Making America great again, Buyer's remorse and the president-elect

This campaign year has been unusually heavy on nostalgia and worries that our nation’s best days are behind us. In a widely cited Pew Research Center poll, 46 percent of voters said that life has gotten worse for “people like them” over the past 50 years, and Republican presidential-elect Donald J. Trump based his campaign on a promise to make the United States “great again.”

I can appreciate the disorientation caused by social change. In the 1970s, I grew up in a neighborhood just north of Boston that could serve as an example of the good old days. It was more urban than the television town of Mayberry or the settings of Norman Rockwell paintings, but it was a place where neighbors looked after each other, where kids could play in the street and walk to school without fear and where families had friendly rivalries over who put up the best Christmas decorations. Our neighbors included a police officer, the friendly owner of a coffee shop in the nearby business district and a woman who amazed us with her singing ability at the annual Italian festival honoring St. Rocco.

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The houses in the neighborhood look much the same now, but where it was once mostly Irish and Italian, it is now largely an immigrant community, with new Asian and Middle Eastern residents. About half the conversations on the street are in languages other than English.

What accounts for the change? The government had nothing to do with it, nor did political correctness. What happened is that when my generation grew up, we did not want to live in my neighborhood anymore. The houses, many of them double- or triple-deckers requiring frequent paint jobs, were too old and did not have enough bathrooms. The driveways could not accommodate separate cars for everyone over 16. Our neighbor’s coffee shop did not have the low prices or wide selection of sugary treats found at Dunkin’ Donuts, and the two nearby Catholic churches had tiny parking lots, which created frustrating bottlenecks when people raced to leave after Mass.

My generation preferred to raise families (with fewer children) in newer, much bigger houses near the highways and shopping malls. Front porches were out, traded for identical lawns and for sprawling backyards that afforded privacy from pesky neighbors. Sidewalks were unnecessary when everyone drove everywhere, and there was no good reason for an adult to be wandering around without a car anyway. The neighborhood I grew up in got grayer and emptier, and the city’s downtown died, one store closing at a time.

But my hometown must have good bone structure. It stayed safe and intact, and in the new century it attracted new residents. It is, after all, still a good place to raise a family, with a grand old public library and a subway line into Boston. Immigrants began to fix up downtown buildings and open shops and restaurants, many with Chinese or Arabic signs. The old-fashioned coffee shop is long gone, but now people congregate over bubble tea, and young men in white robes walk together to services at the Islamic center. The neighborhood is not better or worse than when I grew up, but it is reassuring that a sense of community has been restored.

There have been a lot of changes in the United States over the past century that seem to have been imposed upon us—most notably, the collapse of the manufacturing sector, which wiped out employment opportunities in entire cities and counties, and an increasingly distant and unresponsive political system. But we have gone for other big changes with gusto (to borrow a word from the 1970s commercials urging us to stock up on Schlitz beer). We largely chose to live farther and farther apart from each other—both literally and figuratively—and to buy stuff from big-box stores or Amazon rather than from shop owners who live down the street. Social research now tells us that having fewer opportunities for face-to-face meetings with our neighbors is causing loneliness and depression. But we chose to close out the world with earbuds and to watch TV and listen to music alone rather than participate in our communities. No one came into our country to make us do these things.

Maybe our nostalgia for “better days,” and the unfortunate bitterness toward immigrants and younger Americans that so often surfaced this year, is simply a case of buyer’s remorse. 

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Lisa Weber
1 year ago
I do not think our best days are behind us, but I do not see a tendency to look forward to the future with hope. Instead of net-zero energy buildings with solar power and electric cars (or good public transportation), we are acting like the "good old days" really existed and we need ever more mining of fossil fuels. The safety of neighborhoods when I was younger was related to the fact that people tended to stay in one house for years. They knew the neighbors and watched out for them. The neighborhoods were mixed in age and had older people who were actually home a lot of the time. That also created safety for everyone. TV and other forms of virtual reality have enriched our lives in some ways, but they can carry the price of becoming disconnected from the reality of your own life. They also tend to present the idea that there is a perfect reality somewhere and that is not true. I don't have buyer's remorse in this election, but my bet is that a lot of Trump supporters will before this is all over.
Charles Erlinger
1 year ago
Reference your sentence: "There have been a lot of changes in the United States over the past century that seem to have been imposed upon us—most notably, the collapse of the manufacturing sector, which wiped out employment opportunities in entire cities and counties, and an increasingly distant and unresponsive political system." During the recent election campaign Mr. Trump never missed a chance to blame certain unemployment problems in the United States on illegal immigration. If he mentioned legal immigration in this connection at all, references are difficult to find. Moreover, Mr. Trump’s popularity has been directly related to this stand on illegal immigration. The popularity has widely been attributed to the uneducated white male population suffering the loss of both low-skilled and skilled jobs mostly in traditional mineral extractive and manufacturing industries concentrated in Appalachia and the Middle West. There is a case to be made that his popularity might well have been equally great among educated but unemployed, under-employed, or underpaid, males and females of all races in possession of degrees at all levels in the science and technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM fields). Finding these unhappy persons might be a quicker and easier process if one looked first at individuals with these backgrounds aged 35 and over. Although not confined solely to this age group, these people are feeling arguably the greatest impact of the H1b visa laws enacted in the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations. These are the people with family obligations, who have accumulated the most expertise in their fields, and who normally would be entering their period of greatest value to their employers. They would reasonably be expecting concomitant reward, if the job market were a free market. It is not. No one knows how many foreign high tech workers are currently working in the U.S., certainly not the U.S. government itself. Academic and not-for-profit entities have researched the issue and have estimated that the number is somewhere between 650,000 and 850,000. Various news accounts in recent years have reported that U.S. companies engaged in replacement of U.S. workers with foreign workers but aside from that possibility is the obvious situation in which the hiring of foreign contract workers essentially takes their jobs off the market as far as U.S. workers are concerned. While these visa laws might well have been enacted with the best of intentions, and with confidence that built in limitations would be sufficient to protect U.S. citizens with professional qualifications similar to, if not superior to, those that qualify foreign workers for the H1b visas, the fact is that the laws were soon found, by their corporate sponsors and lobbyists, to be a gold mine of personnel cost savings. As a consequence, any attempt to revisit these laws for any purpose other than expanding the numbers of foreign workers admitted to the U.S. under protection of these visas is swiftly suffocated by Congress subservient to the lobbyists working for the corporate advocates of the laws. And although one might suppose that the corporate advocates are Silicon Valley and other West Coast high tech legends, one would quickly learn that there is just as strong a corporate advocacy group in other areas, such as large money center and regional banks, insurance companies with national and international reach, on-line retail merchandisers and their collaborative support networks such as transportation and delivery companies, and many, many other types of businesses. The original H1b visa law was enacted to fill jobs in the high tech industry and in the high tech departments of many other kinds of industry, as described above. It ostensibly took the place of a prior provision which had granted visas to “aliens of distinguished merit and ability.” So the purpose of the “replacement” provision involved a fundamental repurposing, from attracting world-class talent to supplying lots of workers. The visas are for six years but can be extended yearly after that if a visa holder has started the process of obtaining a green card for permanent residence status. The annual cap for granting new H1b visas is currently 65,000 per year, and this cap is contested constantly in Congress. In 2004 the industry advocates along with some in the higher education establishment succeeded in persuading congress to add a new category to this visa law, granting these visas to 20,000 foreign students per year who graduated from U.S. universities. These individuals are often persuaded to apply for green cards, and the incentive to hire those who have begun the permanent residency application process is even greater than the incentive to hire plain H1b visa holders, because green card applicants cannot switch employers at will, thus saving employers the considerable cost of annual high tech workforce turnover. The generalized argument in favor of the current, or even larger, supply of foreign high tech workers is that there are not enough sufficiently trained or proficient U.S. workers to supply the demand. This argument, at the generalized level, is false, although there are certain specialties, the temporary supply for which is short. It is important to remember, however, that because of the large presence of foreign workers driving down both the availability and desirability of high tech work for U.S. students, there is a downward trend in U.S. students pursuing graduate degrees in STEM disciplines, thus making the industry claim of a shortage a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the first suppliers to U.S. industries of foreign high tech workers were Indian Information Technology international contractors. These continue to supply much of the H1b visa workforce, but U.S. technology companies hire large numbers of foreign technology workers as contractors through green card sponsorship, which can be subject to certain abuses. Both programs involve paying contract foreigners on average about 20% lower than the prevailing wage for comparable U.S. workers, thus tending to lower the offered wage to any U.S. applicant with comparable capability, according to many estimates. The contract nature of the employment of most of these foreign workers forces them to be highly mobile, which fits nicely into the movement of U.S. industries into the adoption of “just in time workforce” but which has been a disaster for U.S. citizens of similar or greater qualifications who are competing, with diminishing success, for the jobs that these foreign workers are filling. Compelled to compete not only in terms of education and expertise, which is very manageable, but also in terms of the nomadic lifestyle characteristic of the foreign contract worker, this foreign contract worker situation has separated families, and destroyed normal planning factors ranging from retirement planning to schooling plans for children, to spousal career plans. It has enabled corporate employers to extend the contract worker concept far beyond the applicability to limited-life projects such as new developments which have a beginning and ending date, to ongoing operations work required to maintain and update existing systems. There is a wealth of reference literature on this subject. Some samples, which incorporate their own extensive references, are: “The H-1B Controversy,” by Norman Matloff, The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Magazine Volume 49 Number 7, July 2016, pp. 88-93. “Estimating the Size of the H-1B Population in the U.S.,” by David North, Center for Immigration Studies, February 2011.

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