Building and Maintaining Affordable Middle Class Suburbia
My family and I relocated to North Carolina in late 2016. We purchased a house in a new development that had a quaint feel, was filled with the buzz of children happily and safely playing in the neighborhood, and had all the artifacts of a middle-class life, including a community playground and swimming pool. Although the neighborhood was for the most part complete by the time we moved in, there were a few empty lots still waiting for ground to be broken and several houses undergoing construction. Never having lived in a new neighborhood that was still undergoing development, my attention was quickly drawn to the fact that all of the people I observed building the houses were Latino. While I did not interview any of them personally, my guess is that they were overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America. Vans would pull up to the construction sites at lunchtime each day, and middle-aged Latino women would vend tacos from the back of their vehicles to the laborers. After about 9:00 a.m., the workers would start playing mariachi music as they sawed, nailed, and hammered their way through the day. On a few occasions, I attempted to strike up a conversation with some of the builders, only to be met with “No hablo inglés” or a reluctance to even make eye contact. In the peak of the humid North Carolina summer and with temperatures in the low to mid-90's, these men often worked ten to twelve-hour days Monday through Saturday. While I cannot say for sure whether the men who were building the houses in my neighborhood—including my house—were residing in the U.S. illegally, I suspect that many, if not most or all of them, are undocumented.
The reality is that it is precisely because most or all of the men building houses in my neighborhood are in the U.S. illegally that I could afford to purchase my house and that many of my neighbors could afford to purchase their houses. Due to their illegal status in the country and willingness to accept lower compensation, benefits, and protections than U.S. citizens, Latinos are building houses not just in my neighborhood, but all across the U.S., effectively lowering the cost of purchasing new and renovated houses. And, it is not only housing prices that are affected by low-wage earning laborers who reside in the U.S. illegally; produce, dairy, meat, many other grocery items, hotel rooms, cleaning services, landscaping, etc. are all in effect subsidized by laborers who are earning low wages while residing in the shadows and working in the country against the law. Whether you like it or not, whether you are for amnesty or mass deportation, if you are participating in the U.S. economy, you are benefiting from the labor of immigrants residing in the country against the law.
The subject of immigration in the U.S.—especially illegal immigration—has become a polarizing one. The issue stirs deep emotions within people and has been used by the political establishment on both the left and right as a rallying cry to draw voters to the polls, while very little has been done legislatively about the matter for decades. But personal emotions and political motives aside, the matter of immigrants coming to and working in the U.S. against the law has both positive and negative consequences to which we are often selectively blind due to our predisposition to political dogmatism.
From Slave Labor to Second-Tier Labor: The Phases of Economic Development
As societies develop, many (not all) experience two phases of labor. In the early stages of a rapidly economically developing society (nowadays, often a nation-state; but in the past, empires and monarchies), there is usually a form of slave labor. This slave labor allows a small number of native members within a society to move rapidly up the ladder of wealth, creating significant amounts of concentrated capital. While the U.S. imported slave labor mostly from Africa, creating massive wealth in agriculture that was a boon to the American economy writ large, other countries have relied on domestic slavery. From its early origins as the Duchy of Moscow to the Tsardom of Russia, and finally, to the Russian Empire, Russian society relied on native serfs for agricultural slave labor. Serfs served the landed gentry until the abolition of the practice in 1861. During the centuries of serfdom, the Russian nobility thrived on the backs of the serfs, creating one of the wealthiest monarchies in history.
Societies cannot depend upon slave labor to build up and sustain their economies in perpetuity; eventually, sufficient social pressure mounts to abolish slavery due to its immorally and inhumanity. But, while slave labor may go away, the desire for affordable goods and services does not, and post-slave labor societies reach a tipping point when the demand for goods and services by the middle and upper classes outpaces the economy’s ability to balance prices with wages. As more people enter the middle class, their demand for goods and services eventually would make many things unaffordable, save for the follow-on phase of slave labor: second-tier labor. By “second class,” I do not mean humanly less than; I merely mean that second-tier laborers have wages, benefits, and protections that are secondary to other workers. In its current incarnation, Russia has grown a modest middle class under the semi-benevolent autocracy of the Putin regime. While serfs are long gone from the agricultural landscape of Russia, the country is importing labor from economically undeveloped nations in Central Asia to build, clean, and otherwise serve as second-tier workers to sustain the consumption habits of the newly-minted Russian middle and upper classes. In the Middle East, second-tier laborers arrive from developing countries in South Asia to build gleaming skylines in the desert. In Germany, Turkish immigrant workers number in the hundreds of thousands to support the country’s vast middle class. In the United Kingdom, Eastern Europeans, among others, act as second-tier labor. And in the U.S., people from mostly Mexico and Central America fill the need for second-tier labor. When there is a well-developed middle class, through the process of economic osmosis, second-tier labor emerges, which allows the middle class to feed its appetite for goods and services without experiencing unsustainable inflation.
Second-tier laborers are almost always a foreign-born workforce that is attracted by wages and working conditions that are superior to those in their economically undeveloped or developing countries of origin. While some countries are better at dealing with the legal status of second-tier immigrant laborers than others, almost universally, states with a large middle class either formally or informally have institutionalized second-tier labor from countries that are economically undeveloped or developing. After all, would someone from Dhaka leave for Dubai if they could make a comparable wage in their home country? Why would someone from Guatemala City risk death sneaking across the harsh Rio Grande Valley to wait in a Home Depot parking lot for work if they had the same economic opportunities in their home country? In sum, developed nations with large middle classes benefit considerably, at least in an economic sense, from second-tier labor.
Examining the Anxieties over Immigration
While there are definite economic advantages to having a second-tier workforce, some who benefit from it are stridently opposed to prolonged, large-scale immigration. For example, the EU referendum in the United Kingdom was voted through, in large part due to concerns about open borders with the EU and unchecked immigration into the country. In the U.S., candidate Trump promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico. While the wall may or may not come to fruition, there is no doubt that a significant portion of the U.S. population is in favor of tighter controls on immigration, especially from Mexico and Central America. But, there are also those who see the inhumanity in having a second-tier workforce and seek to bring relief to those laborers and their families, either legislatively or extra-legislatively. Some hear the calls to build a wall on the Mexican border and the rejection of migrants from Latin America as smallminded at best and racist at worst. In response, some U.S. cities have taken on the mantle of sanctuaries for those who live in the country illegally. Even the lexis associated with the topic has become too hot to handle, with some news outlets banning the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant” in favor of the “undocumented worker.” Protestors at rallies hold signs that read “No human is 'illegal.'”
In the U.S. and other countries, the wrath of those who oppose immigration has been kindled. I was living in the United Kingdom when the EU referendum took place. During the several weeks leading up to the vote, the consensus that it would fail was growing. I recall watching on my iPhone the live projections from the University of East Anglia as I lay in bed in my North Yorkshire home on the night of June 23, 2016. As the votes trickled in, the University of East Anglia projected a 99 percent chance that the referendum would not pass. I refreshed the page frequently for the next four hours, watching the percentage drop every few minutes until 2:00 a.m. when the chance of the referendum not passing dropped below two percent. Five months later, I sat down to watch the returns of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, confident in the projections of all major newspapers and cable and network news outlets that Hillary Clinton would become the 45th president of the United States. And, while she did win the popular vote, tens of millions of people voted for Donald Trump, causing him to win the electoral college. I believe that the victories of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and Trump in the U.S. were, in large part, due to the anxieties that people have about immigration.
So, are the anxieties that some people have about immigration rational or unfounded? After all, without low-wage earning workers in the U.S. who are building houses and picking produce, the costs of these things could become unaffordable for the vast majority of people. Is it not in peoples’ best interest to support immigration? From an economic point of view, opposition to immigration—especially opposition to immigration of low-wage earners—is not in most peoples’ best interest. But, just as economies reach a tipping point where the middle class becomes so large it requires a second-tier labor force to sustain its consumption habits, there is also a cultural tipping point that occurs in societies at which shared norms and values—the foundation of a society’s culture—risk being divergent to the point of collapse. Is it possible that some portion of a population instinctively knows that immigration is occurring at a rate that is unsustainable for the culture? That the values and norms which make up the foundation of any national culture change over time is self-evident. What is less evident is the rate at which those values and norms can change before a cultural collapse occurs.
The Tendency Toward Cultural Homeostasis
Cultures, from the organizational level to the national level, can and do collapse. Cultural collapse occurs when stated values and accepted norms become significantly out of sync with manifest values and norms, which appreciably disrupts cultural homeostasis. Everything from a single cell organism to a developed nation seeks homeostasis. While there are tolerances, when those tolerances are breached, systems are engaged to regain homeostasis for the sake of survival. For example, the human body attempts to maintain a temperature of 98.6° F. If a person’s body temperature goes above or below 98.6° F, negative feedback loops in the body attempt to regain homeostasis. If the body is too cold, blood vessels constrict, and sweat glands do not release fluid until normal body temperature is restored, whereas if the body is too hot, blood vessels dilate, and sweat glands release fluid until normal body temperature is restored. However, if the body gets too hot and cannot regulate its temperature, death occurs (usually at about 108° F). So, as far as heat is concerned, the human body has a tolerance of about 10° F, all things being equal. Without negative feedback loops that maintain the homeostasis of body temperature, the body would die. Likewise, without homeostasis within cultures, societies would collapse. The tolerances for the former are well known; however, the tolerances for the latter are not.
Unsurprisingly, when humans work together in organizations and live together in societies, group dynamics tend to mimic natural phenomena. When there is a sense within the collective organism of society that equilibrium is off, attempts that are sometimes irrational or disproportionate to the perceived threat will be made in order to correct it. One of the side-effects of having such large brains as Homo sapiens is our proclivity to ruminate. Yes, other living creatures experience fear, but our large brains as Homo sapiens give us the ability to engage in metacognition, which leads to frequent overestimation of dangers and risks. When threats are perceived that suggest a disruption to homeostasis within society—regardless of how real they are—some portion of the population will attempt to correct it.
Are there negative feedback loops being engaged in some societies in response to immigration in order to maintain cultural homeostasis? I think the answer is a resounding “yes.” This is not an excuse for hateful and harmful behavior that some exhibit towards immigrants, but rather a possible anthropological explanation. Also, homeostasis is not to be confused with ethnic homogeneity; there are plenty of culturally homeostatic societies that are heterogeneous. I believe resistance to immigration is a manifestation of the desire to forestall a perceived cultural collapse, influenced by societal homeostatic negative feedback loops. This is perhaps why millions of people across the globe from the U.S. to the U.K. to continental Europe are gravitating towards nationalism. It is an attempt to restore a perceived disruption in cultural homeostasis.
The Costs and Benefits of Immigration
While it may be hypocritical to enjoy the cheap fruits of second-tier labor, both literally and figuratively, while protesting immigration of low-wage earners, not all concerns are invalid. In my neighborhood—yes, the very one where homes were built by the hands of Latino men and some of which are cleaned by the hands of Latino women—we are zoned for a school that the state has rated as needing significant improvement. The anecdotal observations from the parents at the school are that the student-teacher ratio is too high and also that so many of the students speak Spanish only and that teachers spend most of their day trying to cope with the needs of those students. I can understand why homeowners, who pay no small amount in state income and property tax, would want their children to be well-schooled. Is that really an unreasonable expectation? I know the retort—parental involvement is a more significant factor in student success than the quality of the school. Perhaps. However, if the state of education in the classroom is such that teachers have minimal time to adequately introduce concepts in English to native speakers of English, then the burden of parental involvement increases significantly. But, then, perhaps, that’s fair. After all, many of the native English-speaking children who attend the school live in nice houses in safe neighborhoods that were built by their Spanish-speaking classmates’ Mexican and Central American fathers. The irony of the situation is not lost to me.
Applying the Lessons of Immigration
Behavior patterns around immigration serve as an interesting microcosm of group dynamics that can be applied to both organizations and societies. People can be very selective about what information they chose to take in or ignore—i.e., cognitive bias. This is not news. But what is interesting is how significantly collective cognitive bias can distort reality. The issue of immigration also demonstrates how both individuals and groups seek homeostasis and how the distortion of reality can potentially act as a exagerated feedback loop, causing overcorrection. At the same time, immigration shows that while cultures can adapt, when the foundation of a culture—its values and norms—no longer reflect what the stated and understood values and norms are, the cultural fabric can start to tear.
Illegal immigration, in particular, challenges a culture to prioritize one of two things that are mutually exclusive: the rule of law or mercy. Are we a benevolent and merciful culture that is willing to accept some degree of lawlessness for the greater economic good or are we a culture that expects the laws of the land to be followed and upheld for the sake of legal legitimacy and consistency, even if it means some economic hardship? If you are a bank, like Wells Fargo, are you willing to put shareholders’ profits above customer satisfaction or are you willing to put customers first, even if it means potentially fewer profits for shareholders in the short to midterm? These are important questions that demand an honest and open-minded appraisal of the costs and benefits of each option. The best approach (although by no means a panacea) is to seek and provide information that dispassionately describes both the good and bad associated with potential disruption to cultural homeostasis, be it in an organization or a nation-state.
In the case of immigration, there are lots of rewards to which many are blind. But there are also some disadvantages. Trying to wish the disadvantages away as if they do not exist is only going to exacerbate the impulse in some to restore homeostasis. If you are in favor of immigration or amnesty for people residing in the country against the law, be honest with yourself and others both about the good that comes from it and the downsides. If you fear immigration and want a wall or mass deportation, be honest with yourself about how your life has benefited from the labor of immigrants. The sometimes unfounded tendency toward cultural homeostasis and the real potential for cultural collapse due to divergent values and norms are phenomena that need to be considered and are important for the health, sustainability, and prosperity of both societies and organizations: be aware of the risks associated with unsustainable cultural change, but beware misleading signals that cultural homeostasis is at risk.