Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Immigration Generation Gap, and Some Free Association on the Subject

The NY Times today had an interesting article on the generational divide on attitudes towards immigration. I don't think many would find it surprising to learn that younger people are more accepting of it.

What interested me however was this:
...baby boomers and older Americans — even those who fought for integration — came of age in one of the most homogenous moments in the country’s history.

Immigration, which census figures show declined sharply from the Depression through the 1960s, reached a historic low point the year after Woodstock. From 1860 through 1920, 13 percent to 15 percent of the country was foreign born — a rate similar to today’s, when immigrants make up about 12.5 percent of the country.

But in 1970, only 4.7 percent of the country was foreign born, and most of those immigrants were older Europeans, often unnoticed by the boomer generation born from 1946 to 1964.

Here's the free association bit. While American history isn't my strongest subject a basic impression I have of it is that between the 50s and the 80s we pursued a number of highly wasteful policies. It isn't that we didn't have achievements, civil rights and the space race come to mind, but we performed rather poorly in long range investments in many sectors of the economy and public policies did little to maintain infrastructure and growth. Particularly I'm thinking of the gutting of our rail system and suburbanization both encouraged, admittedly indirectly, by government policy. On the whole, we seemed to be coasting during these decades squandering our resources on adventures abroad (Vietnam, Korea was expensive but necessary) and poorly thought out domestic initiatives while failing to think long term and invest our resources in long range projects.

Perhaps the lack of immigration had something to do with this. When we've been at our best, we've been capable of borrowing successful policies from all over the world as well as using our own inventiveness to improve upon these ideas or think of new ones. During this earlier time period however, we seemed to turn inward and focus less on what we could get from the rest of the world. Perhaps this was simply because our relative power was at its peak, the Soviet Union was a somewhat exaggerated threat from the 50s on, so we felt we had less to learn from everyone else. In any case though, these are decades that I'm not sad I missed, we failed to use our assets to provide well for our future. I'm more hopeful about the future but to seize it we have to reject what we were during these years and embrace what we were when our country was more diverse and more open to change.

Which is just another example of the generation gap. I reject the notion that these earlier decades marked a great time for our country, our greatness was too much the result of others' decline than our own powers. Those who would like to go back to how we were are ignoring the actual context of why we were at our peak. To get back to the primacy we held during those decades will be achieved not by seeking to return to what our country was then but by displaying the ability to change through openness and flexibility that we had in the years previous to the 50s that lay the groundwork for those years. We should embrace returning to earlier levels of immigration as a benefit, not as a threat.

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