Feeling Blessed on Independence Day

On the fourth day of July, I tend to reflect on how lucky I am.  Having been born in America, I enjoy  prosperity, security and opportunity to a degree that surpasses the vast majority of other people, whether born in past centuries or the present one.  Tears have come to my eyes upon hearing a band play the Star Spangled Banner, or upon reading the words of the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal;” that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle all people to “equal station;” that our common Creator has endowed all of us  with certain inalienable rights, which include “the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Feeling much the same way I do, we Americans will celebrate our love for our country today with hot dogs, beers and fireworks, not to mention speeches and tributes paid to the land we’re so blessed to call our own.

This year, as I count my blessings once again, immigration policy is much in the news.  I find myself reflecting on the accident of birth that puts me in this privileged place.

The concept of citizenship began in the ancient world as a set of rights and responsibilities attaching to those born in places like Athens or Rome where democracy was born.  Later, there came a time when a non-citizen could gain the privilege of citizenship by serving in the army.   It has always made sense to me that a person willing to put his or her life on the line for a country should earn the benefits of citizenship in it.  If veterans feel a degree of pride in their country, I get that.  They defended it; they deserve to be proud; it’s easy to agree they deserve to benefit from membership in that society.

But I am not one of them.  As I approached the age of military service in 1970, a new system was instituted in which conscription depended on the accident of one’s birth.  I was lucky again.  My birthday was so far down on the list, I knew right away I’d never be drafted to fight in Viet Nam.  I could have volunteered,  but I chose instead to finish school, get a job, and start a family – reaping the benefits of the prosperity, security and opportunity my country offered me.  It’s easy to thank those who’ve fought for this country; but it’s hard for me to conclude that I, who did not serve,  deserve to be here.  I mean, some of my ancestors fought for this country.  They arguably earned their citizenship.  Did they earn mine, too?  Or was mine simply an accident of my birth, like my lottery number?

We’ve been hearing two types of news stories on immigration policy these days.  From one side, we get Donald Trump meeting with the mother of a youth murdered by an illegal alien; behind her are crowds waving banners, demonstrating  for “zero tolerance,” anxious to build walls on our borders.  Some of us wonder if our President believes that people born in other countries are mostly criminals, anxious to steal our jobs and our welfare money, if not our wallets outright.  From the other side, we get photographs of crying babies separated from their parents; behind them are politicians proclaiming that children belong with their families, and protesters waving banners, pointing fingers at the statue of liberty and wanting to abolish I.C.E.  Some of us wonder if they believe everyone in the world should be eligible for American food stamps, health care, and taxpayer-funded schools.

There aren’t too many issues about which I have no opinion, but I can genuinely say that immigration policy has long been one of them. Frankly, I’ve never thought about it much, until recently.  But seeing the photos of crying babies and grieving moms, I questioned whether I could form an opinion about our immigration policy on the basis of the news our media outlets share.  For me, the answer was a resounding no.  I mean, a lot more Americans get murdered by American citizens than by illegal aliens.  And we separate children from their parents all the time, through mandatory education, custody hearings, foster care, imprisonment of criminals, and (at times) military conscription.  How could I decide my position on our immigration policies based on a barrage of soundbites of crying children and grieving mothers?

After reflection, I decided I was wrong.  Emotional appeals do have a place in the debate.  But surely not the only place.  If I’m going to form an opinion,  I want to have data.  Even to have a civil, intelligent conversation  about immigration, I feel a need for data.  How much immigration do we currently allow?  How much immigration do other countries allow?  How does the rate of immigration to the U.S. compare to U.S. population growth stemming from the accident of birth in this country?  Genuinely lacking any opinion on the immigration debate, I want answers to such questions.  I  value them at least as much as the emotional soundbites the news media showers me with.    But no one in the media, and no one on either side of the debate, seems interested in giving me that sort of information.  So finally, last night, I started to do, for myself, what I think more responsible news media should be helping me with.    I decided to look for a few basic facts.

The first things I Googled on were population density and population growth.  Oddly enough, in both cases, Google took me to information maintained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  (Hmnnn.  Think about that for a while.  Then check out the CIA’s “World Factbook,” at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2002.html and https://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=21000.)  Should a country’s immigration policy have anything to do with population density or current population growth?  I had a gut feeling it might, or I wouldn’t have Googled on population density in the first place.  But if population density is relevant, why?  How ought it affect my thinking? I didn’t know why,  but  my taste for data about populations led me to the CIA.

I haven’t finished my search for data by any means, and I still haven’t taken sides about immigration policy, but here’s what I’ve found so far:

The planet has a land mass of 129,721,455 square kilometers and a population of 7.6 billion people. Global population density is therefore, on average, 58 people per square kilometer.

The United States has a land mass of 9,158,160 square kilometers and a population of 325,700,000 people. U.S. population density is therefore, on average, 33 people per square kilometer.  In other words, America is only a little more than half as densely populated as the world as a whole. “Is this relevant?” I ask myself.

The world’s highest population densities are in countries like mostly urban Singapore, with its tiny land mass and a population density of 8,188 people/sq.km.  The lowest densities are in mostly uninhabited countries like Greenland, which has only .03 people /sq.km.  Does the fact that Greenland is a vast, sparsely populated area mean that Greenland ought to be able to accommodate more future population growth than urban Singapore?

Despite the enormous existing difference between Greenland and Singapore, the population of already-crowded Singapore is growing by 1.82 percent every year – while the population of Greenland is growing by only 0.03% every year.  Hmnnn…   Is it because urban Singapore has greater natural resources and so can support more people?  Is it because more people want to live in Singapore?  Should the answer to either question have a bearing on Singapore’s immigration policies?  Or on ours?  (Come to think of it, should all countries base their immigration policies on the same set of values and goals?)

Obviously, there are differences of climate, topography, and natural resources between all countries. Should such differences be considered in comparing the capacity (or obligations?) of countries to grow their populations? If a country has more natural resources and more habitable land than its neighbors, should it absorb a greater share of the world’s population, or should its current citizens do what they can to keep those resources and that land for themselves?

With such questions in the back of my mind, I decided to do some more comparisons, using the CIA data on population density and annual growth rates for about 235 countries around the world.  (Notably, the CIA data combines net population changes from immigration and emigration with changes from births and deaths, to come up with a single figure for population growth rate.   I’d be interested in breaking the total growth rates into separate components, but haven’t yet found a source for that sort of breakdown.)  In the meantime, with the data already found, I began by comparing the United States to the world as a whole:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
WORLD

129,721,455

58 1.06
Average country (of 235 total)

552,006

58

1.06

United States

    9,158,960 33

0.81

Does this bare-bones data bear on what U.S. immigration policy ought to be?  Does it suggest additional inquiries that ought to be made?

I then compared the United States to the other major economic powers that comprise the G7.  In descending order of population density, they are:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
Japan 366,700 334 0.21
United Kingdom 241,930 265 0.52
Germany 349,130 225 0.16
Italy 294,110 206 0.19
France 547,566 104 0.39
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Canada 9,093,510 3 0.73

Compared to the other G7 countries, the United States and Canada have by far the lowest population densities; they also have the highest rates of population growth.  What factors contribute to this?  Why is the U.S. growing so much faster than Germany, Italy, and Japan?

I then compared the United States to other countries arguably in the same league as the U.S. in size, modernity, culture or prosperity.  This one, too, is in order of population density:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
South Korea 96,460 513 0.48
Israel 21,649 399 1.51
India 2,973,190 389 1.17
China 9,388,250 143 0.41
Spain 500,210 96 0.78
Ireland 68,890 71 1.15
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Brazil 8,358,140 24 0.73
Sweden 410,340 22 0.81
Argentina 2,736,690 16 0.91
Saudi Arabia 2,149,690 13 1.45
Russia 16,389,950 8 0.08
Australia 7,682,300 3 1.03

Countries like Israel, Ireland, and India are already far more densely populated than the U.S., yet are growing far faster.  Russia is far less densely populated than the U.S., and it is hardly growing at all.  What is driving these differences?

Finally, because so much of the current attention is on immigration through Mexico  from Central America,  I decided to compare the U.S. to those countries:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
El Salvador 20,850 293 0.25
Guatemala 107,160 141 1.75
Costa Rica 51,060 96 1.16
Honduras 111,890 80 1.60
Mexico 1,943,950 63 1.12
Panama 74,340 49 1.27
Nicaragua 120,340 46 0.98
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Belize 22,810 15 1.80

With the exception of Belize – which is less than half as densely populated as the U.S., but growing more than twice as fast – all the countries in this table have significantly higher population densities than the U.S., and all but one are growing substantially faster.

There’s a lot more data I’d like to have.  GDP and per capita income comparisons might be relevant. (I have a pretty good idea that the U.S. would be at the top, but how strong a correlation exists between a country’s prosperity and its population growth, more generally?)  I’d also like to break population growth into separate numbers for birth rates, death rates, and immigration.  (Is all that growth in Guatemala coming from babies, or are people immigrating there?)

You may question why I started with population density, and population growth, at all.  Should immigration policy be driven by entirely different considerations?  Maybe so.  But in the mean time, the data I’ve collected has already started influencing my thinking more than media sound bites.  More than 75% of the countries in the world are already more densely populated than the U.S.   Meanwhile, the populations of more than half the countries in the world are currently growing faster than ours.  It doesn’t seem to me we can base immigration restrictions on an argument that we’re overcrowded, or already growing too fast, compared to other countries. Or is there some reason we still could?

Without any data comparison at all, my gut tells me that among the nations of the earth, our climate is among the most habitable, our land among the most fertile, and our economy among the most robust.  In fact, along with the ideals on which our country was founded, those blessings have a lot to do with my tears on the Fourth of July.    I’m therefore ready to ask whether the right immigration policy – whatever it might be – should be judged on what most benefits the people lucky enough to be born in this country, or the policy that we’d counsel other countries to adopt if we made a swap — if they had our land, population  and natural resources, and we had theirs.   Our Declaration of Independence declared that all men share the same inalienable rights.   Is it fair to ask whether we’ve become like passengers on a crowded lifeboat, deciding who most deserves a seat?  Would an argument that immigration policy should be designed to benefit only those already here boil down to anything more than lunch counter’s policy of “First come, first served”?

Since the news media has no desire to give me anything but tears and protest signs, crying children and grieving mothers, I’d be interested in hearing reasoned opinions about stricter or more lenient immigration policy.  But meaning no offense to the individuals in media soundbites, and (I hope) no lack of sympathy for their personal trials, I believe the media has shared enough of the partisans’ appeals to passion and emotion.    I want more data!  And along with it, I want more civil discussion about what the goals of any immigration policy ought to be — ours included.

Meanwhile, I’m still feeling blessed to be able to call myself an  American, still feeling lucky to have been born here.

To all (whether lucky or not) I wish a blessed Fourth of July.

— Joe

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4 thoughts on “Feeling Blessed on Independence Day”

  1. I have not done personal research, as have you, about nations and factors affecting immigration. But I have always had some gut feelings. One of my gut feelings is that we are bombarded by MSM to focus on the USA, so gut feelings get skewed. After doing some basic google searches, I discovered that both the North American continent and the South American continent have the same population density of 57 persons per square mile. There are lots of South American nations. Why aren’t immigrants flocking to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and other South American nations, or are they?

    I am hardly surprised we only hear about US immigration, but it is US immigration, I suppose, that concerns us who live here. It is all so wrapped up in today’s politics, and illegal versus legal immigration. We are, indeed, a nation of immigrants. But surely we have been until the recent massive waves of illegal immigration followed by political grants of amnesty and calls for amnesty, a nation of legal immigrants.

    1. I like your curiosity about whether immigrants are flocking to South America. People are trekking a very long way to get from Nicaragua to the U.S. when Columbia would be a lot closer. Maybe lots are trying to enter Colmbia, and being successful, but we don’t find that newsworthy in the U.S. Maybe lots are trying, but finding that Columbia already has a wall (called the Panama Canal). Or maybe people are willing to walk farther to get to the streets of LA than to the streets of Bogota or Medellin, and if so, maybe that’s because… well, heck, I don’t know. And the media does nothing to help me understand. Meanwhile, I sure think it makes sense to understand the real goals and impact of our immigration policies before deciding whether to get all exscited about whether or not we’re enforcing them.

  2. I appreciate your argument… as well as your request for data from the media. A civil discussion by an informed population would truly be the breath of fresh air we need on the subject of immigration.

    Thanks… and a blessed happy Fourth of July to you as well.

  3. I find that as I approach 70 that most my decisions and feelings on most subjects revolve around my own feelings of satisfaction and security. These feelings have been condensed into the areas defined by my property lines. After 50 years of working for what I thought would be a better world I was out voted by a rough majority. Concepts I hoped for because I felt they were correct are being discarded daily. It is hard to accept that I was on the losing side and that I was wrong, So I adjust for this by demonizing those who are in charge now. I am too tired, too worn out, and too exasperated to be a soldier anymore, unless you cross the sidewalk into my space. I definitely may be wrong, but apparently I am also a loser. Some have been telling me this for years.
    Se la vie, and as Doris Day sang Que Sera!

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