Monday, May 22, 2006

The REAL Immigration Issue No One Is Discussing

Our ongoing and heated debate over immigration addresses many issues -- legal versus illegal immigration, guest worker programs, securing the borders, penalizing employers and whether to naturalize or deport illegal immigrants in the country now. But really the whole debate over immigration comes down to a single issue that no one is discussing directly -- how much of it do we want? Perhaps it is understandable that no one wants to directly face the question of how much immigration we want, given that this country is extremely divided on that subject, with extreme views ranging from none at all to unlimited. But the issue has to be faced. The basic reason we have so much illegal immigration is that more people want to go to the United States than we are willing to admit. And nearly all proposals on how to address the issue ultimately are disguised statements on how many immigrants to accept.

Consider first the case of anti-immigration activists. Officially, such activists always say that they have no objection to legal immigration, only to illegal immigration. They are not hostile to immigrants, but only want to uphold the law. But such activists also oppose guest worker plans which would allow greater legal immigration. The real message here is that the number of immigrants the United States currently admits legally is about right and the number coming here illegally is way too many.

Any serious consideration of why people oppose illegal immigration supports this statement. People fear that illegal immigrants depress wages and that they consume services without paying taxes. Others worry about the burden on our schools of teaching so many children who do not speak English. Some worry that people low on the economic scale, and often young men entering without their families, will be prone to crime. Others see 15 or more people living in a single family dwelling and worry about damage they may cause and harm to property values. These are all legitimate concerns and not mere bigotry. But the lowering of wages, the overuse of services, the burden on schools, the risk of crime, and damage to neighborhoods have nothing to do with who does or does not have a green card and everything to do with the number of immigrants involved. (The one exception is taxes which legal immigrants obviously pay more of than illegal, although illegal immigrants do pay sales takes and many have even joined programs allowing them to pay income taxes in hopes of eventually gaining legal status).

Other people oppose illegal immigration for less worthy reasons. They call it an "invasion" of aliens cultures and values that will undermine American identity. They feel threatened by the presence of people who speak Spanish and have Spanish radio stations, or by demonstrators waving the Mexican flag and chanting slogans n Spanish. A few even believe that it is plot by the Mexican government to infiltrate and reconquer the Southwest. Once again, these fears have nothing to do with green cards and immigration papers and everything to do with the number of people involved. Finally, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose our government managed to deport all illegal immigrants, and then expanded its legal immigration program to admit just as many people legally as are now entering illegally. Would it resolve anything?

Consider the issue, on the other hand, from a pro-immigration perspective. A Mexican national wants to go to the United States and has a choice between going legally or illegally. Going illegally means walking miles and miles across blazing, waterless deserts, being preyed upon by immigrant smugglers, and then living in constant fear of being found and deported. Going legally means the paperwork and red tape of applying for a green card. Given the options, why would anyone chose to go illegally? The answer is simple -- there are so few green cards and so many people who want them that the chances of being admitted legally too small to take seriously. Illegal immigrants, in effect, are voting with their feet for a much higher rate of immigration than the United States allows.

Immigrants inside the United States do not make the sharp dicotomy between legal and illegal residents because they do not see the difference as one between the law-abiding and criminals, but simply between the lucky and the unlucky. The huge immigrant rallies we have witnessed called for legalization are, in effect, all calling for a great expansion in the number of immigrants admitted. Employers who support guest worker plans also want to increase the number of immigrants admitted. (An exception may be union leaders who also favor expanded legalization. Union leaders are in a conflicted position of favoring immigration insofar as it means admitting more potential union member and opposing it insofar as it lowers wages. But whatever the volume of immigration, union leaders necessarily care whether it is legal or illegal because illegal immigrants are liable to be too easily indimidated to join a union or protest abuses by their employers).

In short, the single underlying issue about immigration is how much of it we want. Any honest discussion of illegal immigration means facing the fact illegal immigration really means more people want to come here than we are willing to allow. It is undoubtedly true that more Mexicans and Central Americans want to come to the United States than we can reasonably admit. In the short run there are only two ways to stop illegal immigration: (1) Raise a physical barrier to keep illegal immigrants out. (2) Lower legal barriers to entering so that illegal entry is no longer attractive. It is certainly possible to raise physical barriers and at least partially lower legal barriers at the same time; that is what the bill in the Senate seeks to do. In the long run, the only way to end illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America is to make them attractive enough that people no longer want to leave. That, too, is in our interest and needs to be discussed.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Further Reflections on Media Bias

I should clarify what I said yesterday to make clear that I believe the mainstream media do have bias -- indeed, many biases. I simply do not believe it is anything like the simple ideological bias many people allege. I believe that the following biases exist in the mainstream (US) media:

(1) A U.S. Bias: Most Americans, including mainstream media, are not interested in what goes on beyond their borders. American news tends not to report on events in other countries, or to report very superficially, unless the U.S. government has directed their attention to another country, or something very sensational (like an earthquake or massacre) has happened.

(2) A Bad New Bias: People sometimes complain that all they hear is bad news, but this is in the nature of news. Does anyone want to hear about all the cars that didn't get into accident and all the people who weren't crime victims today?

(3) A "Man Bites Dog" Bias: We've all heard the addage that it is not news when a dog bites a man but it is news when a man bites a dog. This creates an abnormal slanting of the news that journalists do not often acknowledge. If we hear about every time a man bites a dog and nothing about most dogs biting men, we end up getting a very distorted view of the frequency of those events. People end up keeping their dogs locked up in the house to protect them from those deranged, bite-happy men out there, while scarcely giving a thought of the risk from dogs. This could explain why there is such fear and anxiety over school shootings when really there are any number of greater dangers to children, and why so many people are in a tizzy over bird flu and think nothing of more common diseases.

(4) A Short Attention Span: Events happen that briefly make the news and become stale within a few days. I used to call this the November Rule. The biggest story of the year would take place in November and would be so exciting we would still be hearing about it at the end of the year. Nothing else stayed in the news so long.

(5) A Washington Bias (or a horse race mentality): We hear a great deal about presidential contenders and what they are doing, or about the President's trip overseas. Debates over proposed laws tend to be addressed in terms of whose political career they enhance or harm, rather than on how they impact ordinary people. Presidential campaigns are addressed in terms of campaign strategy and who is going negative rather than what they are actually proposing. (Granted what they propose is usually as little as possible, all carefully polls tested and honed in focus groups).

(6) A Seize-the-Initiative Bias: Whoever gets the media's attention first has a huge head start, and all others are left playing catchup. A classic example of this is in all those studies we hear about that walnut oil or fish oil or whatever is the key to health and longevity. Questioning and qualification follow much later and are drowned out in the hoopla. This type of bias worked in George Bush's favor when he took the initiative in seeking war in Iraq; it works against him when leakers expose whatever he is up to.

(7) A Sensationalist Bias: Not only do sensational stories sell best, but often the first account of a story, based more on rumor than fact, tends to magnify the event and the more mundane truth only later emerges. Wild rumors about violence in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina are an obvious recent example.

(8) Finally, and closely related to all of the above, superficiality. Treatment of events in foreign countries or outside the beltway tend to be superficial, while inside-the-beltway, electoral politics stories are only superficially less superficial, giving in-depth discussion of political maneuvers but little analysis of their policy consequences. A short attention span is simply another sign of a lack of interest in in-depth coverage. So, too, do sensational and man-bites-dog stories. (Rare events are less likely to have overall social significance than common ones precisely because they are rare events rather than a common pattern). And the advantage that goes to whoever talks first shows a lack of serious, in-depth investigation and a willingness simply to report what one is told.

Interestingly enough, all these biases are particularly strong in the mainstream media when seeking to be objective. Being objective tends to be seen as simply reporting an event and quoting conflicting opinions on what it means, rather than doing in-depth investigation. Serious, in-depth stories about real but non-glamorous societal issues, with plenty of follow up invariably treat a subject too large to be easily covered. Such stories are more likely to appear in a quality advocacy publication or, if they appear in mainstream media, to make no pretense of being unbiased.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Reflections on Media "Bias"

There's a funny thing about media bias. No one will admit to benefiting from it. Conservatives have long complained about a liberal bias while radicals complain about a pro-establishment bias and now liberals (or progessives, if you prefer) are trying to prove a conservative bias. But no one ever acknowledges a media bias in their favor. Incidentally, this is not only an American phenomenon. While George W. Bush denounces Al-Jazeera as little better than a propaganda outlet for anti-American propaganda, Osama bin-Laden complains that Al-Jazeera is hopelessly biased against him.

So what accounts for the conviction on the part of activists of all stripes that the mainstream media are biased against them? Someone has commented that whenever anyone cries bias, it reveals his or her own bias more than anything else, and there is certainly something to that. To many people no doubt it is simply a matter of believing that if the media don't agree with me, they must be unfairly biased. But I believe that for more sophisticated activists the explanation is somewhat more complex.

Activists, regardless of their issue, have more detailed, specialized knowledge of their subject than the general public, including most journalists. But their detailed specialized knowledge is biased. They know about activity other activists are undertaking for their cause, the harm caused by whatever they oppose, the good done by fellow activists, the facts that support their positions, and the various studies and arguments undertaken by the more scholarly members of their movement. They know little about their opponents, other than that they are a bunch of lying scoundrels who manipulate evidence to support their false positions. If the mainstream media ignore a set of activists, this can only be proof of a hostile bias. If an outlet in the mainstream media undertakes to do a story about the issue dear to these activists, the story is most unlikely to be satisfactory. Its treatment will be superficial and often ill-informed. It will leave out details considered essential by activists, but of little interest to the general public (or to journalists). It may well get some of its facts wrong, in ways that to an activist can only seem like deliberate ignorance or hostile bias. Important argument the activists use to support their position will either be ignored, oversimplified, distorted, or just plain misunderstood. And, worst of all, the mainstream outlet will actually take those scoundrels on the other side seriously and give them equal time. Only advocacy journals, that treat the activists and their cause in depth and make no attempt to cover the other side, can be trusted to report without hostile "bias."

And then, of course, there are the people who are less in-depth and simply believe that Fox New (or, for that matter, Mother Jones) is "fair and balanced" because they agree with it.