What Wall Street and Immigration Reform Should Have in Common

Shared prosperity arises through cooperation, trust, and investments in societal infrastructure.

If you listened to the Senate Investigations Committee hearing, Arizona legislators, or the conversation and comments involving British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a local resident, it sounds like the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. They may be right, but for the wrong reasons.

It’s not so much the few bad apples—whether they’re Goldman Sachs executives, landscape companies and restaurants who hire desperate immigrants—that are causing the downturn in our economic prosperity and possibly the end of the planet (whether from economic collapse or climate change). Rather, it’s that we’re losing our societal systems for working together to solve common problems: pensions replaced with 401Ks, international relations replaced with NAFTA, repealed banking laws, and safety regulations gutted with years of non-enforcement.

We’re losing our communal trust and we’re losing our shared prosperity. We’re creating a dog-eat-dog world. And, it’s hurting us (checked out the unemployment rates lately?), even killing us (mining disaster anyone?). We see it on TV and feel it in our lives.

Looking at Arizona, Salon’s Gabriel Winant summed it all up well:

“Arizona, incidentally, has been one of the places hardest-hit by the collapse of the real estate market. It’s a near-perfect encapsulation of the unraveling American dream: people move from the dying Rust Belt to the southwestern desert, where rapid growth and cheap housing is supposed to guarantee their futures. Instead, they get underwater mortgages and wage stagnation, and we act surprised when they turn viciously on their Spanish-speaking neighbors.”

The fact that dog-eat-dog economics doesn’t work, doesn’t mean we won’t continue that downward spiral. It’s part of our psychological make-up that our brains seek simple cause-effect answers and some way to take action to relieve the real pain of our lives and the fear that we can’t stop it. We initially see the world as we have been experiencing it, so it is often hard to imagine the changes we must work for. So, we lash out at those who appear different from us—especially when we’re afraid.

We can think that these “others” are inherently different, not caught up in the same hurt and frustration that we are. We are victims of circumstance; they are just bad people.  It’s a wrong conclusion: working people from Mexico City to Chicago to London to Athens are all being exploited. The systems of regulation that protect us and the investments that empower working people must be re-created. Now.

Fortunately, individualistic, fear-based, short-term thinking is only part of how our brains work. Other parts seek empathy and connection. Our brains are hard-wired to feel the pain we see in the eyes and lives of others. That can help us to develop the systems of safety and empowerment that result in neighborhood, national, and international trust and cooperation. And, as we know from the massive investments in public infrastructure throughout the mid-20th Century, that results in prosperity for all of us.

But we must help each other to help ourselves. We must develop ways to manage this tension in our brains. This takes communities big and small working together, so government action is key. We need words and deeds acting in concert. When we experience safety and empowerment in government deeds (as we do with Social Security and Medicare), then words about hope and family values can lead to trust and cooperation. Which, by the way, leads to long-term prosperity for all of us.

This upward spiral should be our common goal. To get it, we’ll have to fight for it, which would be a better thing to do than fight amongst ourselves.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.