Beyond borders

My stance on international migration has probably earned me more criticism in recent times than just about anything else. At one extreme, I was taken to task by a commentator on here a couple of years ago for not endorsing the ‘obvious’ point that Britain should deport people on a ‘last in, first out’ basis until the population more closely approximated a plausible long-term carrying capacity. At the other extreme, when I said in a talk I gave recently that international migration was ‘an issue’, I was taken to task by an audience member for implicitly accepting the framing of immigration by the political right – so in this view, immigration is only ‘an issue’ if one chooses to define it as such. And at the middle extreme, I was also taken to task here recently in the context of my criticisms of Jane O’Sullivan’s dubious take on population, poverty and immigration for failing to offer policy proposals for limiting immigration that matched O’Sullivan’s ‘pragmatism’ (not the word I’d choose…)

International migration, then, is controversial every which way you choose to look at it. So let me take a deep breath and try to define a pragmatism of my own around the issue (or the ‘issue’, if you prefer). Pressure of other work has prevented me from working this up quite as fully as I’d like – please accept my apologies.

My starting position is that I don’t particularly welcome large-scale global migration as a good thing in itself. I welcome small-scale migration, because a little bit of churn, some cross-fertilization of people’s minds (and bodies) strikes me as a good tonic for humanity. And I dislike guards, high wire fences, passports, visas and all the paraphernalia of border control – partly because it offends the libertarian part of my soul that thinks people should be able to go more or less where they please, partly because these border control dynamics are the sharp end of what Kapka Kassabova calls “the countless ways in which nationalism doesn’t work” in her superb evocation of the Balkan borderlands (once geared to containing people within Eastern Europe, now geared to keeping people out of it)1, and partly because I find the misery inflicted around borders unconscionable at a simple human level . But ultimately I don’t regard large-scale human movement as an especially positive thing in itself. I’d prefer to see a world where almost everyone can choose to go where they please, and where most people choose to stay more or less where they’re from. So I’d endorse what Jahi Chappell called in a comment on this site ‘the human right not to have to migrate’. Why shouldn’t every place where anyone comes from be, for them, the best place in the world to be?

But meanwhile in the real world about 257 million people globally live in a country other than the one of their birth. Does that constitute ‘large-scale’ migration? Well, at about 3% of the entire global population it’s not as large as some folks would have you believe, but it’s still a lot of people – and of course the distribution of these migrants globally isn’t uniform. At around 50 million, the USA has the largest number of international migrants by a distance. My country, the UK, comes in sixth with about 9 million. Contrast that with, say, Vietnam – a mere 76,000 migrants, or 0.1% of its population. The graph below shows international migrants as a percentage of the total population for the world’s countries ranked by GDP per capita from lowest GDP at the left of the x-axis to highest GDP at the right.

% International migrants by country ranked by GDP per capita

Source: World Development Indicators and UN International Migration Report3

The graph shows pretty clearly that migrants tend to go to the economically wealthy countries. Here’s where the politics kicks in. If you think that the wealthy countries

(a) have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps

(b) suffer economically as a result of international in-migration

(c) have something called an ‘indigenous population’ which is unproblematically identifiable and bears superior civic rights over migrants

then chances are you’ll not be keen on international migration. But if, like me, you think that the wealth of the rich countries is bought to a considerable extent through the poverty of the poorer ones, or that the crises of war, famine and militarized global resource extraction that impel migration are compounded by global power politics dominated by the rich countries, then the case for migration from poor to rich countries is harder to gainsay, regardless of its other implications. Perhaps I’d add in passing that those of us who try to make the case for small-scale farming are inured to the counter-arguments that ‘nobody wants to farm any more’ and that peasants have ‘voted with their feet’ by moving from the impoverished countryside to the more remunerative cities. Neither of these assertions are entirely true, but it’s funny how this ‘voting with their feet’ line of argument seems to dry up at the border, when those people who were extolled for ‘voting with their feet’ in their search for a better life in the richer city are suddenly demonized when they ‘vote with their feet’ by seeking a better life in a richer country.

Anyway, my preferred political solution to the ‘issue’ of international migration would start through rigorous control of global capital flows, so that the ability of capital to create value is largely restricted to where it’s generated. This would incentivize capital to serve the creation of sustainable local livelihoods, and remove at a stroke a large part of the incentives for migration from poor to rich countries, because the difference between them would narrow – which is not, of course, the outcome that those wanting to sustain ‘our’ quality of life in the rich countries seek, but it’s the more ethical outcome, and ultimately the more sustainable one.

But it’s not going to happen, is it? There’s no internationalism in the politics of the rich countries, no political force impelling us to limit our depredations on other countries, on the biosphere and ultimately on ourselves except self-serving fantasies that the poor countries will be able to ‘develop’ in the future just as the rich ones did in the past (but more sustainably). Until there is, I’d express my views on international migration at a human level in this blessing to those on the lowest rung of the migrant ladder, the undocumented: may you be invisible to every border guard, slip through every obstacle placed in your way, find a safe, warm berth in every truck or ship you try to stow away in, reach the place that you seek and achieve the life you dream of.

But, human empathy aside, I spy some wider political possibilities in emerging patterns of global migration. Let me broach them with reference to the conservative political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), who I mentioned briefly in a recent post. Schmitt permanently disgraced himself by allying with the Nazis but has nevertheless remained influential among thinkers of various political stripes. Famously, he defined the political as the realm of pure sovereign decision (the law doesn’t define or circumscribe the sovereign – the sovereign defines the law) which is articulated against an enemy and around a political community of friendship.

A vast amount of political energy has been expended around the world in the past couple of centuries in trying to make the physical borders of any number of sovereign states coterminous with a concept of ‘the nation’ as an organic community of friendship. This nationalist invention of the nation has been enormously successful, but as per Kassabova mentioned above, it can never completely succeed – the binary of the border always masks ambivalences. For his part, Schmitt didn’t claim an inherent equivalence between his concept of ‘friendship’ and national identity. So let me offer you a narrative of how global migration might play out in the future through a Schmittian lens.

Take, for example, the migrant caravan that’s been so exercising President Trump, which has been impelled among other things by the effects of climate change in Central America. At present, the USA will find it easy to repulse the migrants from its borders and to demonize them as undesirables. But there will be more caravans in the future – in the USA, in Europe, in anywhere offering an obvious portal away from danger and poverty and towards the possibility of greater wellbeing.

Chances are, some of these future caravans will be better armed than present ones, and will come with a well-developed theory about the sources of their troubles which is likely to make them mightily pissed off with the rich countries they’re trying to enter. They will bring their own sovereignty with them, they will not be impressed by immigration control policies and it is not foreordained that they will lose all their skirmishes at the border. Over the next thirty years, 140 million people may be forced to migrate as a result of climate change, and many millions more may decide to ‘vote with their feet’ in search of a better life no matter that rich westerners dismiss them as mere ‘economic migrants’.

So it seems likely that those who want to keep migrants out of the wealthy countries are going to have their hands full in the years to come trying to stop the dam from bursting. Currently, this brigade has powerful political friends in the form of wealthy, faux-populist politicians like Donald Trump and Britain’s merry band of Tory Brexiteers for whom immigrants are a convenient scapegoat for the spiraling inequalities of their own economic policies. They’re happy to ramp up the rhetoric of the national community of ‘friends’ on this side of the border holding the line against the ‘enemies’ pressing in from the other. If they’re smart, they’ll back this up with redistributive policies that put some money where their mouths are and provide tangible support for the ‘hard-working families’ that they seek to co-opt into this discourse of nationalist ‘friendship’. This may buy them some time, but it’ll be difficult to do because global capital demands its returns, and economic power is ebbing from them. If they don’t redress inequality, I suspect the fiction of national friendship will unravel. As the contradictions multiply, the rhetoric will no doubt amplify into increasingly militaristic, grievance-laden and ultra-nationalist doctrines about a people’s destiny and the enemies of the nation, including ‘enemies within’ who aren’t signed up to the program. Well, nationalism fools a lot of people, but following Lincoln’s “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time” dictum, I’d like to think that this ultra-nationalism – whose harbingers we’ve already seen in outline from the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers – may not sway enough of the people, and will in any case offer such an unattractive vision of social life that the ‘friends’ within may start to wonder if they wouldn’t be better off jumping ship in favor of the ‘enemy’ barbarians at the gate, who they may have more in common with.

All of this will probably be compounded by political change in the countries of the ‘semi-periphery’, especially ones on the doorstep of the core countries, like Mexico and Turkey. Currently, these semi-peripheral countries have a stake in cosying up to the core as a way of improving their own economic status, but in the world to come the current pretense that ‘developing’ countries can become ‘developed’ will be exhausted. Who knows what turbulent politics and desperate allegiances may arise in these Manichean circumstances? What seems clear is that Jane O’Sullivan’s view that keeping migrants out of rich countries like Australia in order to preserve ‘our’ quality of life may not be a wise long-term bet. If you follow her line, throw in your lot with the nationalists, and then find yourself on the wrong side of the ensuing (literal or figurative) war then a Schmittian fate might await you – you have become the enemy of the new sovereign power. Of course, you may find yourself with the nationalists on the winning side, which is fine for you if you can bear to live in the country they’ll create and don’t overly care about those outside your tent. Either way, there’s no hiding place and no second guessing the outcome. And the stakes are bigger than sustaining ‘our’ quality of life, both personally and collectively. So I won’t enter the lists of the debate as to whether international migration is a net positive or negative under current economic realities, because I think it’s irrelevant to the socioeconomic realities that will soon be upon us, and it’s sure as hell irrelevant to the migrants.

Over the longer pulse of human history it seems clear to me that we need to create societies more strongly grounded in sustainable local economic potentialities, with less liquid capital held as a bet against the future. One way this might occur is with the kind of anti-nationalist alliances with incoming migrants I mentioned above, where established local populations make ‘friends’ with incoming migrants against the ‘enemy’ of extractive elite state actors who are giving little back – probably in circumstances like the ‘supersedure state’ that I’ve discussed elsewhere, where the provision of state services is in retreat and people are making politics up as they go along using political traditions like civic republicanism, the more so under the impress of new arrivals who further scramble existing property relations and help build the impetus for local self-reliance. Am I being naïve? Of course I am – in many places, this kind of situation will be a recipe for naked conflict, and the chances that capitalist meltdown alongside an uptick in migrant flows won’t lead to bloodshed anywhere seem minimal. That remains true whatever immigration policies rich countries now enact. But, as historically with Kassabova’s Balkan borderlands, the periodic reassembly of peoples and political economies does sometimes occur and create new political constellations. These are the moments when Schmitt’s realm of sovereignty goes soft and malleable – a time to forge new friendships and sever ties with old state actors whose friendly mask has slipped.

In these circumstances, people who find ways of sharing the possibilities and the skills for creating local livelihoods will bring more to the table than people who want to defend their local culture against incomers (culture is inherently fluid in any case – once you feel the need to ‘defend’ it, you’ve almost certainly lost the battle, or are hiding an economic agenda that has little to do with ‘culture’ as such). This is why in relation to recent discussions of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’ I’d frame the responsibility of migrants not in terms of some ineffable cultural criteria or oath of loyalty but a more republican sensibility, laid out by Iseult Honohan, of “a declared and evident intention to remain living in the country. Immigrants should make the attempt to adapt to their adopted country, not so much because they are ‘last in’, but because they need to make their future together with other citizens, rather than just coexist with them”2.

In the kind of world I’m describing, the way to make a future together will be to build a resilient economy together – to grow food and fiber, to make shelter, to build institutions. This will involve common material practice – an easier basis to make common cause with others than some reified notion of one’s ‘culture’. And this also must be the answer to the objection that immigrants will create too much pressure on local resources. In most places, labor is still the key resource that brings forth the capacity to provide for ourselves.

Presently, ‘centrist heavyweights’ among politicians seem to be falling over themselves to endorse the anti-immigrant line of the right-populists in order to regain influence, since they lack any political analysis of the global forces behind inequality and migration. Much the same goes for those thinkers and writers who lack a political analysis of the global forces behind poverty, population growth and international migration. I think these positionings will be blown away by the more radical political dynamics that are impending. Perhaps it says something when the best centrist soundbite comes from Emmanuel Macron: “Nationalism is inherently treasonous. In saying ‘our interests first, and forget the others’, we lose the most important part of the nation: its moral values.”


  1. Kassabova, K. 2017. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta, p.139.
  2. Honohan, I. 2002. Civic Republicanism. Routledge, p.287.

97 thoughts on “Beyond borders

  1. I wonder. Reading the tea leaves is always a fraught undertaking. And I have no better cup to gaze into on the matter. But current events seem to be flexing at incredible speed. And all this international populism may be burning up right before our eyes (for many different reasons).

    Burning before our eyes – as in Paradise Lost (or burnt to a crisp). The populist head of state here pays a visit… and doesn’t even know the name of the place. He is up to his eyeballs in potential grief from the 2016 election… which if that doesn’t take him out then the revolving door of the West Wing might pinch him. Still not mentioned widely here, the thought that his ticker could surrender prematurely over all the abuse it takes. Where is this wall we were promised? The midterm election from last month put a serious impediment in front of it. A wall against the Wall one might suggest.

    If the news feeds I’ve seen are even the slightest bit truthful then it seems the PM of the UK is struggling to maintain her political relevance. Not suggesting that Ms May is a populist on a par with Mr Trump… but events of a mere year ago would likely not lead too many to accurately predict what is happening at this very moment. Even Mr Macron seems to be struggling with yellow jackets in his back yard, a development that few might have seen coming 12 months ago.

    The Guardian interviews with Clinton, Blair, and Renzi are fine journalism in one sense, but I wonder if they are already too out of date. Change is coming so rapidly.

    The examples I’ve listed here relate to specific persons and I’ve not attempted to address some of the underlying zeitgeist that lead to their positions of power. Nationalistic fervor might well survive a few pols being cast aside. But the optimist in me imagines that a handful more missteps will do a couple things to start the pendulum back toward some sort of sanity… On one hand the ugliness all around will awaken more and more who have watched somewhat quietly thus far (for example – the resurgence of the left in the US House) and on the other hand some who welcomed the advent of populism and its attendant promises will only ‘stay the course’ so long.

    I like most of Chris’ prescriptions offered here about holding out a hand for migratory fellow humans. They seem quite sensible and humane. But I also hold out hope that predictions suggesting such enormous displacements are just as wrong as some of the populist demagoguery currently struggling to maintain a place in the human conversation of the day.

    There is an expression employed around here that might help illustrate where my thoughts are headed. When a building is attacked by an active shooter, most advice is that folks inside should ‘shelter in place’. As the prospects of climate change and North vs. South Globalized political realities play the roll of active shooter it might be best for many to seek their shelter in place. Help needs to be forthcoming of course. If the dizzying pace of current trends are any indication, help may well be here sooner than some expect.

  2. Chris – need a little help… trying to figure out how you made (or where you found) the figure here in your post. I got a copy of reference 3 and skimming through I’m not finding GDP data. And I might be looking at this wrong or have a different draft because in Figure 3 of the document I have they list the UK at the 5th spot (vs 6th as you write) for 2017 hosting numbers (in 9th spot for data from 2000). Not suggesting this materially alters your argument, just trying to poke around the dataset myself and wondering where I’ve gone off the trail.

  3. From the perspective of a migrant:

    “Migrants face multiple systems that perpetuate their marginalization and exclusion. In our home countries, we confront systemic discrimination on the basis of skin color, language, ethnic or social status. We are confronted with unfair government systems that are incapable of providing us with safety, protections, or justice. Our farming systems are continuously dismantled in favor of commodity cash-crops for international exports… These projects are destroying millenary agricultural systems; polluting lands and rivers and driving migrants north in a quest for opportunities and to defend an inherent right to self-determination.”

    “Constrained by environmental disruption, displaced from our lands and sources of livelihood, while restricted to a few economic spheres, we engage in a process of forced or coerced migration. Whether economic refugees or those suffering hunger, violence and famine, coerced migration includes those involuntary victims of trafficking and all other categories of involuntary migration. It is a commonly held belief that migration is prompted by better economic opportunities and better employment prospects, to achieve the dream! Every migrant under this scenario must hold a visa, a passport and must follow the “legal entryway.” Forced migration, on the contrary, is characterized by the urgent need to free ourselves, to find a way out of poverty and exploitation, an urgent quest for self-determination. By challenging these exploitative circumstances, we are coerced into becoming landless, stateless and criminalized.”

    Agroecological Approaches to Poverty, Migration and Landlessness
    Alma Maquitico

  4. Difficult and timely topic. Thanks for tackling it, Chris. I would go along with small scale migration, but that is not in the offing right now.

    And I’d like to know how to make any sense of migration without borders. Like psychological boundaries, physical boundaries make the world livable. If your neighbor is free to barge into your house any time he pleases, everything breaks down. First your sanity, among other things. Then a comes the desire for the strongman to set it to rights, and if the police won’t, where will you turn?

    I agree that some wealth we have inherited was made by plundering other places, but I think that much of this wealth was made because the “Western” societies were able to create a social order where attention to what works (competence), and relationships of trust were, after many centuries of struggle and sacrifice, put in place, however imperfectly. Letting these same places flood with strangers who come in to feed off this system without having any intention nor values nor skills that can further sustain it bodes very ill — for us and for them. Except, of course, for those who come just to loot.

    Capital flows. How would you localize them? Is there something practical in the offing? If so, I would support it.

    Nationalism is not treasonous. Treasonous is Macron. How would you differentiate localism and nationalism in reference to the Republic of Wessex? If Wessex does not have boundaries that it is capable of defending, then rich urbal toffs will flood in, buy up all the nicely kept rural land, and build their insane ecomodernist (and worse) dreams on it. Or am I missing something?

    I don’t think it helps your post not to mention the fact that the caravan heading for the States has been organized by various NGOs encouraging people to uproot and be bused north, and these NGO activists, from the snippets I have seen, have encouraged them to hate the country they are trying to get into. Nor that you don’t mention Islam.

    And finally, I am a forced migrant — someone who did not go after bettering one’s economic situation. I managed to leave a brutal system that turned my country into a punitive labor camp behind razor wire. It took some doing to do it legally (from the western side; on the eastern side I was sentenced in absentia to one year of jail for leaving the country illegally), but then, that was part of the social contract, mostly. It kept a livable balance between chaos and order.

    The last thing to add would be that migration is not what it’s cracked out to be. To lose your own mooring, your neighbors, your extended family, your culture of place, the people who would have been your trusted mentors in adulthood, etc. is not a pleasant or life-enhancing experience, and if given what I know now, I am not sure if I would have chosen it.

    • vera said:
      I don’t think it helps your post not to mention the fact that the caravan heading for the States has been organized by various NGOs encouraging people to uproot and be bused north, and these NGO activists, from the snippets I have seen, have encouraged them to hate the country they are trying to get into. Nor that you don’t mention Islam.

      Do you have links to any of these snippets you’ve seen?

      While I’m being curious, may I wonder how it is you feel Macron is treasonous?

      I will agree with you that Nationalism in and of itself may not be treasonous (unless of course the local jurisdiction specifically makes it so), but I think a better approach is to recognize there is some need for a Peace Officer, and while we’re at it, some need for sufficient support for maintaining the peace. After securing the peace is there really a need for hate mongering, racism, and other forms of inter-societal feuding and fighting? I’d suggest there really isn’t. But there are historical accounts of Nationalist movements that have lead to such misery. Not all Nationalists are evil, but those who are should be called out as such.

      • Clem, there are vids on youtube of the caravan people burning the American flag. Since the people that are ferrying them overland are not known for their admiration of America (oh, you might also pick up endless vids of various activists chanting about KKK and America. They even popped up on Resilience, before Resilience went over to sneaky censorship. Not that those would be the ones they’d censor…) I don’t imagine those vids were photoshopped.

        Can ideologies be treasonous? I think people can. Macron has betrayed the trust and confidence of the French. Viz his ratings. What are they? 18%? Bloomberg says “freefall”. Viz the protests against him and his policies. You don’t see it? As for the carbon taxes, I saw a Marie Anoinette joke go by that said, “Let them ride bicycles!” 🙂 We are talking rural and often fairly remote populations here that are bitterly against it. (The urban toffs, plundering the hinterlands as usual.)

        And since you are mentioning securing the peace, that is exactly what Macron is not doing. And this is just the beginning.

  5. Lots to chew on here.
    One thing to keep in mind is the “flow” rate of migration. At the linked U.N. report from note three, a migrant is someone living elsewhere that their country of birth. So a young child, having migrated to another country, will show in the statistics until they die. Obvious, but the longer someone is in a new country, the more they acculturate and assimilate, so the potential for conflict and disruption to shared societal norms decreases. A large influx will be disruptive in ways that a slow steady flow will not, and yet in statistical records, the numbers will look the same.

    Another point: In the end, any evaluation of the appropriateness or impact of migration needs to consider the carrying capacity at both local and nation state levels. Much to say here, but fossil fuels and improved medical knowledge have us well over the global carrying capacity, and how we return to mean will play out in unpredictable, but probably disastrous ways.

    As the capitalist economy continues to result in extractive and commodity cash crop corporate methods, mass migration is but one aspect of reaping the whirlwind which we now see unfolding. As Chris mentions on regulation of global capital flows, “But it’s not going to happen, is it?”

    • “Obvious, but the longer someone is in a new country, the more they acculturate and assimilate, so the potential for conflict and disruption to shared societal norms decreases. A large influx will be disruptive in ways that a slow steady flow will not, and yet in statistical records, the numbers will look the same.”

      True for some ethnicities, not true for others. Which numbers will look the same? Rapine, murder and pillage, for example? If they did, Sweden would not be keeping them off the record.

      Yes, return to the mean, probably very disastrous ways.

  6. Thanks for the comments. Clem, you’re right that the UK is ranked 5th and not 6th – schoolboy Excel error on my part – apologies. The GDP data isn’t in the UN report – I took them from the World Development Indicators dataset –

    ‘Shelter in place’ in a world where the strong showed more compassion for the weak makes some sense, but as outlined above I’m not seeing its genesis in current global politics. I too am hopeful of seeing the back of many of the current crop of ‘populists’…but populism for me needn’t intrinsically be a dirty word, though it’s certainly been dirtied by some of the people operating or defined under its banner. I’m not sure traditional socialism or social democracy has the answers any more, however…

    Vera, I think we’re a long way apart on the matter of how global inequalties have been generated and reproduced, on nationalism (as I said above, I’m not in sympathy with the binaries by which state and nation are ideologically conjoined, almost always to the detriment of ‘enemies within’, though the detriment can be a greater or a lesser one), and on ‘Islam’, which I don’t see as hugely relevant to this issue. If it’s true that people in the migrant caravan are burning the US flag, then I guess it suggests that the changing nexus of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ I described above is already upon us…my point is that it’s not as obvious as ‘we’ often suppose that the flag-burning ‘them’ are ‘our’ true enemies. I’m not persuaded that, generally, ‘they’ have no good intentions and are coming to ‘loot’ – I see the greater danger, as you rightly say, in the power of urban capital and the best defense in local alliances against it. Better still is the localization of capital flows, which is easily done through various protectionist measures in a world of local economic sovereignty, but not so easily done in a world of global financial institutions – the danger of local protectionism of course being that you merely exchange a global elite for a local one. Part of the dark humor of the Brexit process has been observing the slowly dawning realization among many in the UK that being part of a strong trading bloc involving protectionism at home and neoliberalism abroad has brought economic benefits to us and disbenefits to people elsewhere in the world that will even out as we wave goodbye to the EU, while the Tory ultra-Brexiteers seek to impose a low-wage, low-regulation neoliberalism of their own on Britain’s embattled working class.

    I agree with Vera on the complexities of the migrant experience and the fact that even the happier endings aren’t always so happy…though I think the quotations from Steve are a salutary reminder of what’s generally impelling the process.

    • Some background and a call for a “return to national democratic control over the movement of capital…to improve local livelihoods and social and environmental conditions”:

      “In the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s the OECD countries pursued policies of full employment and the building of stronger social safety networks. What helped make this possible was a system of national controls on capital movement and credit allocation. After the war virtually all countries in the world, except the US, had extensive controls on capital outflows, inflows, or both.”

      “…However, today’s globalization of financial movements and capital investment has increased the power of transnational business and finance to set a different agenda. Their demand is that the goal of full employment be replaced by that of controlling inflation and ensuring international competitiveness. Reducing controls on capital, and the increased pressures of globalization, were the means by which this dramatic shift in political and economic priorities occurred.”

      “…There has therefore never been a better time to demand that capital remains predominantly where it is generated in order to fund sustainable development and create jobs.”

      “…In the end, a return to national democratic control over the movement of capital is the key to providing the money for governments and communities both North and South to improve local livelihoods and social and environmental conditions.”

      Localization: A Global Manifesto
      Colin Hines, 2013

  7. That migration report from the UN shows India as the country of origin for the most international migrants in 2017, while the UK is 10th on the list (Figure 7). Yet, the numbers reveal that the migrants from India are equivalent to only 1% of the current population of India, while the migrants from the UK are equivalent to 7% of the current UK population. Interesting to see so many migrants coming from the UK, approaching Mexico’s 10% of current population. (By the way, the UK produces only about 50% of its food, while India’s production of food is more like 100% or more, being a net exporter of agricultural products in recent years.)

  8. A fine post Chris. Your’s may be a ‘pragmatic’ perspective, but it’s also a truly humane one, often a quality that the p-word is deliberately mobilised against. Also nice to see the Marxist part of your background shining through here – solidarity with immigrants, and ‘anti-nationalist’ alliances against ‘elite extractors’ – bravo!

    On which note, I think it’s entirely correct that several commenters have focused on your proposal to control global capital flows, ‘so that the ability of capital to create value is largely restricted to where it’s generated’. You worry that this won’t happen, and I’m sure you’re right, because it assumes that the capitalist model will continue to function at the local level, incentivised ‘to serve the creation of sustainable local livelihoods’. Capital primarily seeks profitability, and so will never seek ultimately to create sustainable local livelihoods. Steve’s quotes from Colin Hines make a golden age of the 1950s and 60s, but I think the real lesson there is that capital found ways to break out of it in the late 70s, and would always seek to do the same in similar socially-focused investment situations. So I’d also ask for a bit of explicit Marxism here as well – you’re basically seeking a post-capitalist world.

    On immigrants, the degree to which they are treated differently to ‘sedants’ (which may not be an actual word, but I will use it as if it is) seems ultimately to boil down to the importance given to the claim that ‘I was here first’. Obviously this claim seems pretty irrefutable when used against someone trying to set up home in your house – one of the few points I think Vera and I would agree on. But I would suggest that the major part of one’s social world, wherever it happens to be, is actually pretty negotiable to a greater or lesser extent, and that the fact of who was there first will turn out to be pretty unhelpful in resolving most disagreements or problems.

    To that extent I think it’s rather interesting that primacy is usually given to the sedant’s way of doing things, as in the idea of a migrant’s ‘assimilation’ to his or her ‘host’ society. Such primacy is not explicitly based on an analysis of whose way is ‘better’ in any given situation, but is simply asserted. A local politics based on CR would explicitly politicise many parts of the local social world, and so, I hope, would tend to overcome this sort of knee-jerk ‘primacy of the sedant’ by discussing the relative virtues of different ways forward based on their merits.

    With that in mind, I’d want to alter Honohan’s framing of the responsibility of migrants to relate just as much to sedants: “Immigrants and sedants should make the attempt to adapt to each other in their shared country, because they need to make their future together as citizens, rather than just coexist alongside each other”.

    One final point is a kind of back to basics perspective. People enter communities in one of two ways: by travelling into them or by being born into them. It seems to me that the latter are given an easy ride if they are considered naturally ‘native’ when compared to the former, especially as the ‘generational divide’ is such an evident feature of our current political situation. The time is ripe for politicising community, and for levelling the playing field for all who participate within it.

    • Andrew –
      I think there is an argument to made for the ‘primacy of the sedant’ as you describe it… at least a sufficient argument to perhaps obviate the need to characterize it as ‘knee-jerk’.

      I’ve been a migrant on several occasions – at least at the level of migrating from one community to another. All my migrations have been of my own volition, so I’m not crying any sort of displacement from cruel conditions. I lay this as foundation that even though all of my moves have occurred in geographies somewhat familiar to previous personal experience (i.e., language, agricultural tradition, economic and political organization)… there were (still are) many important differences in how life is lived in detail on a daily basis. I have repeatedly found it very advantageous to defer to the ‘sedant’ population in almost all situations where local mores influenced how relationships would be carried out. I presently live in a community where other ‘immigrants’ like myself constitute a majority. And on more than one occasion have found myself seeking the advice or experience of the sedant members of the community for hints concerning why certain features of the landscape exist as they do. There is often some very significant wisdom to be found among the native and longer term members of a location. In our community this longer term wisdom would be in danger of loss if only democratic considerations were allowed.

      I agree that over time there needs to be balance and an evolution in cultural development at the local scale. People will always need to live within the moment at hand and mutual respect will make this possible. But like the respect many cultures dote on their elders – I think the ‘elder’ experience of ‘sedant’ members of a community needs to be appreciated at some level.

      • Clem, I think we’re close to the same page on this, so I don’t want to be too disagreeable, but I will just pick at a couple of your points.

        First of all, I agree on the potential utility of local or native knowledge in many situations, and although I would advocate for the primacy of inclusive collective deliberation over any ‘primacy of the sedant’, I see no reason why that utility would not be recognised on many occasions – I don’t really understand what you fear would be lost in ‘democratic’ deliberations.

        I suppose I am rather suspicious of vague notions of ‘respect’ and ‘the elders’ where they imply unaccountable influence on local proceedings, but I’d certainly never suggest that such people be treated as anything less than full members of the community. There is perhaps an element of tension in the notion of newcomers ruffling well-established feathers, but I think the ruffling will be felt more deeply by those who treat newcomers as less than full community members.

        There is one way in which the ‘primacy of the sedant’ is apparent in all this, and that’s in the nature of the communities we’re discussing. We’re all talking about immigrants as people who have moved in and attempted to settle, and our utopian musings concern sedentary farming communities. Agrarian production is something we envision taking place outside the process of migration. That’s all well and good, as I’m uncertain of the extent to which Chris intends his blog to be relevant to steppe nomads, or how many it might have attracted to its readership. Still, I suppose that’s one possibility offered by a small farm reformation of the central American prairie…

        • Andrew – I do think we are fairly close on the matter… and on reflection I may be channeling some feelings based on specific events I’ve witnessed first hand, which events may not represent all possible interactions between newcomers and a sedant population. That said I do wonder about your conclusion here:

          There is perhaps an element of tension in the notion of newcomers ruffling well-established feathers, but I think the ruffling will be felt more deeply by those who treat newcomers as less than full community members.

          My own impression here would be to ponder which came first – the ruffling feathers of the sedant pop; or the ill treatment of a newcomer. There is a certain arrogance displayed by someone who plops themself into a situation and assumes to know as much about an issue as everyone already there.

          • Clem – yes, fair enough. Such know-it-all arrogance would be irritating in whoever displayed it, whether sedant or immigrant, but I can see how the latter status might exacerbate such feelings. Perhaps here we are entering the realm of the personality clashes that will always form a part of local political activity.

            This could lead into a consideration of process. The kind of regular political assembly encouraged by CR will require accepted ways of presenting the issues that are raised, and of ensuring that participants are suitably educated on the matters they have a say on. The kinds of ‘citizens’ conventions’ that are increasingly invoked within mainstream political discourse these days, at least in some contexts, might usefully prefigure some of this, in that they tend to start with a series of initial presentations and discussions on the matters at hand, before anything is even proposed. Such processes assume ignorance on the part of all participants, whether long-standing sedant or recent immigrant to an area, but these processes might also be easily adapted to incorporate established voices as part of the initial scoping phase, before debate is opened among all participants.

  9. “To that extent I think it’s rather interesting that primacy is usually given to the sedant’s way of doing things, as in the idea of a migrant’s ‘assimilation’ to his or her ‘host’ society. Such primacy is not explicitly based on an analysis of whose way is ‘better’ in any given situation, but is simply asserted. ” writes Andrew.

    I agree that there are some reasons to question this, but there are also some reaons for why the primacy of those living in a place for s few generations might be preferred. Especially in a small farm future perspective. I have seen quite a few cases where refugeees or domestic settliers bring their way of farming to the new place with disastrous results. If the Vikings had taken up the Innuit way of doing things they might have survived in Greenland for example. Not to talk about if the European/American settlers hadn’t killed Indians and the buffalo as well…..

    We should assume that the “locals” ability to manage the land, their diet and other customs are reasonably well adapted to the realities in the location. And overall, even if one is in favor of migration I think the first time in a new country it is very reasonable to adjust your ways to the codes in that place. Which then also will help in the acceptance by the locals.

    • Gunnar, I agree that the knowledge and practices of members of local communities might be well adapted to their locations, but I don’t think anything is gained by simply assuming it. Within any local politics based on CR, such local knowledge would receive the credit due to it, where it is actually due, but crucially it would also be subject to review and reconsideration – surely a more useful attitude to such knowledge than a priori acceptance based on its localness.

      The examples you give are fair enough, but they’re all variations on colonial histories, in which the settlers deliberately denied a voice to the ‘natives’ in a bid to impose their own world views. Immigrant/sedant integration need not only follow this route.

      Conversely, it seems to me quite possible that regions of the ‘developed’ world blighted by agri-business might well benefit from the small-farm knowledge possessed by some immigrants. For example, some of the eastern Europeans that the UK is currently trying hard to exclude might bring valuable alternative perspectives to the industrial prarielands of eastern Britain, should these regions ever be opened to small farm reformation – the ecological biomes of both regions are similar, but industrial farming has dominated one to a greater extent than the other.

  10. Quick responses to further comments:

    I like the way Andrew extends the logic of my argument, and I’m in agreement. I also agree with Gunnar in principle, but the truth is in many of the wealthy (and less climatically challenged) countries where migrants wish to go there’s not a great deal to commend most of the farming that goes on as something that’s well-adapted long-term to the local environment. Certainly, incomers would probably have to learn some new agronomic realities in their adopted home, but perhaps they might also be able to teach the locals a few things about low impact farming. The small farm past involved a lot of sedentism with long-established populations and cultural practices, but I don’t think a small farm future will (at least in the near-term) – instead it’ll be the denouement of modernity’s enormous upheavals.

    Thanks to Steve for the Colin Hines quotations. I recently read Hines’s book ‘Progressive Protectionism’, which was a curious read. I found much of it persuasive, but it seemed rather like a first draft in which the author worked himself up into such a fury about the state of the world that he couldn’t bring himself to finish the book off properly. Interestingly in relation to the present topic, Hines strongly favors population and immigration control, and is rather frenziedly critical of those who disagree.

    Some of Hines’ protectionist suggestions may help answer Vera’s question as to how to start trying to localize capital flows. I can’t claim any expertise in this area and would welcome any other views. A few straws in the wind:

    Pushing the balance of power away from the US/EU in the WTO, as is perhaps beginning to happen –maybe the fine that Brazil extracted from the US over cotton is a sign of things to come.

    Using the still significant power of national legislation to reorder the priorities of the financial sector – eg. establishing banks with lending geared to local industry and commerce rather than to speculative gains and to lending against property as collateral.

    Getting tough on tax avoidance, especially corporate tax avoidance. Starting national political conversations about the benefits and disbenefits of multinational corporates, of greater equality through tax and benefit systems and the benefits and disbenefits of less liquid income.

    Changing land use planning approaches to incentivize rather than disincentivize smaller-scale agricultures, both in wealthy countries and perhaps especially in poorer countries (ending foreign land grabs, introducing pro-poor land reforms etc.)

    Defaulting on national debt, preferably in concert with other countries, alongside the above measures and watching to see who gets hurt most by the default.

    I’m sure there are many others…but I need to go and haul some logs now…

    • Chris asserts:
      but the truth is in many of the wealthy (and less climatically challenged) countries where migrants wish to go there’s not a great deal to commend most of the farming that goes on as something that’s well-adapted long-term to the local environment

      My objection here would run toward some appreciation of the natural vs the built environment and a more specific definition of ‘well-adapted’ and ‘long-term’.

      Certainly here in Ohio, USA there is presently a very significant problem rising from the matter in which surface waters are used (and abused). And as such a very reasonable argument can made that so far as current agricultural practice bears some level of culpability it is not well adapted. One can find many features of the natural environment that facilitate (if not actually enhance) runoff and erosion which can spoil lakes and streams. And without too much difficulty one can also find man made ‘solutions’ that end up not solving the problem. But as with any complicated system there are trade offs – so that even when a final (or compete) solution is not immediately to hand, if one approach is an improvement over another then time is purchased to seek still better approaches. This manner of behavior is often described as kicking the can down the road. But I think it also describes how one can foresee “..the denouement of modernity’s enormous upheavals.

      Can the migrant bring to the party ideas that can help? Certainly. But as with Gunner’s point and the notion I tried to share with Andrew above… sometimes there is a wisdom in the way things are put together, the way things are currently accomplished by the population in place… that some deference to such wisdom seems appropriate.

  11. Yes, great post!
    And I would definitely agree that sometimes it’s the immigrants that are better adapted to a SFF than the “natives,” and in other situations the opposite is true. For example, an immigrant to Hawaii could be a upper middle class white refugee from the cold winters and colder hearts of corporate America with no intention of doing anything but sitting by the pool and provisioning themselves from Costco (who, of course, does not consider themselves to be a refugee), or it could be a Laotian immigrant bringing top-notch production agricultural skills or it could a Micronesian whose home islands have been destroyed by nuclear testing or, more recently, by climate change and whose provisioning skills don’t mesh well with the conventions of commercial agriculture. All of them bring with them both ‘opportunities’ and ‘issues’ and the necessity of negotiating both cultural coexistence and cultural adaptation.

  12. Yep, good points from Clem and Michelle. Certainly since starting out in my own small way as a farmer I’ve become more attuned to the wisdom and knowledge in the local farming community and less inclined to criticize it than is typical from an urban environmental activist perspective…though there remain good grounds for criticizing many practices, as Clem avers. Again, a matter of trade-offs – there’s much to be said for newcomers not to steam in and think they have all the answers (this applies also, I’d say, to much that goes by the name of ‘scientific agriculture’), but also something to be said for existing denizens to be open to incoming ideas…perhaps especially if the existing denizens are relative newcomers themselves?

  13. Reading a Pew research report for the UN last week they stated that seven hundred and fifty million people want to emigrate to the west by 2035 , that is two thirds of the entire western population , ( western populations are 16% of world population according to the UN ) can the west cope with those numbers ? Could the UK import the food to feed them and from where ? without industrial farming from where they come from and rapacious western farming techniques , could it build housing , schools / infrastructures to cope , plus supply what they come for , a ” better life ” in a time when energy supplies are getting more and more fraught , last week the UN voted to basically remove borders and make immigration a human right ,IMHO it is a recipe for disaster , Birmingham will be no different than the slums of Mumbai accept a population that believes their right to a ” better life ” has been thwarted and their poverty being no better than being ” at home “.

    • Daz,
      Didn’t find your PEW report to UN from last week (though I’ll confess I didn’t exhaust all possibilities)… I did find a recent story about projected immigration to the US based on PEW information: Key findings about U.S. immigrants (which is available here: )

      The US has a far lower population density than the UK, so one might imagine the pressures that large scale immigration(s) to the former would be less apocalyptic than to the latter. Indeed most of the linked story paints a relatively benign story about immigration to the US in general. There is a map showing where most present immigrants have landed – California, Texas, and New York lead the list. Population densities in CA and NY especially, while still modest compared with the UK, are among the highest in the US. It is extremely unlikely the US will have any difficulty feeding the numbers suggested here. Though if all these appetites are to be satiated there would be less left to export… but then one might presume our export markets might shrink a bit due to all these folks moving closer to the food source.

      Interesting stuff.

  14. Here’s a reasonably definitive report on migration.

    Not much change in migration patterns over the last couple of decades except for a slight drift upward in total migrants as a percent of population from just under 3% to just over 3%, mostly due to a pulse in 2015 from Syria.

    As someone who at one time wanted to be an international migrant (from US to New Zealand) and wasn’t allowed to make the move, I have some sympathy for those who want to migrate. My instinct is to say that anyone should be able to go anywhere they want, a world-wide Schengen, but I don’t think there is much support for it.

    The problem with migration now is that migrants are mostly moving from poorer places to richer ones. This doesn’t hurt the rich much, if at all, but it does help the poor to become richer (new job and remittances to family in the originating country). This is the opposite of what is needed if we desire less resource consumption.

    The only migration that makes sense from an environmental standpoint is from rich countries to poor countries. Even if the migrants take a pot of money with them, it would be harder to do as much damage with it in a poor country. We might want policies that would allow only migration from rich places to poorer places, but I don’t think there is much demand for that either.

    • “Not much change in migration patterns over the last couple of decades… My instinct is to say that anyone should be able to go anywhere they want, a world-wide Schengen, but I don’t think there is much support for it.”

      A couple decades ago, the Wall Street Journal was pushing for a constitutional amendment that stated “There shall be open borders.” Since then, migrants have been increasingly portrayed as the “other”, the “them” in “us and them”, which takes the focus away from the more detrimental “them”, the 1%.

    • Joe said:

      The only migration that makes sense from an environmental standpoint is from rich countries to poor countries. Even if the migrants take a pot of money with them, it would be harder to do as much damage with it in a poor country. We might want policies that would allow only migration from rich places to poorer places, but I don’t think there is much demand for that either.

      I think you may want to limit the pot of money movement as well. I’m supposing here that if the only migration patterns allowed were from rich places to poor places – and the capital could go along – then the world might come to resemble the South Africa that sprouted up a couple hundred years ago… or even the whole of North and South America. Maybe the solution is to prevent any movement of resources ‘out’ of the poor places.

      If we substitute resource rich and resource poor, and limit capital migration there might be some improvement. But I’d still expect some sort of ‘development’ to occur in destination regions – if for no other reason then the folks who would attempt such migration would still have in mind some potential benefit to their own wellbeing.

    • “The problem with migration now is that migrants are mostly moving from poorer places to richer ones. This doesn’t hurt the rich much, if at all, but it does help the poor to become richer (new job and remittances to family in the originating country). This is the opposite of what is needed if we desire less resource consumption. ” Great point Joe, perhaps not a political platform to get votes:-)

  15. Just to comment briefly, I guess we need to agree on a story here. Will large-scale migration from poor to rich countries enrich the poor (Joe’s view) or impoverish the rich (Daz’s view)? If the latter, since most of us on this site are not enamoured of the world created by the overdeveloped countries, mighn’t that be a good thing? And if the only thing stopping a global equalization of income and wealth is border control, then is border control ethically justifiable? And if, as I said above, we’re looking at future global migration in the order of hundreds of millions (I’m not sure we really are, whatever people’s ideal wishes) then border control and immigration policy starts to become an irrelevance. Or to put all that in the Schmittian terms I used above, why is it so widely assumed that incoming migrants are ‘enemies’ and, as Steve says, the 1% or x% of the wealthiest ‘sedants’ are regarded as ‘friends’?

    A point of clarification on the UN compact: it didn’t make migration a human right, it simply suggests that migrants are people and like all other people under the UDHR should have their human rights respected and their dignity upheld. With the emphasis on ‘suggests’, since the compact carries no legal force for signatories –

    On migration and food security, well yep I think things could get tough in a lot of places. But currently there’s a huge margin to play with – part of my argument above was that denser populations might push us towards more sensible forms of farming along the lines that each migrant is one more mouth to feed but two more hands to work. Aridity in the US as a reason not to welcome more migrants doesn’t cut it with me until the US stops irrigating crops with non-renewable water and selling them abroad.

    And on that note, a long time ago I read Gary Nabhan’s book ‘Coming Home To Eat’ in which, if I remember rightly, he ate only food grown within a small radius of his home in Arizona (or was it New Mexico?) Doubtless the southwest would be limited in the numbers it could support locally in this way, but it would be interesting to see what could be achieved if everyone put their minds to it. Nabhan put a lot of emphasis on the johnny-come-lately Euro-Americans in the southwest learning how to really inhabit the landscape from the wisdom of the long-term ‘sedants’, the Native Americans – which I think is an interesting point in the light of various aspects of this discussion.

    • Too many assumptions that are IMO highly dubious. It’s not only about food and wealth. In Western Europe, security will soon be an item reachable only by certain folks who have access to power, locally and in larger conglomerations.

      My own key issue with uncontrolled migration is that it can turn a well-functioning country into that which the migrants are fleeing from. Imagine having a really good work crew. The boss, out of compassion, brings on an poorly educated worker with poor working habits hoping to do a good deed and that said person will learn from his other crew members. Could happen. But unless the new person is highly motivated to change, the new person will bring the crew down as he continues in his own habits and and resentment and bad morale spreads among the others.

      • wow, Vera, just wow. It’s a harsh world you live in already.
        You know, I did exactly what you postulate in your work crew scenario. I hired a young man of good heart but a highly disadvantaged upbringing (he literally did not have a father on his birth certificate.) He didn’t last but I think some good came of it for him and our work crew is no the worse for it.

  16. The energy cake of the planet is slowly shrinking , the more people moving to the west only exacerbates the problem , the west is not building out renewable energy anywhere fast enough , increase the population and it can only make matters worse more money will have to be found to keep the western lifestyle that the migrants come for, they come for a beter life yet the west cant build a FF economy fast enough , coming west will only stave off by a few years the lack of energy supply , WE and our economy are going in the direction of the third world , shortages and blackouts are on our horizon along with the inability to afford to import food ,IMHO they will be better off hungry in their own country than starving in the overpopulated west .

  17. A couple of comments. On the Gallup pole, the question was ‘Ideally, if you had the opportunity, would you like to move PERMANENTLY to another country’. This is equivalent to asking people in developed countries if, ‘ideally’, they would like to win the lottery. Both questions basically ask people if their current circumstances are tolerable or not and, if not, would they take an opportunity to improve them. It doesn’t mean this is likely to happen. Going on to use the 750 million figure in sensible discussions about plausible future migration just doesn’t follow.

    Chris, I can see your point in asking whether the impoverishment of the rich in developed countries via migration is actually a good thing, but I don’t think it’s worth budging an inch on the argument about whether migrants impoverish anyone. Clearly ‘actually existing’ migration at this time is a symptom of global capitalism, as you’ve made clear, and within that system (which enriches the rich disproportionately) migration to developed countries is usually reckoned a net economic benefit within those countries. If our story is that the impoverishment of the rich is a good thing (fine by me) then I think we should argue that directly (as you usually do – also, down with capitalism!) rather than promote it as a benefit of migration, as the latter only reproduces myths used by migrant-bashers.

    Talking of which, in what I can only assume is intended as an ironic contribution, Vera’s comment illustrates very nicely the implications of migrant bashing, generating crude stereotypes – the Pauper, the Muslim – that would surely find their place in a dark Christmas pantomime…

    • Andrew — so insightful; migrant bashing leading to the generation of crude stereotypes… eventually leading to expression in a dark Christmas pantomime. Nicely done.

      The status of the migrant has surely morphed over human history. We all descend at some point from the migrant. Out of Africa… seeking all corners of the planet… many heroes built out in myth, literature, and religious custom. From Abraham in Genesis, Moses taking his people from Egypt, Mary and Joseph taking their son to Egypt to escape Herod…
      Over the course of time it seems pulling up stakes and moving about has lost any semblance of courage or the depth of fortitude necessary.

    • We are in a dichotomy , immigrants come west for the western life based on high fossil fuel consumption yet in the west by either political will or the depletion of fossil fuels the rich western lifestyle is coming to an end , it is unsustainable , given that near 80% of fossil fuels is used for transport the west will rapidly collapse when it gets too expensive or limited to haul things round , the idea that electric vehicles will replace the millions of vehicles is a farce , 3% of the electricity generated comes from renewables , it has to replace the 80% ish used for transport plus the 20% ff fuel electricity generated now , the build out to become 100% renewable energy is beyond our ability .
      Just an example , a local farmer has looked at a electric tractor , all very nice and shiny BUT to recharge that machine the local power grid would have to be upgraded to cope with the load , he would need six miles of new cable and two new transformers / substations , the costs rapidly become prohibitive when you find out he has five monster tractors ,plus combined harvesters and a plethora of diesel powered machinery ,
      thats just one farm amongst the hundreds round here . Tesla et al piddling around trying to keep the happy motoring meeme going is a total waste of resources . Without diesel western farming stops dead in its tracks , and the population that relies on it .
      Migrants may get their moment in the sun their grandchildren will certainly not . Unlike the third world the west exists on fossil fueled transport , its loss will be far worse in the west than where they do not have integrated transport . I would pick Belize over Brooklyn any day .

  18. Daz, I’m not proposing that rich countries should try to extend their energy and infrastructure to support more people in a ‘western lifestyle’. I’m suggesting that in situations where that infrastructure is tottering, places that embrace newcomers may sometimes be at an advantage in finding a path towards a lower impact and more sustainable society than those that don’t.

    Vera writes “In Western Europe, security will soon be an item reachable only by certain folks who have access to power, locally and in larger conglomerations”, which I’d broadly agree with – and not only in Western Europe. My question then is why would ordinary people choose to ally with these ‘certain folks’ against incomers on the grounds that they’re co-nationals. What would they get from this alliance – a few more crumbs from the table than the incomers get? Is this a good way to deliver a more sustainable, low-impact, agrarian (and fair) society? I don’t see it…

    Vera, I’ve spiked the last part of your comment on Islam, which breaks house rules. The association of migrants with poor education and poor work habits breaks house rules too, but I’ll let it pass. Herewith a general request for commenters to avoid pejorative comments about Islam-in-general, or any other religion-in-general for that matter. There are plenty enough websites available for that particular horse, without me contributing my own one.

    Andrew, yes fair comment. I don’t want to lend any weight to the view that migration is an economic negative under the existing terms of the capitalist economy, as per Jane O’Sullivan’s views. I guess I’m just interested in how people who support low-impact agrarian societies construe the politics in such a way that they oppose migration. Granted, it’s easier to feed a smaller population than a larger one but – as I argued in the post above – it strikes me that this position neglects the practical difficulties and consequences of fighting to keep migrants out, and doesn’t explain how an attractive agrarian society would emerge from the fight.

    • IMHO Inviting people into the west is inviting them a few years down the road to starve , take away plentiful energy from say the UK and the economy dies along with the exports that provide the funds to buy imported food ,plus the frozen and chilled foods ,recently the UK government has released 50,000 acres of green belt to build housing for immigrants , england is beginning to sound like Asimov’s Trantor one giant housing estate . Germany almost starved the country out seventy years ago with half the population and millions more acres that have been built over since then , strategic long term thinking would be trying to lower the population not raise it .
      US farming relies heavily on pumped water and cheap diesel both of which need a reliable supply of electricity , take cheap plentiful fuel out of the equation and the usa rapidly becomes a third world nation , monster tractors can till fifty acres a day or so , two horses can do one .

      • Daz, you are absolutely right that the high-energy western economy now has a relatively short shelf life and that immigrants can’t expect that they or their families will avoid the suffering that will come when the western economy crumbles. I think they would also be far better off to content themselves with a small subsistence farm in a place far away from the turmoil that will afflict ‘advanced’ economies. They are likely to be far better off staying home.

        But there are a couple of reasons why none of that will be persuasive to potential immigrants. First, most of them are not really aware of the tenuous future of the energy resources needed to keep industrial economies going. Those economies have been doing OK for so long that the prospect that they will collapse is not considered at all by the vast majority of the people who are native to them, so why would a potential immigrant think differently? Second, most people who have a secure way to make a decent living don’t want to move. If a potential migrant from a poor country already has a small plot that provides enough food for the family, is not subject to depredation from militias or government actors, and is similar to the situation of most of his neighbors, the potential migrant will rarely move, especially to a far away country with a different language and strange culture.

        The vast majority of migrants make their move within their own regional area. Even forced migrants tend to stay as close as possible to their homeland. There are far more forced migrants from Syria in the countries surrounding Syria than ever attempted to go to Europe. It takes a great deal of motivation to make a really long distance move. Not that many people will ever have the necessary level of desire.

        Migration will continue to happen, I just don’t think that it will ever be a really big problem, certainly no greater than it is now, because once severe economic troubles occur in rich countries, everyone, including the natives of those previously rich countries, will realize they might as well stay home and figure out a way to live (or die) in a culture they are familiar with.

          • And yet you and Joe are in fundamental disagreement, no?

            I’ve laid out my arguments above as clearly as I can, so I think I’ll leave it there. They are not arguments for ‘inviting people into the west’.

            I’m not aware of the UK government releasing 50,000 acres of greenbelt land to build housing for migrants – can anyone substantiate this?

      • Without fossil fuels 25% or more of the population will have to farm. Do you believe there are 80 million Americans that will do that? How about we import 100 million people who have been doing that for thousands of years? Unlike 200 years ago these people want to be here. Most of them will be out in the food growing areas and you will not even know they are here. When I started farming 50 years ago you never saw a Mexican, today 90% of the people in the fields are Hispanics.

        • Your estimate of 25% is far too low, but you are right that most Americans either can’t or won’t farm. That is why the US and other countries that depend on fossil fuel powered industrial agriculture are in a very precarious position. For every food calorie that goes in the mouth of an American, at least ten calories in fossil energy have been burned to get it there, yet most people are oblivious to how ridiculous that is.

          Sooner or later we will have to return to a food production paradigm that is energy positive. When that time comes almost everyone that wants to eat will be on a farm. Since there won’t be any 500 hp tractors doing any farm work, most of those farms will be small. That’s why small farms are the future.

    • Chris. Thanks for letting me know you censored part of my comment. Does the prohibition extend to all ideologies? Or does Islam have special protection here? I could have instead spoken about gazillions of African Christians who seem to take wicthhunting very seriously, and would — if their numbers were large enough — bring back to Europe something that’s been laid to rest here long ago, and for good reason. Would you have objected? Please clarify. And what about atheistic ideologies, are they fair game, even if their atheism reaches religious fervor? And are we allowed to speak about the slavery or FGM that has already infected Britain in certain urban areas, and with which you Brits seem unable to deal with, with your own laws? That too has to deal with shared culture vs seriously disrupted culture.

      My example, was not about immigrants per se. It was about having a collective that works well, and bringing in people who endanger that. Could have said, you know, those top level teams of runners with passing batons, whatever that sport is called. Bring in an average runner, and you ruin the team. Competence and shared values matter. It used to be that immigration was regulated along those lines.

      • Vera, if I get into debating with people the boundaries of what I will or won’t delete it takes me too far away from spending my time on what I feel like I ought to be doing. There’s always a case for not deleting a comment, but sometimes there’s a case for doing it. I’ve noted your views and I’ll note anyone else’s who wants to comment on this but I don’t feel the need to justify the decision. I guess I’ll just say that, no, I don’t consider myself to be offering special protection to Islam but in the world I inhabit it’s now mostly Islam that gets described in these ways and I think it’s problematic. For the record, I generally find your comments interesting and thought-provoking, but not so much your views on Islam.

          • Michelle, Chris runs this blog. I can merely comment… so I am not sure what you are terming a “win”. And as for Chris doing exactly what I am arguing for, what do you mean?

            Chris, there are many things you either are not willing to discuss, or promise you will discuss in other posts and then don’t. I am wondering if you were really to get into the meat of what localism means, local finance included, and the boundaries required for such an effort, in say, our imaginary Wessex, the people you’ve hung out with in the past (Marxists) would tear you apart like rabid hyenas. So I can’t say I blame you for ducking.

            But it does get in the way of the purpose of the blog. We get into all sorts of peripheral issues (Trump, et al — I am as guilty as others for letting myself lured in) and I am wondering at this point if agrarian populism and its robust discussion will remain more of a will-o-the-wisp here.

          • I’m not deliberately ducking anything. And I’m certainly not ducking agrarian populism, which is a more or less constant theme. Though I suspect you and I might have quite different understandings of what the term encompasses. Trump isn’t a distraction, because the issue – which actually I’ve discussed a lot – is how to institute an agrarian political economy within the structuring of a present political world which is utterly hostile or indifferent to it. What I would say is that (a) I think it’s necessary to talk about a future political and economic transformation, but I’m wary of detailed blueprints and concrete utopias, which I think are rather pointless and (b) this is a blog not a book, so it tends to follow a more random path through the issues in accordance with what interests me and what I feel able to write about at a given time. However, I’m always open to suggestions about what I should be writing about. Also, I tend to forget what I’ve already written about and what I’ve promised to write about. I suppose I should spend more time actually reading my own blog. But then I’d be spending less time writing new ones. In fact, I’m going to have to write less posts in the coming year as I need to devote more time to writing my book – wherein of course you’ll find all the answers that are missing from here.

          • Will look forward to your book.

            One issue you’ve ducked time and again is this: does your locked front door offend your libertarian spirit? Do local laws that prevent sqatters taking over your farm offend it as well? And if it happens not to be offended then, then why is it offended by equally form boundaries of larger units humans organize?

  19. Daz suggested:
    US farming relies heavily on pumped water and cheap diesel both of which need a reliable supply of electricity , take cheap plentiful fuel out of the equation and the usa rapidly becomes a third world nation , monster tractors can till fifty acres a day or so , two horses can do one .

    First off, we must have differing impressions of “relies heavily”. The vast majority of currently farmed acres in the US are rain fed. Indeed the number of acres where excess water remediation is important out number the acres under irrigation. California, the desert SW, a good bit of CO, KS, NE, and TX do have significant irrigated acres. But these same geographies also have vast expanses of non-irrigated land. It is also worth noting that not all irrigation water is pumped from the ground. Surface waters are diverted to irrigation at a far smaller energy requirement. Irrigation has been a human niche construction activity for many millennia – long before the taming of electricity or discovery of diesel fuel. Those who rely on supplemental water to raise food know a thing or two – ask any Israeli farmer, or an Indian farmer who uses human power to move water. Diesel will do this while it is cheap and abundant, if it goes away hungry people will find another way.

    Next – on the rapidity with which the US becomes a third world nation… are you serious? Cheap plentiful fuel was taken out of the equation in the mid 70s. We are still here. The more salient question for me is how rapidly ‘easy’ fuel sources will disappear altogether. An incredible amount of fossil fuel is used for non-agricultural pursuits. When prices rise as supplies wane, which do you suppose will command the larger share of these fuels – food production, or entertainment?

    And not for nothing, but ‘monster’ tractors can till much more than 50 acres a day. I realize this goes to your point, but I would also point out that this sort of technology allows us options as we go forward. A steam engine tractor a century ago with a comparable horsepower could not do as much work as is now possible. The diesel tractor is not the only piece of kit to have evolved in the last hundred years.

    • Just to be transparent, I’ve gone to pull up some data to support the assertions I made above. Source:
      This is table 28 from an enormous report – (the USDA is an excellent data management agency). The table shows irrigated acres by state and by type (gravity systems vs sprinkler systems). The overall total irrigated acres in the US in 2013 was 55.2 million. The total ag acres was 915 million. So irrigation accounted for about 6% of the total.

      Gravity vs Sprinkler – roughly a comparison of cheap vs expensive irrigation (capital and energy) are also on display here. Overall the US has nearly 40% of all irrigation acres coming in under the gravity category. If we take the ‘expensive’ irrigation away because we won’t have cheap diesel fuel… we lose ~35 million acres – or almost 4% of total ag acres in the US. Note too that these acres are not ‘lost’ – but just the irrigation water. There would still be some production on these acres. So the overall hit to US farm production would be even lower. Seems like the US descending to third world status will have to be caused by something else.

    • Clem, just as an aside to your main point, do you (or anyone else reading…) know of any data concerning tractor engine size & work ratios – something I’ve looked for but never really found. In other words, suppose you had a 100hp tractor and a 200hp tractor with engines of otherwise comparable efficiency and sophistication. Given an equivalent job to do – ploughing 50 acres, say – would they usually expend the same amount of energy to do it, even if the bigger tractor could do it faster? Or likewise for a powered operation with both tractors turning a machine at the same engine revs and 540rpm at the PTO? Presumably even if the relationship was linear there’d be a lower threshold where a very small engine would labor excessively at the task and expend relatively more energy?

      • This source says that the “specific volumetric fuel consumption” of tractors (measured in units of gallons per hour per horsepower) is “generally not affected by the engine size”.

        “Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory (NTTL) has a long history of testing tractors and disseminating power and fuel consumption data. During standardized tests, the power is calculated and the corresponding fuel consumption is measured. The power at the PTO is calculated from the torque and the PTO speed. Drawbar power is calculated from the drawbar pull (or draft) and forward speed of the tractor. Fuel consumption is measured by the amount of fuel used during a specific time period. The most common measure of the energy efficiency of a tractor is referred to here as specific volumetric fuel consumption (SVFC), which is given in units of L/kWh (gal/hph). SVFC is generally not affected by the engine size and can be used to compare energy efficiencies of tractors having different sizes and under different operating conditions.”

        R. D. Grisso, M. F. Kocher, D. H. Vaughan

    • To your question, Clem, of when fossil fuel prices rise as supplies wane, whether food production or entertainment will command the larger share of these fuels, 10 million Bengalis starved to death in 1770 as their country produced opium for export to Britain rather than food might suggest entertainment (and one could find other similar examples besides).

      • If I wanted to cast a net across the vast expanse of human misdeeds toward other humans then I agree, one could find similar examples of abject cruelty. But your example of the English East India Company’s complicity in the 1770 famine mangles the simple logic of agent choice in a market system free of coercion.

        Next you might rightly observe that systems free of serious coercive influences are difficult to find or even imagine. I’ll not fault you taking that line. But when we settle back to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we find food, shelter, and safety at the bottom labeled ‘basic’.

        • The depth of my knowledge of the 1770 Bengali famine isn’t even a scratch on the surface, but if abject cruelty and market coercion were significant factors then, I didn’t know it, and in any case, I think there’s plenty of potential for something similar to play out (where non-food-producing agriculture displaces food production and then people starve) apart from any unusual cruelty or coercion, especially over the short-term and when combined with some other fairly sudden disruption to the initial market system.

    • Todays retail stores have three days inventory , on the fourth day all hell breaks loose , for some farms round here its 100 miles to the nearest rail head , without diesel even if the crop is harvested , theres no way of getting it to the rail .

  20. The tractors round here are mostly in the 500 horse power range , the ” small ” ones used for hay / feeding cattle and general work are in the 70 / 100 horse power range . The big tractors rarely use the power take off they drag thirty to fifty foot wide disc type ploughs . ,seed drills you get tired just to walk around .Its a entirely different scale to the UK . Combines use forty foot headers .
    If you grow grass down here you get one cut per year on natural rainfall , if you irrigate you get seven , if you grow corn ( maize ) without irrigation you get one , with irrigation you get three , cotton , one versus two , irrigation ramps up productivity . The ” rain watered ” land has much lower productivity per annum than irrigated .
    To a European the scale of farming is mind blowing , the smallest dairy round here has 5000 cows ,( one I know of feds 100 tonnes a day ) milk is hauled as far as Oregon , feed lots ( which I dislike intensely ) have up to 20 000 animals .
    In Waco there is a heritage farm , they told me they need ten acres to feed a horse eight for a mule using 1900 type farming methods , you are looking at a disaster of biblical proportions when fossil fuils decline .
    Diesel feeds America .

  21. Thanks for the further comments and data sources. I’m interested in Daz’s comment on horse traction. Here in the UK, Simon Fairlie estimates that you can keep a pair of draft horses on 2.5 acres (of oats, mostly) and they can cultivate 25 acres. I’m interested in any other data on this, especially if there’s a published reference.

    • First – thanks to Steve L for the tractor link. When in grad school I worked in a lab about a city block from the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab. Also worth a mention – in the abstract for this paper they indicate a 4.8% reduction in SVFC over the twenty years prior to their publication (2004 I believe) which is an improvement in fuel efficiency. The paper also delves into liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as a fuel source.

      Most of the discussion here has centered on the calamity associated with running out of fossil fuel. We have touched on GHG emissions, but have not as often focused on GHGs beyond CO2. Diesel tractors (and gasoline engines) were (still are to a lesser extent) also belching out nitrous oxides and other particulates that seriously affect air quality. Government mandated pollution control modifications to engines have been put in place, and modern diesel engines are better for it. Still not a panacea – but moving in a positive direction. And though it might pester our host’s preference for animal powered ag I would point out that a 4.8% improvement in fuel efficiency over 20 years for tractors is a bit stronger than the comparable improvement in draft horse fuel efficiency in the same period. Of course this is a hackneyed comparison – horses, mules, and humans (we hope) will outlive the fossil fuels, but it is a nod to the power of human innovation.

      To Chris’ point on the land take of horses and other draft animals I guess I need to represent for biofuels – well, just because. I don’t have data to hand to make a direct comparison, but will offer that in Ohio most soybean production will come in at about 50 bushels per acre (with no irrigation, Daz). From these 50 bushels we could manufacture about 60 gallons of biodiesel and also harvest nearly a ton of soybean meal (and of course leave some biologically fixed N in the soil for next year). I can get more precise numbers if anyone is interested.

      Chris – do you know if Simon’s calculations included Sire and Dam maintenance for the work animals?

    • There is a but , every horse needs 2,1/2 acres scale that out over the UK and its a sizable chunk of land removed from human food production .

      • Of course, you’re only “removing” land from human food production if you accept nonrenewable fossil fuels and their side effects as your baseline (and if you don’t eat your draft animals.) It’s possible that that fossil fuel powered baseline will wither up faster than the UK could transition to draft animals no matter how hard the UK tries to get ahead of that curve from this point forward. In that case, continuing to rely on fossil fuels to substitute for draft animals and their manure could “remove” even more land from effective human food production over the slightly longer term, even as demand for food (population) increases.

        • There is another problem that heavy horse breeds are on the endangered species list , it will take a hell of a long time to breed the million or so that they had on farms in 1900 .

          • You might be surprised… it wouldn’t take all that long to increase horse numbers.

            This from the web:
            Horses in the United States have significant popularity and status that is acknowledged by a number of observers and researchers. There are about 9.2 million horses in the country and 4.6 million citizens are involved in the horse business. In addition, there are about 82,000 feral horses that roam freely in a wild state in certain parts of the country.
            There are estimates that the global horse population is in excess of 58 million.

            The longer range commitment (or greater difficulty) might be to train millions of Homo sapiens to work with horses.

  22. Chris, I agree “I welcome small-scale migration, because a little bit of churn, some cross-fertilization of people’s minds (and bodies) strikes me as a good tonic for humanity.” Living in university towns I’ve grown accustomed to cross-fertilization of multiculturalism. I enjoy tasting new foods, meeting people from different cultures, discussing different ways of thinking. Cross fertilization is good for our growth as humans!
    I understand the “libertarian soul” and I too believe that “people should be able to go more or less where they please.” When I was younger I thought travel to new places was an adventure. Traveling is probably a natural human prerogative! But in my older age I probably wouldn’t appreciate a caravan of strangers arriving at my doorstep and intending to stay for an unlimited amount of time. Where does one draw the line on visitors? What boundaries should be permeable, less permeable, and impermeable?
    I believe the boundary of my home should be impermeable, open only to those I chose to let in. I think the boundary of my property should be less permeable. I don’t want strangers wandering around my home doing whatever they please. My neighborhood is slightly more permeable. I expect strangers but I don’t always enjoy the actions of contractors or neighbor’s visitors. Our private drive is shared by 8 property owners who pay for repairs to the drive. Some visitors and contractors damage the drive by driving off onto the grass when they meet on coming traffic. Is it fair if the damage is caused by contractors or visitors of my neighbors? I really hate paying for someone else’s carelessness. So I agree that some limitations or responsibility in visitors is welcome.

    The permeability of our borders is very controversial right now. I think immigrants seeking asylum should be welcome as long as they contribute and they follow our rules and customs. But what about people who move to my country and have no ability to contribute? What if they require social welfare or medical assistance to support them? With the high cost of medical care in the U.S. this is a huge burden. As a tax payer responsible for the cost I feel I should have some say in the matter. What if new comers break laws or cause a burden on society? Should we welcome immigrants if they are unable to contribute to the needs of our society? Should I welcome immigrants just because the agricultural sector want’s cheap labor? No, I don’t believe that every outsider who wants entrance should be welcomed with open arms. I think immigration should be done with thought and consideration as to the effects it will have.
    I’m liberal enough to welcome the freedom of exchange in ideas and culture but conservative enough to not want social disintegration. What we are really talking about is our “home” and the conditions necessary to secure it. If I am to have security in my home it must be safe from unwanted visitors. I believe it comes down to what society needs and what visitors can contribute to overall social well-being. If a guest is disruptive, no one wants them. If a guest contributes, why wouldn’t we want them? But guests who seek to become citizens should not be taken advantage of by businesses, both legal and illegal.
    Climate change will cause a great deal of immigration. Competition for resources is likely to “heat” up! It’s good we are thinking about this issue now.

  23. OK, I’m pretty much signing off now until the new year, but since Jody’s comment above touches some of the same issues as Vera’s ( I promise I’ll address these points in my first post of 2019 (I’m not going to promise when that will be…) I had no idea that I seemed to be evading that point – I feel my position on it is pretty straightforward and should be easily explainable. And Vera is right that it will be unacceptable to Marxists.

  24. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
    Chris, I can see what you mean about my comment touching some of the same issues as Vera’s. I think we are both concerned about social stability. Rereading all the comments above I see so many levels to this issue and all of them seem valid. Why do people choose to migrate? Does the receiving country have the resources now and in the future to support them? How will immigrants be treated once they cross the border? How will migration affect social stability in the receiving country? What happens if migrant populations can’t find work or are exploited? How will they feel about their new home if they are treated as an under class?

    I found Vera’s comment that she was forced to migrate interesting and I wonder if that doesn’t give her a perspective on this issue that the rest of us don’t have?? From what you’ve written Chris I would say that we agree more than disagree. We agree that it is better if people can live a good life in the country of their origin. I don’t think it benefits poorer countries if their best doctors, teachers, scientists and engineers migrate to another country.
    I agree with you Chris that from the perspective of the small farm future we in the west may need to welcome migrants who want to live and work on small farms. And while it’s true that few Americans seem to want to do farm work, I think that trend is changing. I see more young families that want to live on a farm. Although I’m not sure they realize how much work it takes! Perhaps the best thing Americans could do to support SFF is change their diet to fresh locally grown food thus supporting small farmers.
    I think most commenters here would agree that climate change and resource depletion is going to make our future very different. Americans will likely have to change the most. It’s likely that reduce food production and water depletion in some parts of the world will make it necessary for people to migrate. Even within the US people will have to move from dry deserts and coastal cities to eastern inland states. Indiana, Michigan and Ohio are likely to see an influx of people from the east coast and the plains. Many of the people moving north from Mexico and Central America are fleeing violence due to drug cartels. People from Venezuela are fleeing economic collapse. It is understandable why people are wanting to migrate and find a place for a more secure life. And it feels morally wrong to me when we who live in comfort and security turn our backs, wall up our borders, and take away their children. I think most of us in America are better humans than that. But the opioid crisis and economic problems in small rural American communities are causing many Americans to lose faith in our political and economic system because it isn’t working for everyone. I see this as largely a result of growing American economic inequality.
    I agree with some of what Jane wrote about immigration policies in Australia. I think we need to look at our immigration policies carefully and not assume that one policy will fit all everywhere. I think it is appropriate for communities to evaluate how many new people they can absorb and at what cost in development. Small rural communities in the US are struggling to pay for education, healthcare, and infrastructure repair needed by their citizens. So this means most immigrants will move to urban areas. What kind of development do we want in urban population centers? But how migrants be received? Urban cities are more liberal than rural America but migrants can often be exploited more easily in large cities where criminals also thrive.
    Another problem in the US is our failing over priced healthcare system. Industrial agriculture and food manufacturing companies sell processed food that is causing too much chronic disease and our healthcare costs are too high. In many communities immigrants use emergency rooms because they don’t have access to regular healthcare. And now with congress and the administration rolling back the Affordable Care Act many Americans will lose access to medical care. The greatest cause of financial failure in the US is medical bills even if you have medical insurance. I don’t think those people living in countries with socialized medical care fully appreciate the problem of the US healthcare system.

    I also am very concerned about how social media and the internet are facilitating the polarization and breakdown of our political system. I think forces both inside and outside our borders are intentionally using social media and the internet to exacerbate social and political the problems. They are using the issue of immigration to stir up fear of “others”.
    For the last 10 years our government seems to be more partisan and less able to govern effectively or wisely. They cut taxes when out debt is reaching levels never before seen. What happens if our military and political influence in the world is reduced? I don’t like the power and influence of corporate America but what happens to the world without the stabilizing influence of global markets and financial flows? Will Asia or Africa be better with China calling the shots on development and resource extraction in their countries? Will Europe be better if NATO disintegrates and Russia is left to flex it’s muscle? I might dislike corporate interests in maximizing shareholder profits but at least I believe they can still be controlled in a court of law. What I really I fear is the complete lawlessness of billionaire criminals, oligarchs, dictators, and corrupt government officials who are outside the reach of law. I still prefer the freedom of self government inherent in a functioning democracy to the control of a small communist government or dictator. What can Russian or Chinese people do but revolt when they no longer believe in their government? At least in democratic Western countries we can still voice our dissent or without fear of being put in jail or killed (although that freedom seems more and more under attack.)
    I still have hope that American’s can remove Trump from office in the next election if not sooner. With Trump gone and the influence of Fox News perhaps much of the hyperbole about immigration will fall back to it’s previous background noise instead of center stage. And maybe then we can start having more rational and civil discussions about what to do about immigration, climate change, and resource depletion.

    • Jody, thank you for your thought out comments. Many good points that I appreciate, and would have a hard time to explain so well.
      Merry Christmas to all who celebrate.

    • It’s absolutely ridiculous, even if it is commonplace, to portray someone no longer being forced to buy medical insurance he doesn’t want to buy as that person “los[ing] access to medical care.” The only thing that’s happening to all these people “losing access to medical care” is that they’re no longer being hit with tax penalties. How awful!

      • Eric B.
        Before I enter into a debate on the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act I’d like to know what is currently your age, affluence, health status, and access to health care? And if you believe this information makes no difference then it’s not worth debating the issue.

        • If I could find time I would be interested in a broader discussion of the ACA, and in any case, I’d be glad to read whatever you want to say, but my comment was much more specific than that. Whatever the merits or flaws of the ACA, it’s ridiculous to portray the elimination of tax penalties as some sinister or uncharitable act of depriving people of health insurance. Inversely, it’s ridiculous to talk about how many uninsured people the ACA has given coverage, when the only significant thing the vast majority of those newly insured people were given was the threat of a tax penalty. That was my point, and that point stands and is significant whatever else you want to discuss, especially whatever you want to say on the basis of my age, affluence, health status, access to health care, or anything else about me. I certainly believe and I can’t believe anyone would even try to deny that any information about me makes any difference with regards to those facts that I’ve asserted, so if you want to therefore conclude “it’s not worth debating the issue,” that’s true anyways, because my point is much too straightforward and factually solidly supported for there to be anything to debate about it.

          As it relates to a potential broader discussion, however: I’m 42 years old. I live in a state (NC) that didn’t expand Medicaid, for which I am most glad, but I would otherwise have qualified for Medicaid under the ACA Medicaid expansion. So the individual mandate also didn’t apply to me personally, because everyone that would have qualified for Medicaid under the ACA expansion was granted an exemption to the individual mandate (and there were probably other exemptions under which I would have qualified, too.) No one in my family has medical insurance, and that’s been the norm for us since well before the ACA.

          My family’s largest medical expenses have consisted especially of things that regular medical insurance doesn’t cover anyway: homebirths assisted by a midwife (with pre- and post-natal care) and dental work, which I guess isn’t “medical” exactly but has possibly been more substantial than all our true medical expenses put together. Our combined medical and dental expenses over the last several years (especially as our children’s adult teeth have come in and we’ve started taking them to the dentist) have averaged around 6% (very roughly) of our net income, probably dental first, then midwife expenses, then some random things like a rather expensive/complicated skin cancer removal, the removal of a bead my daughter stuck up her nose, x-rays to make sure a bad sprained ankle wasn’t a break, a midnight emergency room visit for a very scary sounding but self-resolving infant respiratory virus…

          We do go to the dentist once/year for cleanings/check-ups, but we never go to the doctor unless we have a problem, and even then we avoid the doctor if at all possible, at least as much because we distrust the medical system (too many things that arguably make sense for the herd but really don’t seem to make sense for our family, too little concern for poorly understood and completely unknown possible side effects of drugs and invasive procedures, etc., topped off with too little respect for the natural rights of the patient and parents) as because of the cost (which alone would typically be enough of a reason.)

          If I had money to throw around, our medical system would still be one I would chaff at the thought of supporting wholesale (as through medical insurance.) There aren’t a lot of alternatives, so I make do with the system when I can’t find any better alternatives, which is most of the time when I don’t just see fit to do completely without, but I’m more concerned with how government policies affect unregulated alternatives to the mainstream (like midwives…) than in access to the mainstream system, even if the mainstream system is all but guaranteed to play a much larger role in my life over the course of my expected lifetime.

          That said, I certainly don’t have money to throw around. But I do consider myself extraordinarily rich in terms of financial freedom, which I think is due initially to my parents helping me through my young adult years (and my wife’s parents helping her) without getting shackled with any major debts, and then by living frugally. Not counting tax deductible farm expenses (which are accounted for in our net income) or the purchase cost of our farm and house (but including property taxes and maintenance costs), our family of now seven has averaged around $10,000-$12,000/year on all of our other expenses (including medical/dental), with vehicle-related expenses being the largest single category. I have had savings more than adequate to pay for all our unexpected medical expenses (nothing in the tens of thousands of dollars so far). And we have family we could turn to as well in a really bad situation, although the fact that our families would think we should have been paying for insurance might present some issues.

          Besides the point I initially made, the other thing I think is most ridiculous about the ACA is the word “affordable” in the name. I think what really should have been addressed were the government policies that were pushing costs up; that kind of reform would have warranted use of the word “affordable.” Making medical care affordable by subsidizing it for people that can’t afford it (and forcing them wholesale into the mainstream system and neutralizing all of the most cost-conscious medical care consumers in the market) only exacerbates the real cost problems a lot more.

      • It might be worth a second to consider that there is something happening to all these other people that sacrifice to get health care coverage… and that would be their additional sacrifice to build and maintain emergency care facilities so that the uninsured have some backstop when they require it. If this ‘someone’ who doesn’t want to be bothered with having health insurance instead wants to wear a wristband that says – Offer no medical assistance (beyond what I can pay for… and society could be expected to honor such) then you approach a system with a bit more fairness. Even in this draconian approach you still fall short of protecting those building and supporting a health cars system because communicable disease is much more difficult to control.

        Freedom isn’t free – and responsibility only increases as there are more around us to share resources with.

          • Eric B., thanks for NPR link. Agreed – this ongoing “experiment” in Oregon is worth consideration going forward. Perhaps there will need to be some sort of triage system established in the future, or development of a gatekeeper of some sort. Just spitballing right now because this is an evolving area of policy here in the US.

            Perhaps we could get some feedback from members of this forum who live in a polity with universal health care. I read various accounts of strengths and weakness of those systems but except for one incident over 40 years ago when my little sister had some stiches removed in Canada (where we had traveled on a vacation trip) I’ve no personal experience with them. [BTW, from what I do recall of the Canadian health care experience as foreigners in the early 1970s my parents were impressed with two things – it took far longer to negotiate access and do all the paperwork than it did to remove the stitches… which makes sense to me, but apparently my father was unimpressed by the volume of red tape because he expected to pay for any services rendered. My sister was very well treated and my mother was impressed with the doctor. Hardly much evidense for strengths or weaknesses of their system, but it’s all I’ve got]

  25. Eric B.
    Thank you for sharing so much about your family’s health and medical care usage. I can understand why you feel the way you do about being penalized through your taxes for not having health insurance. It sounds like your family has been very frugal with the medical services you have used. Before the ACA took effect you could take the risk of opting out without penalty. But at the same time that you opted out you still had hospitals available if you needed them, your family income probably qualified you for medicaid, and possibly parents who would have helped you with the bills. I think you have been very fortunate in that you have not had a catastrophic medical need. I wonder if you would feel differently if say your wife developed cancer and because you didn’t have health insurance her treatment was substandard? Would you feel differently if being poor meant you couldn’t get good treatment for her at all? What if she died even with treatment and the bills cost you the loss your farm? These are the events that many people face in our country.

    There were times in my life when I didn’t have health insurance but since having children I’ve always sacrificed to make sure I had it. Yet even with insurance I’ve tried to keep our medical bills low by keeping healthy. I have always used the old home remedies my grandmother taught me. Whenever possible I use herbal remedies instead of prescription drugs. We are careful about the food we eat and our lifestyle so that we can remain healthy and avoid higher doctor’s bills.

    You are still young. Clearly as we grow into old age we tend to need more medical services. At nearly 60 my genetics and childhood exposure to my parents smoking have taken their toll and I have developed a chronic problem that requires a doctor’s care and two prescriptions. I hate having to see a doctor and take pills. I certainly agree with you about the outrageously inflated cost of medical services and I wish we could fix our system. But I don’t see how not contributing to our health care system is the solution.
    I believe that having a public healthcare system is fundamentally a matter of spreading risk, to provide equal access and eliminate catastrophic costs to the individual. But having said that I also believe that people should do everything they can to stay healthy and reduce the need for services. The real question is not what form of health care system we should have but how do we reduce the costs of our current over priced system and reduce demand for health care services by convincing people to make better choices in diet and lifestyle? There are many things I don’t like about American health care but I’d rather have it available than not especially in emergencies.

    • Just to be clear, I wasn’t ever penalized for not having medical insurance, because I was exempt from the penalty, so the penalty wasn’t any kind of personal issue for me at all. So my feelings of abhorrence toward requirements to/penalties for not buying into the mainstream medical system wholesale have nothing to do with any direct effects on myself.

  26. Clem,
    I had the same question as you. How is universal health care working in say the EU countries? I found this report very interesting in how it compares healthcare in all the different countries in the EU.
    From page 11 it says “Germany has traditionally had what could be described as the most restriction-free and consumer-oriented healthcare system in Europe, with patients allowed to seek almost any type of care they wish whenever they want it.” I was curious what it costs a German for their health insurance. Taxation rates for health insurance paid by employer and employee combined is 14.3% with an income ceiling of 53,100 euros or $60,509 US. So the German health insurance cost in dollars is $8,653 (half paid by employer and half by employee) although its not clear to me if this covers the family or just the individual??? By comparison my husband’s employer pays $10,000 and we pay another $6,000 per year for an insurance policy with a $5,000 deductible for our family. In order for our family to receive 100% medical coverage (with many limitations on what they actually cover as well as a maximum limit) we would first have to pay out $21,000.
    Americans pay significantly more for access to medical care than Germans!

    • Jody,
      Thanks for the links and comparison.
      Here is a link to a Canadian group in favor of their system of universal health care.

      They have a history of how their system developed and has evolved. It is their story, so there is some bias… but overall I think it does a fascinating job of laying out the disputes, the politics, and some of the outcomes they’ve experienced to our north.

        • Actually I had in mind a page they placed under “Tools and Resources” – for which the link is here:

          This one goes back further than the one you point to… though yours does have nice pictures.

          My original interest in how the Canadian system differs from ours actually took root many years after my sister’s stitches needed to come out. In grad school there were a handful of Canadian students we got to know and the subject of health care came up often enough. I’d shared the little anecdote about the stitches incident and got a whole lot of feedback about what the medics must have had to go through to deliver care. It was not an emergency (as it had been at home (in US) when the accident occurred)… it was in Thunder Bay Ontario, which meant something to one fellow student, but nothing to others… it was in 1971, which seemed to be significant to a couple of the Canadians in the room (this conversation would have been in about 1980). But the main take away for me in the 80s was that it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor in Canada. If you could prove you were Canadian, you could get health care. But you might need to be patient (pun unavoidable).

  27. I wouldn’t say medical insurance is an “evolving area of policy” here in the US at all, degenerating maybe, but it only makes sense to think of it as “evolving” if you first assume that freedom is bad and centralized government control is the goal.
    Centralized government control, especially in a country the size of the US, certainly isn’t any friend or ally of a small farm renaissance, right?

    And even if we do forfeit what freedom in medical expenditures we have left in order to chase after German (or other similar) style centralized control of medical expenditures, what reason would there be to expect any cost savings would be realized here, especially for the average member of a small farm household that takes a relatively more “organic” (in the agricultural sense of the term, as in distrusting whether every chemical and pharmaceutical that the regulatory authorities say is safe and that scientific studies haven’t yet overwhelmingly condemned is in fact wise to use) approach to medicine and that eats a healthier diet and has a healthier level of physical activity, etc.? Such a person might, on average, currently spend less on medicine and medical insurance in the US than in Germany (even if the centralized control and monolithic thinking and regulatory environment in Germany weren’t so contrary to the existence of such people in the first place.)

    It seems pretty clear that one major difference in medical costs between the US and Germany has to do with legal liabilities and the cost to doctors and medical providers of liability insurance. That’s one major cost factor that’s pretty independent of the differences you’re talking about, Jody, which is to say it’s a cost difference that won’t be reduced by changing the medical insurance system, but it is a cost difference that could be changed by changing our legal system as it relates to liability costs even without changing our system of medical insurance.

    Likewise, the average American, according to one random study I just found, walks about half as far each day as the average Swiss person (which I’m assuming is similar to the average German person) and only about a third as far as the average Amish person.

    That, too, is surely responsible for a significant part of the difference in medical costs between Germany and the US, and as with liability costs, that part of the gap won’t be closed by changes to the medical insurance system.

    Or consider that the tax-funded school system in the US, even though we long ago followed Prussia’s centralized model, today costs very roughly 50% more per student than the EU average for tax-funded K-12 schools. If our tax-funded school system is so inefficient in comparison to Germany, etc., why shouldn’t we expect a more centralized medical system to lag at least as much in efficiency as our centralized school system? In other words, why should we then expect any efficiency gains at all?

    I’d be very interested, however, to see how the medical costs, including insurance, of the average American compare to the average Amish person. As I understand it, particularly on the basis of my personal interactions with members of the small Amish community near me, the norm for the Amish is to not have any kind of medical insurance, to pay cash for basic medical expenses, and for the local bishops to negotiate and the local community to pay cash for extraordinary costs of any of the members. Why shouldn’t all the proponents of a small farm renaissance not favor that kind of community sovereignty over medical expenditures?

    • Eric B.
      Thanks for the ‘steps’ link. Plenty of good stuff there.

      But first I want to clear up a common misunderstanding:
      You wrote:
      I wouldn’t say medical insurance is an “evolving area of policy” here in the US at all, degenerating maybe, but it only makes sense to think of it as “evolving” if you first assume that freedom is bad and centralized government control is the goal.

      Evolving does not indicate any directionality, and indeed is closer in meaning to changing. Once one assigns some value judgement you might talk of making progress toward some goal or degenerating (moving away from a goal). Evolving has no value judgement, no stated goal. So evolving doesn’t require assumptions of whether freedom is good or bad. Evolving does imply changing – a moving target if you will. The system in place as this is typed is not likely to be the same as the system in place in a few weeks, months or years.

      I agree with you on the issue of comparing costs and benefits. Comparing systems across borders is not perfect, but it does offer a chance to consider where opportunities for improvement might lie. Improvement is a value judgement. Tradeoffs are frequently necessary when we wish to go from one reality to another. At that point it makes sense to question how much of our individual freedom and liberty we are willing to trade for the benefit of a larger group.

      You also allude to the size of the US as a potential liability in the overall debate. I’m with you there as well. At 350 million and counting we’re not likely to find simple solutions that are going to make everyone happy. The geographic expanse of the US also contributes to some of our difficulty. Farming for you or me, east of the Mississippi is much different from farming on the High Plains or in California (or Alaska). These differences may not seem to impact health care issues directly, but there is the relative significance of how a livelihood is structured. For instance, I have no direct employees on my farm, you have family members working on yours. But this situation is less common in California where most farms will have many non-family employees (and thus will have some concern about employee health care). Large scale animal production systems (CAFOs) are a big deal in your corner of the US. They are a concern here in Ohio as well, but I’d guess to a much smaller extent than in NC. We have tornados, you have hurricanes, neither of us has very many tremors or earthquakes – and no volcanoes. Here again I’m imaging that the scale of the US gets in the way of finding common cause for governmental considerations.

      You bring up the Amish. We have Amish in Ohio as well, and I think the comparison there gets very interesting. There are medical concerns (at least among many Ohio Amish groups) that are somewhat unique to their population because of the increased levels of inbreeding within their communities. Local governments here help (particularly the state of Ohio, but close by ‘English’ community supports are also important) to a certain degree, and I find this encouraging. The issue of sedentary vs physically active is important. And there are many health care plans in place in the US that reward individuals for increasing their physical activity level and for participating in preventive care opportunities.

      Finally, I find it troubling to argue that just because we haven’t succeeded in one sphere (educational achievement) that it immediately implies we have no hope of succeeding in any other realm. So defeatist. Why even get up in the morning? The country is headed down a rat hole.

      My approach is to take stock of where we stand, try to find common ground concerning where we collectively want to go (value judgements front and center), and then try to reason out what it will take to get to this place or something reasonably approaching it. You may not like all aspects of the outcome, but thems the breaks.

      State’s here in the US decide how Medicare is handled now. Perhaps this a fertile front to look at how health care can be dealt with in the US.

      • Fair point about the meaning of evolving, although given the rampant philosophical progressivism in the US (and I guess the West more generally) nowadays, evolution does seem to carry a positive connotation worthy of an objection, even if your intended use of the language was more precise and neutral.

        Here, as an aside, are some great aphorisms about progress from Gómez Dávila: “The progressive’s cardinal syllogism is simply beautiful: the best always triumphs, because what triumphs is called the best.” (#1,327) “Nothing cures the progressive. Not even the frequent panic attacks administered to him by progress.” (#1,833) “Nothing is more dangerous than to solve ephemeral problems with permanent solutions.” (#136) “Progress in the end comes down to stealing from man what ennobles him, in order to sell to him at a cheap price what degrades him.” (#890)

        To get back to the subject of our discussion, you said, “it makes sense to question how much of our individual freedom and liberty we are willing to trade for the benefit of a larger group.” That’s a highly questionable proposal, but there’s another question besides: is the supposed benefit of the larger group even something that can realistically be achieved? For example, would more centralized control of medical expenditures actually lead to any cost savings? Centralized control might very well not be justifiable because of the infringements of rights and liberties involved, but the supposed benefit that some might try to use to justify those infringements might not be realized even if those infringements were allowed. Looking just at the benefits column, what potential benefits do any friends of a small farm renaissance even see in more centralized control of medical expenditures?

        > And there are many health care plans in place in the US that reward individuals for increasing their physical activity level

        Would a typical Amish person or a farmer like our host on this blog likely qualify for any of those rewards? My guess is no. Instead of all the problems of bureaucratic programs, wouldn’t it make more sense to “reward” people for good health by letting them pay for their own medical bills and therefore letting the medical savings of good health accrue to them?

        > Finally, I find it troubling to argue that just because we haven’t succeeded in one sphere (educational achievement) that it immediately implies we have no hope of succeeding in any other realm.

        I wonder if you misunderstood the point I was making there. Whether it’s true or not, I didn’t mean to say that the failure of centralized government with one social program will mean that centralized government will fail with another social program. The point I was trying to make is that it’s reasonable to suppose that the relative costs of tax-funded programs in the US compared to Germany might be more or less consistent across social programs. In any case, I think it’s fair to ask anyone claiming or implying that the US could save money by moving toward a medical system more like Germany’s tax-funded system why such a medical system in the US would be any different from our tax-funded school system that despite being every bit as tax-funded as Germany’s system is still much more expensive. I don’t see any reason to expect any better relative (compared to Germany) costs with medicine than with schools even if we were to imitate Germany with regards to centralized control.

        • Can’t get to all your questions right now, sorry. But will take this one:

          Would a typical Amish person or a farmer like our host on this blog likely qualify for any of those rewards? My guess is no. Instead of all the problems of bureaucratic programs, wouldn’t it make more sense to “reward” people for good health by letting them pay for their own medical bills and therefore letting the medical savings of good health accrue to them?

          We don’t need to guess. The answer is yes – at least within some current plans I’m aware of. I have a son in Minnesota with this sort of coverage. Also a daughter in Tennessee with a different plan and somewhat different details but still they both are incentivized by their insurance system (either the insurer directly or by plan administrator who works with members of the group being insured). Perhaps a more important point if this sort of policy option is not readily available for you or your neighbors is the fact that this sort of option exists in the first place. If health insurers that offer this kind of policy can succeed in the marketplace (regardless of whether the ACA is mandated or not) then it will spread.

          Where I imagine we part ways on the matter of “rewarding” people for good health by letting them pay for their own medical bills is when catastrophic situations occur. Being healthy, staying active, eating well, can help one avoid heart issues, but won’t set broken bones. And a simple bone break may not ‘break’ a small farm financial situation. But little imagination is required to conjure a situation where the bill for care can easily overmatch a small farm’s finances.

          Next in line for debate is how much care does a population really need. People obviously broke bones thousands of years ago. Humanity still breathes. Incredible technology exists today to put people back together, but it comes with a price… sometimes an incredible price. When does the price go overboard? This is complicated when the ‘people’ who are broken are our own. This may lead onto some of your other questions, but I have to get onto something else right now.

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