Immigration Chaos

This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.

ap-immigration-trump-cf-170126_12x5_1600Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration.  Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans.  The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.  (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)

The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned.  Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans?  First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t.  In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long.  It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.

All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes.  And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.

It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would.  But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration.  We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt.  It’s time that Congress started to do its job.

Jetsons, Here We Come

Brace yourself:  we’re apparently on the verge of a world with flying cars.

Airbus Group, the world’s second largest aircraft manufacturer and largest manufacturer of commercial helicopters, has been working on flying cars for a while now, and the CEO of Airbus recently announced that the company hopes to test a prototype vehicle by the end of the year.  Airbus formed a division called Urban Air Mobility — which would be a pretty good name for a rock band — and it is working on both a vehicle that individuals could use and a multi-passenger transport that could be summoned by riders using a smartphone app, a la Uber.  The prototype that Airbus hopes to test this year is the single passenger vehicle, called the Vahana.  Airbus thinks that in 10 years fully vetted products may be on the market that make urban air transport a reality.

22a6bb3543a28cd162bceb3c6937b684The Airbus business rationale has a decidedly futuristic vibe to it.  The concept is that the vehicles would be used in cities, where roadways are jammed but the skies aren’t.  Airbus is forecasting that a growing percentage of the world’s population will congregate in cities, increasing the traffic congestion, and also envisions that cash-strapped governments might welcome air-based transportation because it doesn’t require investment in asphalt, concrete, steel supports, construction workers, and orange cones to shore up the crumbling ground-based traffic infrastructure.  And, because some cities are struggling with pollution — just ask China — Airbus is designing its vehicles to minimize emissions and to avoid adding to the pollution mix.

Do we have the technology for flying cars?  Airbus says yes:  the batteries, motors, and avionics needed are well underway, and the company and others are working on the artificial intelligence and detect-and-avoid sensors and navigation that would be needed to make flying cars a practical reality.  And, of course, there would need to be lots of related developments before flying cars fill the skies.  Would municipalities designate particular flying zones — such as over existing roadways — or just allow fliers to take their cars anywhere?  How would drivers be trained?  And what kind of safety features would regulators require to make flying cars crash-worthy?

For decades, when people have thought about the future, they’ve thought about flying cars.  Now we may be on the cusp of that reality.

“Meet George Jetson . . . .”

Lion

Last night Kish and I went to see Lion at the Drexel.  It’s one of those independent films that lurk under the radar screen and never get shown at the local suburban multiplex — but that really have an impact, where you find yourself thinking about it hours or days later.

Lion tells the story of “Saroo,” a five-year-old boy growing up in a desperately poor family in northern India.  To help his illiterate mother, who heads the family, Saroo and his older brother Guddu steal and sell coal and look for work whenever and wherever they can.  When Saroo convinces Guddu to take him on a quest for “night work,” everything breaks down.  Saroo finds himself trapped on a train that travels more than a thousand miles and deposits him in Kolkata, where he is alone and unable to speak the local language.  He becomes one of India’s lost children.  (Shockingly, the film notes, in the closing credits, that each year 80,000 Indian children become “lost.”)

The boy doesn’t know the  correct name of his home town, or his mother, and has no way to return.  The scenes of the small yet resourceful little boy trying to eke out a life in a vast city are unforgettable and heartbreaking — yet he survives, is eventually placed in an orphanage, and is adopted by an Australian couple who later adopt another Indian boy.

Twenty years later, Saroo has grown up in a beautiful waterfront home in Tasmania and speaks English with an Aussie accent.  He begins to find himself haunted by memories of his long-lost mother and brother and an overwhelming guilt that they have been frantically searching for him for all those years.  Using Google Earth, railroad routes and estimated speeds, and a lot of maps he starts a seemingly impossible quest to find his home town — a quest that complicates his relationship with his adoptive parents, his adoptive brother, and his girlfriend.

Lion is a well acted and filmed movie, with staggeringly beautiful scenes of the Indian countryside and overwhelming scenes of little Saroo abandoned in an uncaring city.  Dev Patel is excellent as the grown up, obsessed Saroo — showing acting range far beyond the comedic roles I’ve seen him in previously — and Nicole Kidman is equally good as the strong and loving adoptive mother who resolutely tries to hold her diverse family together.  But the movie is stolen by Sunny Pawar, who plays young Paroo with a genuineness that can touch even an insensitive brute like me.

Keep an eye out for Lion and try to see it in a theater, where you can fully appreciate the cinematography and really terrific soundtrack.  And if you do, be sure to stay in your seat until the very end — when you’ll learn why the file is entitled Lion.

Testing The Impact Of Free Money

Starting this week, the government in Finland is going to do something interesting.  For two years, it will be giving free money — about $590 a month — to 2,000 unemployed Finns.

free-moneyIt’s an effort to test the theory of “basic income,” and also an attempt to try to streamline Finland’s social welfare system, where benefits vary depending on a person’s status and change whenever the status changes.  The concept of basic income posits that paying people just for being alive will make sure that no one falls through the cracks.  And the Finnish government also is hoping that the experiment will provide some evidence of just what unemployed people will do if they are given money with no strings attached.  Proponents of basic income hope that the money spurs unemployed people to start their own businesses and be more entrepreneurial.  The skeptics expect that the lucky 2,000 Finns will spend a lot of time on their couches, watching TV and eating junk food.

I’m not sure how the free money will affect the 2,000 recipients; predicting the reactions of individuals is never easy.  I don’t think $590 a month is all that much money — for example, it’s about a third of what salespeople in Finland earn, according to this chart — but if Finland has a robust social safety net, as many northern European countries do, it might be enough to allow somebody to eke out a couch-bound, video game-oriented life with a roommate or two and some generous parents.  It doesn’t seem like it would be enough money to allow people to start a business, learn a new trade, or do some of the other positive, poverty-ending things that some advocates are forecasting.  My guess is that if the unemployed folks had the drive, moxie, and gumption to start a new business, for example, they probably wouldn’t be unemployed in the first place.

No, I think the more predictable response will come from the people who aren’t getting that $590 a month for the next two years.  Somebody is paying the taxes that fund the “free money” pot, and I’m guessing they won’t exactly be happy to be paying somebody else to simply exist.  And if even a portion of the 2,000 start their own businesses, some of the taxpayers no doubt will wonder why they didn’t get the free money that would allow them to pursue their dreams.  When government is picking the lucky few, there is bound to be some resentment.  Pretty soon you end up with a lot of people wanting that free money from the government, the government bowing to popular demand, and perhaps not enough people who are working and paying the taxes that provide the free money in the first place.

All of which begs the question:  how could the “basic income” model be sustainable in the real world?  Thanks to Finland, maybe we’re about to find out.

Farewell To Fidel

Fidel Castro has died.  The cigar-puffing, fatigue-wearing Cuban revolutionary , who was a thorn in the side of countless American presidents, was 90.

The news of Castro’s death is weird, because he’s one of those figures who seems like he should have been dead for a long time already.  After all, this is a guy who first came to power when Dwight Eisenhower was President, TV was a new form of entertainment, and Chuck Berry and Elvis ruled the radio.  Castro became a geopolitical figure when he played a central role in the Kennedy Administration with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He seems like an anachronism from a long-dead era.

There seems to be no middle ground when you are talking about Castro.  He overthrew a corrupt and dictatorial regime, and some liberals tout some of his policies — such as the apparent quality and low cost of health care in Castro’s Cuba.  During the tumultuous ’60s, at least, he and his cohort Che Guevara had some of that revolutionary cachet and radical chic.  But Castro also was a died-in-the-wool communist, and there is no doubt that his regime was both brutal and repressive, clamping down on freedoms we take for granted and keeping Cuba in the dark ages economically.  People who have visited Cuba since the American embargo has been eased describe a struggling, impoverished country that seems to have stopped its progress in the 1950s.

Castro obviously was a significant historical figure, but how he will be perceived by history remains an open question.  Some of that perception will depend on how Cuba fares, now that some semblance of normal relations with non-communist countries is likely, and some of it will depend on what we learn about the inner workings of the Castro regime, and just how cold-blooded and terrible it was.

Taking A “Mystery Trip”

The “mystery trip” is reportedly the hot new concept in the travel world.  It works pretty much like it sounds:  the traveler hires a travel agent, who then plans the trip without disclosing anything about it.  The traveler shows up at the airport, or train station, or port on the designated date, is handed an envelope that finally discloses the destination, itinerary, and tickets, and then is off on a voyage into the new and unexpected.

vintage20luggage20-20mylusciouslife-com20-20vintage20suitcase20covered20in20stickers2Apparently the “mystery trip” appeals to two kinds of travelers:  those who hate planning for trips, and those who really, really like to be surprised.  And there are gradations in the degree of mystery you can seek, too.  You can set a price range and then leave the trip totally in the hands of the travel agent, or you can identify a general geographic region and leave the rest of the trip in the hands of the planners.  And some mystery trippers rein in the latitude and longitude of the surprise by themselves focusing on specific regions, like one website that specializes in weekend trips into the unknown for domestic U.S. travelers.  In any case, one “mystery trip” website concludes,  “one thing is for certain: the more that is left unknown, the more rewarding and thrilling your experience will be.”

It’s an intriguing concept, but I’m not so sure about that conclusion, really.  Vacations are precious, and the “mystery trip” concept really requires you to put a lot of trust into that travel agent’s abilities.  If you’ve only got so much vacation time — to say nothing of a finite amount of vacation budgeted dollars — taking a mystery trip could be a big gamble.  I also think I’d need to be in precisely the right mood before I’d try a “mystery trip.”  Normally, I go into vacations with a clear goal in mind, like unwinding with a toes-in-the-sand vacation in a sunny, warm beach location, or an “experience the culture and see the sites” trip to a place I’ve never been to before but always wanted to visit.  Your mystery trip could be interesting, but an adventure in Lapland just might not scratch the right itch if you’re actually yearning to smell that suntan lotion or finally walk through the old sections of Istanbul.

One other thing:  how in the world (pun intended) do you pack if you don’t know whether you’re going to Alaska, Borneo or Timbuktu?

The Growing Selfie Death Toll

Here’s an interesting statistic:  more people died last year in “selfie”-related incidents than died from shark attacks.

That’s according to a recent scholarly paper that looked at the phenomenon of “selfie” deaths — defined as deaths that could have been avoided if the person involved had not been taking a “selfie.” According to the paper, India leads the world in reported selfie deaths and, in fact, has had more reported selfie deaths since 2014 than the rest of the world combined.  The United States, according to the paper, comes in third.  Sadly, most of the selfie deaths occurred to people who were under the age of 24, and the number of selfie deaths seems to be on the rise.

o-bull-run-selfie-facebookThe primary cause of “selfie” deaths appears to be the “adventurous” selfie.  That’s the selfie the person takes against some dramatic backdrop, like a selfie taken at the edge of a cliff or in front of an oncoming train.  (No kidding!  People really do this stuff!)  The paper breaks selfie deaths down into categories like “height related,” “water related,” “train related,” and “weapons related” — where the death is caused by the accidental firing of a weapon that was to be prominently featured in the selfie.  There are even categories for “animal related” and “electricity related” selfie deaths, which sound especially grisly.

The paper attempts to quantify what makes particular “adventurous” selfies especially dangerous, in the hopes of making the world a safer place by making people more aware.

It’s a laudable goal — but what makes the authors think that anyone stupid enough to go shuffling backward toward the edge of a cliff, or to move nearer to that tiger, to try to frame the perfect selfie shot is going to read a scholarly paper?  Selfie deaths seem to be Darwinism in action.