Dear Mr. President

If you had five minutes alone with president-elect Barack Obama, what would you tell him? Our experts have their say.
by Danny Lachance

“Make visas available for blue-collar workers. put undocumented, foreign-born workers on a path to legal residence."

We often use terms like “amnesty" and “illegal immigrant" as neutral descriptors of policies and people. But to Donna Gabaccia, professor of history and director of the University's Immigration History Research Center, they reflect an approach to immigration that has been quick to criminalize those who cross borders seeking work and slow to recognize how our own policies have incited those border crossings.

“The problem is not that criminal people are waiting to sneak across the border," she says of the nation's estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants, “but that the immigration policy is out of sync with the needs of our economy." Gabaccia notes that restrictions we've placed in recent decades on immigrants from places like Canada and Mexico did not always exist, but they now make “illegal"those who would have been easily admitted just a generation ago. What's more, they were put into place at the same time we loosened the flow of commerce across the Mexican and Canadian borders with free trade agreements.

“We have ever-rising movements of goods across borders, but we try to stop the flow of people who ordinarily accompany commerce," Gabaccia says. That's problematic, she says: Liberal trade policies contribute to changes in the labor market that compel workers to cross borders and become “illegal."

To address this problem, Gabaccia thinks the president should work with Congress to make a variable number of visas available to blue-collar workers and give currently undocumented workers the opportunity to attain visas. But would that unfairly punish those who pursue lawful entry to the U.S.? “It's not a question of waiting in line," she says. Most undocumented workers are blue-collar, for whom “there are almost no visas in the first place, only a few thousand a year. So our policies are creating illegality."

And the consequences of “illegality" are significant, she says. Although anti-immigration voices see a threat to our national identity in granting residence to undocumented workers or expanding the number of visas for blue-collar workers, the alternative poses an even greater threat to who we are. “A democratic nation wants as high a percentage of its residents as possible engaged in the political process,"she says. When more than 10 million people living among us have neither the privileges nor the duties of citizenship, we become less democratic.

“The problem is not ‘illegal immigrants,'" Gabaccia says, “but illegality itself."

“Don't close off trade."

In response to a troubled economy, we heard campaign-season calls to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 1993 treaty lowering the costs of trade among the United States, Mexico, and Canada. It's a popular idea in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which lost high-paying manufacturing jobs after NAFTA was implemented. Renewing trade barriers may save or revive those jobs, some have suggested, by removing the incentives for companies to manufacture their goods in Mexico.

But renegotiating NAFTA would be a mistake, says Tim Kehoe, a Distinguished McKnight Professor of Economics and adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The loss of manufacturing jobs is not caused primarily by the migration of manufacturing to Mexico, he says, noting “the amount of goods we're producing in the U.S. is going up all the time. And if we measure how fast production—real output— is rising, we see it's rising just as fast or faster in manufacturing as in any other sector."

So what's happened to those well-paying manufacturing jobs? Technology, says Kehoe, has taken over work once done by humans, and gets the job done faster. “To produce more and more goods we need fewer and fewer people," he explains. That trend will continue regardless of agreements with other countries.

Dismantling or renegotiating NAFTA, then, is akin to Don Quixote attacking the windmills he mistook for threatening giants. What's needed instead, says Kehoe, is a concerted effort by the next president to help our vulnerable populations respond to an economic climate that now requires a college education for entry into the middle class. With college enrollment increasing, many young people are adjusting to the change. But he's worried about those who didn't pursue higher education in the 1960s and 1970s because, even with just a high school education, they were assured good manufacturing jobs. What about them?

“There are retraining and education programs we can put into place. There are tax policies and subsidy policies we can use to help out those older workers," Kehoe says. “The fact that we're concerned about older workers who have skills that aren't being valued by the market—that's a good reason to develop public policy. But trying to somehow reverse technology or close ourselves off to trade with other countries because we think trade is the cause of these changes in employment patterns—that's a big mistake."

“Don't blame specific individuals or institutions for large-scale problems."

We should stop blaming individuals or institutions for problems and instead look at issues systemically, says English and cultural studies professor Ellen Messer-Davidow. Too often, she says, we direct our anger at individual players rather than at the rules of the games they play.

Take the affordability crisis in higher education. Since 1980, economic trends and pro-business policies have dramatically increased university expenditures on goods like energy, health care, and library materials. On the income side, universities have struggled with stagnating or declining support from federal, state, and private sources.

Those same trends and policies have affected students' ability to pay. In recent years, Congress has shifted federal funding into student loans and subsidies for the loan industry and done nothing to remedy the declining purchasing power of Pell grants, the government's largest scholarship program. In 1975 the maximum grant covered 84 percent of the total cost of attending a public university. In 2001 it covered 39 percent of tuition only.

“Today we see the heartbreaking results," Messer-Davidow says. “As families struggle with declining wages and soaring prices, students are defaulting on loans and graduates are saddled with a lifetime of debt."

Although the evidence points to our economic policies as the culprit for the affordability crisis, it can be hard to understand how that works. “People can easily grasp anecdotes about families that can't afford college because the state universities have raised their tuition," Messer-Davidow explains. But it's much harder, she adds, to understand how both colleges and families are trapped by large-scale economic trends and public policies.

Messer-Davidow believes her research on higher education suggests the next president needs to think more systematically about problems that are, well, systemic. “I would set up problem-solving teams that include experts from the academic, business, and government sectors as well as representative ordinary Americans," she says. “Their mandate would be to review data, analyze a constellation of problems, formulate solutions, and then consider the scenarios that would unroll from implementing each. Then I would invite affected constituencies to assess the feasibility, costs, and consequences of the proposed solutions."

But she's quick to note that any solution will take time. “Since the problems facing the nation were decades in the making, our leaders should expect that solutions may well take as much time and should resist the pressure to seek quick and easy fixes," she says. “There aren't any."

“Formulate a foreign policy that recognizes the uniqueness of Iran."

Iran's nuclear power program worries many Americans who believe the country may become a threat to global security, and the specter of Iran-as-the-next-Iraq looms heavily in national discussions. But CLA professor of history Iraj Bashiri says those discussions neglect a crucial point: Iranians are Indo-European in their ethnic origin. They share their earliest cultural ties with the West not the Middle East.

Before Iran was annexed to the Arab world in the seventh century, Bashiri says, Iranians were Zoroastrian, members of a religious tradition that encouraged philosophical contemplation. Iranian philosophers became deeply engaged with Aristotle and Plato—so much so, he says, that “Iran became a bridge for the transfer of Greek knowledge to the Western world. Philosophers like Avicenna, al-Biruni, and al-Razi, who wrote in Arabic and were influenced by Greek philosophy,
were Iranian."

After the Islamic world rejected philosophy in the 13th century, Iran retained its philosophical tradition and enhanced it tremendously in the 16th with the contributions of philosophers Mir Damad and Mullah Sadra. It has flourished in the years since the 1979 Iranian revolution, as Iranians have moved to reclaim a national identity that had been suppressed by Western domination.

Iran's Western roots are obscured by its stature today as a major Middle Eastern power, but Bashiri thinks those roots are significant in understanding contemporary Iran. The philosophical thought that underlies Iran's present thinking, and that has moved Iran rapidly to its present position in the Middle East, has promoted the drive for scientific progress—a drive Bashiri sees in its recent efforts to develop nuclear power. “Thirty years ago, Iranians did not have any manufacturing capability. Today they send rockets into the atmosphere." It's the type of progress, he believes, that cannot be halted by bombing a few installations.

Nor should it be. Rather than interpret Iran's scientific gains as evidence of bad intentions, we might see its progress as a sign that Iranians may be reclaiming the common ground they once shared with the West.

Bashiri sees Iranians turning, more and more, to reason and science as a way to address their problems. They face, after all, the same energy problems that we do. “Iran's philosophical distinctiveness may make it more receptive to diplomatic negotiation about its use of nuclear power than we currently think possible," he says.

Of course, limits on Iran's compatibility with the West will still exist so long as it remains an Islamic theocracy. But Bashiri is confident change is in the air. “Iran is on the threshold of an Enlightenment," he says. “Reason is playing a major part in the decision-making of the Iranians as a people, as opposed to a government. The seeds are there. It's up to our next president to recognize them and to cultivate, rather than curtail, their growth."



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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on February 13, 2009 9:19 AM.

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