|Mar 29, 2007|
Exurbia: Built on paradox and hypocrisy
By Julian Delasantellis
Throughout history, there are many examples of brave slaves rising up in revolt against the unjust rule of their masters. Spartacus in ancient Rome, Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Cinque onboard the slave ship Amistad, all took up the fight for the human dignity and freedom the institution of slavery had inherently denied them.
However, in the United States in 2007, a different form of slave rebellion is occurring. Here we are seeing what must be history's first ever revolt of the masters against their slaves.
You need not hire expensive pollsters or focus groups to ascertain the mood of the 20-30% of the US populace that make up the hard-right-wing base of the Republican Party. All you have to do is follow the ever more vigorous policy undulations of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
This is a man who frequently changes his policy positions on key issues, such as access to abortion, gun ownership, gay rights and marriage, and the role of religion and faith in public discourse, to match those of the Republican base. Indeed, if he were told that the base questioned his commitment to the "war on terror", you might expect him to attempt to prove his bona fides by immediately sending five sons for internment at Guantanamo Bay.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that Romney has announced another "adjustment" to a previous policy position, this time on the politically hot-button issue of illegal immigration. Previously, he sided with the "moderate" (in US political terms, at least) ruling-class-favored position of allowing illegal immigrants a route to legal residence and eventual citizenship.
For the US corporate class, this position is particularly attractive, since in essence it makes available, as Karl Marx put it, a new "reserve army of the unemployed", potentially consisting of the entire population of Central and South America, whose numbers will drive down the wages of the US working class.
Now, Romney opposes the legislative efforts to promote the amnesty-type initiatives that he once favored. In the current US political vernacular this is called a "flip-flop". If you listen hard enough to the suburban office parks in Northern Virginia that house the political-consultancy shops hired by the six or so other contenders for the Republican nomination, you can probably hear the busy hard-drive whir of the video-editing machines cooking up lacerating television attack ads spreading this charge.
In this, Romney's immigration position has now moved to match those of all the other major Republican candidates (with the notable exception of Senator John McCain, whose isolation from this Republican consensus is costing him dearly in the polls). The US right wing is riding waves of intense, burgeoning anti-immigration bigotry and nativism, engendered by the massive surge in illegal immigration allowed by the Bush administration as a sop to their patrons in the corporate class.
The Republicans need a new, emotion-packed wedge issue to define its political identity as separate from the Democrats, and they have chosen illegal immigration. It is infinitely more preferable and favorable for them than their other choices: a disastrous war in Iraq, a homeland still not protected from terrorism, and the daily dizzying variety of ever-changing political scandals and corruption that has defined President George W Bush's second term.
One might find this hostility to illegal immigration by the US right somewhat surprising. Perhaps more than to any other group, including the religious right, it is those very same illegal immigrants to whom Republicans owe much of the credit for the run of political successes they enjoyed up to last year.
It used to be easy to discern the geography of America's political inclinations. The closer you were to an urban core, the more reliably a Democratic Party voter you were. Cities voted Democratic, suburbs voted Republican, while the pure rural vote was shrinking into insignificance. In 1992, the perception of a new, more moderate Democrat, in the personage of Bill Clinton, allowed the party to make big gains in the suburbs, especially in 1996. Lately, a new US geopolitical phenomenon is emerging.
Notwithstanding all the pints of Guinness Ronald Reagan lifted in America's Irish bars, the cities are just as much, or more, reliably Democratic as ever. It's beyond the urban core where the big changes are occurring.
The once-united suburban vote is devolving into three discrete groups. You have what is called the original or inner-core suburbs. These are the communities closest to the urban cores, the ones created in the first rushes of urban out-migration that accompanied the soldiers returning from World War II. These communities, many now more than half a century old, are showing their age. Their schools, their public spaces and parks, indeed their entire physical infrastructure, are decaying and in need of significant new public investment. These communities' votes are trending more and more for the Democrats.
Just beyond them are the outer suburbs, their growth dating from the 1960s to the 1980s. In these communities the parties split the vote, or the Republicans have a small edge, depending on the candidate.
It is out beyond that the real changes in US political demography are occurring.
Anybody who spent a lot of time flying over the US knew that, if you were crossing the continent, or doing much of any travel outside the Boston/Washington megalopolis, what you saw when you looked out the airplane window was a whole lot of unoccupied space. Lately, especially since the beginning of the real-estate boom of the past 10-15 years, the landscape underneath the airliner's window has been changing.
Carved out of the northern California grape vineyards a half-hour before you land in San Francisco, or into the rolling southwestern desert long before you reach Las Vegas, Nevada, or into the patchwork of small family dairy farms 160 kilometers outside Chicago are the newest experiments in providing a roof over the head of the American Dream: the exurbs.
If you look at a satellite map image from the mid-1990s or so, you'll see that most of these communities didn't exist, or, if they did, were just 10-20% of their current size and population. Over this period, real-estate developers have bulldozed and built these areas until they are far and away the fastest-growing residential areas in the US in terms of both population and geographic size.
In 2004, New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his book On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now, described those moving into the exurbs as people who "don't like the houses crowded with immigrants that are appearing in their New Jersey neighborhoods". (The Metropolitan Institute at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute reports that exurbia is more than 92% white.)
They want to get away from parents who smoke and slap their kids, away from families where people watch daytime talk shows about transvestite betrayals or "My Daughter Is a Slut", away from broken homes, away from gangs of Goths and druggies, and away from families who don't value education, achievement, and success ... Demographic studies show that they look like 1950s suburban America - intact two-parent families, 2.3 kids, low crime, and relatively low divorce rates. You sometimes get the impression that these people have fled their crowded and stratified old suburbs because they really want to live in an updated Mayberry with BlackBerries.
Government, the traditional bugaboo of the political right, barely exists in the exurbs. Many of them only exist as unincorporated county areas separated from less than fully interested county seats many kilometers away. In its place, the uniquely US phenomenon of the megachurch, huge Protestant congregations of upward of 2,000-10,000 members, is filling the socialization vacuum as a central instrument of group social cohesion, identification and community service.
Even with the megachurches' adoption of modern instruments of communication, such as the Internet, podcasting, and state-of-the-art video and sound projection so that everyone in the huge audience can see and hear the pastor, these institutions are usually profoundly conservative, both in terms of resistance to change of religious doctrine and in terms of how they relate to society's issues of social change such as abortion, homosexuality and marriage.
With all these socially conservative influences in the developing cultures of the exurbs, it is hardly a surprise that their political orientation is conservative as well. Brooks notes how "people in the exurbs, while instinctively apolitical and often cynical about the political process, are, when they vote, overwhelmingly Republican. These places are sometimes 70-30 Republican, and if you look at every state where Republicans scored an upset senatorial victory in 2002 - Georgia, Colorado, and Minnesota, to name a few - they did so with huge gains from the fast-growing exurbs."
This pattern repeated and intensified with the 2004 presidential election between George W Bush and John Kerry. The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute reports that Bush received 62.3% of the exurbia vote in 2004, as opposed to his nationwide percentage of 51%.
However, in selected exurban areas, most notably Florida's Interstate 4 corridor connecting Tampa with Orlando, Bush's vote totals, in some cases approaching 80% of the popular vote, were so large and lopsided as to raise fears of a vote-rigging conspiracy orchestrated by White House political guru Karl Rove. Of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the US, Bush won 97.
In those days there was very good money to be made in building exurbia. With vacant space for new home lots scarce in most of the traditional suburbs, much of the recent activity in the home-construction industry has been in the newer areas. The companies that actually did that construction did very well, indeed.
Starting from under US$5 in 2001, the share price of Toll Brothers, one of the leaders in US home construction, soared upward, reaching just under $60 by the summer of 2005 before heading back down with the current housing bust. Share prices of other home builders, such as Ryland, Centex and Hovnanian, had equally meteoric rises and falls.
Is all of this, exurbia's rise from wildernesses to thriving communities, just another example of American initiative, of the American dream triumphant once again? It might be, were it not for the fact that it's all built on the backs of a criminal enterprise of staggering proportions.
I once asked my students how they were paying for their fancy business-school education. Besides the huge student-loan debt they were all amassing, they described their various labor-intensive employments when not in school.
One said he worked summers doing home construction. Assuming that there was quite a social contrast between this student, always impeccably attired with a fresh Izod under his Burberry, and what must have been his very blue-collar co-workers, I asked the student how he interacted with his fellow builders.
"I don't," he replied. "They all speak Mexican."
"Don't you mean to say that they all speak Spanish?"
"No. The job sites I work on are so dominated by illegal Mexican immigrants that it's like they speak their own specific national language."
This is exurbia's dirty little secret. Its houses were built by people the current residents now don't want anywhere near them.
Mark Thornton, senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and instructor of economics at Auburn University, recently wrote:
Immigrants, particularly illegal Mexican immigrants, have largely found jobs in industries associated with the housing bubble. Immigrants work at jobs in the construction, landscaping, and road-construction industries. Employment in the construction industry alone is currently nearly 2 million jobs above trend (7.7 [million] versus 5.9 million). Of course many of the illegal immigrants are not even counted in such statistics, but just take a look at residential, landscaping, and road-construction sites and you are likely to find many non-English-speaking immigrants.
Thornton goes on to attribute much of the recent boom-bust nature of the housing markets, of which we now are passing through the bust (see my previous articles Rocking the subprime house of cards, Asia Times Online, March 6, and The subprime dominoes in motion, Asia Times Online, March 16), to this factor.
The cheap, illegal (it is against the law to hire illegal immigrants in the US - employers are mandated to take positive actions to confirm either US citizenship or legal residency) foreign labor made home-building so wildly profitable that it encouraged the residential overbuilding that, along with the crunch in demand that is resulting from the crash in the subprime lending market, is now threatening to depress real-estate prices severely.
For a corporate sector whose social conscience extended no further than next quarter's corporate earnings report, illegal Mexican immigrants made the perfect workforce. With many of them leaving their families behind in Mexico, they would work far cheaper than would American workers, and, with the workers being just one phone call to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service away from arrest and deportation, never was heard a discouraging word about minimum wages, workplace safety, workers' compensation, or any of the other New Deal labor-protection regulations that the corporate sector had so long bemoaned, and now had finally found a way to circumvent.
This situation is thick with paradox and hypocrisy; in supporting a draconian immigration crackdown, right-wing white America is rebelling against the builders of the modern-day fundamentalist-anarchist paradises that so many of its voters find so enticing. Just as the Hebrew slaves built the pyramids for the pharaoh, Mexican slaves built exurbia for white, middle-class America.
And just as the people of Egypt were visited with the 10 plagues as punishment for not allowing the Hebrews to leave, the people of exurbia, if they get their wish and a substantial portion of the Mexican illegals are deported, may be visited with a similarly unpleasant modern plague for not allowing the Mexicans to stay. They may finally have to pay a fair market wage to those who perform their manual labor.
Julian Delasantellis is a management consultant, a private investor and an educator in international business in the US state of Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org