thoughts put into argument

December 29, 2006

I was surfing through‘s top opinion pieces of 2006, and came across this one on globalized labor. I really hope you will read this article below, then tell me what you think. I will post some comments later.

The case for globalized labor

It is economically and morally wrong for the world’s poor immigrants to be locked out of work in the richest countries.

by Stephan Faris

May 1, 2006 | My house in Nairobi had four large bedrooms and big windows that overlooked the cascading terraces of my garden. I had a nanny for my son, and a maid who cleaned the floors daily. She washed my laundry in a plastic tub. A watchman patrolled the grounds from sunset until dawn, and a daytime gardener tended to a vegetable patch and rows of tropical flowers. I afforded all this on a freelance journalist’s budget, paying each one of my four workers about $110 a month. When I went out for dinner, I often spent more on my main course than on my staff’s combined daily pay.

My lifestyle in Nairobi, where I lived until a year ago, was not unusual. Most of the Americans and Europeans I knew had similar arrangements. We drew Western salaries and paid African wages. We hired help because we could afford to, and they worked for us because they had little other choice. We offered competitive salaries by Kenyan standards, and they were too poor, unskilled and not well enough connected to wrangle a visa to countries where their jobs would be better paid.

Those who squirm at the idea of having servants should consider that there’s little moral difference between me and my maid, and those who buy a washing machine whose low cost depends on other people’s deflated wages. We’ve globalized capital, but not labor. A washing machine manufacturer can cash in on China’s low wages, but the Chinese factory worker is barred from taking a boat to seek better pay. He’s forced to sell his labor at much lower than the global market value. Both my maid and the factory worker would prefer to work for Western wages. But they can’t because of immigration restrictions. The biggest difference between me and the person with the washing machine is that the relationship between my clean laundry and my maid’s low wages was visible every day.

There’s a moral stink to granting different rights based on criteria that are becoming increasingly arbitrary. Mass immigration is knocking down ancient national identities. A Frenchman’s parents could easily be Moroccan or Senegalese. Being British does not exclude also being Kenyan, Jamaican or Pakistani. Even countries like Italy and Ireland, which until a generation ago were nations of emigrants, are seeing a blurring of their national identity as the children of Poles, Albanians and Senegalese stake their claims to their adopted countries.

The United States, a nation of immigrants since its founding, has an even weaker claim to keeping the gates shut. Should a baby born in Tucson, Ariz., automatically enjoy better opportunities than one born in Cancun, Mexico? My wife, who is Italian, gave birth in Rome. To pass my American citizenship to my son, I had to prove I had lived in the U.S. for at least five years, two of them after the age of 14. As part of the proof, the consular officer asked me about the vegetation in Arizona. Had I been female, the requirements would have been the same — unless I wasn’t married, in which case one year of continuous residence would have been enough. Is citizenship no different than a private club with arcane rules for admission?

From a global perspective, modern immigration policy isn’t much different than apartheid, with the passport replacing the racially classified pass card. The parallel isn’t accidental. Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid’s prime architect, modeled the system on national divisions. He wanted to achieve white supremacy by dividing South Africa into separate countries. In Verwoerd’s apartheid, blacks wouldn’t be denied the right to vote, travel, work or start a business. Not in the “homelands” they would be assigned to, anyway. In white-dominated South Africa, however, they would be treated like any other immigrant. The government even went as far as granting some of these regions their “independence,” stripping their residents of South African citizenship. In this view, the biggest difference between apartheid and our current system is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with existing ones.

From the standpoint of economic theory, liberalizing the flow of labor is no different from liberalizing trade. Both redistribute a nation’s wealth, with a net positive effect. The difference is that liberalizing trade disproportionately benefits richer countries, while easing immigration restrictions would help the world’s poor.

Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard, estimates that a worker in the first world earns 10 times more than someone with similar qualifications in the third. Even a light loosening of immigration restrictions, Rodrik argues, would provide a far bigger boost to the world’s poor than knocking down all the famously crippling agricultural subsidies. After all, for many in those countries, their biggest asset is their labor, and the current system forces them to sell it at much lower than market value. If free trade is a tide that lifts all boats, then so is free labor. But this time, the smallest boats get the biggest boost. If we’re going to ask countries to let in our goods, we should be willing to let in their workers.

Abolishing visa restrictions may be an impossible political sell. The poor and unskilled in Europe and America would confront competition from new immigrants, who would bring with their willingness to work a host of cultural change. But the same argument could have been made against the abolishment of slavery or apartheid, both of which took decades of work and preparation to overturn. It’s worth considering the scale of the inequality under the current system. The U.S. poverty line, defined by the Census Bureau in 2005 at $10,160 for individuals under 65, outstrips the per capita income of every African country. There’s no reason our poor should stand on the backs of people who can’t get enough to eat. If we don’t want them coming here, we should get serious about helping them over there.

Nor should globalizing labor necessitate dismantling labor laws. A nation can continue to protect its workers while letting new ones in. I now live in Rome, and still have a full-time nanny for my son. We invited her from China where my wife was working, using an exception in Italy’s immigration laws. She now works under Italy’s national contract for domestic laborers. We provide food and lodging, pay a Western salary and taxes that give her access to the national health plan. If she works in the country long enough she will qualify for a pension. Her disposable income this year will likely be higher than mine.


in summary

December 27, 2006

I really like Mexico.

Before I left about two weeks ago, I posted some questions at Lonely Planet’s very helpful Thorn Tree Forum. I decided to write a follow-up post, but it turned into something of a trip summary, so I decided to post it here instead.

I flew into Veracruz, a gulf coast town, looking for a little bit of sun and ocean time. The airport was small, but clean and organized and between directions from John (TT member RJ 1), my LP and some internet maps, we found our way around via Fermin’s white Ford truck. We stayed in the Fiesta Inn, which is basically on the harbor which was nice (we hadn’t seen each other in five months, so we wanted to stay somewhere a little luxurious) and the rest of the nights we were at his parents house in Libres.

Veracruz (the city) reeks something serious, but the weather was nice. We wandered around the centro, ate great seafood at La Suriana II and hit the aquarium. We also went on one of those boat tours out to what they call “Cancuncito” which was perhaps worth the $6 USD we paid, if nothing more than for the conversation I had with the boat driver while the the others searched for sea life on the glorified sandbar. My husband had fun, but this was just his second time in the ocean ever and I’m sure Mexico has endless better coastal areas to explore than Veracruz. I intend to see more of them very soon. =)

On our way to Libres, where Fermin is from, we headed south from Xalapa to go through Coatepec to Xico. I loved Xico. We went to the falls, ate some mole and bought some coffee and fruity liquers. I was surprised by how nice the town was. It’s nothing spectacular, but like some people said, worth wandering around for a few hours. Maybe there is money there from the coffee and the liquor businesses — the buildings seemed very well-kept, and it wasn’t touristy. We ate at a restaurant maybe eight blocks from the center called El Campanario, very good. A kid helped us park our car and then offered to watch it for us (we were sitting like 30 feet from the car) which was amusing, but my husband took a liking to him and invited us to eat with us on the patio of the restaurant. We ate mole, rice and some unique tamales with requeson and blue corn, and our new friend Uriel ordered a hamburger and fries. Ah, Mexico.

I was tempted to take back roads all the way through to Libres, but it was getting dark so we ended up heading north on the road we were on and then back to Libres via Xalapa, Perote and back north on 129 (I think). There are some really nice highways in Mexico, and there are some pretty bad ones. My husband has become a true Mexican driver, passing at will, comunicating with other drivers via his high beams, and searching in the dark for the dreaded surprise tope (speed bump). A random thing I noticed in a lot of the towns we drove through that the police (or maybe some gov’t security force?) have taken to wearing all black and carrying large rifles. Heading through Cuetzalan later in the week there were five of these armed guards chilling outside a local tourism office. They looked so inviting.

Anyway, another day we went to Cholula, site of a Spanish church built on top of a large, ancient pyramid. The wander through the excavated tunnels was impressive mostly because of how much you realized you couldn’t access, the amount still filled with dirt, perhaps hiding some interesting artifact. I shot pictures of Mexico’s main volcanos, Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, La Malinche and the Pico de Orizaba, from the courtyward around the church. We spent another day in central Puebla city, visiting the Museo del Revolucion, where a guide led us through the colonial house where some key Mexican revolutionaries were murdered in 1910. We also hit the Museo Amparo, which features a plethora of pre-colonial artifacts and euro-inspired painting, sculpture and furniture. Both were worthwhile. Finally, I bought some sweet-potato snacks (camote) and a piece of blue and white talavera pottery for my grandmother.

Yet another day we headed north to Cuetzalan, at the suggestion of TT member Larpman and my LP guide. Like Xico, Cuetzalan was very charming. However, we were under the impression it was 80 km from Libres. It may have been, but it took us more than two hours to get there — the road was VERY wind-y, we left too late in the morning, and despite having a very strong stomach, I was on the verge of carsickness. Had we not brought my brother-in-law and his girlfriend (whose dad didn’t know we had taken her out of Libres) we would have stayed the night in order to spend more time and not have to drive back at night.

We decided to hit the waterfalls and a cave that has a sign that says something like “Grutas Aventuras” just outside of town, but very unfortunately missed the ruins. We will definitely be back though, and probably stay at night or two. The cave was impressive. A little imp of a man was our guide, and for a total of US $4 we descended to what seemed like below sea level and then eventually huffed and puffed our way back up. The guide pointed out a few too many imaginary Virgen de Guadalupe images on the sides of stalagmites for my taste, but the whole experience was pleasantly surreal. A 10-year-old girl offered to lead us to the waterfalls as LP informed us would happen and on the way back we decided to forgo scaling down the wall of vines and took the long way, meandering behind humble houses and surrounded by coffee plants, kids playing soccer, tempting orange trees, roaming livestock, and back to town.

Libres, which is not an interesting town tourism-wise, does boast a nice view of the Pico de Orizaba from any number of roofs on a clear day. We wandered some nightly posadas, drank free ponche and mingled with my husband’s family and friends. I learned to make tortillas with my mother-in-law and ate healthy servings of homemade mole poblano, and a barbacoa made with a cross between a sheep and a goat humorously called a peliway (I have no idea how to spell this) in Spanish.

Pictures coming soon…

i think i like it

December 26, 2006

I think I’m done playing with this for today. Let me know what you guys think. There are more options with this theme, I can interchange the photos and play around somewhat with colors. I should have photos from Mexico and hopefully some posting soon.

still working

December 26, 2006

admin day – forgive the random look and posts

spring thoughts in beijing

December 26, 2006

This is a writing sample I started in the spring of 2002 after a trip back to Beijing and edited further for submission to Sun Magazine in early 2006. It was not published in the magazine, but I am very fond of it nonetheless.

It’s rush hour and I’m riding the loop of the Beijing subway during my spring break in 2002, two months before I will graduate from the University of Wisconsin, nine months since I left this pulsating organism of a city last. The recorded announcement tells me first in Chinese, then in English, what the next stop is. I remember the first time I rode the subway recognizing just a few words of the woman’s destination description. Now, with 14 months as a resident alien and two years of language classes in Madison trailing me, I have it nearly memorized. It doesn’t even sound like a foreign language anymore.

Heading south, between Chaoyangmen and Jianguomen, the subway car is especially crowded. Loads of people have piled on at the last few stops, heading to the interchange station at the next stop. I am the only non-Asian, and almost certainly the only non-Chinese in this car, probably on the whole train. I do my best, as always, to appear as comfortable and nonchalant as every other person in the car. Occasionally I catch the eye of a curious person interested in checking out a real, live foreigner. A map on the space above the door shows the route of the subway. I reread the names of the stops in Chinese characters and their romanized pronunciation for probably the hundredth time.

Based on tanned, leathery skin and a faded blue worker suit, I observe that a nearby man is probably from a rural area, one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Beijing looking for gainful employment. He sees me and manages to maneuver into a space about three feet away, directly in front of me. He proceeds to stare, unabashedly, mouth gaping, at me, the white girl. I try desperately not to laugh, then realizing that he might have a mental disability. I gaze casually at the advertisements and then look out the window as the walls of the underside of this sprawling Asian metropolis pass by. At Jianguomen, most of us get off the car. I lose my fascinated staring man in the crowd.

On this my third trip here, I affectionately call Beijing—with all its crowds and dust and air pollution—my third home. I really feel like I’ve come home. It’s inexplicable how a place so strange and dirty and at times unfriendly to foreigners could be my self-proclaimed third home. I’m a neat freak from the scarcely diverse Milwaukee suburbs and had never been out of the country before my first trip to China in 1999. Although I study journalism and worked for a year as the opinion editor at a campus newspaper, I wouldn’t have qualified in anyone’s book as “worldly.” Like most of my peers, I apathetically studied Spanish in high school, never really taking the time to learn to speak it well. Traveling always sounded like fun to me, but I didn’t have the money or desire to really pursue it. I remember studying Asian history and culture in 7th grade—and hating it passionately.

I’ve changed trains. I now head east, away from the center of the city. I always stand on the train, rarely taking a seat. Being surrounded by the people, conversations and culture of Beijing invigorates me. I can’t be sitting down for these moments, however mundane for everyone surrounding me. The train speeds up, rocks a bit, and the subway woman’s voice breaks through my focus on remaining upright. Yonganli, dao le. Eternal Peace Road stop—The site of Beijing’s foreign embassies, and a popular shopping district catering to foreigners.

In July 1999, during my first trip to Beijing and my first bargaining experience at the famed “Silk Alley” market, a shirt that read: “Never Forget May 8, 1999,” caught my attention. I thoughtlessly stared at the shirt, deciding this was the perfect time to try out my four-week-old Chinese. With false confidence, I tried to ask the vendor, a young man, what it meant. I was surprised that my harmless inquiry sparked agitation and the question “Ni shi na guo ren?”—What country are you from? Still clueless, I answered back, “Meiguo”—America, “beautiful land,” literally translated. My pride at understanding one sentence turned to complete confusion as he spouted off, now angrily, in rapid-fire Chinese. Realizing my inability to actually communicate, he switched to the universal language—hand signals. He made bomb gestures and noises and pointed back to the shirt. I remembered two months before in early May, when my mom had told me she didn’t want me to go to China this summer, because of the U.S.’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the protests at the embassy in Beijing. I suddenly wanted to disappear, apologize, proclaim my stupidity and ignorance. Unfortunately my baby Chinese now completely failed me. I mumbled “Excuse me, sorry” in both languages and left quickly. I had lost face, embarrassed myself, committed a large cultural error and angered a common person by my insensitivity. I had become the dense, ignorant American foreigner I never wanted to be.

Three years later, I meander the path of Silk Alley, observing and remembering. I quickly remember my distaste for the ignorant tourists – waving cash around, speaking far too loudly, and treating the shopkeepers like servants. From the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2001, when I studied in Beijing, this was generally a place I felt welcome to experiment with my budding Chinese skills. A foreigner who speaks Chinese here can get goods priced almost at what a Chinese would pay, brand-name parkas for $20, Gap sweaters for $5, Abercrombie khakis for $8. After my embarrassing incident in 1999, I never wanted to be that ignorant tourist again. I wanted to fit in as much as possible in my white skin, although my light hair and large nose would always give me away. I buy almost nothing on this trip. I’ve bought all the souvenirs I can manage in China. There’s nothing else I want, other than more time here, to exist, to understand why this place has me so bewitched.

Back on the train, this time headed back west, to the center of the city, in order to complete a full-circle around Beijing in my 10-day trip here. Tiananmen, dao le. I’ve arrived at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen Square to the rest of the world. It had been 12 years since the democracy protests, when hope, pain, crackdown and death had filled one of the world’s largest public squares. On any given day, police vans wait near the perimeter of the world’s largest urban square, waiting for the Falun Gong demonstrators to take their places, first in Tai chi-like positions, meditating and practicing special breathing, then, in the paddy wagon, arrested for their faith, taken away to who knows where.

Strolling Tiananmen Square the memories and experiences submerge my psyche like flood waters. My first time here, as a student-tourist, taking far too many pictures of my friends and I, Mao portrait in the background, the smoggy Beijing sky so pale a blue it was almost gray. As a student, biking past Tiananmen become a regular occurrence, but despite the frequency of passing, I never stopped feeling an emotional tug, imagining what had happened on these streets, years ago. One late night in 2001, as the end of the school year neared, my fellow ex-pat friends and I decided to bike to Tiananmen. It had to be at least midnight, extremely late in Beijing time. The streets were eerily empty, all the taxis and Volkswagen Santanas hidden away for the night. It was probably the least-populated version of Beijing any of us had experienced. We abandoned the bike lane for the middle of the road, some of the girls sidesaddle on the rack over the back wheel behind one of the guys, just like millions of Chinese girls rode every day. My roommate and close friend was mourning her father, whose death had brought her suddenly back to the States a few weeks before. She had returned to Beijing for a few days to pack her things and say goodbye to life in Beijing. Arriving at Tiananmen, we realized the square was literally closed for the evening. The 2760-meter perimeter was literally roped off and guarded by security. But we had gone to Tiananmen that night for the journey, to feel the breeze as we rode through the calm streets, enjoying one another’s company, not to see the landmarks for the umpteenth time.

Jishuitan, dao le. The stop for the university where I had studied, socialized, lived and experienced China. The campus hasn’t changed much since I left, except for the construction. Some buildings have been finished and opened, other ones are being torn down and rebuilt. Cheap laborers from the countryside climb all over the scaffolding, working behind the translucent green mesh put up to hide the progress. This mossy green fabric is ubiquitous in a Beijing that barely stays the same for five minutes. Construction goes on day and night in China. The sounds of hammers and cranes pierce the eerie quiet after the students’ strict 11:00 p.m. curfew. Floodlights, used to illuminate the emerging structure for the workers, shine into my hotel window several hundred yards away.

On foot now, I take the long walk from the subway stop to the alley that leads from campus to my old apartment. I come to an open lot just behind my building and am thankful to find things much the same. The couple that use this spot to sell fruits and vegetables out of a pick-up truck greet me, somewhat surprised by my return. Next to the truck, a dozen or so retired men have gathered, as usual, to play cards and talk. The vendor and his wife explain who I am, saying I studied at the university the year before, and then some of the card players recognize me too. I am touched. I head to buy my favorite iced tea from another neighborhood vendor who I had been friendly with. The woman greets me, excited, and offers me the usual without asking if it’s what I want. I smile, feeling very much at home.

in progress

December 26, 2006

I am working on my blog today, so you may see some strange layouts and things.

a greeting and my newest column

December 21, 2006

Hi friends,

I´m in Mexico, more details later, but I had a column published a few days ago and I thought you might enjoy reading it as well as the numerous comments I received.

Here is the link. Please feel free to add additional comments. =)