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Hiking near Heart Lake at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File)

The greening of the West

By Editor / 06.17.13

West is just a point on the compass, there to the left as you face north. But throughout history, the west has been associated with freedom and fresh starts. Explorers, dreamers, iconoclasts, and opportunity seekers have always followed the sun. The west has tugged at the imagination since the earliest epochs of Indo-European migration.

The torch of civilization was relayed from Persia to Greece to Rome. Though it dimmed for a few hundred years, it again moved westward with the Renaissance and Reformation. Then it was on to the New World and the westward push of pioneers. In the decades ahead, the handover is likely to stretch across the Pacific toward the economic powerhouses of Asia.

The West that we look at in a Monitor cover story is the one embedded in the American mind, the one captured by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, and Ansel Adams with their images of the almost impossibly beautiful Rockies, Tetons, and Pacific Northwest. Todd Wilkinson, who has written covers for us on the return of wolves and the rise of the green ranching in that region, now surveys its robust economy and its green ethos.

Once merely gorgeous, isolated, and quaint – primarily valued only for minerals, timber, and recreation – the Intermountain West is now attracting innovators, venture capitalists, and knowledge workers who love the idea of trout fishing, mountain biking, and blasting down black-diamond slopes when they aren’t teleconferencing with Shanghai and London. 

Rugged individualists have made their way to the region for generations, real-life versions of the Jeremiah Johnson character Robert Redford played. Being self-sufficient and cut off from the outside world was not just the norm, it was the whole point. But connectivity has changed that. Now you can have the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake but still have access to the digital cloud and the global economy. 

Like any quest for happiness, however, the growing popularity of the Intermountain West has its “yes, buts.” The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham termed the human quest for beauty and pleasure – and the desire to have more and more of it – the “felicific calculus.” If you like that view, how about having it every day? Enjoy trout fishing on vacation? Why not trout fish before you go to work?

The problem is that as more humans run their felicific calculations and decide to live in pleasant places, their presence changes the balance. An old-timer grumbled when you arrived 20 years ago. Now a thousand new arrivals are ruining paradise for you. This isn’t just a perspective problem. The New World after Columbus was conquered, exploited, and despoiled. Careless rushes for land, gold, and energy resources have left scars on wilderness throughout the world. 

Will the Intermountain West be different? Maybe. As you’ll see in Todd’s report, the conservation/environmentalism ethic runs deep in the region. It cuts across the lines of politics, business, and even the traditional divide between old-timer and new arrival. Almost everyone is running the same calculation. Almost everyone wants economic and environmental balance.

The difference this time – the thing that may make the Intermountain West sustainable – is a powerful desire to keep alive the West of our imagination.

James Madison University graduate Nandi Alexander celebrated May 4 in Harrisonburg, Va. (Michael Reilly/Daily News-Record/AP)

Are MOOCs making education a monoculture?

By Editor / 06.03.13

A tree farm produces a monoculture you can count on. Its timber efficiently becomes the lumber that makes houses and furniture. A woodlot is a little more sketchy. It might begin as a forgotten weed patch, grow into a scrubby forest, and eventually host a mini-United Nations of species. Left alone, a woodlot can become an interestingly varied patch of earth, maybe even a natural treasure.

Conventionality or originality? Most of us choose both. We don’t want surprises when it comes to floor joists. We prefer our airline pilots not to let the muse guide them to Pittsburgh. But leave room for serendipity. Order keeps our world humming. The unthought-of tips the world’s equilibrium. It can be as disruptive as quantum physics, as fresh as Beethoven or The Beatles.

Education is forever balancing and rebalancing uniformity and creativity. Basic competence has to be mastered. But innovative thinking must be encouraged. Read the canon of great literature, but don’t be afraid to demolish conventional wisdom. Students and their parents seek out the best school and best teachers, hoping for the best education. But students can flourish at middling colleges and with average teachers if their reading is inspiring, their lab work intriguing, their thinking encouraged.

When you read Laura Pappano’s cover story on the huge stir being caused by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, pronounced “mooks”), you may at first think that there’s nothing new under the sun. Correspondence courses, after all, began in the 19th century. Over the decades, educational institutions have experimented with teaching via radio, television, closed-circuit video, and the Internet. And each new distance-learning technology has prompted predictions of the demise of ivy-clad campuses, the loss of mentoring by belovedly quirky profs, and the end of fond memories of college life. Fifteen years ago, a reporter from The Boston Globe marveled at how 1990s cutting-edge technology – “a two-way PictureTel compressed-video system linked by high-speed phone lines” – was connecting a classroom on Martha’s Vineyard with a university on the Massachusetts mainland. As one university official told him (well, actually, told me): “What is better in terms of quality – a dull, boring, standard lecture, or a penetrating lecture by a great teacher, backed up with all the best video props...?”

The PictureTel wonderment didn’t disrupt the college paradigm back then. Will MOOCs? Perhaps. The technology and pedagogy of online ed is constantly improving. And the pressing need to control costs seems destined to drive online education forward. That worries some people. This spring, philosophy professors at San Jose State University in California sent a protest letter to political philosophy superstar Michael Sandel of Harvard University decrying the MOOCing of his course of social justice. Among other things, they warned, “the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel.”

A balance needs to be struck between the franchising of high-quality education and the more intimate, locally grown experience that occurs when teachers and students reason together in a classroom. It seems inevitable that the MOOC monoculture will spread. But let’s make sure we preserve the woodlot. Amazing, unthought-of ideas could be growing in it. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

A family walks along the rocks on West Beach in Deception Pass State Park in Oak Harbor, Wash. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times/AP)

Vacation: nothing better

By Editor / 05.30.13

History doesn’t move in straight lines. It zigzags. Here’s where it seems to be zagging: toward a rethink of the hard-charging, high-tech, always-on culture that has imposed itself on the modern world. Let’s call it the Not Wired and Proud of It direction.

Exhibit A: Our cover story by Dan Wood on the growing embrace of “do nothing” vacations, meaning vacations that don’t feature kite-surfing through the Bering Sea or learning Mandarin in a two-week cram session or – and this is the most likely possibility – continuing to be a productive careerist via e-mail, cellphone, and teleconference even as the kids frolic in the nearby surf. These are vacations that are about vacating the workplace, freeing the mind, quieting the body, and enjoying the moment.

Exhibit B: A recent New York Times report on how even Twitter mavens and Pinterest honchos have discovered the pleasures of paper, pencils, face-to-face conversation, and the wonderful world that exists beyond the range of cell signals. They shut off their transponders at dinner and concentrate on the people sitting across from them instead of LOLing at text messages from other time zones.

Exhibit C: TheAtlantic.com’s report that “chick lit” about young women pursuing urbanist careers and rom-com antics – think “Friends” and “Sex and the City” (neither of which, honestly, I have ever watched) – have been eclipsed by novels about young women abandoning the bright lights and fast track for simpler lives, smaller towns, and more homespun fellas. Even daydreams, this seems to show, can be downsized.

That’s three examples, so this must be a trend – or at least a mild protest against the hyperconnected, hyperproductive, and just plain hyped-up world of hot new things – from consumer electronics to media sensations, political scandals to summer blockbusters. Time to slow down, many people seem to be thinking. Time to unhook from the Internet, catch our collective breath, grab a cane pole, gather wool (though not from specially bred
 llamas at an Andean dude ranch).

The not-wired movement may be nothing more than a rear-guard action against the blitzkrieg of busyness. Oh, there are true believers in it, among them the “neo-Luddites,” who run the spectrum from those raising gentle questions about a life out of balance (Wendell Berry: “There comes ... a longing never to travel again except on foot”) to those who want to throw a spanner into the entire techno-industrial machinery (Theodore Kaczynski). 

But we’re talking here about mainstream folks, working Joes and Janes who just want time to concentrate on the here and now, think a little deeper, appreciate the wrinkles etched in a beloved face, and smell the newly mowed grass – even if they get right back into the game when time off is over.

This is not an argument for being unadventurous. The world is fascinating and should be explored. Museums are treasure houses. Visiting Prague, Paris, Kyoto, or the water slide in the next county can be excellent activities. Woodland trails are portals into other dimensions. I’m just saying that it might be better to scratch “sky diving” off the to-do list and pencil in ... nothing.

Ten thousand poems tell us to do this. Every naturalist urges it. And we all know it in our souls. First we have to put down our hand-held devices and stop doing something. Then we can do nothing – which may be more than we’ve done all year.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Pedestrians walk along a seawater canal in Songdo park in Incheon, South Korea. (Ann Hermes/Staff)

South Korea's amazing rise

By Editor / 05.30.13

Scratch the confident surface of any capital city, classroom, or business and you’ll hear the same question: How can we be more innovative? It’s a question chewed over in design studios, research labs, brainstorming sessions, and countless management books.  

Innovation is the secret sauce everybody wants to bottle, the DNA of groundbreaking patents and products. It will drive the next generation of hybrid engines, solar cells, robots, and pop tunes. Innovation creates jobs, boosts trade, grows GDP. 

People and cultures that believe they have an innovation deficit are not above trying to steal – or at least copy. “Fast follower” is the common term for countries adept at seeing good ideas and going them one better (and usually one cheaper). Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even the United States built up their initial industrial strength by copycatting. The US wouldn’t have been the 19th-century textile superpower that it was if not for processes and machinery pirated from Britain. 

China – the colossal fast-follower of modern times – knows that if it is going to be anything other than a low-cost producer it needs to wean itself off of copying, counterfeiting, and cheating. It needs to be genuinely innovative. But how? Innovation involves an unlikely combination of careful research, preparation, productivity, and the freedom to dream up and share ideas. None of those assets works in isolation. Cool new ideas are useless if they can’t be turned into profitable products and services.

A Monitor cover story takes you on a journey into a remarkable culture that is by most estimates the first or second most innovative on the planet. South Korea isn’t a longtime, Scandinavian-type trendsetter. It doesn’t get the awe-struck adjectives of China. It was long in the shadow of the other Asian “tiger economies” – Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. But almost out of nowhere, after a devastating war and with an outrageously threatening nemesis to its north, South Korea has become a worldbeating economy.

South Korea has created a uniquely vibrant, innovative culture. The Boston Consulting Group places South Korea at
 No. 1 in the world in innovation, followed by the US, among larger economies. Why? The BCC points to a combination of idea generation, structure, leadership, skilled workers, and a supportive government. South Korea has something else going for it, too.

Scott Duke Harris’s report zeroes in on the national resolve that South Koreans developed after decades of brutal colonization, a war that laid waste to their peninsula, years of extreme poverty, military dictatorship, the near ruin of the 1990s Asian financial crisis, and constant threats of annihilation issued by the idiosyncratic regime to the north. South Koreans have not just survived but thrived. Companies like Samsung and Hyundai have progressed from selling cheap, me-too products to being leaders in their fields. South Koreans are confident. Democracy is entrenched. K-Pop culture is hot.

Like West Germany, South Korea has used sacrifice and adversity to its advantage. German-style reunification may be hard to imagine right now for the Koreas, but it is inevitable, if only because the North can’t keep up the charade forever. The more the South prospers, the more apparent that becomes.

So what is South Korea’s secret sauce? Creative cultures emerge from competent ones that postpone today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s gains. Innovation grows on that fertile ground.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Employees at 2U, a distributor of online courses, enjoy the togetherness of office work in New York. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

PJs or pinstripes? The tradeoffs of tele-work

By Editor / 05.07.13

Who would have thought that well into the second decade of the 21st century water-cooler seminars and hallway chitchat would be held up as the unique value proposition of an office? But thanks to Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and other managers who have newfound qualms about telecommuting, the serendipitous conversations and informal collaborations that take place in an office – sometimes also called slacking and breeze-shooting – are being touted as the secret sauce of business. 

There is something to that. Silicon Valley in California; Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass.; and other tech incubation districts are famous for their pizza parties, foosball tables, and networking mixers. Proximity is the point. But at the same time, technology and demographics are driving telecommuting. Which trend will win? 

In a Monitor cover story, Eilene Zimmerman digs into that question, paying close attention to the trade-offs: human contact versus isolation, teamwork versus concentration, the distraction of co-workers versus the distraction of the fridge. Whichever camp you are in – happily productive in your pj’s 24/7 or success-dressed and hopping from conference room to brainstorming session Monday through Friday – you know there are pros and cons. Working side by side is good for some people and some projects; concentration and quiet are good for others. And there are plenty of jobs where showing up will always be necessary. Remote plumbing, policing, and nursing will never really cut it. 

Let’s imagine what work might look like a decade from now. First, set aside technological what ifs and meet the workers. As Eilene notes, Generations X and Y have a distinctly different view of the daily commute, the structured workday, and the value of water-cooler socializing than their predecessors. For them, the personal and professional blend. The office, while attractive in some regards, is not a place to rely on for job security or social gratification. In short, digital natives are predisposed to telecommuting.

By 2023, this new breed of workers will anchor the workforce, and telecommuting technology will have advanced by 10 years, bringing ever closer the possibility of seamless “telepresence” from wherever people are. Human contact will still be important, however, and smart managers will make sure that occurs. But fighting traffic and clocking in every day looks like an idea whose time is passing.

If telecommuting is still novel, even controversial, in today’s workplace, it will be normal in tomorrow’s. The real challenge is how to manage it.

 John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Traders at work on the floor of the New york Stock exchange last month. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff )

To invest or not to invest? The eternal question

By Editor / 05.07.13

The stock market is telling us something. But we’re all getting different messages. If you are a baby boomer, you lived through the dot-com crash of 2000 and financial panic of 2008. Retirement is not far away. If the stock market is calling to you, it probably sounds a little like Count Dracula’s treacherous invitation: “Enter freely – and of your own will.” 

Maybe you should enter. Maybe you should run. 

If you are a member of the Millennial Generation, on the other hand, the stock market may be saying something completely different to you. You never lost money in it. There seem to be good bargains. Maybe you’ll make some money. Maybe you’ll lose some money. With time on your side, you can afford to experiment. (“Hey, Count, what’s for dinner?”)

I was there once myself. Enchanted with the new Apple Mac-intosh in 1984, I bought the first shares I ever owned: 50 of Apple at $30. Pretty smart, right? It’s now around $440. Of course, I didn’t think it would ever go that high. In fact, a few months after I bought in I had qualms and sold out – at $20. My excellent adventure in investing wasn’t profitable, but it was a life lesson. It taught me the value of buying a quality stock – or better, a balanced mutual fund via a 401(k) – and holding it. I’ve faithfully followed the price of AAPL on the NASDAQ ever since, even though I’ve never bought another share directly.

No matter how the market has been performing, your past performance is a pretty good indication of your future behavior. You can see that pattern on display in a Monitor cover story. We’re a long way from “irrational exuberance.” Even “cautious optimism” is too bubbly a term. The best phrase for current investor psychology is probably: “As opposed to what?

Interest rates are so low that there’s little incentive to be in fixed income. Gold and other precious metals – hedges against financial catastrophe – have been sagging as the economy slowly improves. Home prices are rising, but other than in unique markets like New York and San Francisco the era of house flipping is unlikely to return soon. Which leaves equities.

Older investors are edging back in, though in many cases they can’t shake the fears they felt five years ago (see Jonathan Harsch’s article). Younger investors are willing to experiment, to put money into the market and see what happens (see Schuyler Velasco’s article). This is not unusual.

Laurent Belsie, who has been writing about financial markets since the 1980s, recalls how in 1981, during what was then the greatest recession since 1929, market pundits worried that the stock market would never recover and that the financial system itself might be broken. And yet a year later the greatest bull market in history began. His life lesson: “If I were Larry David’s evil twin, I’d say the message of the market is ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm and Curb Your Gloom.’ ”

And so, after the latest worst financial crisis since 1929, despite economic shakiness, and amid 10,000 caveats, the stock market may in fact have a message for all of us: We’re getting back to normal. Which doesn’t mean predictable, universally profitable, or even especially stable. The market will go up and down. Some stocks will appreciate, others will tank. But five years after the bottom fell out, we can stop wondering if the system itself is broken. We can resume seeing the stock market as a place to make some money, lose some money, and learn a few life lessons.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Progress report: How the Monitor is doing

By Editor / 05.01.13

To our readers:

May 1, the start of a new fiscal year for the Monitor, finds us in the healthiest financial situation since 1961 (that’s on an inflation-adjusted basis; unadjusted, it’s the best since 1978). Over the past four years, we have decreased the subsidy we have been receiving from The First Church of Christ, Scientist, by 50 percent. Our goal as a non-profit is financial self-sufficiency. With your help we are making steady progress toward that.

Monitor journalism reaches more people today than ever. About 12 million individuals a month read Monitor articles. We've heard from many of you and know that you range from political leaders in Washington to colleagues in the media, college students to civic-minded retirees, entrepreneurs to executives. What you all have in common is a need for thoughtful, no-nonsense news that helps you engage with your community -- whether that community is as close as your neighborhood or as varied as the planet. A few recent examples of that sort of news:

- Our May 6 Monitor Weekly cover story "Facing Terror: How free and open societies are adapting to a more insecure world."

- Our April 15 cover "The Dealmakers: How work gets done in the new politics of Congress."

- Our intimate March 11 report on how a church community in Newtown, Conn., is working through the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

Every day, meanwhile, our website, CSMonitor.com, stays atop the news -- from the Syrian civil war to the upcoming elections in Pakistan; the stock market to Europe's struggle with debt and austerity; the Obama presidency to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

And for an efficient summary of the stories that matter each morning, we offer the Monday-through-Friday Monitor Daily News Briefing. 

Because technology, business, and reader habits are constantly changing, we are constantly working to keep the Monitor up to date and useful. This summer, we’ll be rolling out an improved digital edition of the Monitor Weekly. We’ll also be updating CSMonitor.com. We are also developing new channels to deliver specialized Monitor journalism to global thinkers.

Like many news organizations, the Monitor is navigating a challenging path to financial sustainability. Your support -- via subscriptions to the Monitor Weekly and the Daily News Briefing and by visiting CSMonitor.com -- makes possible the continuation of 105 years of journalism that helps readers understand the world’s problems, seeks out the world’s problem-solvers, and reports progress when it occurs.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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Tight quarters, and a skyward view, at a residential complex in Xiangyang, China. (Reuters)

After the Marathon bombings: a new resolve

By Editor / 04.29.13

Ecology describes the balance of living things and their habitat – a colony of birch trees, an anthill, a city, a civilization. When the balance is broken by overpopulation, disease, resource depletion, migration, technology, or the wildfire of fads and fears, conflicts can occur. So can something else. Ideas combine and recombine when they come into contact. Food, fashion, business, and art fuse. Old cultures evolve. New ones are born.

The story of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is how globalization has massively upset the ecological order. Pockets of humanity that once seemed remote are now connected – for better most of the time, but sometimes for worse.

The Monitor office is located at 42° North, 71° West in a pleasant North American neighborhood peopled by everyone from seniors to transients, multi-pierced music students to pinstriped lawyers. An easy lunchtime stroll away is Boylston Street, where on April 15 a cruel act of terrorism disrupted a happy holiday gathering at the end of an egalitarian footrace.

The older of the brothers charged with carrying out the attacks – Chechen by way of Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan but largely raised in the Boston area, married to an American, and so, really, almost quintessentially a product of the American melting pot – is said to have nursed grievances about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he had no personal or family ties to those conflicts. Why he thought killing and maiming the innocent on a Boston street would redress those grievances will never be understandable.

The pain inflicted and the tears shed will not soon be forgotten. But consider what we discovered about ourselves. Instead of anger or fear something different broke out: resolve. This is the world we live in, millions of people seemed to decide all at once. We won’t accept evil, nor will we fear it. And we won’t diminish the good. In fact, we’ll amplify it through support and charity, through cooperation with one another, and by holding firm.

If there ever was a time of splendid isolation – and that may be more rose-colored hindsight than reality – that is not today. A plane ticket or the click of a mouse puts us in contact with almost anyone anywhere on the planet. Ideas and arguments, friendships and disputes, flow freely. Millions of eyes now see what just a few in the mainstream media used to see. That brings with it stereotype-breaking possibilities and the power of millions of thinkers in solving problems. It brings abundant intelligence but also mischief – and sometimes hatred.

The ecological order is always being upset. In another age, when the Roman world was in turmoil, Augustine of Hippo argued that we live in both the City of Man and the City of God. One is constantly in flux. The other is a spiritual constant. 

In 2013, the unstoppable ideas of universal freedom and human dignity – embodied by, but not limited to, the American experience – have gone global. That thrills millions and upsets some, which makes the City of Man interesting and dangerous, liberating and threatening. Living in it requires the resolve we’ve seen in Boston, London, Madrid, Jerusalem, Mumbai, Bali, New York, and every other place attacked by freedom’s discontents. 

To paraphrase Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz the night after Boston’s ordeal ended: This is our city. This is our world.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Visitors with a guide look up at the US Capitol dome from inside the rotunda in Washington DC. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Why we're hard-wired for best practices

By Editor / 04.11.13

Let’s talk “best practices.” That’s the term for emulating success, following the leader, wanting to be like Mike (Jordan) or any other superstar at basketball, nuclear physics, ballroom dancing, summiting Everest. Best practices drive progress. Scientists, even before Isaac Newton pointed it out, have always stood on the shoulders of predecessors. Painters assimilate the best techniques of earlier masters. So do jazz musicians. Good software gets better when it is added to.

In a Monitor cover story, we look at the best practices of Washington dealmakers. It is commonplace today to pine for a golden age of centrism and moderation, a time when compromisers didn’t face fierce primary challenges if they deviated from orthodoxy. Maybe those times once existed; maybe not (see page 31). In any case, business gets done in 2013 Washington because a handful of dealmakers act as interlocutors between often hostile ideological camps.

Dealmakers may hail from a tea party conservative base or be backed by netroots liberals. One may be a Tidewater Republican, another a Brooklyn Democrat. Regardless of political coloration, dealmakers, as you’ll see in the profiles by David Grant and Gail Russell Chaddock, know how to navigate among standing firm, compromising, and capitulating. That makes them rare birds worth studying.

* * *

Here’s another category of best practices that might interest you. Barbara Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, studies pottery in the American Southwest, which has been studied by her predecessors and peers for more than a century. Millions of pre-Columbian artifacts are warehoused at universities and museums. For a recent project, Professor Mills and her colleagues compiled a database of 4.3 million artifacts from more than 700 sites, noting each item's the stylistic pattern, location, and other details. Then they ran their computer programs. 

What they found is an interesting example of the human quest for best practices. Across daunting distance (more than 200 miles in some instances in a culture that traveled only by foot), pottery patterns were virtually identical. Even small changes year to year were reflected in these isolated communities.

This was more than evidence of trade. Geographi-cally separate people were tuning into each other. They cared about the latest iteration of pottery style – perhaps for religious reasons, perhaps simply to belong to something bigger than their own community. They wanted to be like-minded. They were, in essence, participating in slow-motion social networks.

“People in these cultures do it over and over again,” says Mills. “It’s not just something you see in one rare item. There’s evidence of continuous interaction.”

What she and her colleagues saw through their Big Data crunch was in some senses not surprising: Parisian fashion,
 Renaissance perspective, American realism, South Korean “Gangnam style” – catchy ideas get transmitted across vast distances in any age. Sure, instantaneous communications speed the process. But people are so eager to adopt best practices and align their thinking with others that they make it a priority.

When a good idea catches on, standards rise everywhere. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

A worker labors in lettuce fields near San Luis, Arizona. ( Eric Thayer/Reuters/File)

What does amnesty accomplish?

By Editor / 04.08.13

“Amnesty” has the same root as “amnesia.” The idea is to forget if not forgive. Amnesty moves people outside the law inside it – while usually staying silent on whether it was right or wrong to break the law in the first place. The first recorded amnesty, granted by the Greek general Thrasybulus in the 5th century BC, aimed to erase the memory of Spartan rule and allow Athenian democracy to flourish.

Amnesties are more about practicality than principle. They are used to get beyond a divisive issue, recognizing that onetime foes must live together in the future – the Great Rebellion in Britain in 1660, the American Civil War. Vietnam draft resisters were granted amnesty by President Carter in 1977. The war was over. The draft had been abolished. It was time to move on.

Erin Siegal’s Monitor cover story examines President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty of illegal immigrants, looking for successes, failures, and precedents as Congress considers a new amnesty. The law provided a pathway to citizenship for nearly 3 million people over the past quarter century. In Erin’s report, you’ll meet some of them.

The amnesty of ’86 came and went without a change in the conditions that contributed to illegal immigration. The 2,000-mile-long US-Mexican border remained easily breached; economic opportunity in the United States remained much better than in Latin America; and US employers faced few repercussions if they hired undocumented workers. 

Since the turn of the century, however, border security has tightened significantly and employment verification has increased through programs like E-Verify. More important, economic doldrums in the US and brightening prospects in Latin America have changed the psychology of border crossers (see Sara Miller Llana’s April 9, 2012, Monitor Weekly cover story). Illegal entries today are one-fifth what they were in 2000. 

Still, 11 million people are living and working in the US in violation of the law. Their ability to move beyond entry-level jobs is constrained. They are unable to tap into programs they help fund, including Social Security and Medicare. They are part of the economy, part of society, but confined to the shadows. 

By every measurement – economic activity, wage competition with American workers, criminal-justice cases, cost to taxpayers – the impact of illegal immigration is neutral or close to neutral. It has benefits and costs. Nor is there conclusive evidence that illegal immigrants are more likely than the general population to commit crimes, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports a crackdown on illegal immigration. Studies by researchers at Northeastern University and the University of California, Irvine, in fact, indicate that border communities in the US actually have lower crime rates than the national average.

So the debate about amnesty usually comes down to the principle of the thing. Those entering the country illegally broke the law and jumped the line. Should that be rewarded? Does amnesty create the expectation of future amnesty? Economic trends can always reverse, after all, and motivated people can always defeat borders, especially if they know the country whose laws they broke will eventually look the other way.

Granting amnesty is not an easy decision. It may not be a permanent fix. It hinges on whether a nation of immigrants should forget how 11 million new immigrants entered the country – in the interests of letting them, and the nation, move on.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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