Thursday, March 30, 2006

Immigration Reform

This post is more than a shameless attempt to get traffic out of the current debate over immigration reform. No, it really is. I want to draw attention to some of the bigger issues involved with immigration, particularly in the United States. You'll see that much of what I say can apply to any country.

The real immigration issues in the US today seem to be these: (1) Who should be able to stay in the country?(2) Under what circumstances should they be able to stay? and (3) How should we treat illegal immigrants? The answer to each question involves many elements of sociology. Allow me to explain.

How do we decide who is allowed to stay in the country and under what circumstances? This is obviously a values question and not, strictly speaking, a scientific question. I can suggest that we ought to consider the social functions that immigrants perform. They provide a needed influx of new science and engineering talent. Did anyone not know that many of our engineers and scientists are Chinese, Korean, and Indian? Illegal immigrants also have a function, one that you may not have considered before.

Illegals make it cheaper to provide many services; that much you probably guessed. But, did you consider that the cheap labor keeps many marginal enterprises in business. Some family farms, restaurants, and lanscaping businesses would certainly go under if they could only use people who are in the USA legally. Am I wrong about this?

I think the second and third question are also more about values than science. Perhaps a few sociological insights can still help you consider how you feel about the questions. I'll explain myself next Tuesday, while I also explain some of the social costs and benefits of immigration.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why is the world a dangerous place?

Well, maybe we are assuming too much by asking this question. Sure there are wars, terrorist crazies, drug runners, gangs, Avian flu, HIV, tuberculosis, global climate change, civil wars, and more. That laundry list really tells us nothing about how dangerous the world really is.

"Dangerous" is a relative term. The relativism of it leaves us with the potential for getting in all sorts of trouble. Here I am talking about both personal troubles and social troubles. I'll return to those two themes after an aside...

Our perception of danger, however loosely based on reality, can still be beneficial in many ways. Again, "beneficial" is one of those relative terms. Even worse, there are rarely any absolute benefits or costs. Some people always benefit or suffer more, while others may be relatively unaffected. Now, let's get down out of the stratosphere and see what this means in the real world.

The benefits of any idea are social and economic in nature. Ambitious people get power and status by leading the crusade against some danger. Politicians and activists love to get on their soapboxes and talk about such-and-such threat to nature, the American way of life, and et cetera. Perceptions of danger also generate business opportunities. Business opportunities create job opportunities and tax revenue. How many people are making money selling identity theft insurance, self-defense classes, and gas masks? Well, one never knows when a chemical weapon will be used in the neighborhood.

Now, back to those personal and social troubles that I mentioned earlier. There is a common theme here: we waste resources that could be put to better use. If identity theft really has no value to John Q. Public, then he would be better served by investing his money or buying more DVDs. Identity theft can be worked up into a national crisis. Then the government invests inordinately in studies, legislation, and Congressional debate (You did know that their time costs money, I hope.) over something with relatively modest social impact.

But things can get even worse than that! After 9/11 did you or people you know start looking at people of (probable) Middle Eastern descent and think of them as potentially dangerous? Do you think this could breed hostility and hatred? Do you think these dark sentiments were really based on an objective assessment of the threat? Of course not! (Yes, I am saying that it is OK to think of a category of people as bad if there is strong evidence to suggest that they are bad - the Taliban, Gestapo, KGB, and ecoterrorists come to mind.)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The World is a Dangerous Place

Worried about your physical safety, terrorism, your family, violent crime, identity theft, toxins in the air and water? How worried should you be? Well, your perceptions are whatever they are...

My point with this post is to introduce the idea that our belief about the dangerous world we live in is just an idea. Maybe the idea is based on good evidence, and maybe not! It hardly matters whether the evidence is really that good, since our behaviors tend to be based on perceptions and emotional reactions. Ditto our social policies and laws. The political process adds an additional element of fighting over values. A prime example: Privacy versus security.

The Patriot Act makes some libreals and libertarians very uncomfortable. It tends to make the "law-and-order" conservatives and hawkish Republicans happy because we have to secure the nation against terrorist attacks. Opponents just worry that government agencies know what innocent citizens are doing online or checking out of the local library. (How much of that information the government really collects is a totally different subject. What we care about in this little discussion is perceptions and not what cold, hard facts may show.)

We have a clash of values, with one side valuing security more highly and one side privacy of law abiding citizens.

This perception that the world is a dangerous place does have consequences, costs, and beefits. Likewise the belief in a safe world has consequences, costs, and benfits. I'll say more in my next post.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Economic Growth Revisited

So, last time I claimed that economic growth is not required to maintain and improve our infrastructure, create new goods and services, and provide for a growing population. How can that be? Where's the money for new bridges, roads, and schools supposed to come from? Never mind that we won't have businesses to provide all of the goods and services people want.

OK, so that view is partly correct. As a society we do require a growing ability to provide goods and services. Even a teeny, tiny rate of population growth makes this so. We would eventually outgrow the economy's ability to provide luxuries, then the basics. Then we would look like Bangladesh or Nigeria. Not good.

Now many of you may have spotted one or two problems with the preceding rationale for economic growth. If not, well, there are two general problems. The need for businesses to provide goods, services, jobs, and infrastructure is not a real need. Secondly, there is an alternative to increasing the sheer dollar value of goods and services produced. That increase in value is what we normally refer to as economic growth.

About that first problem: There are alternative ways of providing goods and services. You are already familiar with the two best alternatives - government and nonprofits. The third alternative is to create voluntary associations that divide up infrastructure management. You may have seen "Adopt-a-Highway" signs outside your community. That's what I have in mind, except for public safety, road maintenance, education, and who knows what else.

About that second problem: Economic growth calculations are indifferent to two important considerations. Any economic activity contributes to growth. For-profit schools are treated like toxic waste cleanups. Economic growth calculations ignore the negative consequences of much economic activity. The spending that you do to make up for the effects of pollution are counted as economic activity. Never mind that in a purely rational economic system you would not have to pay for the negative impacts of that pollution.

Next time: Ummm, I'm not sure. It will be a surpise for us all.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Economic Growth is Good

Of course economic growth is good, in some sense of the word. Nwe jobs are created, wealth is created, and opportunity is created. Layoffs and big corporate bankruptcies are not so bad, if the economy is growing and able to absorb the newly unemployed. Economic growth also generates resources that we can use to improve our quality of life.

Economic growth causes concern among social activists and environmental activists. That much you probably knew already. Clearly, economic growth does not benefit peole equally. The rich seem to get richer and the poor and middle class are lucky to stay where they are. At least that is the perception of some social critics. Economic growth also results in (notice I didn't say "causes") pollution.

In spite of those problems, most of us have no problem with the idea of economic growth. Maybe it's because we don't know what else could be done. Maybe because we feel powerless to stop the train and get off. Maybe we are just willing to accept the problems and try to get some of the benefits for ourselves. Maybe we are just to busy to concern ourselves with the issue.

Well, if you've read this far you must be interested in the issue. So, for now I have one thing to share with you. That one thing is a mandatory (for a sociologist) list of the social functions performed by the prevailing belief in economic growth:

1. Getting and and distributing resources - more mining, trains, roads, expansion of our infrastructure, e-commerce, and more
2. Social progress - provision of more and better goods and services to more people, especially in the areas of physical security, health, and safety
3. Meeting needs - specifically the resource needs of a growing population, but also their needs for all sorts of goods and services

Belief in the idea of economic growth helps us maintain the efforts needed to do each of those things. If we lose interest in economic growth, the infrastructure doesn't get better, the new goods and services stop flowing, and we run short of things we need to provide for our growing population.

Whoa! (sound of needle being dragged across a record...) The premise that we need economic growth to have those things is not valid.

Why not, you ask? I'll tell you next time.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What Good is Nationalism?

Seems like a fair question! What good can come of being all excited over the place where you simply happen to have been born? Your country didn't give you anything; the benefits simply accrue to individuals who are borne there. Sometimes nationalism gets people killed, some of them innocent bystanders in whatever affair provoked the violence that killed them.
How do you know if your reasons for being so proud of the United States or Russia are any better than an Iranian's reasons for being proud of his supposedly backwards country?
Despite what you just read I have no answer to the question of whether nationalism is good or bad. Of course you may not be able to answer either, unless you know two things: (1) What counts as good or bad when we are talking about a society, and (2) the personal and social consequences of nationalism. Don't make up some knee-jerk opinion then fish for justifications. This is precisely the sort of lazy thinking that I am trying to fight with this blog.

The Social Consequences of Nationalism:

1. Pride motivates us to innovate and work hard.
2. We are motivated to fight against threats to our society
3. We are better able to hang together when confronted with a crisis, like an invasion or a natural disaster
4. We gain a (probably unjustified) sense of superiority that can poison our relations with foregners and even lead to racism
5. Wasteful economic competition - lets build the biggest rocket, fastest train, or tallest building

The Personal Consequences:

1. Social approval
2. Opportunities to advance in the party or military
3. A sense of personal security in uncertain times - "We _________ have what it takes to handle this thing!"
4. Creates a sense of belonging to something bigger and more important than us.
5. Death - in a war or a pointless economic competition
6. Wasted resources - we devote money, time, and effort to activities that are misguided or dangerous

I may have left something out, or I may have left the list more obscure than intended. In either case, let me know! And, consider whether nationalism is really a good thing or not, considering those consequences that I just listed.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


This week's post wil be kinda short because of some personal business that I need to attend to. So, here are my thoughts on nationalism.

Nationalism is that feeling of pride in one's nation and its accomplishments combined with an emotional attachment to the nation's symbols, values, and other cultural artifacts. As a sociological phenomenon it could be described as the degree to which the feelings are shared by a nation's citizen's. The more widely spread and intense the feelings, the grreater the degree of nationalism.

Where does nationalism come from? You can thank my favorite contributor to everything - the mass media. The media still help transmit messages that make us feel good or bad about being Americans. We all want to be part of a group for many reasons. The nation is just a really, really big group for us to join. When humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands it was important wto work together to cope with the environment, deal with hostile tribes, and hunt. These needs may have stuck around, in modified form, as society became more complex.

What are the personal and social consequences of nationalism? We'll see next time. Until then, see if you can anticipate what I'll write.
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