jobs.  France’s combination of high minimum wage, a mandatory maximum work week of thirty-five hours, and “workers’ rights”, which make it almost impossible to fire the incompetent workers or lay off the redundant, has priced France out of many world markets.  France has succeeded in protecting its workers from competing with each other; to some extent, the EC has protected workers in Western Europe from competing with each other; but nothing stops the workers of Eastern Europe and Asia from competing with Europeans (or Americans).

China and India are bootstrapping their way out of poverty – they both have a long way to go but they’re moving quickly in the right direction.  Manufacturing in these Asian giants IS based on very low wages; but these wages are FAR GREATER than what the newly employed were earning before.  The lower rungs on the ladder of opportunity do exist in these countries.

In the West in general but in Europe in particular, we have removed those lower rungs, ostensibly because we want to make sure all workers are “fairly” compensated and to protect working conditions.  Conveniently, a high minimum wage and other employer mandates protect incumbent workers (often unionized) from competition by those entering the country and the workforce who are willing to work for less.  But, as we see in a very global world, nothing protects anyone from foreign competition for long – even in domestic markets.  Ask an American car worker. Or, more recently, programmers.

In a genuine effort to be compassionate, we’ve substituted social welfare schemes for the opportunity to work.  But dependency breeds resentment – both in the giver and in the recipient.  People need jobs in order to be part of a society. 

Most recent immigrants don’t have the skills needed for the fourth or fifth rung on the ladder.  If they don’t find jobs, their children are not likely to have greater skills or much of a work ethic.  In the US we’ve removed the first couple of rungs; in France they may have removed the third and fourth rungs as well.  The result is predictable: we’ve given the jobs that our unemployed might be doing to India and China.  Their poor are lifting themselves from poverty.  Too many of ours aren’t.

Predictably formerly moderate politicians in France now sound like the extreme right in their eagerness to stem new immigration.  This may even make some sense until the immigrants already in place are absorbed into the economy.  In the US, where legal immigration is already pretty restricted, this translates into calls to seal our “leaky borders” and cut off the huge flow of illegal immigrant workers.  Ironically, since the illegal immigrants are illegal and not likely to complain, they ARE absorbed into the economy at wages they WILL accept.  Our hypocrisy in allowing our menial jobs to be done at nominally illegal wages by our most recent immigrants may actually be the best thing we could do – short of being honest with ourselves – for us and for them.  Our most recent immigrants ARE finding jobs – not rioting.

But neither the US or France can afford to be xenophobic for long.  Our indigenous working populations are aging.  Huge promises have been made to them (“us” if you’re as old as me).  Without new young workers, there’s no way to pay for the benefits.  For all our sakes, we need to put the bottom rungs back in the ladder of opportunity.

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