Immigration, Penalties, Incentives

Mark Kleiman makes yet another good point about immigration here. Immigration reform bills that increase penalties for illegal immigrants themselves—like Jim Sensenbrenner's bill which would make residing in this country illegally a felony—will only make it harder to penalize the actual businesses who hire illegal immigrants, because the undocumented workers will be deterred from doing any whistle-blowing. And it's hard to catch companies breaking the law without whistleblowers.

Meanwhile, steep penalties that deter illegal immigrants from testifying or complaining about their work conditions only makes them more attractive to employers, more likely to be hired, and more likely to be exploited—which contributes heavily towards depressing wages for native workers. Finally, as Kleiman points out, steep penalties for makes them more likely to become the victims of crime—since they're less likely to report anything to the police, for fear of deportation.

If Congress really wanted to slow down illegal immigration, they'd give the immigrants themselves every incentive to blow the whistle on companies hiring illegal immigrants—perhaps by granting citizenship to any immigrant who can she that he or she was illegally hired by a company—and then levy very steep penalties on law-breaking firms. The problem is that the businesses themselves tend to have well-paid lobbyists who can stop these sorts of provisions and penalties, while undocumented voters don't have, for obvious reasons, much of a voice in Congress.

Toxic Soil in New Orleans

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some 25,000 barrels of mixed crude oil spilled in St. Bernard Parish last year from a tank that floated off from its base at Murphy Oil Corp. Now residents are seeing residue in their groundwater, and tests show their soil iscontaminated with unusually high levels of diesel and arsenic. In the area around the spill, one-third of 53 soil samples showed diesel fuel content exceeding state regulations.

Up until now, little has been done to solve the problem. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit dedicated to monitoring oil refineries and chemical plants, says the EPA refuses to acknowledge the potential for these toxins to have a greater effect the community. According to LBB:

Shilling for HSAs

In the New York Times yesterday, Allan Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council, made the usual flimsy arguments for Health Savings Accounts—Bush's plan to "reform" health care. I thought this plan was mostly dead-on-arrival, but perhaps the administration's making a renewed push. Well, in that case, everyone should re-read Jon Cohn's article in The New Republic on why HSAs are a terrible idea—they shift risk from the healthy to the sick, perversely. But we can do the short version here. Hubbard:

Health care is expensive because the vast majority of Americans consume it as if it were free. Health insurance policies with low deductibles insulate people from the cost of the medical care they use — so much so that they often do not even ask for prices.
Well, even if this was true, HSAs wouldn't change a thing. The general and widely-quoted rule of thumb is that 20 percent of the population is responsible for 80 percent of the nation's health care costs. The people in this 20 percent, those who tend to go in for major surgery and emergency care and the like, will almost always rack up costs well over the $2,000 deductible they'd have with an HSA, after which their catastrophic coverage will kick in. And once that happens, they'll be consuming health care "as if it were free."

So HSAs won't have the slightest effect Hubbard's talking about on the vast majority of health care spending in the United States. At the margins, you might see some savings—that is, ignoring all the other problems with HSAs. But fundamentally? They won't address rising health care costs. (At any rate, rising health care costs in the future are likely inevitable—a natural consequence of the fact that health care keeps improving and people want to use it to live longer and healthier. The key question will be how to make sure that health care is more or less equitable, which is not remotely the case at the moment—and HSAs won't do a thing about that.)

MORE: Here's a good Wall Street Journal piece on how Hubbard has started a new push to sell HSAs to the public. The Times op-ed, apparently, is just the start.

Adding to the laundry list of unethical behavior by lobbyist Jack Abramoff is the new discovery that he attempted to sell his "services" to the destitute and crooked Sudanese government. Abramoff and his camp are denying the story, but according to eyewitnesses the lobbyist wanted to help Sudan improve its image during a genocide that has left more than 400,000 dead.

That's no easy task, granted, which must explain the alleged $16-18 million price tag that Abramoff was charging. At the moment, Abramoff is headed to jail for fraud, tax evasion and conspiring to bribe public officials, which includes bilking an estimated $66 million out of Native American tribes.

According to Sudan's ambassador and a prior Abramoff aide, the idea for a grassroots image campaign dates back to 2002 when Abramoff wanted to retain the services of Christian Coalition front man Ralph Reed to help convince evangelicals—who have often put pressure on the administration over Sudan—to back off a little. The former aide said, "Abramoff waved two videotapes at me that were made by a Christian-rights organization and said that the tapes showed the need for Sudan to have Washington representation that could relieve this kind of pressure."

According to The Raw Story, Amnesty International is about to release evidence that the CIA utilized private aircraft operators and front companies to hide its rendition flights. The report presents locations throughout the world from which rendition flights landed and took off.

The countries that allowed the CIA to crross their airspace and use their airports cite the Chicago Convention, or Convention on International Civil Aviation, which allows private non-commercial flights to fly over a country without giving prior notification. Under this convention, states lack the authority to question why a private, non-commercial craft if flying over or making technical stops.

According to Amnesty International, the U.S. has transferred hundreds of individuals via rendition, and "rendition is part of an elaborate clandestine detention regime that includes the use of 'black sites' and 'disappearances,' as well as torture and inhuman treatment."

Obama Tells Bush to Wake Up

Today Barack Obama addressed the nation's energy policy, condemning the Bush administration for stubbornly refusing to prioritize environmental issues.

Bush announced in his last State of the Union that the U.S. has a serious problem with oil dependency, yet has made little attempt to remedy the problem, which Obama equated to "admitting alcoholism and then skipping out on the 12-step program. It's not enough to identify the challenge – we have to meet it. … I was among the hopeful. But then I saw the plan," he said. "[Bush's] funding for renewable fuels is at the same level it was the day he took office. He refuses to call for even a modest increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars. And his latest budget funds less then half of the energy bill he himself signed into law - leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in under-funded energy proposals."

Rush Limbaugh's loose banter is rarely worthy of acknowledgement. However, he crossed the line on his Friday show when he criticized the woman who was allegedly raped by several members of the Duke University Lacrosse team.

When asked by a caller why Rev. Al Sharpton has recently been quiet about the immigration debate, Limbaugh quipped that Sharpton is busy "trying to figure out how he can get involved in the deal down there at Duke where the lacrosse team ... supposedly, you know, raped some, uh, hos." When confronted by another caller, Rush acknowledged that his idiocy filter failed, saying "I knew somebody was gonna call and give me a little grief so I'm takin' the occasion of your call to apologize for it. That was, it was a terrible slip of the tongue. I'm sorry." Limbaugh then essentially nullified his apology by stating "I wish you didn't hear me say it."

This is a good opportunity for people to see Mr. Limbaugh's true uncensored feelings. It would be nice to believe this is a solitary incident, but something tells me Rush's misogynistic feelings run much deeper.

Should Immigrants Be Able to Vote?

Paul Krugman is still uneasy about large-scale immigration, judging from his column on Friday. Unskilled immigration, he says, depresses the wages of low-skilled workers. Well, yes, but again, with properly-designed policies—living wages, full employment, labor laws that allow unions to flourish, earned-income tax credits, and the like—I think you can mitigate this, while preserving the very, very large benefits immigration brings for immigrants and the countries that send them. It's awfully odd to think that shutting the border is really the best possible thing we can do for low-skilled native workers.

But okay, we've been over that. This passage in Krugman's Friday piece, on the other hand, is new and deserves comment:

Imagine, for a moment, a future in which America becomes like Kuwait or Dubai, a country where a large fraction of the work force consists of illegal immigrants or foreigners on temporary visas -- and neither group has the right to vote. Surely this would be a betrayal of our democratic ideals, of government of the people, by the people. Moreover, a political system in which many workers don't count is likely to ignore workers' interests: it's likely to have a weak social safety net and to spend too little on services like health care and education.

This isn't idle speculation. Countries with high immigration tend, other things equal, to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration. U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations -- often the result of immigration -- tend to have worse public services than those with more homogeneous populations.Well, I agree. Creating a Dubai-style underclass of disenfranchised immigrants who have few rights and even less voice in the country they help prop up is an awful idea. That's why everyone should oppose "guest worker" policies that allow companies to import a captive labor force that are here at the mercy of their employers, can't bargain for better wages, speak out against shoddy work conditions, or organize and strike. But I'd go even farther. Why should non-citizens have to be disenfranchised? Why not just let anyone living here legally vote?

It seems a bit crazy, but it's worth putting out there. Non-citizen immigrants seem to be constitutionally barred from voting at the federal level in any case, but nothing's stopping anyone from giving them the vote in state and local elections. And why not? Presumably immigrants should have a say in, for instance, what goes on in the schools they're sending their kids to. And it's perfectly possible: Takoma Park in Maryland allows non-citizens to vote, although I don't think it's affected voter participation or local politics very much there. (San Francisco has considered similar measures at various points, too—it's unsettling, by the way, that 4.6 million people in California, one-fifth of the state population, can't vote.)

Who knows, a bit of civic participation might even make immigrants more "patriotic" or "assimilated" or whatever it is nativists worry about. (Even though the evidence shows that even Hispanic immigrants are assimilating just fine.) At the very least, non-citizen voting would help prevent the United States from turning into another Dubai. It's just not very likely to happen, although maybe a well-placed and influential New York Times columnist could do his part to help this idea gain momentum...

How Britain Reduced Child Poverty

Jared Bernstein and Mark Greenberg have a good op-ed in the Washington Post today discussing Tony Blair's plan, introduced in 1999, to eliminate child poverty in Britain by 2020. How did it fare? Well, over the past five years child poverty in the country has dropped 17 percent—below the government's target, sure, but still pretty dramatic. Over the same time period, child poverty in the United States has risen 12 percent, to 13 million.

So why don't we have the same sort of national plan here? Well, the short answer is because we have a corrupt Republican administration in power that doesn't really care about poor children and the like. But this one bit from the op-ed, on the power of simply declaring a national goal, is good: "What if you don't end child poverty by the targeted date of 2020, we asked [British policymakers]. The question didn't really interest them. The target, they argued, focused the minds of the politicians, the agencies and the public. Without it, they would never have gotten as far as they have." I hear there's a minority party out there in search of a grand sweeping "vision," and like Bernstein and Greenberg say, what's wrong with this one?

France and Labor Law Reform

I don't really know whether the riots in France are going to create a political crisis in Paris or what, but I do know I'm not quite convinced by the "sensible" view on this side of the Atlantic that France absolutely needs to make it easier to fire young people if it wants to reduce unemployment. Of particular interest is this 2004 paper put out by researchers at the Center on Economic Policy Research which looks at evidence from the OECD countries and finds no evidence that, in general, "employment protection" laws have much impact on unemployment rates. (The paper also criticizes a much-cited IMF study that found just such an impact.)

That doesn't make a ton of sense at first glance—intuitively, one would think that if companies could fire people more easily, they'd be quicker and more likely to hire people—but then again, if employment really is mostly determined by demand for goods and services, then maybe regulations governing the hiring and firing employees don't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. The European Central Bank has been keeping interest rates high over the past few years, and maybe that does more to explain France's high unemployment.

It's interesting that other European countries have high levels of employment protection, yet still manage happily low levels of unemployment—Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands. Perhaps deregulation's not the answer after all. The CEPR paper argues that, for instance, changes to labor market institutions "contributed nothing at all" to the drastic reduction in unemployment in Ireland between 1980 and 1998. Meanwhile, Olivier Blanchard and Thomas Philippon argue that the main reason for a similar fall in unemployment in the Netherlands during that period was a national agreement by Dutch unions to moderate their wage demands—and not deregulation. So I don't necessarily see conclusive evidence that European unemployment is high because labor laws are too "rigid" and "inflexible."

Now all that said, granted, in this particular case, Chirac's latest proposed revision to the labor reform—instituting a one-year trial period during which companies could fire young workers with just cause—doesn't seem very draconian or unreasonable. Then again, I don't follow French politics very closely, and if, say, people are looking at this as a potential first step on the march towards creating a more "flexible," American-style labor market in France, I can see why they'd oppose it. And they should.

MORE: This DailyKos diary is worth a read, noting among other things that the true unemployment rate among French youths is greatly exaggerated—although I think the author's neglecting to count people who are discouraged from finding jobs—and that the rate of job creation and destruction in France is the same as in the United States. One can also add that in any case the originally-proposed reform would let employers fire workers for race- or gender-related reasons. Don't we have laws against even that here in the "dynamic" ol' U.S. of A.?