Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bernie Sanders, Populist Economics, and Immigration

The latest contribution to all the BernieBuzz was Senator Sanders recent interview with Ezra Klein. Though Klein covered a wide range of subjects, the bit that seemed to pop out the most (based on a non-scientific cursory look at various media and political sites) was Sanders' position on immigration.  Sanders was asked about his views on "open borders."  Sanders replied "that's a Koch brothers proposal...that's a right-wing proposal."

My reaction to this statement was the same as Klein's, to wit: "really"?

Sanders then proceed to give what was, as far as I can tell, the standard populist economic argument against immigration, i.e., that it increases the labor supply, and, hence, lowers wages.

Once again, my reaction was "really?"

It's been obvious for some time now that, despite how he identifies, Sanders is not a "socialist." His position is closer to that of a "social democrat," in the manner of the Scandinavian countries he so admires.    That has never troubled me in particular. I like his unapologetic rallying cries against economic inequality.  But this apparent anti-foreigner stance is another matter.  Again, it is no great surprise that Sanders is not really a socialist (let alone an internationalist.) Still, one might think that someone who identifies as "socialist" would not recycle the language that blames foreigners for "taking our jobs."  Rather, one might expect a socialist to call for solidarity among all workers, regardless of national origin.  It is of course the case that the capitalist class will take advantage of increased labor supply to depress wages.  But this "reserve army of the proletariat" is, after all, an army, and, even if they will not start a revolution in the near future, one might imagine that they could collectively bargain.  Indeed, some unions do precisely that, i.e., organize immigrants. Isn't this the obvious solution to an increase in the labor supply? To organize?   Even within the confines of trade unionism (never mind something like, say, the Wobblies, with whom Sanders, given his portrait of Eugene Debs on his wall, should be familiar?)

I find it exceptionally strange that Bernie Sanders, who is so insistent on "organizing" as a political strategy (as he says himself in his interview with Klein), might not see this. Instead, he doubles down, and says that restricting immigration is necessary to protect American jobs. What kind of socialist blames decreased wages and unemployment on the immigrant sector of the working class rather than the capitalist class?  It's bizarre.

Now, to be fair, I am writing this post only in the middle of attempting to discern Sanders' position on immigration.  Evidently, he does favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and generally supports immigration reform, including President Obama's executive orders protecting undocumented workers.   But he has also steadfastly opposed various "guest worker" immigrant programs, on the grounds of protecting American jobs.

This position does not strike me (at first blush) as intellectually coherent.  What Sanders giveth, he then appears to taketh away. Relying on supply and demand logic (and ignoring the possibility of organizing workers regardless of national origin), Sanders should be opposed to any relaxation of immigration laws. But he is not.

Now, it is possible that there is some intellectual consistency in his position.  He could argue, for example, that granting citizenship to illegal aliens increases their bargaining power, thus strengthening the position of American workers.  Therefore, he might say, this is consistent with his opposition to "guest worker" programs, since "guest workers" are likely not to have significant bargaining power.  I do not know, though, whether he has actually made such an argument.

It strikes me as well that Bernie's have-cake-and-eat-it-too position on immigration is an awfully good demonstration of the dilemma the Democratic party has been in for decades, i.e., how to be the political home for immigrants and people of color, while still retaining the coveted "white working class." (In standard political vernacular, immigrants and people of color are not "working class." Their class status, while they work, is evidently invisible in this body politic.)  Candidate Obama solved this dilemma by (so the pundits say) creating a coalition of white, educated "liberals", people of color, and "independents."  Sanders cannot be expected to take precisely the same road to the White House -- nor, it has been reported, does he want to.  He wants to take his message of economic populism directly to the coveted "white working class" and win their vote.  To do so, however, it appears he needs to repeat some of the more unfortunate strands of said populism, i.e., nativism.  Whether he can maintain this position while running in a party whose leadership has championed  immigration reform, remains to be seen.  If he does get further in the primaries, he's going to need clearer answers to these kinds of questions. (Or, at least clearer than I have been able to discern so far.  I welcome any comments that might edify me here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment