We are not a walled fortress. We are a living organism.

Immigration – A better metaphor will help us break through the noise

[Via Robert Paterson’s Weblog]


This is what America looks like today. Where if you disagree with me you are at least Stupid or worse Evil.

For our debates about immigration and all important aspects of life today are rooted in beliefs and not in knowledge. Two great tribes struggle for power. Their ideology affects everything.

They look a lot like this diagram of the Left and the Right produced by David McCandless.

Screen shot 2010-09-06 at 8.37.12 AM

Secure the Border” is a cultural and tribal battle cry as is “Racists“.

Neither side can hear the truth in the other. Both sides make the other angry. The result is that America is splitting apart. Civic discourse is dying and it is nearly impossible to get anything done anymore.

So how do we escape this trap?

I think that we need to change the rules of the game entirely. What might help is to shift the underlying metaphor.

The metaphor we use today is “Fortress America“.


In the Fortress you are in or out. There is a wall. All that matters is the wall. You make it perfect or you leave holes in it. Motive or the circumstances for people outside the wall or inside the wall mean nothing. This is a mechanical and a simple model that is not suited to a complex and organic problem.

Being simple, such a metaphor insists on a right or a wrong answer and so can never produce what is demanded in a complex problem.


The idea of fixing immigration problems by building walls, real and metaphorical, is something that will not have a long-lasting effect on a complex problem. Fixing the problem first requires the recognition that there are no simple single solutions. A wall, while simple, does not examine the root causes or find an effective solution. It is like amputating a toe when the kidneys are failing.

Paterson likens America not to a walled city but to something more organic and complex – the human body

I think that a better metaphor might allow this. I think that a better metaphor might enable us to keep our tribal beliefs but to agree with others about things that do not need beliefs to understand and agree on.

A Better Metaphor – Our Body and its Immune System


A better metaphor is our body and our immune system. It represents the dynamic reality of America and Immigration much better than a wall. It can show us ways of seeing our response that are not in the realm of ethics but in the realm of system dynamics.

Now Paterson is focussing on the issue of immigration but I think the metaphor can go further. Only something like the complexities of the human body can really provide useful metaphors of complex situations. Our immune system is the most adaptive system in our body, providing us with a wonderful way of dealing with the hostile world we live in.

Without it we would die very quickly. But it can react improperly, particularly when the body itself is having severe problems.

Paterson writes a wonderfully deep article that tries to develop a better metaphor than a fortress with some people inside and others outside. Battling the other will not work in the world today, no matter how much the power structure wants to divide us up into a wide group of walled cities, thus removing our power. If we are all in walled cities, we can not help each other in our struggles. Keeping us divided makes it easier for corrupt leaders to keep power.

I happened to run across this video, produced by the War department after WW2. It is called “Don’t be a sucker”

Dividing people into coasts vs heartlands, elites vs plain folk, religious vs skeptics, citizen vs. immigrant – that is how some of those in power keep their corrupt practices alive.

And it is easier to do the dividing when the body is in poor health. But separating out parts of the body does not make it healthier; it makes it more ill. A kidney can not survive on its own, no matter how much it might like to.

How many of us could survive if 1% of our bodies got 60% of the food, while 50% of our body only got 2.5%? Yet that is where we find ourselves, with the top 1% doing very well in the economy and the rest of us not doing well at all.

And it has been that way for almost a generation now.

I’ve talked about this interesting split that started about 30 years ago.

Things were much more in balance 30 years ago. From the years from 1947 until 1979, all Americans saw just about equal increases in real income. In fact, the richest did not improve as fast as the poorest.

Not so since then. All Americans have seen no real increase in wages, except for the richest. The top 1% have doubled their after tax income while the bottom 20% have seen a 6% increase since 1979

A few years ago, the Brookings Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust produced a great report entitled Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well? It has this wonderful figure which measures productivity vs compensation.


Until 1979, productivity and median family income grew together, almost equally. Then in 1979, they diverged for good, with productivity going up 80% and wages only increasing 20%. It got even worse in 2000, with productivity increasing substantially and wages actually decreasing.

I would imagine has gotten worse since 2005 with the current economic debacle. If the average salary had kept up with productivity, as it had until 1979, it would be about $58,000. In 2007, it was $36,000, instead.

How about this one, comparing men in their 30s between generations, 30 years apart:


Men in their 30s today make substantially less money than did their father’s even though the costs housing, food, medicine and other costs have risen a lot.

With a damaged body, the immune system is not going to react properly. It is acting like an auto-immune disease, where the body begins to attack its own parts in an attempt to deal with the damage.

The normally adaptive immune system becomes maladaptive, hurting a damaged body more than helping it.

Our body is sick because we have not been providing nutrients to it in a sustainable fashion. We have been living off of stored fat and muscle but those are no longer present. Most of the body is becoming unhealthy and is dying. Our immune system is reacting improperly.

Without attending to the problem of the whole body, it will not be healed. Simply going after the ‘invaders’ from the outside will do little in the long run to prevent the death of the body.

It needs intervention at multiple locations simultaneously, in order to properly heal.

Yet, we still have leaders that want to keep the system divided, that want to prevent the nourishment from getting to the parts that are hurting. Some simply want to do nothing. Some want to just cut off parts. Others want to stop using medications that have sustained the body for a long time and use crack pot solutions.

Maybe the new medications will not provide complete relief. But doing nothing will only result in a greater collapse of the entire system.

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