Blue collars find a voice

Chicago Sun Times, January 25, 2000

BY JOHN O'SULLIVAN

B ig Media pipesuckers always are lamenting "sound-bite politics" and calling for political candidates to address serious issues in a serious way. Yet when Patrick J. Buchanan devoted a thoughtful speech to the topic of immigration policy last week, he received almost no coverage.

In part, that was because his speech was serious. Its analysis--that America should admit as many immigrants as it can assimilate without risk of balkanization--was persuasive. Its proposals--notably, reducing legal immigration to 300,000 new entrants a year--were moderate.

And its tone--which praised the contributions of hardworking immigrants to American prosperity--was, ahem, sensitive. Nothing there to justify such headlines as "Pitchfork Pat Lashes Latinos." No inflammatory sound-bites. Hence zero coverage.

But there also may be other forces at play here. In his recent book, Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, (Princeton University Press), Harvard economist George J. Borjas, himself a Cuban immigrant, points out that mass immigration is among other things a class issue. It benefits better-off Americans and damages low-paid and unskilled ones.

Drawing heavily on Borjas' analysis, Buchanan made this point a central argument in his speech: "If you are likely to employ a gardener or housekeeper, you may be financially better off. If you work as a gardener or housekeeper, or at a factory job in which unskilled immigrants are rapidly joining the labor force, you lose. . . . Mr. Borjas estimates that one half of the relative fall in the wages of high school graduates since the 1980s can be traced to directly to mass immigration. . . . Americans today who do poorly in high school are increasingly condemned to a low-wage existence, and mass immigration is a major reason why."

If this is an interesting way of looking at mass immigration, it is also an unusual take on the American working class. When was the last time you heard a politician judge a major national issue from the standpoint of blue-collar interests? It almost never happens. Indeed, politicians in both major parties often argue, with an astonishing lack of embarrassment, that we need high levels of immigration to power our high-tech industries because Americans kids just can't hack it.

In effect this writes off millions of hardworking Americans. Instead of improving U.S. high schools, we import clever people. And anyone who questions this approach and suggests that American elites should place the economic interests of these fellow Americans above those of even talented and virtuous foreigners is liable to be dismissed as a "nativist" even if, like me or Borjas, he is himself an immigrant.

Steve Sailer of Chicago, president of the Internet-based Human Biodiversity Institute, argues that this sort of attitude reflects the little-noticed new class divisions of American society. Intelligence testing, SATs and merit-based selection procedures of American education cream off the ablest children of blue-collar and poor families and send them to college, including the Ivy League, and onto high-status, high-income jobs.

Once they might have become blue-collar leaders in labor unions; today they are more likely to sit on the management side of the table--from which position they are likely to share the interest of other better-off Americans in the low-paid maids, nannies and gardeners made available by mass immigration. Indeed, by championing the cause of these immigrants--which is not hard to do since they really are decent, hardworking people--the first-generation new class elitists are even able to paint a patina of idealism on their economic self-interest.

As Sailer notes, the media elite itself is very much part of this new elitist mind-set. National newspapers, magazines and network news programs tend to be written by Ivy Leaguers who face almost no competition from immigrants themselves but who want cheap child care and interesting ethnic restaurants. Naturally they see little or no "problem" with immigration. Its impact on them is entirely beneficial. In an increasingly stratified society they know few blue-collar workers whose lives have been damaged by it. They have no incentive to probe more deeply into the economic relationships established by Borjas. And they can keep any nagging doubts at bay by denouncing as racists and xenophobes those like Peter Brimelow, author of the readable but profound polemic Alien Nation, who draw their attention to the problem.

When Buchanan's speech failed to fit this stereotype, it hit the spike and immigration remained the great unaddressed problem of national politics. Yet millions of Americans sense it is depriving them of the American dream. They have not spoken yet. One day they will.