Progress and misery

Although the numbers are far from exact, the extent and the immediate causes of continued mass migration are well known. They are conflict/chaos in a number of Muslim countries, violence of a different kind along the routes the supply illegal drugs to the US, and poverty throughout Africa.

One picture of a drowned little boy, from among who knows how many have died on their way, along with unruly crowds at the Budapest railroad station, highlighted the tragedy that challenges the capacity of governments or people with good intentions.

Beyond what is pushing individuals and families to risk everything in hopes of finding a more peaceful place with better opportunities, are some underlying phenomena that affect not only the sources of the migration but also the places that the migrants see as better.

The irony is that things making the world better for many of us are making it a lot worse for many more. 

Prominent causes of what few governments seem prepared to cope with are the successes of modern medicine and technology.

What they have produced is a lot more people living a lot longer than they used to, but with globalization pushing industrial jobs from the First World to the Third, and so many things automated as to provide much less need for workers than in the past.

The problem is less apparent in Western Europe than in the US, where there already is a large underclass and cities with areas destroyed and vacant due to rioting and the departure of mass employers. Once China begins exporting cars to the US in large numbers, the problem is likely to worsen.

Population changes since World War II are important part of the story.

Between 1950 and 2012, world population almost tripled, from 2.5 to 7.1 billion; that of the US did a bit more than double, from 152 to 314 million, while that of Europe increased by only 35 percent, from 547 to 740 million. Within Europe, the more well to do countries of Western Europe are showing the least growth. Demographers are writing that they are falling below the rate of reproduction due to late marriages and small families.

My own home town of Fall River has gone through two waves of rusting. Its cotton mills began closing in the early part of the 20th century due to competition from the American South. Then the small clothing manufacturers that filled the empty mills and employed many people gave way to Chinese and other low cost competition in recent decades.

Fall River's population reached its peak in the Census of 1920, at 120,485; by 2010, it was down to 88,857.

Along with globalization, the US has suffered from its advances in high technology. Who needs typists or type setters when computers can move text directly from a writer to the press? Mail, record keeping, photography, architectural drafting, and much else have given way to what computers do better.

Even where socialists, social democrats, or US Democrats held sway, the drift is toward recognizing the economics of international competition, automation, rewards for accomplishment, and lesser concern for those who do not keep up. 

Safety nets remain in place, but they, too, are weakening under the pressure of numbers among us older folks. Medicine has allowed too many of us to draw too long on public sector pensions that politicians have been reluctant to downsize in keeping with actuarial realities. More workers are being moved to private pension schemes, where they have to make appropriate payments throughout their working years, and lucky choices about which investment options to choose. 

Job security has gone the way of global competition, increased technology, and the greater acceptance of maximizing efficiency. Anecdotes tell of 40- and 50 year old professionals let go, replaced with young graduates at lower pay, with the discarded having to downgrade themselves to house cleaning, caring for the handicapped, serving fast food, or some other service job with low income.

High tuition for the kids' college in the US, and loans dragging on for decades add to barriers on aspirations. 

What to do with the hundreds of thousands, likely to become millions, seeking to enter Western Europe or the US?

International agreements and domestic legislation that reflect the Holocaust and World War II, as well as a spread of democracy and the votes of Third World people already in Western Europe and the US get in the way of firm closure of the borders. There are also problems of geography. It isn't easy closing the borders of the US or Europe. 

Little Israel has fenced and patrols its relatively simple border with Africa, and has relied on the criteria of being Jewish or having Jewish roots to limit its intake. Opposition politicians have called on the government to accept Syrian refugees. Skeptics mention the millions of Palestinians claiming rights.

Israel has refused to accept Palestinian refugees, and has refused providing residence permits to Palestinians who wed Israeli Arabs. On the other hand, it provides medical service to individuals injured in the fighting in Syria, who reach the border with Israel..  

Australia has seized at sea and sent to distant islands the unwanted coming in boats from Asia.

The classic movement of migrants, that included my grandparents, helped both the crowded homelands and the empty target countries. 

Now a lot of the migrants bring Islam with them. European Christianity may not be what it used to be, but it does not seem inclined to welcome a religion historically antagonistic to Christianity, and much different from Europeans' current level of moderate to low belief. Those who worry see social unrest or serious violence in the near future. Migrants seem likely to keep coming in numbers beyond the need of Europe for workers.

Recent changes have been most attractive for the high flyers in high technology and business. Where they have been numerous enough to skew the data about income equality or to produce prominent demonstrations of a nouveau riche life style, they have provoked political outcries far louder than any efforts to even things up.

Among the signs of discomfort, fear, or trouble are gated communities, heavier police patrols, instances of misbehavior among the police, and the growth of private security. 

Those with a doomsday angst might check to see if Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal has increased in sales. Those of us over 70 in a well guarded and otherwise functioning country can assume that this will be something for the kids and grandchildren to worry about. Currently, no solution worthy of the name is apparent. Something more modest, that we can describe as a treatment or way to cope may be cooking somewhere in the social technocracy, but nothing has become prominent with a convincing case for itself.

We hear of politicians urging more money for the poor countries, in order to develop their economies and keep people at home. That sounds nice, but it won't work in what used to be Syria, or never was the real country of Afghanistan. Those countries are the sources of many at the railroad station of Budapest. African sources of the flow over the Mediterranean aren't any different. Through much if not all of the Third World, those in charge have a poor record of passing on and using wisely what they receive in aid. 

An Under Secretary of the United Nations for Humanitarian Affairs proclaimed that it is necessary to deal with the root of the migrants' problems at home by assuring civil rights and an end to poverty.

Decades of experience indicate that ain't gonna happen.

Right wing politicians are licking their chops in much of Western Europe, joined by Donald Trump and some others in the US, raising the prospect of short term nastiness, and who knows what next.