Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Skilled Foreign Worker, Houston Variety

The New York Times has been running a wide-ranging series it calls “Remade in America: The Newest Immigrants and their Impact,”* and Sunday before last it examined the H1-B program, under which U.S. companies can temporarily import skilled foreigners to work, generally at what the Times calls “better paying jobs” in the high-tech industry (or, to be more accurate, at Indian outsourcing firms). The popular conception of the H1-B worker is that he or she is Indian (as is the super-genius Google worker who was the anecdotal hook for the Times piece; he had his visa but his wife doesn’t and must live in Canada while he commutes for conjugal visits from the California---that was the boo-hoo slant of the tale), or Chinese or Russian and possesses the math and science skills native Americans are too obtuse, lazy or just generally uninterested to acquire (or push their kids to acquire).** An accompanying graphic showing counties where there were large number of H1-B applications last year generally confirmed that notion: In Los Angeles, the largest corporate applicant was RJT Compuquest, in Miami-Dade it was Fortune Technologies, in Dallas it was Tech Mahnindra and in Collin County it was Infosys Technologies, headquartered in some place called Bangalore. In fact, the largest seeker of H1-B applications in every major metropolitan area listed by the Times was a high-tech company or institution, except for ...

Harris County, Texas. The largest applicant for temporary visas for skilled workers here in 2008 was … HISD, the taxpayer-supported government entity that is Houston’s largest employer. And who are these badly needed, highly skilled foreign workers? We can’t find any hard figures, but it’s safe to assume that many if not most are the “bilingual” elementary teachers that the school district has been hauling here from Mexico by the truckload, although “bilingual” is a glaring misnomer because so many of these "bilingualists" lack the English-language skills that would permit them to pass, say, a middle-school TAKS reading or writing test (we’re not exaggerating here---ask around, check it out yo’sef). They’re cannon fodder for a program that, as most any veteran and half-aware native-English-speaking educator (white, black or Hispanic) will privately tell you, is untenable to the point of absurdity, especially in a district that is now catering to growing numbers of immigrants (primarily Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners---most of them legal) who aren’t accorded the costly privilege of being taught for years in their native tongue.

As is often the case, these incidental statistical tracings give you a better picture of what Houston is really like, and what it’s becoming, than most anything you’ll read in the daily newspaper, or in a Greater Houston Partnership publication.*

*Check out last Sunday’s installment, which somewhat surprisingly for the Times offered an unflinching and relatively non-sentimental portrayal of an American-born child of Hispanic immigrants who lives in the D.C. suburbs. It’s not an, uh, elevating story. (The Times, of course, locates the problem in the supposed lack of resources devoted to tending to these kids in the suburban setting.)

**We’re guilty.

***The emerging paradigm is, of course, Mexico City, with slightly better air.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

True Scourge of Western Civilization, Revealed

Quite often these days, probably more than is healthy, we find our self agreeing with George Will, nodding along as he harrumphs his way through a newspaper column or his Sunday morning television turn. This, no doubt, is another manifestation of our encroaching fuddy-duddyism, as Banjo Jones, our colleague in aging, puts it. But every so often Will gives us pause to consider just how sound of mind he really is---when, to cite one notable example, he turns to the learned fiction of Michael Crichton to underpin an argument against the existence of global warming, or, as in his latest newspaper offering, he fingers the widespread wearing of blue jeans as a sign of the culture’s deepening infantilization.

With his glasses and bow ties and the camera-ready professorial air, Will has always struck us as an amusing charlatan. His tendentious columns strive for the Olympian but mostly read as if they’d been hastily slapped together with the help of a research assistant, or three. His long-running shtick---and we’d assume it’s been a fairly lucrative one---is that he is much, much smarter than you, and much too busy grappling with the serious issues to sample the grungy pleasures of our quotidian age. He fancies himself the Burke, or maybe the Chesterton, for our times, and he well may be, although this speaks more to the attenuation of the times than his particular skill set. Every time we see him on TV chatting it up about his love of baseball---it’s the thinkin’ man’s sport!---the thought invariably crosses our mind: George Will probably throws like a girl.* We know we're not alone in this thought.

Will’s screed against “denim” finds him assuming the role of le provocateur, cut-rate Tom Wolfe division, which is not a snug fit. He approvingly quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal piece by somebody named Daniel Akst decrying the the “plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.”
It is, [Akst] says, a manifestation of "the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby." Denim reflects "our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings -- the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure." Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not -- authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil. Denim on the bourgeoisie is, Akst says, the wardrobe equivalent of driving a Hummer to a Whole Foods store -- discordant.
That’s certainly the clearest explanation we’ve seen of the current economic malaise.

We found our self taking this much too personally, because we own perhaps too many pairs of jeans and wear them whenever possible, not out of some dopey nostalgie de la boue** but because they’re affordable (a pair of Wranglers can be had for less than $20 at Wal-Mart, at least the last time we looked), low-maintenance (run ‘em trough the cold-water cycle, hang 'em on the line and they’re ready to go again), durable (last for years) and---a most important consideration for us AARP members---comfortable (we really like the way our little pot belly pooches out over the waist).

Will’s column brought to mind a piece we saw last week on 60 Minutes that featured Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, who’s worked with the Defense Department to create a new prosthetic arm for wounded vets. We don’t think we’ve ever seen Kamen in anything but denim (in this video he's wearing not only a worn pair of jeans but a denim work shirt). The heart-warming 60 Minutes report portrayed Kamen as the embodiment of American generosity and ingenuity, but after hearing from George Will we realize our mistake in judgment and must conclude that Kamen is just another fraud, one of those who wears “the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.”


*And by this we mean no disrespect to the many girls who do not throw like girls and could most likely whip our ass, if they could catch us.

**Elvis, who in his later years favored tight jumpsuits adorned with shiny stuff, long predated George Will in disdaining the wearing of jeans, which from his perspective as a rural Southerner he associated with the attire of the "field hand." But that's OK, because Elvis was a real person.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

In the Land of the Smug and Arrogant, the Liquor Company Shill in the Phony Uniform Rules

The other evening (Was it Friday? Yes, it was.) we trudged home from our labors, plopped our sorry ass in to our worn but comfortable recliner and aimed our precious channel-clicking device at the TV, hoping to open some space in our mind with some nostalgia-inducing offering from Turner Classic Movies, a trifling entertainment from the long-dead black-and-white world where Americans brazenly smoked cigarettes that did not cost $8 a pack. But the cable company, which only recently raised our monthly rate by $5.13 (nice timing!) while besieging us with some of the most insidiously stupid commercials in Christendom, apparently was still unable to forward us the signal from the classic movie channel, a lack of service that has now persisted for more than a week. So we clicked down one channel to Fox News, where we beheld a show called Hannity, an entertainment that left us transfixed, unable to peel our eyes away, for far too many minutes.

The bull-necked host---apparently he has shed his lefty sidekick/punching bag, whose name escapes us at the moment---had assembled a panel of guests to discuss the great issues of the day. One was a grumpy, forlorn apparatchik from the Bush White House whose name also was not committed to our memory. The second was a chirpy young gal who once had something to do with an entity called “Rock the Vote” but now labored as a “Democratic consultant,” according to the crawler at the bottom of our screen, and was apparently on hand for some fake stab at “balance.” The third---and we shit you not, to paraphrase Jack Parr, one of the pioneers of the TV talk-show racket---was a gentleman who sported some ersatz nautical outfit (with epaulets, we believe) and was introduced as the “Glenlivet Man.” We did not catch the explanation for the Glenlivet Man’s presence; perhaps it was some jolly in-joke, but it seemed to be nothing special, just everyday business on the Hannity show. (Dave Garroway, another early talk-show pioneer, once had a garrulous chimpanzee for a co-host, and if we’re not mistaken this little man-monkey enjoyed the occasional Pall Mall or Lucky Strike, although we could be confusing him with some other cigarette-smoking chimp from the 1950s. We’re pretty sure, though, that this chimp died and went to hell many years ago, thus explaining his regrettable absence from the Hannity panel.)

But we had no time to ponder the mysteries of tobacco-inhaling chimps or why an epaulet-bedecked representative of a French-owned manufacturer of single-malt Scotch whiskey was on an alleged public-affairs show---we could only shrug when our wife walked into the room and asked, “Why does he have the Glenlivet Man on?”--- because the host was outraged---outraged, we say! What had left him in this visibly agitated state was, of course, our president, who while preening and pirouetting in France had made the wholly truthful but not exactly novel observation that America has, “at times,” been “arrogant,” not to mention “dismissive” and “derisive” toward the rest of the world. This apparently struck some deep, dissonant chord in Sr. Hannity, who did not address the rest of the sentence that Obama spoke, the "on the other hand" wherein the president chided our European cousins for their reflexive, “casual” anti-Americanism (our president now strikes us as a man who likes to turn it every which way but loose).

Perhaps listening to the entire sentence would have sorely taxed the Hannity attention span. The voluble host was so worked up---and this, we’d imagine, is indeed everyday business on Hannity, at least since Nov. 4---you would have thought that Obama had proclaimed that he, Paul, George and Ringo were more popular than Jesus. Hannity professed to not understand how our president could make such a statement, could even conceive in his wildest fantasy that America might be "arrogant," and, displaying his wide-ranging knowledge of matters historical, invoked “Hitler” and “Stalin” and somebody else as examples of the evil that our president does not recognize but which he, Sean Hannity, most assuredly does and is fully equipped, intellectually and otherwise, to deal with.

At that point we were finally roused to change the channel, thus we have no way of knowing whether one of Hannity’s guests, perhaps the dapper Glenlivet Man, piped up to argue that, yes, Americans have been arrogant and dismissive, most recently as we’ve pursued with blood and uncountable wealth “the presumptuous notion that [we] are called upon to tutor Muslims in matters related to freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion.” That’s Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, Vietnam veteran and Boston U history professor, in his 2008 book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, a terse, cogent argument---although probably far too long for Sean Hannity---that for 30-plus years America has underwritten its unsustainable “empire of consumption” at home by staking an unsustainable empire abroad.

Bacevich, whose son was killed in Iraq two years ago, is a conservative, but he’s not the kind of conservative that Hannity would recognize. We await that day that we might flip on the TV and see Andrew Bacevich explaining the ramifications of American arrogance to Sean Hannity, perhaps on a evening when the Glenlivet Man is attending to other chores.