Rodney Davis: Please take a stand against Trump’s immigration order

I just sent the following to my representative in Congress via the web form on his page at the House website:

Based on media reports and what I can find on your website and twitter feed, it appears that you have not yet taken a stand against Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional executive order blocking entry by nationals from certain countries.

Can I count on you to do so in short order?

I didn’t mention in my note, but wanted to mention here, that Davis’s words for his constituents after the recent election invoked Lincoln’s phrase “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” so I’m a little concerned that he may be putting a dangerous strain on our nation’s limited supply of irony.

I also refrained from once again pointing out that the Republicans in Congress are straight-up cowards, afraid of widows and orphans.

Coming around on gun control

I have long opposed most sorts of gun control. The main reason is the same reason I oppose drug prohibition: There is no way to enforce a ban on a thing, except through police-state tactics (and I don’t like living in a police state).

How do you ban a thing? You can pass a law against possession, but that law is unenforceable except by house-to-house searches. You can’t even enforce a ban on carrying concealed weapons except by stopping and frisking everyone out on the street. (Please don’t suggest only stopping and frisking “suspicious” people, unless you have first-hand experience with looking like one.) Since there’s no victim to report the crime (“I was illegally possessed at!”), you only find the criminals by chance, unless you’re willing to go full war-on-drugs with undercover agents, coerced informants, wiretaps, search warrants executed by SWAT teams and so on.

You could impose a high penalty on possession of a gun, and then only enforce the law when a gun came to the attention of the police. That would probably get the guns off the street—a gun hidden under the floorboards isn’t much of a threat—except of course for the “only criminals will have guns” issue: High penalties don’t much deter people who are already committing crimes with high penalties. Plus, it leads to all the classic slippery-slope arguments. Selective enforcement (searches used to harass disfavored people) and unfair results (unlucky people spending 20 years in prison for a gun they didn’t know was in the boxes of grandfather’s personal effects) being just two of the downsides.

Besides, guns are useful tools. If we have a ban that applies as well to the police and the military, then we’ve denied them tools that they may need to do their jobs. But if the ban doesn’t apply to them, then we have to draw the line in a specific place—or a series of specific places. If police qualify, how about campus police? Transit police? Park rangers? Do bodyguards qualify? How about armored-truck guards? Stalking victims? The result is once again selective enforcement and unfair results, this time with a side order of political shenanigans.  Some people who need the tool will be denied it. Other people who thought they were allowed the tool will have their lives destroyed when a court rules that they were not.

Much more sound than laws against things is laws against behavior. It’s illegal everywhere to shoot someone or to threaten someone with a gun or even to discharge a gun in a populated area. These are the sorts of laws that gun-control opponents always point to as the right way to control guns. But they self-evidently don’t work. Even if you discount suicides and accidents, there are 12,000 homicides a year in the United States—with about 90% committed with a firearm.

So, what other behaviors could we regulate? There is often talk of regulating the sale of firearms. Being in the business of selling firearms is already extensively regulated, but currently it’s legal to sell (or give away) a firearm without being in the business—sales between friends and gifts between relatives are legal, and don’t require that you be a licensed firearms dealer. That could be changed. You could make selling firearms be like selling prescription drugs, which only a licensed pharmacist can do. Many currently legal, perfectly ordinary behaviors would be illegal, or else the laws would have to be very carefully drafted. Could a father buy his son his first .22 rifle? Could an Olympic-champion riflewoman let her aspiring-sharpshooter daughter take mom’s match-grade pistol to the shooting range to practice with? If a down-on-his luck man pawned a family heirloom firearm, would he be committing a crime if the pawn shop owner’s firearms license were not in order? What if the pawn shop clerk were a felon?

Registering guns is often proposed, although I don’t see how doing so would reduce violence. Further, I think gun-owner fears of gun registries being useful primarily as a tool for eventual confiscation is well-founded: What other use would a registry have? The parallel is less with registering cars (which are big and operate in public where people can see them) and more with registering typewriters (which are small and are generally used in private).

Illinois has long had a registry of “allowed gun buyers,” which is somewhat less pernicious than a list of guns: It would still provide a list of places to search, if things trended even further toward a police state, but it would do so without providing what amounts to a master of list of guns to be seized. In fact, I would fully support such a scheme, if it were automatic: Every adult who has not been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, nor adjudicated as dangerous or incompetent in some other fashion, should be on the list of those allowed to buy guns. The government could automatically strike people from the list upon conviction or commitment to a mental institution (with an appropriate appeals process to correct errors). Or people could file a simple form to ask to be taken off the list, if they had some personal objection. It’s basically the instant background check from the opposite direction.

I will say this, though—gun control advocates are finally on the right track, in attempting to mobilize public opinion. For the past thirty years, members of a small, mostly liberal elite have been trying to use their influence over government officials to pass gun control. But with public opinion so divided, legislative sausage-making has produced laws that are pointless and ineffective, full of easily ridiculed loopholes, but still with traps for the unwary gun-owner to commit a technical violation that leads to harsh sentences, without reducing the number of guns or making them less dangerous. (I am thinking in particular of the so-called assault rifle ban that ended up merely banning a handful of cosmetic details.)

And yet, I am nearly brought around. I am ready to support gun control legislation, if something can be found that would actually reduce violence (or at least its severity), doesn’t require police-state tactics to enforce, and doesn’t send people to prison simply because their papers are not in order.

That last is non-negotiable for me, an attitude puts closer than I’d like to be to unsavory company on other issues, such as immigration, where I agree with many Republicans that I think we should control our borders better. It’s because the other tactics of keeping our population density low are ineffective, unless we empower the police to check people’s papers. If we want the higher standard of living that comes from living well below carrying capacity—and I do—we can’t let just everybody live here. But having a category of “illegal” people forces immigrants to live outside the rules that promote the health, safety and prosperity of everybody, for fear of deportation. That risks the health, safety, and prosperity of all of us.

I’m no happier with letting police demand my firearm paperwork, and send me to prison if it’s not in order, than I am with letting police demand my citizenship papers against similar consequences.

I also think playing with guns is fun, and would be sad if they were banned. But I would give up playing with guns, if I thought it would prevent a large fraction of 11,000 murders a year. I don’t see a clear path from here to there, but I have joined the mass of people trying to find one.

Fear itself

I’d seen it right along, and plenty of other people have commented on it before me, but I don’t think it really sunk in until just this past week, with all the hand-wringing over Syrian refugees:

Republicans are a bunch of cowards.

I’ve never seen so much fear as has been on display the past week from the Republicans (and, I must admit, way too many Democrats as well). And over what? A bunch of people—largely educated and middle class—who have been forced to flee their homes.

Seriously, the Republicans are straight up afraid of widows and orphans. What’s up with that?

I mean, I totally understand why the Syrians are afraid. They have soldiers and militias fighting house-to-house in their neighborhoods, blasting them with artillery, even using chemical weapons. Not to mention, they have U.S., French, and Russian air forces dropping bombs on those same militias, in the same neighborhoods.

But the Republicans? What are they afraid of? They’re afraid that some “terrorist” will “slip in” amongst the masses of refugees and commit “acts of terror” in the United States.

Well, these hypothetical refugee-terrorists (of which we’ve seen exactly zero so far) will have to get at the back of a pretty long line, behind the non-hypothetical white-supremacist, right-wing, and anti-government militias (not to mention depressed loner high-school boys) who have been committing mass murders in the U.S. in numbers well in excess of those committed by foreign terrorists.

Perhaps worst of all, most of the Republican rhetoric isn’t even aimed at affecting government policy; it’s aimed at preemptively setting up other people to take the blame. “We said you had to give ‘100% assurance’ that they wouldn’t be terrorists before you could let them in, so if even one of them commits a terrorist act it’s all on you!” (They know perfectly well that ‘100% assurance’ is impossible, which is why they demand it. It makes me want to point out that in the U.S. we convict people of capital crimes and execute them, and all we require is assurance “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I expect pointing that out makes me a rose-colored glasses wearing liberal who’s endangering our country.)

Fortunately, some people are man enough not to quake in their boots at the idea of some ordinary families fleeing terror and ending up here, and man enough not to be terrorized at the idea that they might have to take the blame if an evildoer does slip in. I’m thinking of President Obama here, rather too few Democrats in Congress, most of my liberal friends, and (oddly, because I don’t think of myself as especially brave) me.

Appalling letter from senator Mark Kirk

I got email today from one of my senators, with the text of a truly appalling letter to president Obama from the senator and eleven of his colleagues.

The letter (here’s his press release on it) calls on the president to ensure that “no refugee related to the Syrian crisis is admitted to the United States unless the U.S. government can guarantee, with 100 percent assurance, that they are not members, supporters, or sympathizers of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”

It’s obviously intended to be an unattainable threshold, but that’s really beside the point—the whole thing is completely wrong-headed.

I was moved to respond, and sent him this message via the contact form on his website:

I wanted to say that I was appalled by the letter to president Obama that you shared with me.

Since 9/11, the number of refugees who have committed terrorist attacks in the US is exactly zero—which suggests to me that keeping refugees out of the US is a complete waste of time and effort.

Targeting refugees—the most helpless and vulnerable among us—is not only pointless, it is also heartless and cruel. It is a failure to live up to our obligations under international law. It is also, in my opinion, terribly unamerican.

There are far better, far more effective ways to protect US citizens than by heaping yet more misery on those who have already faced the violent extremism of ISIS—those Syrians who have been forced by it to flee their own country.

I urge you to write to the president and let him know that you repudiate your entire letter, and to suggest that existing US policies on refugees, established in accordance with international law, should remain in place.

Another eleven senators signed the letter. If yours was one of them, you might want to contact your senator and say something. Feel free to borrow from my text, if it speaks to you.

Reducing poverty

I’m big on reducing poverty, both locally and globally. (I do worry that more rich people will use more resources, suggesting that reducing poverty isn’t an unalloyed good thing. On yet another hand, only rich people can afford things like sequestering carbon or preserving habitat. It’s complicated.)

Since I’m interested in reducing poverty, I was interested in Lant Pritchett’s recent talk Everything you think you know about poverty is wrong.

Pritchett and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on how to have a rich country, I think.

These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

This has interesting implications for global development, because these are all things where it’s very difficult to improve someone else’s situation. If a country has government by-and-for the elites, or a corrupt bureaucracy, it’s going to be poor—and there’s very little outsiders can do to help. One of Pritchett’s points is that things that seem like they might help, such as improving education, seem to do more harm than good—perhaps because well-educated corrupt bureaucrats are worse than ignorant ones.

His solution is for rich countries to create or expand guest worker programs, which I think is a poor idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it would work. A poor worker who came to a rich country and worked a couple of years could both support relatives back in the poor country and save up enough money to return home and start a business. That would relieve poverty both immediately and going forward. It would also produce another person with first-hand experience of the advantages of a less-corrupt society (as opposed to merely seeing the advantages of getting in on the corruption).

The main reason I think it’s a poor idea is that enforcing a guest worker program eventually requires a police state. Somebody has to check all workers—it’s the only way to identify those who aren’t legally entitled to work. Somebody has to make sure those whose permission to work has expired get fired. Those whose permission to live here has expired, but who don’t go home, become an underclass with all the usual problems of an underclass—crime, violence, oppression, disease. I’ve written about this before (see Missing the point on immigration).

There is also the issue of how guest workers affect salaries, wages, and working conditions of citizen workers (short version: I think it makes them worse).

The ideal solution, of course, would be for every country to be rich enough and free enough that people from all over the world would want to move there. But that just brings us back to where we started.

Missing the point on immigration

I live in a nicely cosmopolitan little apartment complex. It’s one of the cheaper places to live in town, so we get a nice mix: single people, young couples, seniors, working-class folks, grad students. Those last two categories in particular add a good bit of racial diversity—African Americans, South Asians, East Asians. It makes for a nice place to live.

Because I like living in places like this, I find myself conflicted on the topic of  immigration.

The largest motivation for opposing immigration (setting aside the wrong-headed opposition that springs from racism) is economic—but most of the people trying to make the economic argument get it wrong. Or maybe they just state it poorly.

Population density

The most important reason that the United States is an attractive place to live is the low population density. This was true from the beginning of European settlement. There was enough land that anyone could be a landowner. The low population meant fewer workers, which kept wages high and working conditions good. Natural resources were abundant, meaning everyone could have and use more timber, more water, more grain, and (especially over the past couple of generations) more coal, oil, and natural gas.

There is high population density in cities, and that’s the best way to arrange things: If most people live in an urban environment, it preserves the maximum amount of land for crops, timber, pasture, natural areas, and so on. Sprawling the people out in subdivisions and exurbs wastes a lot of land. But however you arrange the living and working spaces: the more people you have, the smaller the average person’s share is going to be.

Economists dismiss this argument, on the grounds that people are productive: Each new person produces more than enough to be self-supporting, so each new person can potentially raise everyone’s standard of living. That’s not wrong exactly, but it’s largely a self-serving argument. The monied interests benefit from an influx of new workers, because a larger labor force holds down wages. At the same time, the monied interests don’t suffer as their pro-rata share of nature’s bounty declines, because they don’t settle for a pro-rata share; they buy as much as they want, leaving that much less for the rest of us.

Many people understand this at some level, but view it in pieces rather than as a whole. If they’re workers, they object to other workers willing to work for lower pay. If they’re business owners, they claim that there are “certain jobs” that Americans just won’t do. (A falsehood: it would be easy to find Americans to do any job, if it were a full-time salaried position with health insurance, a pension, and education benefits—just like every job I ever had as an adult.) Others point to the increased demand on social structures when “different” people arrive—people with bigger families (more children to be educated) or people who speak a different language (public safety information needs to be translated). At this level, the pro-business argument is correct: immigrants are productive and the taxes they pay easily cover the costs of the services that they use. But they still increase the population density—and that means dividing all the resources of the country among more people.

It’s an economic issue, a quality-of-life issue, and particularly an environmental issue: there are many things that are only environmentally harmful if the demand for inputs exceed the local environment’s capability to provide them, or if the outputs produced exceed the local environment’s capability to handle them.

So: I’m not against immigration; I’m against population growth. In the context of a stable population, I’d like as much immigration as possible, because I enjoy a cosmopolitan community.

Where the anti-immigrant argument turns really wrong, is when it comes to strategies and tactics of handling a population that includes some immigrants.

Police state

If you’re going to allow people to visit, whether for tourism, cultural exchange, as guest workers, or whatever, some number of those people are going to stay here. They’ll stay for all kinds of reasons—for economic opportunity, for freedom, because they fall in love with someone who lives here, or just because they like the place they’re visiting.

If the number who stay are the number you want to stay, then everything’s fine. But if it’s more than you want, there’s no way to reduce the excess without turning the country into a police state.

I don’t want to live in a police state. I don’t want police to ask me for my papers. It’s annoying. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. (Well, it’s constitutional for the police to ask, but it’s unconstitutional for them to do anything if I don’t present my papers. Note that the Supreme Court seems inclined to disagree with me on this point.)

For one thing, there’s no obligation for a citizen to even have papers. Almost everyone does, because a drivers license counts and it’s so handy to be able to drive, but it’s not required. It’d be pretty tough to get along without a social security number, but you can have a number without having an identity document. (Early social security cards—I still have mine—had no security features at all: just a name and number printed on card stock.)

Since the mid-1980s, employers have been insisting on seeing identity documents, because otherwise they can face penalties if they hire illegal immigrants—an early example of exactly what I’m unhappy about.

Even if you have papers, even if you keep them sufficiently in order that you can present them to an employer when you start a new job or a bank when you want to open a new account, there’s still no obligation to keep them on hand to show to the police.

Still, objecting to being asked to show papers is really just a personal quirk. The real harm comes from having people here who can’t safely use ordinary public institutions. Communities where people are afraid of being arrested or deported are inevitably bad communities.

  • Crimes will go unreported, which will result in more crime—and more violence, as people who lack access to the courts have to resort to self-help to settle their disputes.
  • Sick people won’t seek medical care, producing pockets of disease.
  • Pernicious institutions like check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders thrive where people can’t open bank accounts.

I don’t want to live in a town where there are people who don’t feel safe talking to the police when they get robbed or the department of labor when they get cheated by an employer or the bureau of weights and measures when they get cheated by a merchant. I don’t want to live in a town where lots of drivers don’t have insurance because they don’t have a license because they don’t have the right kind of visa. I don’t want to live in a town where some people have to work for cash because there’s no legal way for them to pay taxes.

As I say, I’m of two minds. I want to keep the low population density we enjoy in the US—it’s a key factor in our high standard of living. At the same time, I enjoy living in a diverse community. But it’s impossible to have it both ways: If you allow foreigners into the country, some of them will stay, and any effort to remove them produces problems that are much worse than the small hit that any one immigrant produces to our standard of living. And yet, in the aggregate, the hit on our standard of living is significant.

In the end I come down squarely against measures like the recently passed law in Arizona—it will do a lot more harm than good. I’m generally in favor of efforts to control the border, to make it tougher for people to sneak into the country, but that’s no panacea—not unless you use control of the border to hold the number of temporary visitors below the number of permanent residents that you’d be willing to accept. I’m not sure there is a solution, except for the rest of the world to become as nice a place to live as the US, and thereby produce a balance between immigration and emigration.