Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Post: Immigration and the Gracchi

This post was written by C.L.D., a Global Review reader. While Global Review believes that immigration should be increased, we also believe that opposing views should be juxtaposed. I have added headings and formatting.

Slavery and the End of the Roman Republic
Today one in eight Americans receives food stamps; of these, around 40% have earned income. We enter a brave new world, one in which impossibly low wages force us to create institutional subsidies for the working poor. There are disturbing parallels between this and Rome’s grain dole, which was one of the major factors in ending Roman democracy.

After the Third Punic War, Rome entered a period of rapid economic change. This was rooted in their practice of taking slaves as spoils of war, a practice that rapidly intensified during the late Republic and into the Empire. (55,000 slaves were carried home at the end of that war; a century later, Julius Caesar in one day sold 53,000 slaves—the entire population of a Gallic district he conquered.)

By the middle of the second century BC, Rome was awash in cheap slaves, causing terrible dislocation for its freedmen. Commodity prices slumped and bankrupted small farmers; slaves displaced urban tradesmen. The aristocracy bought up bankrupted landholdings at discounted prices, consolidating them into ever-growing latifundia worked by ever-increasing armies of slaves. Masses of unemployed, hungry people flooded into the stews and hovels of Rome.

Starting in 133 BC, the populist Gracchi brothers initiated a program of land reform to reverse these changes. It was opposed and then violently suppressed. The only Gracchi reform that survived was the grain dole. It was probably the one reform in their package that should have been spiked, since it fuelled the wild political oscillations that killed the Republic.

The grain dole became the usual tool for buying plebian votes and the rallying cry for reactionary aristocrats. Marius used it to consolidate his last consulship, during which he knocked Rome’s civic institutions to the mat. (Crassus had his own take on the matter—being enormously wealthy, he just bought and distributed enough grain to feed all of Rome for three months.) But Julius Caesar brought the grain dole down to a whole new level, using it to pass the Leges Clodiae, which (among other unsavory changes) unleashed mob rule on Rome. Democracy in Rome was dead in the short space of 75 years.

American Stories
How does this relate to 21st century America? Substitute ‘high levels of immigration’ for slavery, and we’re standing where the Gracchi were in 133 BC.

Nobody knows how many slaves there were in late republican Rome. So we can’t look at the percentage of immigrant Americans—about 11% of the total population—to tell us how close we are to a tipping point. But we do know that we’re at historically high levels of immigration, unmatched—by a long shot—by any other period in our nation’s history. We also know that the percentage of uneducated immigrants is increasing at the same time as wages for unskilled labor are dropping.

I know too many people who have been unemployed for over a year in the current recession. A former paralegal friend is now homeless. Another friend, a small-town accountant, experienced a drop in business just as her husband was laid off from his trucking job last fall. He’s doing contract driving (irregular and without benefits) and they struggle along with a sharply reduced income and no health insurance. They are just one disaster away from bankruptcy.

These friends live out of state. But there are two local stories I’d like to share with you.

I have a friend who cleans houses. Her husband had a stable factory job. Both are very hard workers and honest as the day is long. They’ve never been rich but were always able to provide for themselves and their child.

Last fall he was laid off. For the past several months, he’s worked through a temporary agency for a large locally-owned company. Although this company is famous for its excellent employee benefits, he sees none of them.

Their COBRA coverage expires this week. Health insurance would cost $1200/month. But they now earn so little that they qualify for Medicaid. They have cut so close to the bone that they are now budgeting a paltry $30 for groceries for two adults and a child.

Here’s the second example, and it really infuriates me. I know a recent non-English-speaking immigrant who works in an area restaurant. Last summer I was floored to learn that her boss takes half of his employees’ tips. She didn’t know this was illegal, but even with that knowledge, what can she do? She needs the job to survive.

Qui Bono?
So who benefits from these American tragedies? Business owners, of course—in the first case because the government subsidizes labor costs through Medicaid and food stamps, and in the second because the owner knows his immigrant employees are helpless.

In fact, I contend that the primary beneficiaries of massive unskilled immigration into America are the wealthy—those who hire others at less-than-survival wages and rely on government to make up the difference. The primary losers are our unskilled laborers. And the middle class subsidizes this transfer of wealth from poor to rich.

My friends share a deep resistance to taking government aid and shame that they are forced into it. But inevitably they will lose that—they will have to, to survive. We all understand how the grain dole corrupted politics from the top. But it’s equally true that the grain dole corrupted from the bottom, by robbing poor Romans of their sense of civic responsibility. Since democracy rests on the premise of ‘commonwealth’, such a theft is fatal.

The grain dole was a sop in the place of real labor reform. Food stamps and other benefits are sops in lieu of immigration reform.

Further Reading C.L.D. is an artist and active citizen in Rochester.

55 comments:

Mr. Dough said...

So, the staff of Global Review are so engaged with prenuptial arrangements that they are outsourcing their heavy-lifting? Goodness.
Well in any case it's good to know that even in these tough times you are willing to elevate the quality of your discourse in this manner.

Carol L. Douglas said...

More good news for the service sector of the economy:

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aKhExWHYx6Ls&pos=1

Casey said...

Interesting post, compelling historial parallel. The dole itself isn't the real social problem -- it's the conditions which make the dole necessary.

In the time of the Gracchi, Roman soldiers would leave their fields to go to war, and then come back to find that their land had been seized by noblemen, with the tilling done by slaves captured in war. With no other viable employment (the internet not having been created at the time), they were stuck in poverty. That's what revolutions are made of.

The only problem with the Roman - US parallels is that our economy is less linked to our military conquest. Instead of formal military power, we use informal economic and diplomatic power. We don't conquer and enslave other countries -- we just employ their citizens at slave wages, if you'll permit that poetic excess.

Anyways, enough rambling there. Good article.

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