Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 February 2016

Man Hoo Kwong, or Why We Yanks Need More, not Fewer, Immigrants

[For comment on the Dems’ impromptu pre-New Hampshire debate, click here. I’m leaving the main essay below up for a while, for immigration is as crucial to our nation’s future as it is in the upcoming elections.]

It was early 1963, over half a century ago. There was no Internet. There were no cell phones or personal computers. Car bodies were of heavy steel, made in the USA. JFK was very much alive.

Like most Americans then, I had never heard of Vietnam. I was focusing on my sophomore year at Berkeley, supplementing my scholarship money by working part time.

After installing towel bars in dormitories, I became a “Head Reader,” grading first-year physics exams and supervising other students doing the same thing. One of those I supervised was Man Hoo Kwong.

He was of Chinese extraction. He spoke broken English. Although always respectful of me, he didn’t seem to follow instructions. Soon I learned to speak to him slowly and distinctly and asked him to repeat what I had said. Thereafter he did precisely as asked. Eventually I got curious about him and took him out to lunch to hear his story.

Although just an undergraduate like me, Kwong was 36 years old, twice my own age then. He was married to a woman who studied at San Jose State, 46 miles away. At that time, the trip there or back took about 1.5 hours.

Kwong had an unusual work routine. He would work 36 hours straight, without rest or sleep, and then sleep for twelve hours straight.

Since 36 plus 12 equals 48, every two days he would be back in synch with the usual diurnal cycle. But evolution didn’t build us humans to live like that, certainly not day after day. I couldn’t imagine how he did it, and I said so. So Kwong told me about his life before coming to America.

He had been an early refugee from Vietnam. An ethic Chinese in a nation that had fought China for most of a millennium, he had been oppressed. He had worked ten or twelve hours per day in a North Vietnamese jute mill. He had done that for 364 days every year, for seven years: seven years with seven days off.

After that experience, his 36-hours-on, twelve-hours-off life in the US seemed a vacation. So did his separation from his wife, broken only by visits every two weeks.

About a decade later, in the midst of our misguided War in Vietnam, I read a similar story. A Vietnamese grunt in the Communist North had had a heavy missile strapped to his back. They gave him nothing but that missile, a backpack, a rifle and a knife. He spent months wending his way along the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” through deep jungle, to the South. He ate all the snakes and rats he could catch. When he got to his destination, the commander took his missile, fired it at us Yanks, and told him to go back and get another.

That was when he defected, so we got to know his story. Our newspapers published it. Once I read it, I knew we Yanks would never win in Vietnam.

Why? Because we were fighting for vapid abstractions like “democracy.” You know a word is a vapid abstraction when two nations as different as ours and North Korea’s use it to describe themselves. (North Korea’s official title is “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or DPRK.)

We Yanks were fighting against another vapid abstraction, “Communism.” The Vietnamese were fighting for their homes, families, and villages, and against the “White Devils” who were destroying their homes, bombing and napalming their villages, and (mostly unintentionally) killing their women and children. As if that weren’t enough, the Vietnamese had been carrying on a similar fight against a much closer and much larger giant (China) for most of a millennium.

The Vietnamese were fighting for their country and their future. We were fighting for mere words uttered by clueless pols. Relative to the Vietnamese, we were soft and lazy. Even with all our B-52s, napalm, the defoliant Agent Orange, and other high technology, we lost.

Don’t get me wrong. Enjoy the good life when you can get it. It’s not the natural state of Man, or of any other species. But it’s wonderful while it lasts.

There’s just one problem with the good life, which Man has known since Athens and Sparta. It doesn’t last long. If it does go on too long, it makes you weak, lazy, selfish and stupid. Then life inevitably gets harder.

How can you tell this is happening to us? Just listen to a native-born college kid whine about a cell phone not working or an Uber “taxi” being ten minutes late. No Man Hoo Kwong would ever complain of such trivia. Nor would a Man Hoo Kwong ever think of voting for a clown like Trump or Cruz. That’s why, among many other reasons, we need more Kwongs, lots more.

Recently Bloomberg.com published a long bio of another Vietnamese refugee, named Tri Tran. He’s leading the pack in a very difficult business: delivering tasty, microwaveable meals to city customers on short notice. His bio reads a lot like Kwong’s and the missile bearer’s: a tale of unspeakable hardship, followed by grasping every opportunity that came his way with both hands.

There’s nothing special about Vietnamese refugees. What makes them special is what we Yanks used to be. Once upon a time, we were human, if not always humane. We were loyal and true to people who—against all odds and unspeakable hardship—tried to help us help them make their lives and nations better.

Our misadventure in Vietnam was a ghastly mistake from the very beginning. We picked up a colonial war from the French, not recognizing that Vietnam’s revolution looked more like our own in 1776 than a falling of fictional Communist dominoes.

But at least our intentions were good. We thought we might help create something like South Korea, again, with our own blood and sacrifice.

When the depths of our folly finally overwhelmed us, we stayed true to the people who had helped us advance our misguided vision. We had airlifts and boat brigades. We built refugee relocation centers. Thousands of ordinary American families sponsored Vietnamese refugees and integrated them into our communities.

A comparison with today would be absolutely invidious. We fight wars half-heartedly. We sent far fewer troops to invade and occupy both Iraq and Afghanistan than Colin Powell sent to liberate tiny Kuwait from Saddam. And now that our half-hearted misadventure is producing region-wide misery and exodus, we take only a token proportion of those fleeing the mess we made.

We know the Vietnamese now. They’ve been among us for four decades. So we no longer fear them. But Vietnamese are not somehow “better” than kids fleeing gang violence in Honduras or El Salvador, or than Syrian families fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs.

Racism is a constant, low-level fever among us, which smart leaders learn to avoid and control. It will always be with us, but it appears to be subsiding, ever so slowly. What has changed is our Yankee sense of responsibility and opportunity. We’ve lost it. We no longer even try to save the human refuse of our big mistakes.

And the hurt is ours as much as theirs. Who’s going to restore our nation’s greatness? uneducated racists complaining about having to endure a few words of Spanish spoken in our supermarkets? a Millennial girl complaining about her Internet streaming, who would no more think about taking a course in engineering or math than walk nude on the Moon? our young native-born college student who takes poli-sci and “communication” courses because they’re easy, and who complains about all the Asian-looking students taking much tougher courses in math, science, engineering and medicine?

Or is it Syrian refugees, like Steve Job’s father or the unknown (to me) lady chef in Cleveland who made the best baba ghanoush I ever ate? Is it the orphans from Honduras and El Salvador, who made the thousand-mile trek all on their own, on foot, at a tender age, and carry in their belly an unquenchable fire to do something, be somebody? Is it the refugees like Kwong, the missile-carrier and Tri Tran, who chew on hard problems until they are fully masticated because that’s what they’ve done all their lives? Is it the people who endure misery and risk death just to get here?

We Yanks are not really a nation at all. At least we are not a “people” in the traditional, evolutionary sense: a single ethnic tribe. Instead, we are an idea.

We are the idea that people can be happier and more productive when they are free, when they know how to “live and let live”—the credo of our Bill of Rights. With that simple credo, we have attracted the best people to our shores, from everywhere, right from our Founding.

It all started in 1619, when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth fleeing religious persecution. Every new group that arrived to taste freedom made us stronger and better. And when the offspring of those who came before inevitably get weak, lazy, selfish and stupid, another new group has always come along to replenish our strength, rejuvenate us and remind us who we are.

Up to now, it hasn’t mattered whether the refugees wore Puritan hats and bonnets, Lederhosen, Irish green, or yarmulkes. If we start making exceptions for hijabs, beards and turbans, or for sombreros, the flow of new strength and vitality will falter and maybe halt. If really want to close the golden doors, we ought to take down the Statue of Liberty, too; for then she will have no further use.

Sure, Islamist extremism and terrorism exist. But the chance of being killed by a Syrian refugee who’s a terrorist in hiding—especially after lengthy, expert vetting—is less than the chance of dying in an airplane crash. Still we fly. The chance of being killed by a pre-teen who walked all the way from El Salvador to get here, and to escape being killed, is even more minuscule. Why would a kid who went to all that trouble and pain to live commit suicide to kill others?

Careful studies have repudiated Trump’s demagogic notion that immigrants are criminals. The overwhelming majority are not, and for a simple reason: for the first time in their miserable lives, they have a chance to succeed and be happy. They don’t want to blow that chance. They don’t want to break our rules—the first fair ones they have ever known; they want to master and use them to pursue happiness, as Jefferson promised.

Unbeknownst to historians, we Yanks have solved the riddle of Athens and Sparta. We don’t, like the Spartans, have to sleep on cold, bare stone to stay strong. We can have our luxury and our indulgences, as long as we invite a steady stream of immigrants who have slept on cold, bare stone—or worse—to renew our strength and restore our hope.

If we can’t take the tiny risk and incur the tiny collective expense to do what we have always done, from whence will come the endless energy that has powered our society and made us “exceptional” from the very beginning? Are we going to let the Germans and the Swedes take that away from us? Are we going to retire the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor? Are we going to decay slowly, stewing in our own juices, complaining about trivia while strong people who’ve known and overcome real hardship never reach our shores? The answers, as Dylan sung, are blowin’ in the wind, especially in this year’s election.

Endnote: Less than two weeks ago, the PBS News Hour aired a segment on how cities and ancient city-states created nucleuses of geniuses, such as Florence during the Renaissance. History and the data show they did it by being open to immigration and foreigners. The mixing of cultures encouraged new ideas and sparked genius, just as today it fosters marvelous “fusion” cuisine.

Footnote: Rick Gladstone, “Data Link Immigrants to Low Rates of Crime,” New York Times, Jan.14, 2016, at A8.

The Dems’ Pre-New Hampshire Debate

Once again, last night’s impromptu Dems’ debate showed their superiority. Unlike the Republican candidates, neither Hillary nor Bernie sounded like a verbal automaton iteratively calculating how to pander to extremists while saving elbow room for reason in the general election.

The two candidates disputed substance and their respective records. But both made short work of campaign trivia and gotchas. Bernie even reinforced his disdain for Hillary’s “e-mail gate.” Both wanted to talk about substance, their records and their strengths, and both did.

Yet if you want to boil it all down, there were only four big takeaways. The first—and by far the most important—was how the candidates differentiated themselves.

Hillary stressed her ability to “get things done,” often referring to unnamed experts and named endorsers of her candidacy. While trying to duck her previous self-description as a “moderate” (and Bernie’s description of her as the “establishment” candidate), Hillary touted her ability to work with others, to administer efficiently, and to delegate legislative jobs to the appropriate congressional committees. In foreign policy, she stressed her experience as Secretary of State, which Bernie graciously acknowledged.

But as is her wont, Hillary always left herself running room. Asked which foreign threat was greatest, she refused to name any single one, just as she had done in the first debate. Asked what she would try to do first as president, she refused to answer directly. While trying to tar Bernie as an impractical idealist, she refused to accept the premise that any president’s achievements get exponentially harder after the first big expenditure of political capital. She sounded a lot like President Obama in his “all of the above” energy policy. Unfortunately, a president sometimes has to make choices, often quickly and under tremendous pressure.

In contrast, Bernie made a logical point—a matter of cause and effect. He and Hillary agreed—even explicitly—on the most important things they would do, with differences in nuance and emphasis. But, Bernie held, if we don’t curtail the oppressive power of big money and big corporations, none of that agenda will likely get done (except by Executive order), let alone all of it. The only thing that will cause real change, he declared, is a political revolution that brings back millions of working voters who have dropped out due to apathy and despair.

The second takeaway related to Hillary’s experience. In more than one instance, Bernie bowed to her greater executive experience as “a fact,” although Bernie has had more years in elective office. But Bernie made the crucial distinction between experience and judgment. Hillary had made a mammoth error of judgment in supporting the war in Iraq, and in doing so without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, which contained secret dissents of the intelligence community. There were other errors of judgment, which I outlined in 2007.

The third takeaway concerns electability. Bernie said that he could win if he and his party could inspire a political revolution of working people, youth and minorities. Without such a revolution, he implied, Congress would continue to impose minority rule on the nation, and nothing much would get done.

The final point came toward and at the end of the debate. Both Hillary and Bernie acknowledged their respect and admiration for each other. While neither said so explicitly, both implied that they would support each other as the nominee.

One would hope so. If the Dems don’t win this year’s election decisively, the GOP will have captured all three branches of government. Our national drift to the right and toward oligarchy will accelerate dramatically, as will global warming.

In the final analysis, which candidate you support depends on your world view. If you believe that experience matters more than judgment, then you should support Hillary. But before you do, just think of Richard Nixon with his finger on The Button during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if you think that competence sells better than bold but perhaps unattainable ideas, think of Kerry and Dubya in 2004. Kerry ran on competence, but Dubya won.

If you think that our democracy and our country are in fine shape and just need a little tweaking, you should vote for Hillary. But before you do, think of minority rule in Congress, the immense power of Wall Street and the Koch brothers, the totally gratuitous Wall-Street-caused Crash of 2008, the bailouts that followed it, our three unnecessary major wars in half a century (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), the steady drumbeat of mass murder due to too many guns in many wrong hands, and the repetitive murder of unarmed African-Americans by racist and over-militarized police.

They say that Ronald Reagan won because of his “morning in America” optimism. So Hillary tried to paint Bernie as a pessimist and complainer—a point which MSNBC’s patently slanted first “break” reemphasized with visual propaganda worthy of Fox. (Go watch it if you want to become a “political operative.” It’s a brilliant hatchet job on Bernie.)

But optimism has its limits. Sometimes realism is more practical. Today Republicans own our governorships, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. Still they use all the tools of minority rule (or minority vetoes), push hard for vote suppression and gerrymandering, and are quite successful at all of the above. Still they blame what’s wrong with us on Dems and various scapegoats, including African-Americans, Hispanic immigrants, and Muslims. So-called “conservative” philosophy has become so partisan and so extreme that a major-party candidate can vilify and scapegoat Muslims and Mexican immigrants much as Hitler once did Jews.

If you think Hillary is as skilled politically as Obama, to whom she lost, then by all means be an optimist. But if you think, as I do, that Obama and his team represented (and still represent) the apex of political skill, and you notice how small a part of his agenda he got done, then you have to recognize how little reason for optimism there is today, or in the future under “business as usual.”

An “all of the above” philosophy only goes so far. In energy, President Obama managed to secure extension of solar-energy subsidies in exchange for letting Big Oil sell the fruits of its fracking abroad. Meanwhile, global warming accelerates, as does exhaustion of the fossil fuels on which we utterly depend.

Without a revolution in energy policy, our species will slip back to coal, our cities will begin to look and smell like Beijing or Shanghai on a bad day, and we will reach the exponential tipping point of climate change far faster than even today’s worst pessimists predict. (Even if we had safe nuclear powers plants, which some day we might, we simply couldn’t build enough of them fast enough to make a difference, either politically or physically.)

So no, dear readers, there’s not much reason for optimism today. And that’s not even thinking about the explosive, exponential threat of the Zika virus, or the state of water like Flint’s when clueless, biased pols try to handle real crises.

Most GOP pols today can’t even recognize real crises unless their “political operatives” or major donors sound the alarm. They don’t live in the real world any more. They live in a world of vapid abstractions, ideology, propaganda and public manipulation. Some day, their loss of contact with hard reality will affect them as it has the residents of Flint. We can only hope that the result will not be equivalent suffering of our nation or our species.

The world’s leader—our nation—is in crisis and decline. The reasons are clear. To reverse that sad state of affairs, we need a political revolution like the ones that Teddy Roosevelt and FDR led. Nothing less will do. And nothing else will bring back voters who’ve, quite reasonably, dropped out of our democracy. The vast majority of working people see no use in voting; they are just trying to help themselves and their families survive.

So do your best for Bernie. He’s not perfect; no one is. But he has the judgment to see the true causes of our national decline and to foresee the sad effects if they are not remedied. If Hillary wins, she will deserve our support, even our enthusiasm, only because of the utter horror of the alternatives.



  • At Mon Feb 01, 09:18:00 PM EST, Blogger Evan E. Roberts said…

    Hey Jay, been following the blog for a while. Was wondering if you had a response to this post? http://newsok.com/article/5475578

  • At Wed Feb 03, 01:17:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Evan,

    David Deming, the author of the piece you link, is an associate professor (not even a full professor) of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. His undergraduate degree is in geology, and his Ph.D. is in geophysics.

    He should stick to his fields of study, in which he may or may not be an expert. In the piece you cite, he reveals complete ignorance of economics and history, plus an inability to handle detail or distinguish between similar words with different meanings.

    In eight short paragraphs, his essay commits eight fundamental errors of fact, economics and history. First of all, Bernie Sanders is not a “socialist,” any more than is President Obama. He’s a self-described “Democratic Socialist.”

    What’s the difference? According to standard dictionary definitions, “socialism” is an economic system in which government owns or controls the means of production. No serious presidential candidate in the United States, including Bernie, has ever advocated government ownership or control of steel making, ship building, electric utilities, farms, mines, telecomm companies, airlines, or banks, let alone high-tech firms like Apple, Facebook and Google.

    All Bernie has advocated is that private health-insurance firms compete with an extended “Medicare for all,” and that private banks that have become “too big to fail” be broken up so that their private management blunders don’t require public bailouts.

    Second, Deming cites the Soviet Union’s economic collapse as an example of the failure of “socialism.” The Soviet Union’s economic system was not “socialism,” but Communism—an extreme form of socialism. The old Soviet Union had no private business at all. All productive enterprises were owned and controlled by the state. Neither Bernie nor any other serious US presidential candidate has ever advocated such a system here or anywhere else.

    Third, Deming mentions Venezuela as an example of failed socialism. That is a transparent straw man. Venezuela’s current regime is not socialism in any real sense; it’s a scheme of government giveaways by demagogues, including Hugo Chavez, who had all the economic knowledge and understanding of the paratrooper that he was. Citing Venezuela as a general failure of socialism is like citing pre-Nazi Germany as a general failure of democracy: after all, the German people did elect Hitler as Chancellor one time.

    Fourth and most important, Deming (perhaps intentionally) omits numerous examples of successful, modern, Democratic socialist states from among the OECD club of advanced industrial nations. In alphabetical order, they include: Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

    All of these nations have or have had Democratic socialist governments. All retain Democratic socialist institutions, such as national health insurance or national health services, national policies for minimal retirement security (analogous to our own Social Security but more extensive and more generous), and institutions for worker health care and family leave. So Bernie’s mild form of Democratic socialism is not a dead end, unless you think that all these advanced-nation allies of ours are dead ends.

    [Comment continues below.]

  • At Wed Feb 03, 01:26:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    [continuing comment above]

    Fifth, Deming’s pronunciamento that “[t]here are no property rights under socialism” is flat wrong. Even under extreme Soviet Communism, there were property rights, for example, in state enterprises, collective farms, and limited forms of private property. Under Democratic socialism, in all the nations mentioned above, private corporations and private individuals all own private property, and the law protects it. All have the right to buy, own and sell private property, whether real, personal or intangible.

    The only difference in this regard between Democratic socialism and pure capitalism is that government, too, can own property and perform certain limited commercial functions, such as health insurance, health care, protecting people from penury in retirement, and providing subsistence wages when broken markets won’t or can’t.

    Sixth, Deming’s claim that under socialism “Industrious and productive people are punished; parasites are rewarded” is unvarnished rubbish. Even in health insurance and health care, which some or all of the OECD nations mentioned above have socialized, private markets exist. If you are rich enough, you can buy the best private medical care or medical insurance available. If not, you can get adequate health insurance and health care from a government-owned or government-run institution. Not a single Democratic socialist country has outlawed private property or private enterprise or maintains laws punishing private initiative.

    Like many people who haven’t the faintest idea what they are writing about, Deming uses outrageous exaggeration to “prove” his points. Unfortunately for him, they only reveal his ignorance. He claims, for his seventh gross error, “[i]f socialism is allowed to progress to its logical extreme, it culminates in a military dictatorship like North Korea.”

    What utter nonsense. Are Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden like North Korea? Britain is the world’s oldest democracy!

    Deming’s eighth blunder is an outright lie: that advocates of limited socialism “always want something for nothing.” Social Security is not “something for nothing.” Its beneficiaries pay for half of it. Employers pay the rest to make sure that the workers who made their profits and made them successful do not become destitute in their old age. Medicare is not “something for nothing.” Its beneficiaries pay for it in specialized taxes and (admittedly low) insurance premiums; in return, society gets healthier people, better protection from communicable diseases, and old people who are not both destitute and sick.

    I have not read any of Deming’s scientific work. But if it is as careless of truth, accuracy, history and fundamental distinctions between similar but different concepts as the piece you cite, it would be hard to see him getting tenure in any academic institution of educational or research value. His rant is a poster child for lazy, sloppy and fuzzy thinking.



  • At Wed Feb 03, 02:39:00 AM EST, Blogger Evan E. Roberts said…


    That's exactly what I expected. I found that post from a college buddy who works in finance and said the guy made some really good points. I didn't see it, but I'm not anywhere near as knowledgeable as you on the subject to adequately refute it. Thank you for your detailed and insightful response.

  • At Sat Feb 06, 01:56:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Evan,

    Glad to help. Please feel free to copy my comment and send it to your college buddy or anyone else. If a misguided college professor believes this nonsense, no doubt many others do, too.

    Far too much of this election campaign relies on name-calling at the level of a grammar school playground. We need to elevate the level of conversation substantially.

    One way to do that is to focus on what Bernie actually wants to do, rather than vapid abstractions like “socialism.” Is breaking up banks that are "too big to fail," expanding Social Security and Medicare, making college or university free, providing generous family leave, and beefing up Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which keeps big banks from scamming and cheating consumers) really going to destroy capitalism, free enterprise, or our way of life? Or will doing these things just give more people a stake in our system and make it work better for all of us?

    That's the key question at issue in the campaign, and thank you for helping raise it.




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