Saturday, August 21, 2010

the moral imperative of economic growth

I haven't been following the brouhaha over the Cordoba House/Park 51 very closely. In part this is because when the issue came up I thought some people would say some stupid things and then we would all get on with our lives. But people keep talking about it, from Harry Reid and other prominent Democrats opposing its construction to Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin making some shockingly disgusting utterances. And the opposition to mosques and Muslims is not limited to Lower Manhattan, as this Yahoo story discusses:
Public protests against three planned mosques have made news in the past week: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined others in opposing the building of a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Hundreds demonstrated against a proposed mosque in a small town in Tennessee (pictured above). And some residents of Temecula, California, are opposing the local Muslim community's plan to build a bigger mosque, saying it could become a hotbed of radical Islam.
And something like two-thirds of Americans polled oppose the building of the Cordoba House.

After 09/11/2001 I remember there was a great fear that there would be some dreadful backlash against Muslim-Americans and, at least to my recollection, it just didn't materialize. What's going on now seems like some nine year delayed reaction. One big difference that springs to mind about our relatively enlightened reaction to a terrorist attack (at least in terms of our behavior to Muslims within our borders, if not our foreign policy or surveillance apparatus) nine years ago compared to our current reaction to a building explicitly devoted to interfaith dialogue is the normal state of low unemployment and economic growth then and our high unemployment and stagnant growth now.

Our less-than-generous attitude to immigrants now, in a time of decreased immigration rates, compared to just a few years ago, when prominent politicians from both parties could be found to advocate immigration reform, is another example of the same phenomenon. In times of economic expansion, we appear to be more gracious with one another. In times of stagnation, we're less so. This is the argument Benjamin Friedman apparently makes in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (which I would know if I'd read it, but it's reviewed here by Brad DeLong).

It's striking to me how all these issues are related. High unemployment is not just an issue narrowly for the sake of creating employment for those unemployed; it's an issue broadly for the sake of the rest us. We will become better people again when the economy resumes more robust growth and employment returns to normal. And for those of us concerned about the plight of immigrants, about the religious freedoms and property rights of Muslims, and about our moral growth generally, perhaps the surest way to return to sensibility is to return to prosperity.


  1. I think your recollection is mostly correct, but I remember scattered news stories shortly after 9/11 about Sikhs being mistaken for terrorists and murdered, and riding a train with a woman who was being harassed for wearing hijab. Perhaps the social acceptability of this behavior depends on our economic status.

  2. What you call "gracious" I would call "imprudent to the point of suicidal". And I am sure that eventually we will all pay for it in an inflationary dilution of our life savings.

    As for immigration, current estimates are that if we legalize illegal immigrants and make them entitled to a huge range of social programs, their need is so high, and their ability to pay taxes is so low, that they will cost another $120B/year. Hint: we don't have it, any more than the Greeks do. Our debt/GNP is crawling right up into Greek territory.

    You may view all this as a sort of lit-crit exercise, and feel proud that you noticed that people are not feeling so rich and generous anymore, as if that is just some peculiarity of human psychology that you have illuminated. It is reality, buddy: we are circling the drain, and taking on one more massive obligation on top of all the others we have could easily be the one that results in middle aged people who saved all their lives ending up living in near-poverty. And completely crushing the dreams of young people, who are now trying to get work in a completely moribund economy. The era of happy talk is over, pal.

  3. I recall a pretty decent amount of immediate post-9/11 anti-Muslim (and anti-anyone-else-from-that-part-of-the-world) bigotry. Katherine cited attacks on Sikhs.

    I personally worked security for a mosque in Colorado Springs so they could have Friday prayer on September 14, 2001. They'd received bomb threats and had been vandalized. The mayor and police refused to provide any protection, so it fell to a bunch of citizens to offer a deterrent.

    Point of story: anti-Muslim sentiment was pretty strong in the days after Sept 11, 2001.

    As to your main point -- that the difference is the economic situation -- I'd say that the difference is that all political leaders in 2001 were being very careful to try to keep people from turning vigilante. It's not unlike the Mehserle case, where in the build-up to the verdict *everyone* was saying "No violence! No violence!" and the resulting riots were pretty minor -- despite a worse economy than during the Rodney King riots (although the economy was bad then, too).

    In 2001, even GWB was saying "not all Muslims are bad." Now, as you pointed out, politicians on both sides of the aisle are making statements ranging between ignorant and downright offensive. That makes the simmering anti-Muslim sentiment boil over.

    When they think their words might lead to violence, politicians were a lot more careful about what they say. But when their words only (directly) lead to intolerance and discrimination, they don't care so much.

  4. I remember there being some isolated incidents after 9/11, including harassment of Sikhs. Perhaps my memory is too rose-shaded. That's a pretty nasty anecdote from Colorado Springs.

    While I know influence flows both ways, I think the public mood has more effect on the rhetoric of politicians than vice versa.