27 July 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics



Now that I have done my level best to make myself look extraordinarily brilliant, even going so far as to shamelessly drop the name Edward Gibbon (I am only in Volume I; the Romans are still only declining at this point), I feel compelled to come clean about something else. The more I read about the illegal immigration crisis and the undocumented worker problem, the more I come to appreciate the importance of things that I do not know—and very important things that nobody knows.

Best example I can give you. As I read, I kept noticing that writers on the subject were hedging on how many undocumented workers are in the United States right now. It is always something like, “There are an estimated 10 million undocumented workers in the United States,” or “There are 12 million+ illegal immigrants living in the United States.” Notice that plus sign.

So I asked myself, “Well, goddamnit, exactly how many undocumented workers are living in the United States?" That piece of information seemed to me to be a pretty fundamental starting place for an intelligent discussion of the subject.

The epiphany came in the form of my imagining the voice of that great comedian, Sam Kinison—may God rest his troubled soul—screaming in my ear:

You say you want to know how many undocumented workers are now living in the United States, huh? NOBODY KNOWS, YOU MORON, because they are UNDOCUMENTED!


That simple fact pollutes nearly every statistic that writers on the subject try to bring to bear.

Let us consider our friend Mr. Finnegan's statistic in the New Yorker article. He says that last year there were only five hundred and fifty thousand apprehensions at the border, the lowest figure in thirty-five years, down by 60 percent since 2000. Then he tacitly extrapolates—or more properly speaking, whoever provided the statistics to him extrapolates—that successful illegal border crossings are down by the same percentage. The assumption is that there is a direct relationship between the number of people apprehended and the number of people who made it.

Now I will grant you, that may be true. In fact, it probably is true. But it is not necessarily true. Who is to say whether that statistic does not represent greater efficiency on the part of the coyotes in successfully delivering the people who hire them to the United States without getting caught?

By the way, I have learned this interesting thing. If you hold your tongue with your fingers and say the word "statistics" ten times rapidly, you will hear a secret message.



But darn it! Now I am distracted thinking about Sam Kinison, the screamer. I was actually sitting in front of the television when he first appeared on David Letterman's show. Thirty-eight years old, still quite pretty, and undoubtedly drunk . . . . . . me, not Sam Kinison. At that time there was a horrific famine in Ethopia, and the world was answering the call with humanitarian aid. Sam Kinison delivered this heartless little oration on the subject:


You want to help world hunger? Stop sending them food. Don't send them another bite. Send them U-Hauls. Send them a guy that says, "You know, we've been coming here giving you food for about 35 years now and we were driving through the desert, and we realized there wouldn't BE world hunger if you people would live where the FOOD IS! YOU LIVE IN A DESERT!! UNDERSTAND THAT? YOU LIVE IN A FUCKING DESERT!! NOTHING GROWS HERE! NOTHING'S GONNA GROW HERE!"

"Come here. You see this? This is sand. You know what it's gonna be 100 years from now? IT'S GONNA BE SAND!! YOU LIVE IN A FUCKING DESERT! We have deserts in America. We just don't live in them, assholes!"


Of course huge numbers of citizen-consumers in the United States now do live in deserts, but that is beside the point here.

The fact is that the Ethiopians did not take Sam Kinison's advice, perhaps because they were too weakened by malnutrition. They continued to sit in the sand, men, women, and children covered with flies, and died. Millions of poor Mexicans, on the other hand, are on the move. They have packed the U-Hauls® figuratively speaking.

We are in the midst of a great movement of people, at the very least comparable in magnitude to the movement of black citizens of the United States from the South to the northern cities. I am coming to think that the idea of maintaining the United States with a fence, attempting to reconstitute it as some huge, pristine gated community with only people living inside the walls who look alike, think alike, and talk alike, is a pitifully, indeed laughably, inadequate response to this. It is already far too late for that even if it ever could have been done in the first place.

Walls—the Berlin Wall, Hadrian's Wall, the Chinese Wall, the wall north of Rome, the Maginot Line, the Iron Curtain, the wall around the Alamo, the wall around Veracruz—walls are made to be breached or flanked. The wall we are talking about has been breached and flanked.

Clearly, we must take the pressure off the wall somehow. But am I ever having difficulty coming up with some intelligent idea as to how to do that!

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