Monday, February 19, 2007

Undocumented Workers

The current situation with immigration is not sustainable. American citizens, due to media propaganda, have a difficult time understanding how important undocumented workers have become in sustaining the American way of life(the very use of the term undocumented workers as opposed to illegal aliens belies much about what a person's stance is on the issue). There exist many arguments about what should be done and also what can be done. It is clear that deportation is not a viable option for the estimated 11-13 million undocumented workers. This is because both the logistics of removing millions of people to other countries and the effect on the American economy. The American economy rests on the backs of the cheap labor from Latin America. These people work for minimum wage or less and work longer and, by many accounts, harder than Americans would be willing to.

There are many that argue that these immigrants are soaking up our welfare and other social services while not paying taxes. This argument does not hold up to critical scrutiny. First is the issue of taxes. Most of these workers will not formally be filing income tax. This is a significant penalty for them as most would be able to get money back because they are making below poverty wages. Many immigrants work under false social security numbers and so they have regular taxes taken out of their checks each month. The fear is that if they file that they will be caught and deported. Also these workers have a host of other taxes that either they are responsible for paying or are payed on their behalf by those that exploit their labor. All of the taxes that are paid by these undocumented workers go to benefit the rest of American society but cannot be drawn upon by the workers due to the legal limbo in which they currently reside.

One significant tax that that these workers pay but receive no benefit from is is sales tax, the bane of poor people everywhere. This tax that is used extensively in 48 states is one of the most regressive that can be instituted. Most states have no provision for food exemptions and other important measures that reduce the negative effects of this tax. Another significant set of taxes are employer taxes. This includes a host of taxes that are paid by companies on the profit they make. This is extremely significant because we are talking about large amounts of money. This has been made particularly clear by the recent "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes" . Large companies such as Tyson faced plant closures on the day of the protests. These large companies are paying significant taxes on revenue that is generated by workers that are unable to receive the social services that the rest of us take for granted.

For me the reason that this current system can't continue is one that I don't see discussed very widely. These workers are exploited and marginalized at every turn. By crossing the border illegally they lose all power to negotiate. The employers know this and exploit it to their full advantage. Things such as minimum wage, mandatory breaks, clean and safe facilities have no meaning when those who are marginalized have no legal rights. Any complaint by undocumented workers means being fired, again something from which they have no protection, and likely deported. It is difficult to imagine how undocumented workers can bring about such animosity from the general public. These workers face a deadly border crossing, made more deadly by changes to border surveillance that have pushed crossers to more treacherous terrain. Also upon entering, they face difficult exploitative labor that is difficult to envy in any way. Finally, they are often away from their families for months to years at a time. How could these people be seen as a threat to our way of life? In many ways they represent the dogged determination to create a better life that is characteristic of what most Americans subscribe to as "the American dream."

While no simple solution can be instituted to ameliorate the divergent interests that are affected by this issue. It will take time and critical reflection to create a policy that ensures that workers are treated fairly and that the deaths from crossing the border illegally cease to happen. For me what makes the most sense is an immigrant worker program that gives protections to workers and allows border crossing to be standardized. We need some sort of system that allows for different levels of workers, depending on what the worker wants. Individuals should at least be able to get into a track to either be a guest worker, or to work in the U.S. and be on a track toward immigration. Also necessary would be some sort program that allows workers (and presumably their families) who have been here to have an expedited process of immigration. These people are already working and living here and there is really no reason to force them to leave only to attempt to immigrate "legally." The specifics of these programs should be open to public debate as opposed to just being misinterpreted by American media that consistently takes the side of their corporate backers on matters such as this.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Going Without Health Care

With more than seventy-five million Americans going without health care, it is tough to imagine how a health care system could perform more poorly. It is increasingly difficult to justify the private health care and health insurance system that exists in the U.S. The U.S. regularly spends significantly more, per capita, on health care than any other industrialized country. It is time that we take a look at what other countries are doing right and wrong in terms of health policy. Our current health care scheme is clearly not sustainable and is negatively affecting the lives of millions of Americans. When millions of Americans are declaring bankruptcy as a result of health care bills, it is clearly time for a significant change.

One important thing that must be addressed is that there will be no perfect policy to address the health care needs of everyone. This issue must not be left to politicians who are largely out of touch with successful social policy. We must learn the lessons that the successes and failures that other countries have faced, and use that information to create a coherent policy that can work for the U.S. It is difficult to imagine a significant new policy coming about at a time when public well-being is up against billion dollar industries. While most Americans would benefit more from nearly any other health policy, many will continue to be fooled into voting against their interests. Those in power are quite skillful at using wedge issues to crush real attempts at meaningful reform.

A Decent Start

An interesting new plan has been developed that would increase the likelihood of creation of vaccines for diseases that largely affect countries in the developing world. While this is a step in the right direction, it misses some of the large issues that surround the pharmaceutical companies. These companies constantly bemoan the difficulties that they face in creating medicine, while at the same time recording higher profit margins than most other sectors. Confounding this situation is the fact that pharmaceutical companies receive significant subsidization from the U.S. government, both directly and indirectly. Directly through government grants for research and indirectly through funding of public universities that cooperate with pharmaceutical companies to create new products. If the company is genuinely concerned with financial solvency, perhaps it is time to reduce CEO pay and put some of those millions into developing new drugs.

Also important to recognize is why developing countries are unable to represent a suitable market to pharmaceutical companies. Many of the billions of people that would benefit from drugs for preventable diseases live on less than $1 a day, and nearly all that would benefit live on less than $2 a day. When basic sustenance is difficult to achieve, it is hardly likely that there will be sufficient out-of-pocket funds for vaccinations.

Also significant is that measures such as this fail to get at some of the core issues that create the problem in the first place. Issues such as for-profit medicine, which bring about the terrifying 10:90 divide: where 90% of investment in pharmaceuticals is directed toward diseases that affect only 10% of people in the world. Of course, this 10% are the wealthiest. This frightening discrepancy between those who need and those who have only shows further the moral bankruptcy under which we exist. This is an industry where the majority of products released are knock-off drugs that are about to lose their patent or drugs that closely emulate products put out by their competitors. A more democratic form of research and development of pharmaceuticals would be extremely beneficial worldwide. It seems the only people that are benefitting from the increasing concentration of pharmaceutical companies are those companies themselves. When large parts of the research are carried out in public universities, it makes it difficult to identify what role these pharmaceutical companies are really playing in facilitating a more healthy world.

*If anyone is unable to access the article linked above, let me know and I can provide a copy over email.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

I am currently finishing up a paper that discusses the issues and approach put forth by Amartya Sen in "Development As Freedom." The approach discussed in the book has been developed by Sen throughout his academic career. With the publication of the book, the capability approach gained significantly more recognition. Particularly interesting is the fact that it has sparked significant interdisciplinary debate, as well as a questioning of the development orthodoxy. The capability approach, in my estimation, represents a significant shift in terms of conceptualizing, as well as operationalizing development. This opinion is clearly shared by many others as the capability approach has spawned nearly 150 academic articles, as well as over 20 books in only the past two years. I would recommend the book to anyone as it represents an attempt by Sen to make the capability approach accessible generally, and in this pursuit, I think he succeeds admirably.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

World Trade Talks

World trade talks are set to begin in an attempt to resuscitate the current Doha round. As most will remember, the talks previously fell apart when the G-8 refused to bring their agricultural and other unfair subsidies onto the table. Many countries in the developed world were tired of the unfair burden that these subsidies placed on their populations. Farmers that are heavily subsidized in the G-8 are able to effectively dump their undervalued crops on the world market, destroying the possibilities of local farmers to compete. While on the surface, lower prices may seem like a positive fact for developing countries, the ramifications are actually quite negative. In most developing countries, rural areas are the most impoverished and these subsidies only serve to further decrease the ability of rural farmers to earn enough to support themselves.

While the bastions of neoliberalism continue to preach that free trade is the panacea to world problems, it is important to note that their actions indicate that this is just rhetoric. The most important thing for groups such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is making the investors that rely on their recommendations happy. In large part this is due to the revolving door of companies and supranational instutions. Many of those hired by these international bodies come from the large corporations that benefit from neoliberalism and after serving in their positions, move back to the private sphere and profit from the decisions they made while at the IMF and WB.