Super Polarise Me:  Why can’t we have a sensible conversation about immigration?

Have you ever made a reasonable point about immigration, only to be immediately derided as some sort of ‘bigoted asshole’ or ‘deluded liberal’?

You could be exactly one of those things. Or, you could be neither.

It could be you are just trying to make sense of a world most of which you only know through newspapers or television. Maybe you have already picked a ‘side’ thinking there were only two options; a false dilemma presented via limited media offerings.

Deluded liberals have been ‘telling off’ bigoted assholes for a while now, and as such many bigoted assholes have learned to STFU and wait to express themselves at the ballot box – a place they can make a whole heap of collective noise without fear of public shaming.

It started about 20 years ago when the children of bigoted assholes voted in a new round of bigoted assholes to represent them. Fearing a shrinking support base, representatives of bigoted assholes took a new approach; looking outward, they no longer rallied against the new found rights of the indigenous persons, but instead sought to demonize newly arrived minorities.

In 1996, bigoted assholes voted Pauline Hanson into the Australian Parliament. In New Zealand, Winston Peters morphed into a bigoted asshole. Then the bigoted assholes gave Jean-Marie Le Pen a shot at becoming French President. A decade or so later, the biggest bigoted asshole of them all was elected President of the United States.

There is no shortage of academic literature, often written by deluded liberals, explaining how the politicians representing bigoted assholes have come to be so powerful. But very little of it critiques how they themselves, those within the intelligentsia, have failed to usefully reason with bigoted assholes.   

On the campaign trail, deluded liberals want anything from dramatic increases in immigrants to literally open borders. They will point to the hopelessness that pervades developing countries and the misery of war torn nations, they demand that we agree to take more refugees than ever before and ask fewer questions on their arrival. Quite often, deluded liberals don’t believe in God, but they are willing to import thousands of immigrants that do.

Anyone that dares question the moral superiority of deluded liberals will immediately be labelled a bigot, or in fact, a bigoted asshole.

Rather disingenuously, bigoted assholes will often suggest that before accepting foreigners, we should do a better job ‘looking after our own’. The bigoted asshole will point to inequality at home, despite regularly voting for parties that offer virtually no respite for those in need.  More often than not, the bigoted asshole will have a disproportionate fear of terrorism and will link that to immigrants.

At best, bigoted assholes seem oblivious to the fact that if it were not for immigrants working in our hospitals, IT departments, aged care and correctional facilities, our core public services would be in a perpetual state of crisis.  

Bigoted assholes and deluded liberals have one thing in common though, they are tribal in their beliefs.

The polemic nature of immigration debates (all over the Western world) results in the ‘shout down’ of some fairly reasonable quantitative measures, while populists dog whistle to the lowest common denominators of their base and ensure that any meaningful discussions will quickly devolve into a spectacle where race and culture are conflated and confused.

The brinkmanship of absolute collective denial that these two groups exhibit then crowds out the public debate in every possible way.  

The plague of polarization extends throughout the Anglosphere and acts to stifle any constructive discussion about how we best integrate new migrants into our respective democracies. The media then feeds this chasm of political cooperation by frequently reporting the immigration politics in other parts of the West, through practically useless 60 second sound bites that provide virtually no critical perspective.

Politically, the bigoted assholes are winning. But they are aided by deluded liberals who have long since abandoned ‘real politics’ for deeper and more abstract philosophical discourse.

So why is it we can’t we have a sensible conversation about immigration?  

Is it entirely unworkable that we expect migrants to uphold [insert name of liberal democracy here] values?

Instead of scoffing at the proposition, are liberals really sure that we can’t identify a small but crucial set of values that potential immigrants will need to share if they are to flourish in their adopted country?  

Is it fair to say that these values that form a part of our liberal democracy, are not always the construct of dark hegemonic forces – and that to dismiss them in such a manner is, frankly, absurd?

Meanwhile, can the bigoted assholes accept how useless ‘citizenship tests’ are, particularly when they themselves would be unlikely to pass such a test?

Could they ponder for a moment the ridiculousness of having a test that evaluates someone’s adherence to white anglo norms in a land where their ancestors invaded and displaced those that once had their own set of norms?

Can we not critically evaluate issues that are linked to immigration without such discussions immediately devolving into an ideological shit fight?

It doesn’t seem that way.

I have some ideas, but I don’t want to labelled a deluded liberal or a bigoted asshole.

TL;DR?  Bigoted assholes want more assurances, deluded liberals want a more caring approach to migrants – these two things are needn’t be mutually exclusive of one another.

Peek-a-Boo! Aren’t you a cute widdle taxpayer…

Tax cuts bring voters to the yard the same way babies are enchanted by a game of peek-a-boo, and a good game of peek-a-boo never gets old. The theory surrounding peek-a-boo’s longevity is ‘object permanence’. In other words, babies find the game fun because there is an element of predictability about the outcome.

Last week New Zealand’s Prime Minister Bill English traded questionable pizza toppings for adulthood by popping up on TV to ‘surprise’ the country’s voters. English stated that if the trajectory toward surpluses continues, taxes in one form or another will continue to fall. The excitement among middle class New Zealand was palpable, and it is perhaps one of the many reasons National has been coasting toward a 4th term in Government.

Not everyone is happy though. Some New Zealanders are contending, or dare I say lecturing, the rest of the country in what they believe is being overlooked; government expenditure will need to be increased in real terms if core public services are to be maintained at the rate which they are currently.

So in times of ‘excess’ milk & honey, Governments can either hand money back (in the way Mr English has prescribed), pump it into public services or put some of it aside for a rainy day. In essence, that is the crossroads New Zealand is at right now, we are hauling in about 2% more than we are spending which leads to a question of what we should do with the leftovers.

To inform that discussion we should perhaps be looking across the ditch.

In Australia, the opposite is taking place. With an economy no longer buoyant from activity in the resources sector, growth has been stalling while budget deficits have become the norm. Meanwhile, the public have enjoyed tax cuts in the past decade furthered by both major political parties.

To reverse such deficits the Australian government has 3 options at its disposal:

1. Further rein in costs; or
2. Issue debt; or
3. Grow revenue.

In other words, once all that possible ‘efficiency’ in the public service has been realised (option 1) the government can either fund excess spending through loans (option 2) or increased taxation (option 3).

And that is where Australian politicians are trapped; however you look at it, tax increases are political suicide. If you’re a millennial voter in Australia, the effective personal tax rate paid by your parents has only ever fallen throughout your lifetime. So, good luck telling millennials that their taxes need to increase at the same time they’re trying to save 80k for the deposit on a house. Equally, you will get short shrift telling boomers they will need to open their wallet at the exact time they are making a final dash toward retirement. That only leaves deficits, and a government that campaigned on ending them.

The conditioning of voters to accept tax increases under no circumstances is a concern that has frustrated both economists and academics alike, “Why do Joe Public continually demand tax cuts and still expect the central government to provide a high quality of services?”. In a recent Political Science Association Conference I recall similar sentiments; academic staff were musing as to whether the public understand how the ‘social contract’ extends to taxation. “Have these ghastly neoliberal oligarchs brainwashed the populace into believing that lower personal taxes will lead to unfettered, year on year prosperity for all and sundry?” cried one, into his empty champagne flute.

Irrespective of the cause, rhyme or reason, increasing taxes to cover shrinking revenue, after years of reducing them in various ways, is a bit like changing up a game of peek-a-boo. Suggesting that taxes be increased to pay for stuff may sound plausible, but it creates uncertainty, which makes the game less fun. In effect, it would be akin to disappearing mid peek-a-boo and then having another adult continue the game.

So, if Mr English does indeed win in September he’ll need to decide how long he wishes to keep up the game with taxpayers before the political establishment becomes locked into a cycle of deficits. Because if it gets to that point, the toys really will go out of the cot.

TL;DR? Taxes are more offensive than spaghetti pineapple pizza, but if we keep cutting them, so help your God if we never need to raise them.