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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Book Review: Hilarie Gamm’s “Billions Lost” sadly has nothing useful or progressive to say

You’ll often hear, in ref­er­ence to cur­rent events, that the Repub­li­can Par­ty has its ori­gins in the anti-slav­ery move­ment of the mid-nine­teenth century.

This is, strict­ly speak­ing, true, but bowdlerized.

The best an abo­li­tion­ist Lib­er­ty Par­ty can­di­date ever achieved for Pres­i­dent was in 1844 with 2.3% of what was then the pop­u­lar vote.

The Free Soil Par­ty was anti-slav­ery but only in so much as it dis­liked enslaved peo­ple. It got 10.1 per­cent in 1848.

The Know Noth­ing Par­ty did­n’t care for slav­ery but what real­ly got it going was anti-immi­grant nativism, con­tem­porar­i­ly aimed at Irish and Ger­man Catholics. In 1856, it got 21.5% of the vote. By then, the Repub­li­can Par­ty was com­pet­ing on a slo­gan of “Free soil, free sil­ver, free men.”

Abra­ham Lin­coln won the pres­i­den­cy as a Repub­li­can with less than 40% of the pop­u­lar vote four years later.

Billions Lost, by Hilarie T. Gamm

Hilar­ie T. Gamm’s Bil­lions Lost: The Amer­i­can Tech Cri­sis and the Roadmap to Change (Paper­back, Cre­ate­Space Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­ing Platform)

At that time, most white Amer­i­cans who were inclined to view slav­ery as a prob­lem chose to blame the enslaved peo­ple for the results of their exploita­tion rather than their slavers.

Many native-born felt com­pelled to recoil at the con­di­tions recent immi­grants expe­ri­enced in the depths of pover­ty around them but despised such peo­ple for endur­ing it.

If you’ve ever resent­ed a home­less per­son for smelling of mildew next to you at a cof­fee shop rather than the cir­cum­stances that led to them being out­side in damp and drea­ry con­di­tions, you’ll under­stand how insid­i­ous and unhelp­ful this impulse is.

In what might unfair­ly be called the Ore­gon View, there has always been a strain of the left that comes to the con­clu­sion that Amer­i­ca’s prob­lems can be solved by align­ing against the vul­ner­a­ble and forcibly expelling or fur­ther mar­gin­al­iz­ing them.

Make it ille­gal for black Amer­i­cans to stay in the area with­out hav­ing to suf­fer vio­lence. Make it ille­gal for Chi­nese Amer­i­cans to return to the home they’ve made for decades, even if the per­son just cre­at­ed the most pop­u­lar cher­ry in the Unit­ed States. The fruit of his inge­nu­ity and hard­work — Ah Bing’s name­sake — could stay, but not the per­son. Ore­gon is an easy tar­get, but so would be Taco­ma.

Or any sun­down town. Or any­where in Amer­i­ca at any time.

This post is, by the way, a book review of Hilar­ie T. Gam­m’s Bil­lions Lost: The Amer­i­can Tech Cri­sis and the Roadmap to Change. It’s a bad book, and in any just world that val­ued empa­thy, it would be uni­ver­sal­ly be regard­ed as such.

Instead we live in this one, and I know it has some appeal.

A coun­try is more than an econ­o­my. We’re a civic soci­ety.”

That’s the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for­mer Don­ald Trump favorite Steve Ban­non would give for keep­ing non­white immi­grants out of the Unit­ed States, even when they’re con­tribut­ing a net gain in any mea­sur­able eco­nom­ic sense.

Good on him for avoid­ing all dis­sem­bling to get right to the heart of white nation­al­ism, though. It’s not the legal­ism or the process or the idea of a net drain: it’s that the only peo­ple he wants here are white, cul­tur­al­ly “Judeo”-Christians.

Gamm at least starts from a place of greater sym­pa­thy because the sup­posed sub­ject and tar­get of Bil­lions Lost is the H‑1B visa pro­gram.

The spe­cial­ty occu­pa­tions that tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers are sup­posed to be fill­ing aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly so spe­cial at all. The pro­gram gives cor­po­ra­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in the tech indus­try, a strong club to beat domes­tic tech work­ers with, some­thing they’re keen to do after the class-action law­suit Viz­caino v. Microsoft of the late 1990s gained domes­tic work­ers more protections.

This first por­tion of the book tracks the his­to­ry of the U.S. tech indus­try, show­ing how reg­u­la­tions requir­ing employ­ers to treat their Amer­i­can work­ers fair­ly sent com­pa­nies down a path of least resis­tance look­ing for work­ers eas­i­er to exploit and mis­treat. It acknowl­edges how ris­ing edu­ca­tion stan­dards, glob­al­ly but par­tic­u­lar­ly in Eng­lish-speak­ing India, cre­at­ed an alter­na­tive work­force will­ing and able to do work more cheap­ly with less strin­gent protections.

So, the legit­i­mate prob­lem and more fun­da­men­tal scari­ness rep­re­sent­ed by a Y2K cat­a­stro­phe was an excuse to uti­lize a lot of tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers to fix one big prob­lem, and cor­po­ra­tions con­tin­ued to use such work­ers long after that emer­gency had dis­ap­peared. The cor­po­ra­tions ben­e­fit­ting most from the pro­gram made no noise about stop­ping it, and in the 21st Cen­tu­ry, there were no unions of any strength to make noise. No issues there.

But it’s at this cross­road after iden­ti­fy­ing a prob­lem that pro­gres­sives and reac­tionar­ies fun­da­men­tal­ly diverge.

The YouTube cre­ator Olly Thorn pro­vid­ed an opti­mistic frame for why the left, gen­er­al­ly, has the stronger case for the future. A pro­gres­sive sees the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in a sys­tem, and looks for ways to make com­mon cause with each oth­er against some oppres­sive force, to be stronger by mutu­al support.

A reac­tionary looks for ways to use some­one else’s weak­ness as a way to define the vul­ner­a­ble as sep­a­rate from and less­er than a more self-suf­fi­cient group that the audi­ence of course always imag­ines being includ­ed in.

That’s where this book takes its turn into a bad trip, and where the Amer­i­can left has tra­di­tion­al­ly struggled.

Gamm says that restrict­ing for­eign work­ers is the best solu­tion to help them not be exploit­ed, but real­ly to help native U.S. tech work­ers like her.

This is in con­trast to the more nat­ur­al solu­tion: empow­er those new res­i­dents to be inde­pen­dent and give them the sort of pro­tec­tions that would align with oth­er U.S. labor­ers — that is, to be able to regard them­selves as ful­ly American.

Gamm dis­abus­es the read­er of any idea that this is an inno­cent mis­take or one born of harm­less igno­rance by mak­ing it unmis­tak­ably clear she dis­likes the idea of F‑1 visas and for­eign stu­dents in Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, too.

Here are some of the com­plaints Gamm gives for why uni­ver­si­ties should accept few­er non-native students:

  1. An anec­dote from one Chi­nese stu­dent that “nine­ty per­cent” of Chi­nese stu­dents like to hang out with fel­low Chi­nese stu­dents instead of social­iz­ing with oth­er groups because they have noth­ing in common.
  2. A ref­er­ence to a 2005 New York Times arti­cle sum­ma­rized as for­eign grad­u­ate stu­dents hav­ing accents that are too thick and don’t speak Eng­lish well enough to teach Americans.
  3. A regur­gi­ta­tion and exten­sion of a Mal­colm Glad­well argu­ment in “Rice Pad­dies and Math Tests” that the cul­ture of Chi­nese rice farm­ing and accep­tance of author­i­tar­i­an­ism means the for­eign stu­dents have a nat­ur­al predilec­tion for STEM fields that favor rote mem­o­riza­tion and prac­tice, some­thing an Amer­i­can focus on “inge­nu­ity” and his­to­ry of mechan­i­cal corn farm­ing can’t fair­ly com­pete with.
  4. This direct quote: “Math, sci­ence, and com­put­er majors hold less appeal for those mar­riage-mind­ed het­ero­sex­u­al young men who hope to meet a poten­tial mate for life dur­ing their col­lege studies.”

That’s a lit­er­al, if tossed-off, argu­ment the book makes, which, if we’re not in 14 words ter­ri­to­ry yet, we’re def­i­nite­ly see­ing the road signs for the off-ramp to it.

This is, again, not a good book, but that’s a lucky thing, because it would not have been so hard to sand off these rough edges and make it the sort of book oth­er polit­i­cal fig­ures on the left would have felt the impulse to con­duct apolo­get­ics for as not nec­es­sar­i­ly racist, just reflect­ing the sort of thing white peo­ple nat­u­ral­ly feel uncom­fort­able about.

With­out the ref­er­ences to par­tic­i­pa­tion tro­phies, lazy mil­lenials, and full-throat­ed endorse­ment of char­ter schools, this could have been the sort of book that lulled unsus­pect­ing folk into think­ing it had any­thing use­ful to say.

Luck­i­ly, Gamm includ­ed all of that and also ped­dled a con­spir­a­cy that Chi­nese stu­dents are all spies tak­ing Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty back to the Mid­dle King­dom to make fools of us all.

This is an aside in an already digres­sive piece, but how unin­formed do you have to be to exam­ine the rela­tion­ship between oth­er nations and the U.S. uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem and not rec­og­nize it as the great­est force of soft pow­er we possess?

It’s not even fair. Repressed, wealthy for­eign nation­als come to U.S. col­leges and expe­ri­ence the best years of their life because they can surf an uncen­sored Inter­net and express diver­gent polit­i­cal opin­ions with impuni­ty — oh and they’re also young, as healthy and attrac­tive as they’ll ever be.

For the lit­er­al entire­ty of the rest of their lives, these for­mer stu­dents will look back on their time in the Unit­ed States as the best years they ever had, and a not-insub­stan­tial por­tion will pine to move back and recap­ture their lost nostalgia.

If you want to improve the H‑1B pro­gram, give work­ers the sort of visa that allows them to work any­where they want to, union­ize just like the native-born, and ful­fill their aspi­ra­tions to become Americans.

If you want to make U.S. col­leges more wel­com­ing to already-Amer­i­can stu­dents, fund pub­lic ter­tiary edu­ca­tion so they don’t have to go into crip­pling debt to pur­sue STEM fields deep­er. This is not difficult.

You don’t restrict who gets to come to Amer­i­ca: you expand what it means to be an Amer­i­can. You actu­al­ly help peo­ple instead of pun­ish­ing some Oth­er you’ve just defined. If your roof leaks when it rains, fix the roof.

I’m not as opti­mistic as Olly Thorn. I think folks will always find it eas­i­er to shore up their inse­cu­ri­ties by point­ing at some­one else and argu­ing some essen­tial qual­i­ty of those peo­ple makes them wor­thy of scorn, Pap Finn-style.

But we can do better.

We have to do bet­ter. Not just for tech work­ers we think can help us in the Brain Drain sense but for those we despise for their weak­ness and assume can’t help any­one. Ban­non has already admit­ted the dis­tinc­tion is irrel­e­vant. We should too.

A tem­po­rary-for­eign-work­er pro­gram that allows and requires those work­ers to work only for one com­pa­ny in order to make mon­ey — and be deport­ed if the com­pa­ny says they broke the terms of their con­tract — is not slav­ery, but the choice of des­ti­tu­tion for a per­son and their fam­i­ly set against sex­u­al harass­ment, phys­i­cal abuse­ment, or fatal ill­ness is not a fair one for work­ers to have to make.

That’s for any work­ers, from any place work­ing any where in America.

That’s where our empa­thy ought to be.

That’s where our focus on pro­vid­ing guar­an­tees ought to remain.

Jesus said: “As you do to the least of these, you did to me.” We have to make sure that’s impor­tant to us whether we’re talk­ing about the one from Nazareth or Michoacán, and whether a Lee was born in Shang­hai or Mobile.

We have to do the work of climb­ing on the roof to fix the leak, not just shove some­one out into the rain to feel dri­er by comparison.

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One Comment

  1. Sure, close your eyes to the wide­spread abuse of cit­i­zens and for­eign work­ers in the name of cor­po­rate profit. 

    Talked with one H‑1B work­er who said he knew they were talk­ing jobs from cit­i­zens. Said his promised paid room, board, and trans­porta­tion con­sist­ed of a one-bed­room apart­ment shared by four work­ers, rice, and 6 AM bus rides to a US tech cor­po­ra­tion in exchange for 80–100 hour work weeks and phys­i­cal threats against his fam­i­ly in India, whom he had not seem in six months, when he protest­ed con­di­tions. Clear­ly you also believe both and for­eign cit­i­zens should be equiv­a­lent in the eyes of our US gov­ern­ment. Indeed, giv­en pref­er­en­tial tax treat­ment, paid high­er edu­ca­tion, etc. clear that you believe for­eign cit­i­zens should be prop­er­ly ele­vat­ed above our own. Any and all inde­pen­dent stud­ies have con­firmed there is no “skills short­age”. This is a bald-faced lie prop­a­gat­ed by cor­po­rate lob­by­ists and their media shills. Do not be mis­tak­en, this is about cheap labor and cor­po­rate prof­its – at the expense of our nation and cit­i­zens. And, least you have any doubts, the game has now expand­ed under new guise, Time to open your eyes.

    # by Hilarie Gamm ("No Gig") :: November 28th, 2018 at 10:46 PM
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