Liberals for Scott Brown? Here’s why I think New Hampshire Democrats should vote against Jeanne Shaheen on Tuesday. I know this is a tough sell, and you’re maybe sick of any kind of sell. I’ll keep it short:
1. Neither party is speaking to the public’s deep legitimate fears. William Galston and others are right that
“more than five years after the official end of the Great Recession, Americans do not understand why their wages and incomes continue to stagnate. If globalization and technological change are good for our country, why have so many good jobs disappeared, replaced with worse ones?”
It’s easy to underestimate this fear. It’s not really a fear about economic growth. We’ve done reasonably well, growth wise, since Obama took office. True, our smartest economists are now worried that the we are looking at a slower-growth future. But the deeper worry is that even growth is not enough — a rising GDP, while great for Wall Street, no longer brings decent living standards for those who work every day in less-skilled jobs, especially jobs at the bottom of our economy (but even the jobs of many, like, say, bloggers, who thought they had valuable skills). “Something in the big frame moved.”**
Underneath this worry, I think, is an even deeper worry, at least for non-economists: Maybe our society just doesn’t need much labor anymore. You could stock a bookstore with dystopias about robots supplanting humans, who then don’t have much to do. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut is a good one. So far, these dystopias have never materialized. That doesn’t mean they won’t.
2. The cure isn’t an end to “gridlock”: If only the parties could work together … what would they do? More student loans, child care, unemployment comp — a standard Shaheenish agenda? It’s pathetically not up to the challenge. Infrastructure projects? I’m all for them, they might help stimulate growth, but they aren’t going to restore the old economy and the dignity of labor that came with it. The stock Republican agenda — fiddling with the tax code, Sarbanes-Oxley reform, regulatory easing etc. — isn’t any better. Deck chairs. A budget grand bargain? Great. But it’s not going to reverse the tidal undertow on wages.
Obamacare could help provide some structure in an uneasy time, if it weren’t designed and sold in such a flawed fashion that it seemed to be adding to the chaos rather than compensating for it. Even if that weren’t true, Obamacare, like Social Security, would only be a refuge from our economic anxiety, not a solution. (If Obamacare were the only issue, though, I’d be with Shaheen.)
3. We know one thing that works — tight labor markets. Remember the 90s — employers were so happy when anyone showed up for work that they would pay employees way more than they wanted to. That era seems like a brief respite from our long slough into the abyss — we haven’t had a really tight labor market since Clinton’s last months. The bosses are in the saddle. But there is one way to, albeit artificially, tighten the labor market even if economic growth, by itself, doesn’t: control the size of the labor force by controlling immigration. Supply of workers down, wages of workers up. Yes, this is an impingement on freedom — the freedom of people to move across borders and of employers to hire them. But it’s an organic part of nationhood and less of an interference with the efficiency of the market than traditional left mechanisms like the Wagner Act. Unlike collective bargaining, a tight labor market would benefit all workers, not just those lucky enough to be in a strong union (a small minority of the workforce for the foreseeable future).
Controlling the influx of unskilled workers, in particular, will concentrate the impact where we need it most, at the bottom of the labor market — including among young blacks and Latinos, and recent immigrants. Kids from all classes might start taking summer jobs again, in a reversal of the current vicious cycle, in which kids never take summer jobs (immigrants are cheaper) and never learn work habits, leading employers to conclude they’re hopelessly spoiled and demand additional imported guest workers.
4. Democrats desperately need an intra-party debate about immigration: Once upon a time populist Democrats like Sen. Byron Dorgan made these points (about the relation of mass immigration to wage levels). But they’ve disappeared from the active party ranks. Leftish pols like independent Bernie Sanders, and left economists like those at the Economic Policy Institute, understand the wage-lowering mechanics of immigration but don’t have the balls to oppose the party orthodoxy — which is totally committed to the La Raza, more immigration, amnesty-now-and-control-the-border-later-maybe-never agenda.
The only way to get the Democrats’ attention is if some of them actually lose their seats over the issue. Mark Pryor is one such cautionary example — like every Democrat, he voted for the Senate’s “Gang of 8” immigration bill, which would quickly legalize most of the 11 million illegals and double or triple legal immigration. Pryor seems to be about to lose his office to Tom Cotton, who has made Pryor’s vote, including its effect on wages, a major point of attack. That’s one. But Pryor’s from a red state.
5. Only a loss by someone like Shaheen would send the necessary message: Shaheen’s from a non-red Northern state. There’s a lot to admire about her. She’s a moderate Democrat, a successful governor — a Gary Hart campaign manager who recognized that old style Democratic policies weren’t cutting it any more. (“People rejected not just Jimmy Carter, they rejected all those Democratic programs ….”) But she hasn’t exhibited much in the way of quirky iconoclasm during the Obama years, including in her vote for the Gang of 8. Of course she is now stressing its border security provisions — BS, because everyone knows those provisions will come under withering assault from activists and their lawyers as soon as current illegals are legalized. They will never take effect (which is what happened with the last “comprehensive” reform bill, in 1986). The United States will never have a non-fantasy debate about how many immigrants to let in because we won’t control the number of immigrants who get in. This is the point Scott Brown is making.
6. It’s like Vietnam: Opponents of the Vietnam War (I was one, like most of my college cohort) spent a lot of time destroying the careers of perfectly decent liberal Democrats whose one sin was going along with Lyndon Johnson’s escalation. Hubert Humphrey is only the most obvious casualty. It was worth it because the war was a big mistake. Likewise, a massive immigration increase and the surrender of control over our borders is a big mistake. Yet unlike with Vietnam, there is virtually no debate within the party, certainly none at the Senate level. If a sturdy, popular figure like Shaheen loses her seat over it — in a swing state, to a longshot carpetbagger! — we are likely to get that debate.
It won’t be the end of Shaheen. She can run for something else, or join the administration. But it might be the end of the party’s poisonous discipline on immigration — and the beginning of at least a temporary fix for our deepest economic anxieties.***
** — Robbie Fulks, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” 1998
***– Eventually, of course, robots may put everyone out of work. Border control won’t solve that problem.