Caravans and trade unions

The stagnation of social mobility in Latin America

December 14, 2018

The answer to most of life’s problems is deeply rooted in education. More than facts and figures, school teaches us how to learn. It pushes us to succeed through deadlines and commitments, missed functions and all-nighters. The habits and skills learned in school become a backbone for productivity throughout the rest of our lives. Public education systems thus become paramount for social development and wealth distribution.

Source: El Sol de Cuernavaca

Regretfully, education systems in developing countries are seen as job creators in the short term rather than the long run. The SNTE, which represents teachers in Mexico, is currently the largest trade union in Latin America and has long been accused of strong-arming all levels of government to further its agenda. Higher wages, more benefits, less workdays, and no one to answer to. Teaching is a dream job in countries like Mexico, filling schools with self-serving bureaucrats. We spend more on education than our partners in the OECD, and get worse results. The reason for our failing educational institutions is our complete lack of accountability.

Our strategy for the past couple of decades has been to simply invest in academic job creation. This reduces unemployment now, and by increasing the number of graduates, further reduces unemployment in the future. A sound strategy in theory, but one rooted in populist idealism.

Our incoming president promises to build 100 new universities during his term. This rampant expansion rate is disproportionate to our supply of professors. For a long time, we were filling teaching positions with janitors and secretaries; now we’re just giving them degrees before hiring them.

In following this path, learning goes by the wayside and schools turn into little more than daycare centers. 16 years go by in a student’s life with nothing to show for but an eggshell-colored piece of paper with a seal and a signature.

We’re graduating students by the boatload and sending them straight off to low-paying maquiladoras, sweatshops by any other name. No country should be dehumanized as a cheap labor source. No man should be doing back-breaking labor in the age of globalization. Is a human life worth less than the technology to automate?

We owe our people a proper education. We owe them proper jobs. I’m proud to say that both of my parents are university professors, but ashamed to decry the greater establishment that overshadows their work.

The teacher’s union has repeatedly protested against significant educational reforms by blocking the San Ysidro Border Crossing between my hometown of Tijuana and San Diego. As someone who spends half his time across the border, I’ve had to explain time and time again that yes, my parents are professors, but no, they are not opposed to change. We have long awaited reforms that would push teachers towards greater accountability for their performance: standardized tests, incentives for means-tested growth, anything to push us into the 21st century.

Source: Rachel S. Rohde, MD

There are no consequences for incompetent teachers, no resources for concerned parents. Our entire system suffers from a severe case of grade inflation and no one seems to care because, on paper, everybody’s doing great. You have teachers that don’t understand their courseload and, rather than teach, spend the semester giving their students pep-talks. Six months down the line, everybody gets an A and is shuffled onto the next rung on the ladder to nowhere. The worst thing is, these students don’t know any reality other than the one they’ve always lived. Their perfect GPAs honestly lead them to believe themselves ready for the professional world. The lack of preparation in our average college grad is the reason our companies are so unproductive and it’s the reason social mobility plateaued 22 years ago.

Note how Mexico has remained basically unmoved since 1996, despite changes in regional income inequality.

A free market equalizes social unrest by redistributing wealth through the purchasing of goods and services. Those who have more, spend more. More heavily and more often. According to the Williams Group wealth consultancy: “70% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and a stunning 90% by the third”. In developing countries, however, wealth turnover isn’t so cut and dry.

Over all else, wealth breeds opportunity. The opportunity to immerse yourself in other cultures, to get a better job, to go to a better school, all things that contribute to making a “successful” person. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, in countries like Mexico and Honduras some people don’t even have the opportunity to go to school. You can’t apply for a job at Baker McKenzie when you’re too busy picking strawberries to go to law school. There’s this myth that if you work hard enough, you can get as far as you want in life, but there’s barriers that simply become insurmountable.

As a country develops, its society becomes more demanding, its economy recalls a rolling tide: out with the old, in with the new, natural selection at work. The only way to demand competitive wages is to create a competitive market of skilled workers; real engineers, accountants, attorneys, not the lowest-bidding facsimiles that dilute our labor pool. Without a proper system in place to train this workforce, our people are forced to look elsewhere.

The charts above show a positive correlation between per capita GDP growth in Latin American countries and their number of students receiving international degrees. While the correlation does not imply causation, I believe it to be a factor thereof. The path from field laborer to field owner becomes forever disjointed when you lack the skills necessary to operate a successful venture.

Wealthy families assure dynastic lineages by sending their children abroad. Eduardo Saverin, heir to a Brazilian fortune, co-founded facebook while studying at Harvard. Everybody wants the best for their children, but leaving the country shouldn’t be a determinant for success. By and large, American diplomas have become insurance policies. Virtual guarantees of continued prosperity.

This is exactly what the migrant caravan set out to look for. Opportunity in the face of desperation. Work for them and school for their children.

Source: Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty, published at The Atlantic

No one wants to emigrate. No one wants to leave everything they’ve ever known behind; to sacrifice their well-being for the mere possibility of giving their children a fresh start, and yet, the migrant caravan recently descended upon Tijuana, looking to cross one last border. Like a scalpel upon our social fabric, their arrival has revealed a layer of unprecedented bigotry and xenophobia hiding underneath our constant veneer of civility.

Thousands of Hondurans were met by two very different camps. One seeks to fund-raise and unite our community to welcome newcomers on a terrible journey, to make humans feel human once again. The other side, sponsored by a man I’m ashamed to call my mayor, seeks to discredit and alienate these people off racist and pejorative remarks, claiming the caravan to be comprised of “lazy”, “ungrateful” “criminals”. Sound familiar?

How can we condemn the United States’ stance on immigration when we seek to deport those coming into our own country?

Furthermore, those same people decrying the influx of migrants into our city once came to Tijuana looking for their own little slice of the opportunity pie. They uprooted their families from Sinaloa, Oaxaca, or some other poverty-stricken state in search of a more dignified life. The guy who runs my favorite music shop once asked me what part of Mexico my family was from, “no one’s really from Tijuana, you know?” He was born in Jalisco. My father was born in Sonora. We’re all émigrés of some sort.

Source: Jorge Cabrera / Reuters, published at The Atlantic

20 years from now you’re gonna look pretty goofy protesting the arrival of a couple people you don’t like. Discriminating the Honduran caravan is not a rational judgment, it’s one rooted in our own fears and insecurities, our superiority complex rearing its ugly head in the face of upheaval.

The bane of Latin American development is the sheer level of wealth concentration. The ease by which certain families, dissatisfied by their own countries’ standards, become Ivy League legacies. The third-world elite don’t pressure their governments on education reform because they don’t see it as their problem. Legislators themselves send their kids to top notch private schools, paid for by the federal government.

I'm not saying globalization is bringing about new age caste systems. Quite the contrary, globalization leads to a more enlightened populace and spurs social development in most of the world. However, we must take strides in making sure globalization helps those who need it most, rather than widening the already massive crevices of inequality.

In the same way a wealthy family can send its children abroad, we should be using our nations’ considerable wealth to give under-served students the same opportunities. Prioritize spending on human capital rather than bloated salaries and pensions. Strengthen our public education systems at home so our people won’t have to look elsewhere.

Industrial development is outgrowing educational development in middle-income countries and unless we do something about this now, we’re doomed to watch the inequality gorge become a whole valley.

This caravan isn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.

If you’ve made it this far, take a second to look through the rest of The Atlantic’s pictures on the migrant caravan:

Of further note is Johnny Harris’ documentary short on the ongoing migrant crises in Latin America:

Ceci n’est pas une revue.