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Discussing Differences: A Letter to My Son (a few years from today)

The letter below summarizes my thoughts on a touchy subject. I have put them in the form they are in because I don’t think my son is old to have that discussion in its entirety right now.

To My Dear Son,

One of your mother’s hobbies is investigating her ancestry. She spends a lot of time on various websites, tracking down distant cousins and having email conversations with strangers about whether they might possibly related. She also took a genetic test to give her more information about her ancestry and convinced me to do the same.

I didn’t pay enough attention, but my recollection is that taking into account your mother’s background and my own, your blood, so to speak, is primarily Ashkenazi, Irish and Iberian. In our culture you learn a lot about the Ashkenazi and the Irish, but not so much about Iberia, so let me share some of its key history with you. Perhaps more important than anything else was the conquest by the Moors and the long campaign to drive them out. In 711 AD, these Arab-African invaders crossed the straights of Gibraltar. It took two decades for the Moorish expansion in Western Europe to be halted. A Frankish army under Charles Martel defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours, but that didn’t help your ancestors; the invaders would enslave and subjugate Iberia for almost 800 years.

Over 8 centuries, a lot happens. There were times when the Moors could be described as benevolent overlords. At other times, the Moors were vicious, crushing their subjects underfoot with little remorse. But the desire for freedom remained through all of that, and eventually, there was the Reconquista. In 1492, the Portuguese and Spanish people finally managed to take back their countries.

A natural reaction might be anger or even hatred toward Arabs and Africans for perpetrating such an outrage on your ancestors. You might even think restitution is in order. That might be a natural reaction, but it is a bad one for a number of reasons:

1. These events happened a long time ago, and they didn’t happen to you. Sure, there is path dependence, and perhaps your circumstances would be very different had the Moors been less cruel, but that is conjecture and wishful thinking. What you deserve, morally, for the suffering of your ancestors is nothing. Absolutely nothing. For the same reason, I might add, you don’t owe anyone else for what happened to their ancestors either.

2. The people who invaded Spain and Portugal and oppressed your forebears are long since dead. Their descendants who were expelled to Africa in the decade or two beginning in 1492 bear no guilt. How could they?

3. 800 years is a long time. Time enough for the invaders and the invaded to mix and match a little bit. The Moors bred with the locals, sometimes by force and sometimes with consent. As a result, there may even be a touch of Moor, however diluted, in your gene pool. It doesn’t show up in the tests your Mom took, but that may well be due to imprecision of the current commercially available technology.

4. In the same way, some Africans today have Iberian genes. Perhaps more than you do, in fact.

5. The sad fact is, we are all, with the possible (but extremely unlikely) exception of the San, descended from oppressors and invaders. And we know one thing with certainty: your ancestors gave better than they got. This is self-evident from the fact that you are here and an uncountable number of bloodlines were wiped out.

As a result, the wise thing to do is to treat everyone with the same respect, at least until they prove they don’t deserve it. But not everyone has wisdom. Sleights perpetrated against their forebears motivate a lot of people. Making matters worse, one person’s oppression is another person’s heroism. For instance, Osama bin Laden, whom you will one day study in a history class, talked frequently about reclaiming Al-Andaluz (i.e., the Iberian Peninsula). To him, the Moors were conquering heroes spreading the One True Faith, and their expulsion was an injustice that must be avenged.

So while you should treat everyone the same at first, try to develop the ability to tell if a person feels the same way. Be very, very wary of those who carry around the past like a crutch or a club. Some of them are dangerous. Most will accomplish nothing, and the reasons for it will generally lie close to home. But people don’t easily accept mediocrity, especially when it is self-induced. People like that will blame you for their failure. These people don’t respect themselves, and they certainly don’t deserve respect from you.



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Hacked Netflix: A Sort of Modest Analogy

I don’t have the patience to sit on the couch and just stare at the tube like a lot of people seem to enjoy doing. I do however watch movies while exercising or doing chores. The result is that I start and stop whatever I am watching frequently, and there are times it might take me a week or more to watch a movie. That makes Netflix perfect for me.


A couple of weeks ago my Netflix account was hacked. The first indication was that the default language for my account kept changing from English to Portuguese or Spanish. Since I am almost as likely to watch a foreign language movie than an English language one, it took me a few days to realize what was going on. And what was going on was that people were accessing my account from Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Columbia, Spain, etc. It got a bit irritating – occasionally my son or I (the two authorized users on the account) had trouble getting on. Eventually one of the unauthorized users helpfully went into my account selections and upped the number of screens that can be on simultaneously from two to four (for an added $2 a month charged to my credit card).


So I changed my password… and it didn’t stop. I changed the email address associated with my account… and it didn’t stop. I am trying to isolate the problem scientifically now, first to determine whether the problem is on my end, and if so, where the leak is happening. I am running an experiment to try to determine whether somehow, someone can read information off of my computer/router/etc. After all, if that is the case, I have bigger problems than people messing with my Netflix account.

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In Celebrity News

I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being star struck. I pay very little to celebrities, and I probably couldn’t tell you who most of the people being profiled in any given edition of People magazine are. With the exception of Jimmy Stewart, who was way before my time, I don’t recall ever admiring an actor as a person. But Mark Wahlberg explaining why celebrities should avoid discussing politics when they know nothing about it may make me reconsider:

A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They’re pretty out of touch with the common person, the everyday guy out there providing for their family. Me, I’m very aware of the real world. I come from the real world and I exist in the real world. And although I can navigate Hollywood and I love the business and the opportunities it’s afforded me, I also understand what it’s like not to have all that.

A tip of my non-existent hat to Mark Wahlberg.

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The Democratic Party Presidential Platform of 1996 – On Immigration

What follows is from Today’s Democratic Party: Meeting America’s Challenges, Protecting America’s Values, a.k.a., the 1996 Democratic Party Platform. This is the section on immigration.  I took the liberty of bolding pieces I found interesting.

Democrats remember that we are a nation of immigrants. We recognize the extraordinary contribution of immigrants to America throughout our history. We welcome legal immigrants to America. We support a legal immigration policy that is pro-family, pro-work, pro-responsibility, and pro-citizenship, and we deplore those who blame immigrants for economic and social problems.

We know that citizenship is the cornerstone of full participation in American life. We are proud that the President launched Citizenship USA to help eligible immigrants become United States citizens. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is streamlining procedures, cutting red tape, and using new technology to make it easier for legal immigrants to accept the responsibilities of citizenship and truly call America their home.

Today’s Democratic Party also believes we must remain a nation of laws. We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. For years before Bill Clinton became President, Washington talked tough but failed to act. In 1992, our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.

President Clinton is making our border a place where the law is respected and drugs and illegal immigrants are turned away. We have increased the Border Patrol by over 40 percent; in El Paso, our Border Patrol agents are so close together they can see each other. Last year alone, the Clinton Administration removed thousands of illegal workers from jobs across the country. Just since January of 1995, we have arrested more than 1,700 criminal aliens and prosecuted them on federal felony charges because they returned to America after having been deported.

However, as we work to stop illegal immigration, we call on all Americans to avoid the temptation to use this issue to divide people from each other. We deplore those who use the need to stop illegal immigration as a pretext for discrimination. And we applaud the wisdom of Republicans like Mayor Giuliani and Senator Domenici who oppose the mean-spirited and short-sighted effort of Republicans in Congress to bar the children of illegal immigrants from schools — it is wrong, and forcing children onto the streets is an invitation for them to join gangs and turn to crime. Democrats want to protect American jobs by increasing criminal and civil sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, but Republicans continue to favor inflammatory rhetoric over real action. We will continue to enforce labor standards to protect workers in vulnerable industries. We continue to firmly oppose welfare benefits for illegal immigrants. We believe family members who sponsor immigrants into this country should take financial responsibility for them, and be held legally responsible for supporting them.


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Ten Points on Immigration

I have written a number of posts, some using data and some not, on immigrstion. Some of those posts attracted vitriol in comments, including from some who keep accusing me of hiding my punchline. Personally I find myself repeating myself, or trying to restate a point yet a different way so it will sink in. I figured it is probably time to put everything in one place, so here it is:

1. Some cultures prepare their people to function well in the US, some don’t.

2. Ability to function well in the US is not the same thing as intelligence. As an example, consider me. I lived almost a third of my life in South America. I have never been to Central Asia. All else being equal, I can hit the ground running more easily in Argentina than in Iran. In Argentina I know how to behave in a seamless way that won’t raise eyebrows. In Iran, I would need to put effort into day to day activities. Additionally, my communication skills wouldn’t work as well. It isn’t just a matter of not speaking Farsi, but also being unable to unconsciously read and display the myriad of social signals Iranian society uses. Therefore, my productivity will be greater in Argentina than Iran (again, all things being equal). And yet my traits – the degree to which I am or am not intelligent, creative, diligent, sane, honest, etc. – will be the same whether I am in Buenos Aires or in Teheran. Most of my work related skills (less those involving communication) will also be the same in both places. The difference between my productivity in Argentina v Iran will be due entirely to differences in cultural compatibility.

3. Cultural compatibility runs the other way too. Arriving in the US doesn’t automatically confer respect for Western values. In many countries, anti-Christian or anti-Semitic attitudes are common. In the West people argue about gay marriage.  In some countries, the debate is whether gay people should be stoned or thrown off tall buildings. Similarly, the treatment of women and children in some countries would be criminal in the US. Think honor killings, child’s marriages, FGM or bacha bazi. (And yes, we are seeing those things happening here now.). Writing again from the role of someone who was a guest in other peoples’ countries for a third of his life, it should be the responsibility of the newcomer to adapt to his/her new home, and not of the residents of his/her new home to adapt to the newcomer.

4. In Western countries, immigrants who don’t manage to bridge cultural gaps are more likely to end up dependent on the taxpayer. Immigrants are disproportionate users of welfare. In general, it seems (at a minimum) to be bad form to request entry into another society only to become a burden on its people. It is one thing for refugees with no other option to do it, but most immigrants to the US are not refugees.

5. Being overwhelmingly reliant on government largesse in a foreign society built by strangers has got to be dispiriting to most thinking adults. It can only add to a person’s feeling of alienation. That in turn can lead to various dysfunctions – vices, crime, anti-social behavior and even terrorism. It is no surprise that some of these issues exist disproportionately in some immigrant communities.

6. Countries whose emigrants do well in the US also tend to be countries with Western values and strong economies. More precisely, countries whose immigrants do well in the West have economies which thrive from the skills of its people, and not countries whose economies is based mostly on raw material extraction directed by foreigners or on financial transfers from wealthier nations.

7. Countries whose emigrants function well in the US also function well in other Western countries. Conversely, countries whose emigrants don’t function well in the US also don’t function well in other Western countries.

8. Within any society, there are some who are more able to function in the US and some who are less able to function in the US. To be blunt, some people have attitudes that allow them to function well in the West. Typically they are dissidents in non Western countries. Place of origin shouldn’t be enough to, by itself, weed out one potential immigrant or guarantee entry to another to another.

9. The fact that there is homegrown dysfunction isn’t a good argument for importing more dysfunction. The fact that there is need and poverty in this country that doesn’t receive sufficient aid is an argument against importing more need and poverty from abroad.

10. There are far more people who would like to immigrate to the US than we allow into the US. Given that, it makes sense to be selective, both for our sake and the sake of those who are unlikely to function well and would become alienated and unable to fend for themselves in the US.

I note that none of these points are new. I have stated them all before, but not all in one place.


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Castro is Dead

I have always been leery of libertarians, finding that most of them come from one of two infuriating groups: those who pretend negative externalities are trivial and (a much smaller group) those who are open about negative externalities not being trivial but look forward to the opportunity to inflict them on other people.

That said, this post at Popehat (a libertarian blog that focuses on first amendment issues) about Castro and his death is absolutely spot on. Years ago I wrote some of the same things here at Angry Bear, but never this well.

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Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? Part 1

One of the more unique books on my shrinking number of bookshelves (we are in the e-book era after all, so every time we move, fewer hard copies move with us) is called Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? It was written by a Soviet dissident named Andrei Amalrik and published in 1970.

I was thumbing through the book randomly the other day and happened on a passage which happens to be the reason I have never given the book away:

It now became evident that in Soviet law there exists, if I may use the term, a broad “gray belt” – activities which the law does not formally forbid but which are, in fact, forbidden in practice-for instance: contacts between Soviet citizens and foreigners; a concern over non-Marxist philosophies or art inconsistent with the notions of socialist realism; attempts to put out typewritten literary collections; spoken or written criticism not of the system as a whole, which is forbidden under Articles 70 and 190/1 of the Criminal Code, but particular institutions within the system.

This sort of setup – where some topics are de facto illegal – destroys the social fabric in a country. If people know that that saying X will cost them their livelihood, most of them won’t say X. But that doesn’t mean they won’t believe it. In fact, knowing that X cannot be discussed is just going to convince more people that there must be something to it. Refutations of X from those authorized to state what is good and what is true will only serve to make matters worse.

Also, even if X is not true, people will mouth approved denials of X but nobody competent to do so will actually go through the effort of proving X is wrong. After all, in matters like this, the views that are acceptable to hold become progressively narrower and more specific over time. The hero who proves X wrong today is sent to the Gulag tomorrow. Tomorrow, the proof doesn’t show that X is wrong enough.

Worse still for Comrades Yuri and Svetlana who only want to survive and raise their children, sometimes the pendulum swings the other way.

Lysenkoism, a fraud cooked up by a charlatan based on fake data was (rightly) a crackpot idea in 1927. By the mid 1940s it was textbook Soviet Biology and the Trotskyite wreckers, Western stooges and Nazi sympathizers who opposed it had already been processed through the People’s Courts. And then, in the 1960s, another turnabout. Lysenkoism was denounced. But the famines it had caused had still happened, and the biologists, geneticists and (might I add) the statisticians who had called bull&$%# were still dead.

The New Soviet Man was, is, and always will be on the march. Of course, the Soviet Union did make it to 1984. But alas, it had already done so by 1920, if not earlier.

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More From Borjas on Immigration in 1996

More from the 1996 Borjas article on Immigration I cited yesterday. All of this should be familiar to anyone who has been reading my posts. It’s also the same findings for which I keep getting attacked in comments. The funny thing is, numbers are numbers and the results are the same whether I do the analysis or a Harvard professor does it:

Consider the received wisdom of the early 1980s. The studies available suggested that even though immigrants arrived at an economic disadvantage, their opportunities improved rapidly over time. Within a decade or two of immigrants’ arrival their earnings would overtake the earnings of natives of comparable socioeconomic background. The evidence also suggested that immigrants did no harm to native employment opportunities, and were less likely to receive welfare assistance than natives. Finally, the children of immigrants were even more successful than their parents. The empirical evidence, therefore, painted a very optimistic picture of the contribution that immigrants made to the American economy.

In the past ten years this picture has altered radically. New research has established a number of points.

• The relative skills of successive immigrant waves have declined over much of the postwar period. In 1970, for example, the latest immigrant arrivals on average had 0.4 fewer years of schooling and earned 17 percent less than natives. By 1990 the most recently arrived immigrants had 1.3 fewer years of schooling and earned 32 percent less than natives.
• Because the newest immigrant waves start out at such an economic disadvantage, and because the rate of economic assimilation is not very rapid, the earnings of the newest arrivals may never reach parity with the earnings of natives. Recent arrivals will probably earn 20 percent less than natives throughout much of their working lives.
• The large-scale migration of less-skilled workers has done harm to the economic opportunities of less-skilled natives. Immigration may account for perhaps a third of the recent decline in the relative wages of less-educated native workers.
• The new immigrants are more likely to receive welfare assistance than earlier immigrants, and also more likely to do so than natives: 21 percent of immigrant households participate in some means-tested social-assistance program (such as cash benefits, Medicaid, or food stamps), as compared with 14 percent of native households.
• The increasing welfare dependency in the immigrant population suggests that immigration may create a substantial fiscal burden on the most-affected localities and states.
• There are economic benefits to be gained from immigration. These arise because certain skills that immigrants bring into the country complement those of the native population. However, these economic benefits are small — perhaps on the order of $7 billion annually.
• There exists a strong correlation between the skills of immigrants and the skills of their American-born children, so that the huge skill differentials observed among today’s foreign-born groups will almost certainly become tomorrow’s differences among American-born ethnic groups. In effect, immigration has set the stage for sizable ethnic differences in skills and socioeconomic outcomes, which are sure to be the focus of intense attention in the next century.

The United States is only beginning to observe the economic consequences of the historic changes in the numbers, national origins, and skills of immigrants admitted over the past three decades. Regardless of how immigration policy changes in the near future, we have already set in motion circumstances that will surely alter the economic prospects of native workers and the costs of social-insurance programs not only in our generation but for our children and grandchildren as well.

But let us be realistic. You don’t need to be a numbers person to reason any of this out. In the age of Google, all this is fairly obvious to anyone who cares to think about the issue.

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Borjas on Immigration in 1996

George Borjas is out with a new book on immigration. It’s title, “We Wanted Workers” comes from a comment by a Swiss playwright which translates roughly as “we wanted workers but we got people instead.”

I am swamped and haven’t gotten to Borjas’ book yet (truth to tell – there is a lot of stuff higher on my current to do list and time is limited) but he has been pretty consistent for a long time. Here is a lengthy article he wrote for The Atlantic in 1996. This piece may be a good summary of what Borjas keeps noting, and which seems self-evident to me given current immigration policy in the US:

Economic research teaches a very valuable lesson: the economic impact of immigration is essentially distributional. Current immigration redistributes wealth from unskilled workers, whose wages are lowered by immigrants, to skilled workers and owners of companies that buy immigrants’ services, and from taxpayers who bear the burden of paying for the social services used by immigrants to consumers who use the goods and services produced by immigrants.

There is nothing wrong with taking the position that current policies should be continued and even expanded. There is something wrong with denying what that implies. Policies are something we as a country pick. They aren’t handed down from the heavens or etched in stone. If we choose to favor low skilled immigrants and the businesses that employ them over the taxpayer and low skilled workers already in the country, let us at least be honest about it.

Full disclosure – I have structured my affairs so that in general, I benefit from the policies that have been in place over the last few decades. I recognize that many Americans don’t have that option.

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