Shitholes and the American Dream

I know I’m late to this story, but it took me a while to figure out how to say what I wanted to say about one of the more recent things President Donald Trump said about immigration:

President Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday.

I do think people should be mad at Trump, but I think a lot of people are mad at him for the wrong reason.

Many people, especially those from Haiti and Africa, have been disputing the word “shitholes.” Given the sorts of things I write, I can’t complain about the obscenity, and if we take “shithole” as a hyperbolic way of saying those are not very nice places to live — at least when compared to developed countries like the United States — then many of those places are indeed…crudely speaking…shitholes.

Obviously, quality of life varies from person to person, and there’s no clear way to measure it, but there are some commonly-accepted proxy measurements, such as GDP per capita, infant mortality, and the Freedom House rating. So we can observe that Haiti has a GDP per capita of $1,784, which is less than 1/30 of what we produce in the United States, the infant mortality rate is eight times higher than the U.S., and Freedom House rates Haiti as only Partly Free.

Furthermore, when Haiti was hit with a magnitude 7.0 earthquake just outside of Port-au-Prince in 2010, the collapse of its poorly-constructed buildings killed at least 100,000 people. By comparison, when a similar 6.9 earthquake struck near far-wealthier San Francisco in 1989, it killed only 63 people. After Haiti’s earthquake, the country suffered a cholera outbreak that killed an additional 9,480 people. Compared to how we live in the United States, Haiti is a pretty awful place to live.

Sub-Saharan Africa is more of the same. GDP per capita is about $3,823 per person per year. Of the 25 largest countries, encompassing 90% of the population, the best economic performance comes from South Africa, with $13,225 GDP per capita, which is less than 1/4 the US GDP per capita. Infant mortality in the best country is five times that of the United States, and about half the countries have infant mortality rates more than ten times the U.S. rate. Freedom House’s ratings tell us that 39% of the population is living in countries that are not Not Free and only 11% of the people are fully Free. Of the seven famines that have occurred so far this century, six of them were in Africa.

These are not uniformly terrible places. They have pockets of commerce and industry, of art and science, and they have some areas that are great places to live. But on average, for most of the people living there, quality of life sucks compared to the United States.

It’s important, however, to put this in perspective. Modern humans first show up in the fossil record about 300,000 years ago. For most of the time since then, up until the start of what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls “The Great Enrichment” a few hundred years ago, the average human lived on the equivalent of about $3 per person per day, and the infant mortality rate was as much as fifty times worse that the current U.S. rate. The poorest countries of the world today, including Haiti and Africa, have a quality of life that is still better on average than what most humans have experienced throughout almost our entire existence as a species. In other words, until quite recently, the entire fucking planet was a shithole.

(Just as there are exceptions within even the poorest countries today, there were exceptions throughout history — wealthy cities such as Babylon, Memphis, Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing — but only a small group of people were ever able to live in them.)

Author William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” He might as well have been talking about the Great Enrichment. It started a few hundred years ago and it took off big time in the West. It’s spreading everywhere, but in some places it has only just begun.

Having said all that, I still think Trump, and people who agree with him, are badly wrong. To begin explaining why, let me tell you two true things about myself:

True Thing #1: Judging by my income, I am one of the most productive people in the world. I’m easily in the top 1% world-wide. (See the Global Rich List to find out how you rank.)

True Thing #2: True Thing #1 has almost nothing to do with me. I’m reasonably smart, reasonably well educated, and I have a reasonably good work ethic, which helps a bit, but almost all of my advantage over the rest of the world comes from having the great good fortune of living in the United States. If I were to move to Haiti or El Salvador or Zimbabwe, my productivity, and therefore my income, would crash down to the local levels or worse. I would probably die an early death.

The opposite is also true: Conditions in the “shitholes” of the world have almost nothing to do with the people who live there. Trump’s biggest mistake was not calling some countries “shitholes,” but in not recognizing that just because people live in shitty places doesn’t mean they are shitty people.

When people from third-world countries come here, they will find an advanced modern civilization with safe drinking water, mass immunization, efficient transportation, rule of law, personal and economic freedom, private property, courts that enforce contracts and award damages for torts, educated people, massive capital investment, real estate titles, innovative technology, reliable institutions, useful ethics and traditions, and millions of other highly productive people to trade with. In that environment, they will become vastly more productive.

In theory, that should be obvious to supporters of the MAGA revolution. The campaign was premised, after all, on the idea that the United States was suffering not because its people were lacking, but because its rulers were terrible, and if we just replaced the establishment politicians at the top, the greatness of the American people would carry the day and Make America Great Again. Unless you have some theories about the superiority of white people, there’s no reason to assume that all the problems of places like Haiti and Africa aren’t also caused by terrible leaders, and that the bulk of the people there are just as good as we are.

Another major cause of poor conditions in Haiti and Africa is that they have been subject to centuries of colonialism, exploitation, corruption, and slavery. And even when the colonial powers pulled out, they left behind damaged governments, damaged institutions, and a damaged civil society — all the ingredients for spawning corrupt dictatorships.

Some defenders of Trump’s remarks claim that he’s just restating our policy of merit-based immigration:

The argument that the U.S. should prioritize admitting immigrants with better education, skills and financial resources has been a legitimate policy position for decades.

That excuse doesn’t work because “Haiti” is not a level of education, and “Norway” is not a skill. Trump didn’t say “Why do we get so many fruit pickers instead of mechanical engineers?” He was talking specifically about national origin.

You could argue that national origin is not race, and therefore it’s not racist, but it’s still Trump judging people collectively by the groups they involuntarily belong to, rather than as individuals. It may not be racism, but it’s the same kind of thing as racism. And given the general racial characteristics of people in Norway and people in Africa or Haiti, it’s not hard see that Trump wants fewer brown people.

Furthermore, so-called “merit-based” immigration is a pretty freaking weird thing for “small government” conservatives to support. Talk to conservatives about business regulations, and they’ll argue that companies can reach agreements with their customers and employees without unnecessary government intervention that would only increase costs and stifle innovation. Ask a conservative about limiting fossil fuel consumption or distributing clean energy subsidies, and they’ll explain that our mix of energy sources should be decided by the market, and that the government should not be “picking winners” in the economy.

The basic argument is that there’s no good reason to believe that government employees know enough about the economy to make those kinds of decisions better than the market can. This seems like an argument that applies to immigration policy as well: There’s no possible reason to believe that Trump or Congress know enough about the U.S. economy to plan the mix of education and skills that millions of employers will need in the workforce for years into the future. And yet suddenly conservatives think we need federal government to forcibly control who we can hire from other countries: “Sorry Haitians, we’re only taking Norwegians this decade.”

Speaking of Norway, let’s address Trump’s puzzlement over why we don’t get more Norwegian immigrants. The most obvious reason is that Norway is a small country with only 5.3 million residents — slightly fewer than Minnesota. Haiti has twice as many people, and Sub-Saharan Africa has close to 200 times as many. We don’t get many Norwegians because there aren’t many Norwegians.

Even allowing for population differences, there’s also the fact that Norway’s GDP per capita is about 20% higher than that of the United States, and the infant mortality rate in Norway is half the U.S. rate. So the answer to we don’t get more immigrants from Norway is Why would they want to come? Compared to Norway, the United States is the shithole.

That’s kind of how immigration works. Whether they’re traveling across the ocean, relocating to another city for a job, or moving to a better school district, people migrate in hope that the new place they live will lead to a higher quality of life. We’re all here because someone decided they wanted to get the hell out of some shithole somewhere else.

Let people live someplace better, someplace that rewards hard work and innovation, and they will live better lives. When Emma Lazarus put these words in the Statue of Liberty’s mouth,

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I like to believe that she wasn’t inviting the poor and homeless to come here because we would take care of them, but because we would not get in their way. We would let the huddled masses have their freedom. We would take in the wretched refuse, and we would let them seek the opportunities that would allow them to thrive. That was, and for many immigrants still is, the American Dream.

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