It's ironic that President Obama has turned to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to help lead relief efforts in Haiti. As president, both Clinton and Bush turned away Haitians who piled into boats seeking to immigrate to America.
David Brooks has a column today making the point that the horror in Haiti isn't just the earthquake but the underlying poverty, Mr. Brooks blames "progress-resistant cultural influences" such as "voodoo religion." But Haitians who manage to make it into America do just fine, making me doubt Mr. Brooks's point.
A New York Times article from 1994 describes the immigration policy situation: "Shortly before he took office last year, Mr. Clinton announced that he would continue the Bush Administration's policy of intercepting boats filled with fleeing Haitians and forcibly returning the refugees to Haiti without a hearing. During the presidential campaign he had described that policy, instituted in May 1992, as cruel." The Times quoted an American official as saying "that no more than 10 percent of Haitians who now apply for asylum at processing centers in Haiti are found to be eligible, and that the United States does not expect this to change." The Times article said that many of the would-be immigrants were rejected because they were "judged to be economic refugees" rather than political refugees.
Anyway, if Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush hadn't sent the Coast Guard to turn back tens of thousands of Haitian refugees, those people would now be productive, taxpaying American citizens rather than earthquake victims. It's all very nice to feel generous by having a big earthquake relief effort. But there's a certain moral obtuseness involved in having the Coast Guard send the Haitians back to their island, and then sending them money when they are hit by an earthquake. It would have been simpler and cheaper to just let them move here to America in the first place.
It probably seems like a big leap, but there's a similar obtuseness at play with the position of the Obama administration and the New York Times editorialists over banker bonuses. The Journal quotes White House spokesman Robert Gibbs mocking those who oppose the proposed bank tax: "If you want to be on the side of the big banks, this is a great country. You're free to do so." It was Senator Obama who, during the campaign, voted for the TARP, which was supported by the New York Times, and who as president extended the program. Who was "on the side of the big banks" then? Injecting taxpayer money into the banks with the hope that they would return to profitability and then imposing a punitive tax on them once they start making money is similar, in a way, to launching an aid effort to help Haitians who were turned away from America. In both cases, the government is acting to try to rectify a situation that it contributed to creating in the first place. Mr. Clinton now says he cares about the welfare of Haitians. If he cares about them so much, why didn't he let them into America when he was president? Mr. Obama now says banker bonuses are "obscene" and that he doesn't want to be "on the side of the big banks." If he feels that way, why did he vote to spend $700 billion in taxpayer funds on TARP, which was a rescue of those big banks that pay large bonuses? Maybe I am missing something, but one gets the sense that in both cases the efforts are driven by political winds rather than principle.