March 29, 2011

How Much Will Denmark Punish Immigrants Economically?

After the American Century

Danish politicians in recent weeks have been suggesting that newly arrived immigrants from outside the EU should not receive health care and other benefits as soon as they arrive. Rather, they should pay for them for a period of time, for example one or two years, before becoming eligible. Many Danes like this idea, and since the immigrants themselves cannot vote, so the political parties lose nothing by attacking them. Increasingly, the image in the media of the immigrant is that of a parasite.

In fact, immigrants to Denmark with jobs automatically pay for their medical care and other benefits through taxes. It seems absurd to demand that they pay what amounts to an additional tax. Denmark has the world's highest taxes, with the average salaried person paying about 50%.

Consider a counter-argument. An adult immigrant has not cost Denmark anything in terms of schooling, medical care, or other social services. He or she immediately can go to work and contribute taxes to the state.  In contrast,  Danes themselves cost money for at least twenty years before they can begin to pay back the cost of their upbringing, education, and care.  Comparing the cost of the adult immigrant with any Dane of 20, an economist could only conclude that the immigrant is a better "buy."

In the case of someone like myself, arriving with a PhD and working from the day of arrival almost thirty years ago, the Danish state has made a huge profit. I have made tiny demands on the medical system. My costly education at excellent American universities was completed before arrival, and I have never needed unemployment payments, retraining programs, or any other transfer payments. Meanwhile, I have been paying more than 50% of my salary in taxes. Moreover, the Danish laws limit my state pension, and I will receive less than any native-born citizen, regardless of what they have done or not done. So my retirement will also cost Denmark less the retirement of a Dane.

Looking at this in purely economic terms, the Danish state could save lots of money if it stopped training PhDs, doctors, and engineers and hired foreigners instead. I am not advocating that policy. But I am pointing out that if economics really drove immigration policy, then one would not punish immigrants by asking them to pay an extra tax. Rather, one would find ways to lure them into the country rather than erecting new barriers to keep them away.

What then is really driving this demand that immigrants pay more taxes than the Danes themselves? Is it not xenophobia? Is it not the fear of others? The Minister in charge of immigration declares himself against integration, demanding nothing less than full assimilation of foreigners. His predecessor illegally denied citizenship to many people with foreign backgrounds, even though they have grown up in Denmark, speak the language as natives, and have jobs.

And what is the likely effect of such laws, if they are enacted? What is already the effect of such illegal actions and such pronouncements from Ministers? People like myself may no longer migrate to Denmark, or they will soon leave once they realize that they face tax discrimination, pension discrimination, and hostile remarks from elected officials.

Meanwhile, Denmark will still end up giving asylum to victims of torture, refugees, and others who have suffered injustice, many of whom will not be able to work. In short, the proposed policy will drive away those who would come ready to make a contribution at the highest level, but it will not excuse Denmark from its humanitarian responsibilities. Quite possibly, the proposed law will not put more money in the treasury. Instead, it may drive away potential educated immigrants who can work, and simply impoverish the country - and not only in economic terms.

March 28, 2011

Republicans in Wisconsin Attack Historian

After the American Century

One of the most articulate and distinguished American historians, William Cronon, is now under attack by the Republican Party because he opposes their attempts to take away union rights. This is more than just a sad spectacle, as the Republicans have demanded to see Professor Cronon's emails and other documents, under the freedom of information act, to see what he thinks more generally. As the New York Times reports, this fishing expedition was prompted by an article he wrote for the newspapers.

For those who do not know his work, Bill Cronon is one of the pioneers of environmental history, whose writings include a book in Colonial history on  the transformation of the landscape during settlement of New England  and a fine history of nineteenth century Chicago, for example linking that city to the vast hinterland it affected through its control of the grain market. In short, his scholarly work is at best tangential to contemporary politics. He is widely respected and currently is the President of the American Historical Association.

I do not recall the "Freedom of Information Act" being used to demand access to  a historian's private correspondence or other writings on the rather slender grounds that he or she is a state university employee. We are not talking about criminal or subversive activities, but expression of opinion in support of the Democrats as opposed to the Republicans. The Bill of Rights guards against "unreasonable searches and seizures" such as this.

The current Wisconsin Republicans begin to remind me of another Republican from Wisconsin. His name was Joe McCarthy, and he destroyed careers during his witch hunts for communists back in the 1950s.  Professor Cronon is one of the best environmental historians in the United States. Targeting him at the very least will waste a good deal of his time and interfere with his scholarly work. At worst, it could send a chill through academic life, undermining freedom of speech.

As one who has read most of Cronon's work and met him both in Denmark and the United States, I find this attack completely unacceptable,  and one more proof that the Republicans have lost sight of their founding principles. They should aspire to be the party of Lincoln, not Joe McCarthy.

March 25, 2011

Earth Hour: Vote for Sustainability by Turning Off the Lights

After the American Century

This year Earth Hour is on Saturday, March 26. Around the world millions of people will join this event and cut back their electrical consumption. This is a fundamentally new use of the technology of electricity, as people declare  that excessive energy use threatens the environment.

Less than a century ago most of the world's houses, and most in the US as well, did not have electricity. A blackout was inconceivable, as most people controlled their own light, in the form of lamps, candles, hearth fires, and the like. Between 1911 and 2011 a tremendous change has taken place. Not only have billions of people wired their houses and apartments, but the electrical systems have been connected together into vast grids. These are in many ways admirable, ingenious engineering feats, designed to shunt power around to balance the load at each local utility.  

But the interconnections that make possible the grid also make possible cascading system failures, spreading blackouts from one city and state to another. The most spectacular examples in the United States occurred in 1965 and 2003, when blackouts spread at almost the speed of lightning and pushed millions of people from the power dependency of the electrical age back to an involuntary self-sufficiency. With each generation we are less able to fend for ourselves, as more and more parts of our lives are inextricably linked to the electrical system. When the power fails, there is no Internet, no television, no microwave, and no air conditioning. The ATM does not work, mobile phones are suddenly dead, and the kitchens dark and useless, unless one has a gas stove. Even so, all the food begins to thaw in the freezer.

Earth Hour reminds us how to live without the power, however briefly, but it is far more than that. It also is each person's chance to use the electrical system as a voting machine. Turn off the appliances, switch off the lights, and tell politicians and fellow citizens that you want to pollute less and be more efficient. Join Earth Hour as a declaration that the endless growth in electrical consumption has to stop somewhere.

Did you know that the average American family today uses as much energy every month as their grandparents did in an entire year? Did you know that electrical consumption for the US as a whole doubled roughly every decade for most of the twentieth century? That kind of growth is not sustainable, nor is it necessary to live a good life. Turn off the lights. Rediscover conversation. With luck, after an hour you might be telling stories. Shut off the TV, look up, and see the stars.
For more on the history of blackouts, see my When the Lights Went Out: A History of American Blackouts (MIT Press, 2010). On the energy system, see Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (MIT Press, 1998), and Electrifying America (MIT Press, 1990).


March 15, 2011

Japan's Nuclear Nightmare Is a Warning

After the American Century

As I write this three nuclear reactors in Japan are in various stages of meltdown. The Japanese electrical industry adopted nuclear power plants for much the same reasons that western European nations did: the desire for a secure domestic energy supply, escaping dependence on fossil fuels. In recent decades the nuclear industry has touted the reactor as a clean and safe alternative to CO2 spouting coal-fired plants. While living in the UK I read innumerable newspaper articles extolling the advantages of atomic power, as the only responsible way to meet the nation's energy needs and curb greenhouse gases at the same time. 

All arguments for nuclear power, however, assume placid normality for very long periods. Even though nuclear plants impose the problem of storing waste for many generations, the assumption always seems to be that there will be no earthquakes, no floods, and no tsunamis. They also assume no successful terrorists, no wars, and no serious incompetence inside the plant. Furthermore, several thousand years of nuclear waste storage are not usually in the economic equation. The nuclear industry wants to profit right now and promise us that nothing untoward is going to happen for several millennia. 

The nuclear industry will now take pains to convince us that the meltdowns in Japan are extraordinary, and that the chance of anything similarly going wrong elsewhere in the future are infinitely small. Meanwhile, their public relations people will continue to attack solar and wind power, saying things that are not true, such as it is impossible to store such power. Nonsense. The Dutch, the Germans, and Texans have all shown precisely how it can be done, for example, through pumped storage and compressed air stored in caverns, to name just two methods.

What is tragically happening in Japan is a suggestive scenario for any place that handles nuclear materials, either in making nuclear fuel rods, transporting them to nuclear plants, using them, and then dealing with the tons of nuclear waste produced. This waste will include the entire nuclear plant itself, which cannot operate forever, but eventually must be decommissioned. At that point, it will be highly radioactive inside, and it will have to be guarded 24/7 for generations. Is that an expense we can send to future geneations?

The terrible events in Japan reveal the dangers posed by nuclear power everywhere, and should serve as a warning. This is not a safe or even an economically wise energy path. Far better to reduce energy consumption by increasing our efficiency, building more energy efficient buildings that reduce by 90% the power needed to heat and cool them (no pipe dream this, for it is already demonstrated in practice for houses and office buildings), and moving toward solar and wind power as much as possible.

March 11, 2011

The Problem of Libya is Europe's Problem

After the American Century

There are daily calls for the United States to do something dramatic to tip the balance in Libya. The clamor comes from many places, from Republicans like John McCain to some European politicians to the Libyan rebels themselves, who have asked for a "No Fly" zone. Once again, the United States is being asked to serve as the world's policeman, even though it is still not extricated from that role in Iraq or Afghanistan. And in case no one remembers, the US has a gigantic budget deficit. It actually cannot afford to do much policing right now, because the Republicans have lowered taxes to the point that the budget is deeply in the red.

Far fewer people call for the EU to do something, perhaps because the EU has never managed to create a common, visible, and enforceable foreign policy. Since Libya is literally on the doorstep, almost as much as Kosovo, one might think the Europeans had learned something from its inaction in that earlier crisis. Apparently not.

This would seem to leave NATO as the most plausible actor, if anyone is going to do anything. But NATO apparently is going to wait to see if the UN gives it permission to do anything. Meanwhile, the Libyan dictator is crushing the rebels, relying in part on mercenaries. He is bombing civilians and committing crimes against humanity (as he has been doing for 42 years, actually.) 

It was so much easier in the case of Egypt or Tunisia, where the local population was able to throw off their dictators with little bloodshed. But the problem with Libya (and also with Iran) is that the government is quite willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter its own people in order to remain in power. Europeans need to stand up and represent something in the world. There are many things that can be done short of military action. These include breaking diplomatic relations, freezing Libyan assets in European banks, blockading Libyan ports, stopping all flights to and from Libya except those helping foreign workers to escape, refusing to buy Libyan oil until the present government abdicates, and so on.

So far, however, the EU is acting not like a single power but like a herd of cats, all going off in different directions. This sort of thing was supposed to end with the Treaty of Lisbon, but the crisis in Libya has exposed the EU's lack of central authority and its inability to respond effectively to events on its own doorstep. This should not be a problem for the United States at all. The EU has all the resources and military might necessary to deal with Libya. Perhaps it will pull itself together and do something before it is too late.
27 Oct. 2011:  I am pleased that Europe did rise to the challenge, and used NATO to back the democratic forces that threw out the Libyan dictator. Next, can Europe also help Libya to a lasting peace?

March 09, 2011

What the Republican Budget Cuts Would Mean

After the American Century

According to MoveOn, the political action group, the cuts that Republicans have proposed to the Federal budget would have devastating effects on health and education. I have found their analysis to be generally correct in the past. Their proposals are many, but here are the ten worst ones:

1. Destroy 700,000 jobs, according to an independent economic analysis.
2. Eliminate all federal funding for National Public Radio and public television.
3. Cut $1.3 billion from community health centers—which will deprive more than 3 million low-income people of health care over the next few months.
4. Cut nearly a billion dollars in food and health care assistance to pregnant women, new mothers, and children.
5. Cut funds for Head Start, which would drive more than 200,000 poor children out of pre-school programs that for decades have proven an effective way to improve their chances to do well in school.
6. Cut educational funds, which will force states to fire 65,000 teachers and aides, dramatically increasing class sizes.
7. Cut some or all financial aid for 9.4 million low- and middle-income college students.
8. Slash $1.6 billion from the National Institutes of Health, which would affect investigations into many diseases and force some researchers to stop their work.
9. End the only federal family planning program, including cutting all federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood to support cancer screenings and other women's health care.
10. Send 10,000 low-income veterans into homelessness, cutting in half the number  who get housing vouchers this year.

The same Republicans, notably John McCain, are calling on President Obama to get involved in Libya, which would further drain the US Treasury and create more veterans.