How to Influence Polls and Win Elections

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.

 Clinton is well ahead at the polls. Common opinion two weeks ago (August 9, 2016), was that convention bounces were still affecting the polls, meaning that we should wait for those numbers to even out before assuming they corresponded to anything in the long term. The polls haven’t changed much in that time so most believe there is a high chance that the Clinton advantage will prevail until November 8th (Election Day). The Trump team claims that the polls are being rigged by predominantly polling Democratic voters. They also claim that the only way Trump will lose the election is if it is rigged.

Before we proceed, it’s helpful to understand the poll takers’ methodology:

In a four-way race, Clinton has 45%, Trump 31%, Libertarian Gary Johnson 10%, and Green Party’s Jill Stein 6%.

NOTE: Poll conducted Aug. 1-3 of 983 registered voters, margin of error ±3.1 percentage points

Nature of the Sample: McClatchy-Marist Poll of 1,132 National Adults

This survey of 1,132 adults was conducted August 1st through August 3rd, 2016 by The Marist poll sponsored and funded in partnership with McClatchy News Service.

Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the contiguous United States were contacted on landline or mobile numbers and interviewed in English by telephone using live interviewers. Landline telephone numbers were randomly selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation from ASDE Survey Sampler, Inc. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. Respondents in the household were randomly selected by first asking for the youngest male. This landline sample was combined with respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers from Survey Sampling International. After the interviews were completed, the two samples were combined and balanced to reflect the 2013 American Community Survey 1-year estimates for age, gender, income, race, and region. Results are statistically significant within ±2.9 percentage points. There are 983 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within ±3.1 percentage points. The error margin was not adjusted for sample weights and increases for cross-tabulations.

Polls are now being done on a daily basis, a process that will continue until Election Day. As a rule, pollsters are professional organizations that live off their reputations and are constantly tested against both each other and the final results. They would not dare play games with their methodologies to achieve slanted results; they’d be caught in no time and be immediately discredited.

Early polls are important because they provide significant indicators of future polls and election results. One of the most vital pieces of feedback regards how many potential voters will be abstaining on Election Day (for this discussion, based on elements that I explored in the August 9th blog, any decision to vote for one of the minor candidates will be treated as equivalent to abstaining).

As described in the McClatchy-Marist methodology and as is true for all credible polls, polling is conducted only among registered voters. Given that it is only mid-August, we cannot assume that the current polls will play out similarly on November 8th. The campaigns can still make reassessments that will influence the final outcome.

Hillary Clinton addressed these two points:

“Don’t be complacent, my friends!” she told supporters on Tuesday inside a high school gym in West Philadelphia. “Even though we’re doing fine right now, I’m not taking anyone, anywhere, for granted.”

As Mrs. Clinton seizes polling advantages over Donald J. Trump in essentially every traditional swing state, her team is working to keep supporters energized and engaged, reminding them that winning public surveys in August is worth exactly zero electoral votes in November.

Often sounding as much like a field organizer as a major party nominee, Mrs. Clinton ticked off the particulars of what has become a signature venture of her bid: the registration of three million Americans before Election Day.

The article speaks to the fact that both polls and the election are determined exclusively by registered voters. Clinton’s main effort now is to increase that number by 3 million. Voter registration deadlines vary by state; most of them are somewhere in mid-October. An objective of 3 million new registered voters sounds impressive but one has to keep in mind that due to natural variability, 1.3 of the 3 million will likely be made up of people who will come of age and register on their own.

To put these numbers into perspective we need to go back to something I wrote in March (March 15, 2016). Based on 2012 data, 85% of registered voters in the US vote – but only 55% of eligible voters do so – leaving about 100 million eligible voters in the US that do not participate in this vital decision-making process. This is a huge reservoir to try to engage.

What about time? Does Trump have enough to shift his strategy and affect the polls and the election? Trump is trying. He has just changed his team, once again. The trouble is that almost universal opinion holds that the element that most needs to change is Trump himself, a feat that turns out to be much more difficult than simple firing and hiring. But doesn’t Trump have close to three months left to navigate his campaign? Apparently not. The reason for the rush is that early elections are becoming more and more popular in the US:

Voting actually starts in less than six weeks, on Sept. 23 in Minnesota and South Dakota, the first of some 35 states and the District of Columbia that allow people to cast ballots at polling sites or by mail before Nov. 8. Iowa is expected to have ballots ready by the end of September, as are Illinois and two other states.

The electoral battlegrounds of Arizona and Ohio are to begin voting on Oct. 12, nearly four weeks before Election Day. And North Carolina and Florida will be underway before Halloween.

Early voting has become a critical, even decisive factor in presidential elections: President Obama was sufficiently ahead in the early vote in Iowa and Nevada in 2012 that his campaign shifted resources from those states to others, according to former advisers, who also credited enthusiastic early voting in 2008 for his victory in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Nearly 32 percent of voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2012, according to census data, compared with 29.7 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2004.

In other words, there’s actually not much time left.

Of course, the content of November’s ballots is not limited to Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. The full 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 34 of the 100 seats in the US Senate, 12 state governorships, 2 territorial governorships, and an assortment of local positions are also at stake. Choosing someone for the top of the ticket obviously does not imply that a person will vote down the party line for all public offices. Split-ticket voting is a very real phenomenon but one party’s failed campaign can have a major bearing on all levels of government. We will all have to live with the consequences.

How can the campaigns affect the results? Speeches or debate performances might have some impact. Unsurprisingly, the majority of dedicated Democrats and Republicans will probably vote exclusively for their parties – although this year that dividing line might be shaken. Independent and newly registered voters end up being the key deciding factors in many races, so candidates must actively court their favor. The probability that these people will vote for a particular party or individual is determined by one word – groundwork. In today’s environment most of that work is done electronically.

The issue is not to convince the 100 million passive eligible voters nationwide to register on time and vote. Such a strategy would never work. Nor is the goal to try to convince people in states like mine (NY) to register and vote. Whether or not I vote will not make much difference nationally in terms of the electoral votes that my state will send – they will inevitably go to Clinton. On the other hand, such participation will be key in states such as Florida and Ohio where a few votes can flip the state’s outcome and be instrumental in deciding an election.

Hillary Clinton apparently relies on a combination of Google technology and the remains of the highly successful groundwork laid by President Obama during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns to help establish her footing. It is yet to be seen to what degree the overwhelming support that her Democratic competitor, Bernie Sanders, generated among previously untapped constituencies can be redirected for her benefit.

Nobody that I know talks about similar groundwork efforts by Donald Trump and he’s quickly running out of time to change that.

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My Family Vacation Part 1 – England and Brexit

Mina Tomkiewicz gravestone London 1 Mina Tomkiewicz gravestone London 2

Family grave in Golders Green Jewish Cemetery

I’m going to try to connect my personal history (August 2) and the pieces of my family history that I gleaned from my recent travels with the global refugee issues.

Above is my mother’s grave in London’s Golders Green Jewish cemetery. She passed away on October 1975. My mother’s body and my stepfather’s ashes are buried there, but it was my mother’s wish to make her grave a monument to fallen family members. The front of the gravestone features her name and that of her second husband, while the base (on the left) shows a list – including my father, my uncle and my grandparents on my mother’s side – of those murdered as a consequence of deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto after the ghetto uprising. My other uncle, who survived the war and passed away in Paris in 2003, was added to the list after his death.

My stepfather immigrated to England before the war and had a successful career as a cosmetic chemist at Gala/Mary Quant Cosmetics. My mother moved to England from Israel after marrying him and lived her last years there. I visit Britain often and regard it as a second home.

By chance, it happened that our visit this time came 5 days after the 52-48% Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

Figure 1 shows the geographical distribution of the vote, while Figure 2 looks at some of the main deciding factors.

Figure 1 – The geographic distribution of the Brexit vote

Brexit vote by issueFigure 2 – The main issues in the Brexit vote

Unsurprisingly, the dominant issue in the vote to leave was immigration. The people of Great Britain wanted to control their borders and blamed the European Union (EU) bureaucracy for the “flood” of immigrants and the perceived insecurity that it entails.

The vote itself was an example of the dangers of “direct” democracy as opposed to representative democracy. In a representative democracy you vote for people whom you assume are qualified to govern, while in a direct democracy you vote for individual policies – even if you know very little about them.

In direct democracies you can lie with very few consequences. Obviously, you can also lie in a representative democracy but there are bigger consequences once you are caught. The main lie that helped bring about the Brexit referendum was that you can stop immigration from other EU countries without also losing market access.

Imagine that just before the American Civil War the southern states had voted for “Soxit” (Southern Exit). In a sense, South Carolina did just that. Congress wanted to send the army to squash the “rebellion.” The southern members of congress made that choice easy by leaving the chambers and not taking part in the vote. The situation started to deteriorate quickly, resulting in a bloody civil war where 620,000 lives were lost out of a population of 30 million. (To give some perspective, the present US population exceeds 300 million).

The promises of the Brexit faction were “simple” (as they almost always are with direct democracies): If we leave – we can control our borders. The money that we now pay to the EU will be redirected to the National Health Service (NHS). The subsidies that the EU is paying needed constituencies of the British economy will continue. We will be able to negotiate access to markets that will be as good as the one that we have now.

Clearly, these were convincing arguments and the British voted to get out.

Now – what happened?

Up to now, the most important post-Brexit indicator has been political chaos:

  • The Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, a “stay” supporter.
  • The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is also a “stay” supporter.

The two ministers directly in charge of negotiating the exit from the EU – Boris Johnson and David Davis – are Brexit supporters, but as of yet, they have not said much of anything.

  • The Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a very silent “stay” supporter and is now facing strong opposition seeking to replace him.
  • Nigel Farage, the leader of the British Independent Party who was at the forefront of the “leave” campaign, resigned after admitting that the options that he had presented to the voters before the vote were not exactly realistic.
  • Negotiating terms of the separation from the EU can only take place once the official notification of exit is delivered. That is expected to happen by the end of the year, after which the UK will have a deadline of two years to actually leave.
  • The possibility of a revote has been mentioned but not seriously pursued.

Up to now the economic ramifications have been minimal:

  • Depreciation of the Pound by around 13% (From 1.5$/£ – 1.3$/£)
  • Real Estate (
    • Separately, Acadata and LSL Property Services said house prices rose just 0.2 percent in July, slowing the annual growth rate to 5.5 percent from as high as 8.9 percent in February. They also reported that transaction volumes are down by 20 percent compared with the second quarter of 2015.
  • The stock market is at an all-time high
  • The UK economy contracted by 0.2% in the month after Brexit.

According to BBC, there are several realistic outcomes for a negotiated settlement with the other EU members:

  1. The Norway model: Member of European Economic Area, full access to single market, obliged to make a financial contribution and accept majority of EU laws, free movement applies as it does in the EU
  2. The Switzerland model: Member of the European Free Trade Association but not the EEA, access to EU market governed by series of bilateral agreements, covers some but not all areas of trade, also makes a financial contribution but smaller than Norway’s, doesn’t have a general duty to apply EU laws but does have to implement some EU regulations to enable trade, free movement applies
  3. The Turkey model: Customs union with the EU, meaning no tariffs or quotas on industrial goods exported to EU countries, has to apply EU’s external tariff on goods imported from outside the EU.
  4. No special agreement – follow the World Trade Organization rules.

Bloomberg adequately summed up the present sentiment of the rest of the EU:

What are the 27 other EU countries hoping to get out of Brexit talks? Bloomberg reporters put that question to governments across the continent and came away with a web of priorities and red lines that can’t be crossed.

Several countries including Germany, Portugal and the Czech Republic say the U.K. must accept freedom of movement rules in return for single-market access, writes Bloomberg’s Alan Crawford. France may be ready to go even further and link free movement to Britain’s ambition of keeping the so-called passport rights that allow banks to sell services on the continent

Just three EU members—Denmark, Austria and Bulgaria—cited a shared concern with Britain over free movement.

Other highlights from the survey include:

  • France and Denmark are concerned with reciprocal access for fishermen to their respective waters
  • Spain will press for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar
  • Cyprus and Greece want to avoid further damage to the pound, which could keep British tourists away
  • Baltic and eastern European states want reassurances about security in the face of Russian aggression
  • Malta wants to keep preferential access to British universities for its young people

Does the UK have an immigration issue that justified the Brexit vote?

Here are the key points as summarized by the Migration Observatory (a UK site):

  • Between 1993 and 2014 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million. During the same period, the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million.
    (Total population over this period increased from 57.7M to 64.1M)
  • London has the greatest number of migrants (3.0 million foreign-born people in 2014) among all regions with comparable data in the UK.
  • In 2014, the UK population was 13.1% foreign-born (up from 7% in 1993) and 8.5% foreign citizens (up from 4% in 1993).
  • Foreign-born people constituted 39% of Inner London’s population in 2013 (the highest share among all regions with comparable data).
  • India is the most common country of birth among the foreign-born, but Poland tops the list of foreign citizens in the UK.

The main conclusions: London, which has experienced by far the largest influx of foreign-born, voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying. Also, interestingly, the most common birth country of foreign-born is India, which will not be affected at all by Brexit.

Here are the comparable numbers for immigration to the US:

  • Between 1960 and 2013 the foreign-born population in the US increased from 9.7M to 41.3M, with a total population increase from 180.7M in 1960 to 316.5M in 2013.
  • In 1960, most (84%) of the foreign-born in the US came from Europe and Canada. In 2013, most of the foreign-born came from Mexico (28%), Other Latin American countries (24%), or Asia (26%). Those from Europe/Canada were a mere 14%.

Figure 3 – Makeup of immigrants to the US in 1960 and 2013

The trends are not that different and, in my opinion, the main issue that drove the Brexit vote is bogus.

The Brexit vote in England is perhaps not so important on its own globally but it is symptomatic of the dangerous tendencies of white nationalists both in Europe and the US to use immigration as a red herring, refocusing governments away from global concerns and toward local fear. In the Anthropocene era, when many of the local issues are governed by global trends, this shift justifies major concern.

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The Election: Trust, Likability & Honesty

I am finishing writing this blog on Sunday, even though I had a draft ready yesterday. As I read the New York Times today, I came across Nicholas Kristof’s Op-Ed,  “Clinton’s Fibs vs. Trump’s Huge Lies.” It coincided almost exactly with my planned theme for this week.

ONE persistent narrative in American politics is that Hillary Clinton is a slippery, compulsive liar while Donald Trump is a gutsy truth-teller.

Over all, the latest CBS News poll finds the public similarly repulsed by each candidate: 34 percent of registered voters say Clinton is honest and trustworthy compared with 36 percent for Trump.

Yet the idea that they are even in the same league is preposterous. If deception were a sport, Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.

Here’s the latest FiveThirtyEight poll:

FiveThirtyEight Election Forecast 8-9-16

Nate Silver is my favorite polling guru and his organization updates its polls on a daily basis. He and others are warning that the current polls may change drastically in a few weeks, once the convention bounces decay and polls become more stable. The Olympics in Rio started on Friday and our collective attention will be glued to the games, which provides an excellent opportunity to freeze these results for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, Donald Trump will likely do something that increases the population’s reluctance to support him as the next president of the United States.

Here is David Brooks’ summary of Trump’s recent policy statement:

Over the past few days, Trump has destroyed this middle ground. He’s exposed the wet noodle Republicans as suckers, or worse. Trump has shown that he is not a normal candidate. He is a political rampage charging ever more wildly out of control. And no, he cannot be changed.

He cannot be contained because he is psychologically off the chain. With each passing week he displays the classic symptoms of medium-grade mania in more disturbing forms: inflated self-esteem, sleeplessness, impulsivity, aggression and a compulsion to offer advice on subjects he knows nothing about.

His speech patterns are like something straight out of a psychiatric textbook. Manics display something called “flight of ideas.” It’s a formal thought disorder in which ideas tumble forth through a disordered chain of associations. One word sparks another, which sparks another, and they’re off to the races. As one trained psychiatrist said to me, compare Donald Trump’s speaking patterns to a Robin Williams monologue, but with insults instead of jokes.

I have no idea if Brooks is a registered Republican but he is certainly the most right-of-center Op-Ed writer for the NYT so his words as to the qualifications of the Republican candidate should count.

To top it all off, there have been reports about Trump’s intention to use nuclear weapons:

Earlier this week, Joe Scarborough offered a pretty striking secondhand account of Donald Trump’s foreign policy acumen — or rather, his lack thereof.

“I’ll be very careful here,” the MSNBC host said, before passing along some hearsay. “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on an international level went to advise Donald Trump, and three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times, [Trump] asked — at one point, ‘If we have them, why can’t we use them?'”

This is really scary.

Yet, in spite these prospects, a recent letter to the New York Times immediately following the conventions presented the following perspective:

As a Sanders supporter, I will not be voting for Hillary. At this point, I’m left deciding between Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, who, like Bernie, were both actually against the Iraq war before it started.

Or, perhaps, just staying home. I am not alone. The two major candidates are the least popular in history, and the biggest reason their supporters give for voting for them is that they aren’t the other one.

I’m resigned to having a terrible president starting next January, but there’s no way I’ll be responsible for electing him or her.

The American Presidential elections are, by and large, a binary process. The last third party presidential candidate to win a national election was Abraham Lincoln in 1864. He ran against John Frémont (Republican) and George McClellan (Democrat). It’s a much more frequent phenomenon for third party candidates to attract a little more than 5% of the votes, thus becoming a major factor in a main party candidate’s winning or losing an election.

In terms of outcome, there is not much difference between voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein – or even joining the 100 million eligible voters (March 22, 2016) that abstain. In my book, if you are eligible to vote and decide not to vote, you give up your right to complain.

All of this brings me to my main reason for writing this blog. Why, in spite of all the evidence, do so many people – including the letter writer – rank their dissatisfaction with both candidates on the same level?

I have enumerated the reasons for not wanting Donald Trump to be president of the United States. What about Hillary Clinton?

By almost everybody’s admission, we have never had a presidential candidate with better qualifications. Of course, she is the first woman to be nominated by one of the two major parties, and it is possible that, as a nation, we are not yet ready for a woman president, regardless of her credentials. When directly polling for that, however, almost everybody denies that her gender is the dominating reason for disliking her candidacy. As Kristof mentioned, the vast majority cite her likability, honesty, and trustworthiness as the main reasons. Here is what the Washington Post writes about it:

Two sets of numbers from a Post-ABC News national poll in March starkly reveal the yawning gap between people who like/relate to Clinton and those who think she has the experience to do the job. Asked whether Clinton understands the “problems of people like you,” 49 percent said she does while 50 percent said she does not. But, when asked whether she has the “right experience” to be president, two thirds said she does while just 33 percent said she does not.

Now, compare those numbers to what I believe was the single most important question in the 2012 exit poll. Of the one in five voters who said a candidate who “cares about people like you” was the most important trait in deciding their vote, Obama beat Mitt Romney 81 percent to 18 percent. The election was, literally, won the backs of people who felt that Obama “got” them in a way Romney did not. If Clinton has a likability problem, Trump has a likability epidemic.

That same March Post-ABC poll showed just 30 percent of respondents felt favorably toward Trump while 67 percent had an unfavorable view — including a stunning 56 percent who felt “strongly” unfavorably toward the real estate mogul. (Clinton’s numbers were 46 favorable/52 unfavorable.) Just one in four (27 percent) said that Trump was honest and trustworthy. Twenty six percent said Trump understood the problems of people like them; 26 percent also said he had the right experience to be president.

We can try to quantify this concept by summarizing a recent NBC/WSJ poll of “feelings” toward the candidates:

After normalizing for the distribution of the polling to mimic the distribution of registered voters, the pollsters posed the following “simple” question:

Now I’m going to read you the names of several public figures, groups and organizations, and I’d like you to rate your feelings toward each one as very positive, somewhat positive, neutral, somewhat negative, or very negative. If you don’t know the name, please just say so. (RANDOMIZE EXCEPT BARACK OBAMA)

The table below shows the relevant answers.

Very Positive Somewhat positive Neutral Somewhat Negative Very Negative
Obama 36 14 10 12 28
Clinton 17 20 10 11 42
Trump 13 15 11 11 50

My own question is this: both Clinton and Trump scored low numbers in the positive/very positive categories, but the query was incredibly broad; what are the metrics here – to whom are they being compared? Given that Clinton and Trump are the two major party candidates, logic would dictate that the follow-up question ought to ask people to compare them against each other. As it stands, the way that the question is being asked doesn’t require any such assessment. Instead, we can only infer that each responder is comparing them to his or her ideal candidate. That is not a particularly helpful metric.

Going forward, I’ll be alternating between a continued discussion of my vacation and a looking at polling practices – including their use (or exclusion) of reference points and the potential ways in which the candidates can play the pollsters.

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My Global Family Vacation

map, mediterranean, malta, UK, poland, france Map of my global family vacation

I have returned from my month-long vacation with my wife. One of the perks of being an academic is that my summers are my own. I show the route of my trip above. Clearly, this vacation was not planned to be relaxing; I had a great time but the many flights made it somewhat vexing. Unlike some of my travels, the purpose of this vacation was not to visit new places. In fact, with the exception of Malta, we have visited each of the areas multiple times before. We were pleasantly surprised by Malta’s quality as a small island state tourist destination and will definitely include it in future itineraries.

My main goal here was to meet up with (mostly elderly members of) family. Given our age group with regards to life expectancy, future opportunities to visit with each other may be limited. We also wanted to exchange and record stories that had never been shared.

Like me, almost all of the older family members were immigrants. Of course, some of their offspring were native born to their chosen homes. These meeting fit easily within my latest series of blogs about immigration. As you might imagine, almost all such stories within my family have their origin – whether directly or indirectly – in the Holocaust. Surviving relatives ended up in Australia, Israel, France, and England. Poland, where most of the elderly family members were born and experienced the atrocities of the Nazis, still plays an important part in many of the stories.

I found a lot of generational dynamics that mirrored my own experiences: the younger generations are too busy living their own lives and do not seem interested in the experiences of their elders. It’s only once those kids get older that they become more interested in such themes (this was the case for me personally), by which time, they are sometimes too late – those important links have already been lost.

In my case, I was fortunate that my mother put our experiences in the form of two books (July 5, 2016) and I was able to read them when I was ready. My interests awakened nearly 15 years after the books were published. Not everyone can write and publish books. Fortunately, technology now facilitates publishing opportunities that didn’t exist for my mother.

A few friends and I have developed a new application called Tapestry. Tapestry is a platform for capturing the human experience and promoting self-expression. It allows people to capture their lives’ adventures. It is not only a way to create a type of family heritage but also a chance to connect with people with whom you shared moments. You can find the platform on I will share the stories that I heard during my vacation there and invite the younger generations to use the app for their own communication needs. In the process, I hope they are exposed to the stories of older generations.

The global immigration picture is the sum of individual, intertwined stories. We arrived in England just a few days after the somewhat surprising Brexit vote, during which the United Kingdom decided to exit the European Union. The strongest driving force behind this outcome was a desire stop the flow of immigrants into the UK. The pro-Brexit side made the questionable promise that such an exit would not hamper the UK’s free market access to the EU but would effortlessly stop free travel from the EU into the UK and also by some magic stop the global flood of refugees. After the vote, while it was made absolutely clear that this premise was a lie, it was also decided that the lie itself was not grounds to overturn the result. The ability to use lies and demagoguery to sway votes in direct democracies (as distinguished from representative democracies) is obviously not limited to the UK. One finds the same appeal in the US elections and in other European countries (See the series of blogs on Democracy vs. Oligarchy starting March 15, 2016).

From England we traveled to Israel. The refugee problem is at the center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the issue of refugee resettlement vs. their use as a figurative political football. Poland is now part of the European Union and thus party to the EU’s refugee problems but it doesn’t have a unique issue with global ramifications. Malta is also member of the EU. On the other hand, a brief look at the map above shows that Malta is one of the closest gateways between North Africa and Europe. Many of the refugees that are now trying to reach Europe are desperate to escape unstable states in Africa, making Malta a key player in discussion of refugees and immigrants. Finally, in describing the situation in France, I will emphasize the perception that the influx of refugees without proper security screening is a major concern as a contributing cause of internal terrorist activities.

My next series of blogs will focus on separate geographical locations while attempting to combine local refugee issues with global ramifications as well as some aspects of the personal migrant issues specific to my family.

However, we also have an important election going on in the US with major immigration-related components, so future blogs will oscillate between the US election campaigns and the global immigration issues reflected in my vacation.

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Immigration: Quantifying Migration

The Scope of Present Global Refugee Issues:

Global migration (June 21, 2016) arises from people’s quest to survive and attain better opportunities. More specifically, people leave their homes:

  • Due to war/civil war
  • As a result of broken states
  • In search of better economic opportunities
  • To escape being a discriminated minority in terms of religion, affiliation, race, etc.
  • As climate refugees

The people who are primarily looking for better economic opportunities are generally not labeled refugees; they know where they are going and leave for a specific purpose. Refugees are classified as those who are forcibly being displaced and are escaping from acute danger to their or their families’ existence. Figure 1 shows how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) characterizes the tallied 65 million people that are presently classified as forcibly displaced.

forcibly, displaced, refugee, mapFigure 1  – UNHCR global trends – 2015 for forcibly displaced migrants.

Figures 2 and 3 were taken from a recent special report The Economist published on the global refugee crisis. The figures describe the present global distribution of registered refugees and the recent history of major population movements. The data for these figures also originated from UNHCR reports.

refugee, registered refugee, global, distribution, mapFigure 2The global distribution of registered refugees

population, movement, immigration, emigrationFigure 3The recent history of the largest population movements

Migration and Demographics:

Every organization with a role in governance – from local and national governments to international organizations such as the UN – needs reliable estimates of the future demographics of the domain under its control. The first term in the IPAT identity (see June 28 blog) is the expected global population. Population in any territory is derived from the sum of births and deaths and the net balance between immigration and emigration. Estimates of birth rates based on fertility and death rates are usually extrapolated from the most recent statistics. Estimates of immigration and emigration are highly inexact and irregular but they are necessary for nearly every political, economic or social economic discussion. Statisticians from the University of Washington recently published their attempts at statistical assessment of global migration by country/region in one of the most prestigious and selective scientific journals: The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Figures 4 and 5 summarize the group’s main conclusions. The shaded areas indicate the enormous uncertainty of any prediction regarding migration.

migration, net migration, US, DRC, Congo, Germany, Saudi Arabia

Figure 4Comparison of deterministic projection estimates and the net migration for a few key countries

 PNAS, population, deterministic, prediction, projection

Figure 5Comparison of deterministic projection estimates and the net migration for global regions

Climate Refugees:

Up to now, we have focused on recent past and present factors of global migration. Climate refugees are a relatively new phenomenon, but almost every estimate says they will play an increasing role in influencing our collective action to mitigate the impact of anthropogenic climate change. I will close this blog with a few key paragraphs from a recent New York Times article describing some activities that are already taking place on this front:

In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants totaling $1 billion in 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change, by building stronger levees, dams and drainage systems.

One of those grants, $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles, is something new: the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change. The divisions the effort has exposed and the logistical and moral dilemmas it has presented point up in microcosm the massive problems the world could face in the coming decades as it confronts a new category of displaced people who have become known as climate refugees.

… Around the globe, governments are confronting the reality that as human-caused climate change warms the planet, rising sea levels, stronger storms, increased flooding, harsher droughts and dwindling freshwater supplies could drive the world’s most vulnerable people from their homes. Between 50 million and 200 million people — mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen — could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to estimates by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration.

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Vacation Notice

This week I am taking a break from the blog, so there will be no post. Please do come back next Tuesday, when I promise to continue our discussions.

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Guest Blog by Sofia Ahsanuddin: Immigration

“You broke the ocean in half to be here. Only to meet nothing that wants you.”

Nayyirah Waheed, Immigrant

Sofia Ahsanuddin

Dear Reader,

I am writing this blog post at a critical transitional point in my life. I have just graduated summa cum laude from college with a degree in political science and chemistry on the pre-med track. I have always intended to become a physician so that I can hold sick people’s hands and heal them. But now that I have spent the past few years studying political science, I realize that I need to find a way to thread policy into patient care.

At the moment, I honestly have no idea what the future holds for me. I sincerely hope that I will find a way to serve others with compassion and humility. To explore different options, I am now temporarily working as a Research Associate at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering and as Executive Director of the MetaSUB International Consortium at Weill Cornell Medicine. I am currently looking at novel methods of capturing the genomic composition of both the urban built environment and the human microbiome. In the one year that I have worked on MetaSUB, it has expanded to 58 cities in 32 countries across the globe.

This past June, I was fortunate enough to deliver my graduating class’ commencement address. This was an amazing opportunity for me to share something meaningful with my fellow graduates and so I chose to comment on the uncertainty of our times. I joked about Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and spoke about the polarized discourse on immigration to Western countries. I subtly satirized the irony of anti-immigrant backlash in former colonial states like Britain and France and commented on the nature of populist outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. Illiberalism, I argued, has contributed to the stunning rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the unprecedented “Brexit” referendum in Europe. Demagogues convince many amongst us that immigrants pose an existential threat to the national identity and security of Western liberal democracies. As a Muslim American immigrant of Indian heritage, I realize that there is a peculiar sense of double consciousness that comes with reconciling a multiplicity of identities. I am an American – a Westerner – who is also deeply connected to my Islamic faith. While I still have a long journey ahead of me in becoming a better person, I see Islam as a powerfully transformative spiritual tradition that translates personal ethics into a deep commitment to social equity, justice, and compassion in the public realm.

Nevertheless, navigating public spaces has become increasingly difficult in the present political and social climate. I am chronically aware that my presence in the West angers many, regardless of my aspirations to help people. It is, as Hannah Arendt puts it, a schizophrenic form of existence. Before my national identity, I identify first as a Muslim because my religion is the prism through which I see the world. It is my moral compass, my inspiration, my reason for living. I could not imagine my life not being Muslim. It would be like not being able to breathe.

So when I read about Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States or about Marine Le Pen’s desire to curb resettlement of Syrian refugees in France, I cannot help but marvel at the level of unveiled demagoguery and bigotry that is becoming increasingly rampant amongst many sectors of our societies. I inevitably feel a profound sense of sadness, alienation, and frustration when I am confronted by such vitriolic political rhetoric that paints all Muslims with a single brush.

At the same time, I acknowledge that this is not a uniquely Western phenomenon. Every group of people, including my fellow Muslims, has vilified other groups for any number of reasons. Extremist groups often use religion as a rallying cry to mobilize people in regions of the world that are still deeply theocentric to achieve very specific political agendas. Ironically, while extremist groups claim to speak on behalf of Muslims, they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims, as demonstrated in the recent bombings in Baghdad, Dhaka, Medina, and Istanbul. Many Western Muslims leaders, like my favorite scholar, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, are on ISIS’ hit list.

As an American Muslim, I hope that bigotry, xenophobia, and exclusionary policies have no place in our society despite our long history of it. I wish I could believe that racism and ignorance are antithetical to the values upon which this nation was built. While this may be wishful thinking, given our country’s very long history of racial exclusion and enslavement of non-white peoples, I believe that we have a responsibility to undo the wrongs of the past to create a more equitable, just, and humane future for our children.

I hope that this blog post will help me meditate on my past and family origins so that I can look to the future with optimism and certainty. Migration through time and space is a traumatic experience for many and it has been so for my family and I. We came to the United States in search of educational opportunities so that we could give back to our adopted home. However, in order to facilitate this process, immigrants need to feel like they belong. And I do not feel welcome in a place I have called home since infancy. It is crucial that the United States not marginalize, stigmatize, and criminalize the people who come to its shores in search of better lives.

If there is one good thing that has come out of my experiences, it is that I have developed the ability to understand and contextualize other people’s feelings of alienation and suffering. This is an indispensable skill to hone, particularly if one is as passionate about medicine and social justice as I am.  I hope it will serve me well in the near future.

– Sofia Ahsanuddin, July 2016


I am part of an ethnoreligious group of people called the “Hyderabadi Muslims” of India. We are mostly found in the Old City of Hyderabad, where the vast majority of my relatives in India reside. I actually lived about twenty minutes away from the Charminar, a historic monument that was built by the Mughal ruler, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 CE. The Muslims of Hyderabad are distinct from the “Hindustani Musalmans” of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, many of whom are descendants of the Muslim refugees to Pakistan after the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. Aside from the Islamic religion, Indo-Persian cultural tradition, and the Urdu language, we do not have much else in common with the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh.

Hyderabad was previously known as the “City of Pearls” because of its status as the wealthiest of the princely states under British colonial rule. Jews, Turks, Arabs, and Africans flocked to Hyderabad because it was a major trading hub. The Yemeni Chaush peoples and the Siddi peoples of Bantu descent still reside in Hyderabad. The royal legacy of Hyderabad is apparent in its many modern public institutions – the hospital my family members go to when they are ill is named after Princess Durru Shehvar and the private school my cousins currently attend is named after Prince Muffakham Jah. I have been told that my ancestors were of Turkish and Arab descent and that they had settled in India for economic reasons. Family lore has it that one of my ancestors was a soldier in the Ottoman army. Because he was offered a parcel of uninhabited land on which to settle, he migrated to Hyderabad. My native tongue, Hyderabadi Urdu, is a distinct Dekhani language that fuses Turkish, Arabic, and Persian with the native languages of Marathi and Telegu.

My family was not directly impacted by the India-Pakistan partition, which initiated the largest human migration in all of recorded human history. While Hyderabad was violently annexed to the Dominion of India, with the loss of an estimated 200,000 lives, many members of my family made the unusual choice to remain in India. I am not really sure as to their reasons but I can only imagine that they believed it was a safer, more stable option than crossing the Indian-Pakistani border at a time of great political and social turmoil. My grandmother used to tell me stories of the communal uprisings against the “Angrez” (the British) and her childhood memories watching people leave to join militias to fight for Indian independence. My father’s side of my family is said to have come to Hyderabad from Sindh, which is in modern-day Pakistan.

Upon the British’s departure from India, it gave all of the princely states, including Hyderabad, the choice to join either Pakistan or India. The Nizam of Hyderabad at that time stubbornly refused to join either state, instead desiring political autonomy. Political and military mobilization of people along religious lines occurred which exacerbated Hindu-Muslim violence. The Hindu majority of Hyderabad opted to join the newly created Indian state. In 1947, the Indian government conquered Hyderabad, much to the chagrin and dismay of the Muslims. The subsequent “Fall of Hyderabad” resulted in the loss of privileged status for many Muslims and led to the migration of thousands of Hyderabadi Muslims to neighboring Pakistan.  It is no wonder that there is another city called “Hyderabad” in Pakistan. At that time, many Hyderabadi refugees dreamed that Pakistan would be the ideal “Islamic state” with progressive values. Most unfortunately, that dream has yet to come true because Pakistan is rife with political corruption, extremism, poverty, and sectarian violence, which is sadly the case for many postcolonial nation-states. Pakistan is one of many Muslim-majority countries that was once at the height of civilization but is now in a visible state of decay.

At the time of my birth, rapid changes were taking place throughout Hyderabad and my own family. Hyderabad was industrializing and was quickly transitioning into a global hub for IT and the telecommunications industries. The Old City is now mostly a residential location with a few tourist attractions, like the Golkanda fort and the Faluknama Palace, all relics of the Mughal Empire. The Old City’s dusty streets are dilapidated and its infrastructure requires extensive improvement. In direct contrast, the “New City” boasts of technological advancement and innovation as it is home to India’s “Genome Valley” and reputable transnational companies like Dell. Due to a severe shortage in economic and educational opportunities for Muslims in Hyderabad and the growing disparity in living conditions between Hindus and Muslims, many of my family members decided to immigrate to Western countries or Arab Gulf states.

Our circumstances have made us a part of the Hyderabadi Muslim diaspora. One of my uncles immigrated to Saudi Arabia in search of a secure, comfortable lifestyle with a steady job. He works for Saudi Aramco, which is often referred to as the world’s most lucrative and valuable company. My other uncle travelled from India to Saudi Arabia and then again to Canada with the hope of providing his four children with better educational opportunities.  With a few extended family members living in Australia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Holland, and the United Kingdom, I can say that it is a truly transcontinental experience connecting and communicating with family all over the world. I still have relatives who reside in India, but I have a harder time communicating with them because of the language barrier. I can speak Urdu, but I have an American accent.

My father immigrated to the United States in the 1980s because of economic need. My grandfather supported his decision to leave the country because my father had four daughters to provide for and had no sons. In India, it is not easy to raise daughters in a very patriarchal society. My father had pursued graduate degrees in both mathematics and Arabic but found it extremely difficult to make a living despite his academic credentials.

I grew up in the Bronx, connected to Hyderabad, and exposed to a rich variety of other cultures and religions. As a child, I learned how to dance to hip-hop music with the companionship of many of my black and Hispanic friends. I had very few Caucasian friends growing up but that changed when I attended an all-girls Catholic school. I joined the chorus – becoming one of the lead soloists – as well as both the basketball and robotics teams, all while wearing salwar kameez at home and listening to South Asian ghazals on the television. My parents would speak to me in Urdu at home and I would regularly see my mother poring over Siasat and The Daily News for news updates in Hyderabad and New York City. During college, I lived a few blocks away from an Afro-Caribbean community and an Orthodox Jewish community in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Jewish section was one of my favorite places to stroll at night because of its quaint and suburban atmosphere.

While “muhajir” is a term that is often used to refer to the Indian Muslim refugees who fled to Pakistan after the partition, I would argue that my family and I are “muhajirs” to the Gulf States and the Western world. We were left with very few options but to leave our ancestral home and to adopt many aspects of the culture and language of our new homes. Once we all finally finish school, my sisters and I will all be doctors and lawyers. Two of my sisters and I are passionate about health disparities and my eldest sister has done a lot of international human rights work. I do not think this is a coincidence.

Presently, some of my Indian and Saudi family members are looking into immigrating to the United States for graduate study and permanent residence. They tremendously respect my parents and sisters for having made it so far in life, comparatively speaking. I cannot stress how grateful I am to my parents for choosing to come to this country. I know that I would not have had the same opportunities if I were back in India or anywhere else.

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Immigration: My Migration History

Micha family homeThis is what remained of my family’s house in Warsaw after WWII. There is no longer any trace of it. I gave a brief summation of my early life when I wrote my first blog (April 22, 2012).

I was born in Warsaw, Poland in May, 1939. The first three years of my life were spent in the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis developed their plans for systematic Jewish genocide. Before the destruction of the Ghetto in 1943, I was hidden for a time on the Aryan side by a family friend, but a Nazi “deal” to provide foreign papers to escape Poland resulted in my mother bringing me back to the Ghetto. Then a Nazi double-cross sent the remnants of my family not to safety in Palestine, but to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp as possible pawns in exchange for German prisoners of war. As the war was nearing an end, in April 1945, we were put on a train headed to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp further from the front lines. American tank commanders with the 743rd tank battalion of the American 30th Division intercepted our train near Magdeburg in Germany, liberating nearly 2500 prisoners. Within the year, my mother and I began building new lives in Palestine.

I am now a professor of Physics, studying the causes of global warming. I have just published a book on the topic: Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now (June 2011 by Momentum Press). I publish literature regularly on climate change and energy, founded the Environmental Studies undergraduate program at Brooklyn College of CUNY, and have taught climate change on various levels for the last 15 years or so.

In addition, I speak three languages, Polish, Hebrew and English – a reflection of my immigration pattern, but I’d describe my knowledge of my birth language as “Kitchen Polish” as I never had any formal schooling in Poland.

We spent the time between our liberation by the American Army and our emigration to Palestine (now Israel) in the displaced persons camp of Hillersleben. We were part of a mass exodus that took place as a result of the Holocaust. My mother’s book, Of Bombs and Mice, details our life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the first three years of my lifetime. Below is an excerpt describing the period directly after our liberation.

Of Bombs and Mice book coverMy mother’s book about the Warsaw Ghetto

“My little angel, my sweetest baby in the World! Isn’t it fantastic that we are alive, so miraculously alive!” exclaimed Nata, showering wild kisses upon her six-year-old son Bobush. The naked, emaciated body of the blond boy eluded her grasp and Bobush ran away, his mischievous blue eyes set in a cherubic, pallid face, watching her intensely from a safe distance.

“I don’t want to be dressed, I want to go out now!” shouted Bobush, scratching himself all over with both dirty hands. Passing quickly from one mood to another, Nata started to weep. She cried hysterically: “you monster! You naughty boy! Come here at once or you’ll get a good spanking. If your father could have lived to see you now! Your poor grannie would…

She never finished the sentence, and after short fight with the struggling boy she managed to dress him, and herself, in the clothes she had found in the villa. Afterward she threw her own lice-infested clothes into the street, and they both went out to join the looting crowds.

The garden-town called Hillersleben, with its magnificently furnished houses, where-almost dying from starvation and disease-they had been transferred from the stinking, ghost-like train by the victorious Americans, had been the residential area for Hitler’s elite. The wide avenue, set in a frame of blooming trees, were in a state of riot now. Dressed in rags, looking for living skeletons, or horribly swollen, the liberated inmates of the concentration camps were wandering around, or wildly running through the thronged streets and flower-bedecked lawns, shouting, wildly waving their arms about, behaving without rhyme or reason. They invaded deserted villas and cellars well stocked by many prudent German Hausfrau, and they took everything in sight. From behind brightly-colored jam jars one could hear licking and swallowing noises and grunts of delight. Bizarre-looking figures were staggering under heavy suitcases full of loot and exchanging bewildered remarks.

“Who would have believed it yesterday? And so we have survived!”

I am Bobush and my mother is Nata.

I was an immigrant twice – once as a refugee. I was lucky because in both cases my country of choice actually wanted me. After the war, the Jewish Agency was looking for surviving Jewish families (especially those with children), to bring to Palestine to participate in the formation of Israel. I didn’t so much grow up in Israel as grow up with Israel. I went to two boarding schools designed to impart a mixture of standard education and agricultural work. Later, I served in the army, where I took part in one war and a number of skirmishes. I received my academic degrees and training at the Hebrew University and married another scholar. As many of our contemporaries were doing, we went to the US as postdoctoral fellows. Neither of us could find a job in Israel but we were both offered good professional opportunities in the US, so we stayed.

It is estimated that the European theatre of WWII displaced 6-8 million civilians. According to Mercy Corps, an international development agency that helps people survive after conflicts of all sorts, there are already 4 million Syrian refugees in 5 host countries. That number pales in comparison to the additional 16 million still in need of assistance throughout Syria and does not even begin to take into account the millions more refugees trying to escape from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and various African countries. These people have not simply chosen to leave their home countries. They are fleeing violence and injustice, trying to make a life for themselves and their families.

Next week I will publish a guest blog by a first generation immigrant, a young Muslim student that has just graduated as the valedictorian of my university’s Honors College. She will describe her own set of experiences. Each of the millions that willingly leave or are forced to abandon their country, culture, and language, has a different story that emerges as part of the collective.

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Immigration: IPAT

Noah Smith wrote an article in Bloomberg about how to convince the Japanese to have more kids:

Japan would like to stabilize its rapidly aging population, and there are really only two ways to do that. It can let in tons of immigrants, or it can find some way to raise fertility. Otherwise, it had better resign itself to decades of sluggish economic growth, as hard-working young people are required to carry a larger and larger pyramid of retired old people on their backs. Its social security system will go bankrupt, the health care system will struggle, and interest rates might stay at zero permanently.

We have covered this issue earlier. Here is how Jim Foreit concluded his guest blog (January 14, 2014):

Half of the countries worldwide now have sub-replacement fertility. The downside to this trend is shrinking labor forces – a factor which has led some governments to try to reverse the course and increase fertility. Romania banned abortion, and fertility briefly increased – until illegal sources of abortion appeared to meet demand. Other countries like France and Germany in the 1930s provided families with generous incentives ranging from free childcare to cash payments for additional children, but these actions did not produce substantially higher fertility. The relaxation of China’s one-child policy may result in higher fertility, but the effects will not be known for several years.

A sub-replacement fertility world seems inevitable, with fewer productive adults supporting larger numbers of the elderly. What this will mean for human welfare will depend on both the future productivity of working adults and living the expected living standards for their parents.

I have also posited that money and women’s education are among the best contraceptives. Figure 1 was taken from the special Science magazine issue published when humanity passed the population mark of seven billion.

Global Decline in Fertility 1950-2010Figure 1Global Fertility Rates

Developed countries as a group are way below the replacement rate fertility of 2.1. In other words, short of increasing fertility, if rich countries wish to avoid the consequences of shrinking populations, they will have to resort to immigration.

This brings us to the important role that immigration can play in mitigating climate change and the related Anthropocene.

The IPAT identity describes the indicators responsible for emission of carbon dioxide. (November 26, 2012):

There is a useful identity that correlates the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, in Governor Romney’s statement) with the other indicators. The equation is known as the IPAT equation (or I=PAT), which stands for Impact Population Affluence Technology. The equation was proposed independently by two research teams; one consists of Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren (now President Obama’s Science Adviser), while the other is led by Barry Commoner (P.R. Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:16 (1972). B. Commoner; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:42 (1972).)

The identity takes the following form:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Almost all of the future scenarios for climate change make separate estimates of the indicators in this equation. The difference factor of 15 in GDP/Person (measure of affluence), between the average Chinese and average American makes it clear that the Chinese and the rest of the developing world will do everything they can to try to “even the score” with the developed world. The global challenge is how to do this while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact.

I showed the identity’s various indicators’ contributions to carbon dioxide emissions in a blog (February 24, 2015) about energy transition in India. Figure 2 shows the evolution of these contributions.

Change in annual CO2 emissions by decade

Figure 2 – Decomposition of the change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by decade (IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report)

Currently (2001 – 2010), the global upsurge in the standard of living, (expressed as an increase in the GDP/Capita) is the main leading indicator of rising emissions. The second best indicator of rising emissions is population growth. Going back to Figure 1, the most effective way to regulate population growth is to increase in GDP/capita. From there, we reach the hypothesis that immigration from poor countries to rich ones is perhaps the most efficient way to regulate both the global population growth and the rise in emissions. Immigrant families usually achieve the lower fertility rates of the host countries within one generation. The influx of new residents would balance the declining populations of developed countries. Poor developing countries, whose fast increase in global GDP/capita has been mirrored by quickly escalating emissions, would meanwhile support fewer people and thus emit less. Attempts to block immigration ensure that rich countries will suffer economic stagnation, poor countries will continue to founder in the misery of poverty. Illegal attempts to block immigration not only reduce global security but also impair efforts to fight international threats like climate change.

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Immigration: The Physics

Next week I will leave for my summer break. This time we are taking a complicated tour, starting in England a week after the Brexit referendum. Next we will spend a few days in Israel before continuing to Poland, Malta, and France; then back to England and home. I am familiar with this terrain; the only place new to me will be Malta, where I will spend about a week. I’ll spend most of the time with friends and family in each country. Even in Malta, I will double my tourism with seeing my Australian family members who wanted to escape their country’s winter.

Aside from visiting family and friends, I will be paying attention to how the influx of refugees is impacting the various countries. The refugee crisis has drastically affected the “safe havens” where they flock. BREXIT is driven in large part by the fear of the refugee incursion. When I discussed the emergence of Donald Trump as a leading (now presumptive) Republican Presidential candidate (March 8, 2016), I wrote:

United States residents are not the only ones alarmed. The European press is fully covering the turmoil with great apprehension. As many US publications have noticed, however, the Europeans shouldn’t be surprised. Donald Trump actually fits in very well within recent political trends in Europe.

Political figures like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi have many similarities to Donald Trump. Not only was he a candidate for high political office but he actually served as Prime Minister four times. Meanwhile, Victor Orban, the President of Hungary, is very busy building fences to block the refugees that are seeking security in Europe. Jean-Marie Le Pen and his much more media-savvy daughter Marine Le Pen also fit into this category. The memorable French presidential election of 2002 saw the National Front candidate win the first round against the serving socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin only to then be defeated by the Conservative Jacques Chirac 82% – 18% because almost everybody in France was truly alarmed by Le Pen’s policies. In fact, just a few days ago, neo-Nazis were elected to the Slovakian parliament for the first time.

Much of this shift, including the shift in the United Stated is emerging because of fear of being swamped by refugees.

Today I’m starting a new series about human migration/emigration/immigration and its global impact on almost every aspect of our lives, including climate change.

To begin with, immigration plays a big part in the evolving physics of the human-dominated Anthropocene (see the previous series of blogs). This is directly linked to the notions of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. These are not simple concepts and they might sound like gibberish to the uninitiated. Given how integral these ideas are to the themes of this blog, I figured that over the last four years I must have covered them in depth. Apparently I was wrong. Although putting “Second Law of Thermodynamics” in the search box came up with a few related blogs, the term “entropy” provided a single entry, which quotes somebody using the phrase in relation to income inequality. It is time now to rectify this omission.

I devoted two pages in my book, Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now to the topic:


The law of conservation of energy is a fundamental, universal law (meaning that we believe it to apply throughout the universe) that puts limits on our ability to create “something from nothing” at least as far as energy is concerned. It tells us that we cannot drive a car or operate an electrical power station without feeding it with some sort of fuel. We cannot create a perpetual motion machine that will move constantly without supplying it with energy. This sort of limitation offends some of us, but for most of us it is not very surprising. It is one of the pillars of the work ethic that we were exposed to since early childhood and try to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

What about the following scenario? Imagine that we are cruising on a vast ocean. The ocean contains a very large number (around 1045) of molecules of water. Each molecule moves randomly in all directions and interacts with other water molecules. All this energy is the internal energy of the ocean. Can we create an engine that will use a very small fraction of this energy to propel the ship? We are not violating any conservation law— we are not even depleting any reservoir because the sun will continue to hit the water, and our energy withdrawal will hardly cause any temperature change in the ocean. In practical terms, for us as passengers on that ship, we would be able to cruise the oceans forever without using any fuel (indirectly we are using solar energy)—we would enjoy a perpetual motion machine without violating the energy conservation law. Well, not surprisingly, we cannot do that. If it is too good to be true it probably is, but why?

The reason is that there is another fundamental law, as basic as the energy conservation law (some even think more basic) that states that left on its own, a system tends to evolve in such a way as to increase disorder. To paraphrase it: left on its own, the universe tends to evolve to a state of maximum mess (just like my grandchildren do to a room full of toys). You will notice that the statements start with “left  on its own,” which means that my grandchildren can still fix up their room—but they will have to put energy into the effort; if they are not willing to exert the energy, the room will get messier and messier. This law is known as the second law of thermodynamics; thermodynamics is the scientific discipline that deals in processes involving the flow of heat. The first law of thermodynamics deals with the application of the law of conservation of energy to thermal processes. This all sounds a bit philosophical—why do we need it here? How can we use it to show that we cannot have our dream cruise? We need it because, as I will show in Chapter 6 when I discuss the solar energy cycle, the only commodity we get from outer space in a constant supply is “order” for us to dissipate. This “order” is carried by the solar radiation. In a sense, the greenhouse effect is a perturbation on this “order in” and “disorder out” balance that we engage in with the sun. We should get serious about the concept and try to quantify it in a way that will allow us to do some calculations and predict or explain some important observations in a quantitative way.

The physical property associated with this trend to “disorder” is called entropy. We connect it to thermal processes through a very simple equation:

Change in entropy = Q/T

Q in this equation is the amount of heat coming in to heat the system (when Q is positive) or going out to cool the system (when Q is negative). T is the absolute temperature (in the Kelvin scale). The rationale behind this definition is that the absolute temperature, T, is associated with the average energy per molecule. So the ratio Q/T represents the average number of molecules that share the given amount of heat Q. Because all these molecules move in all possible directions, the disorder will increase with the number of possible, equally probable movements. This is analogous to a room with many drawers that have items randomly distributed, as compared to a single drawer stuffed with items. The disorder in the first case is considered to be much higher than in the second case.

Let us restate the second law of thermodynamics in terms of entropy: Left on its own, a system will evolve in a way that will increase its entropy. So what happens with our wonderful cruise? The only thermal process involved is the extraction of heat from the ocean. We are decreasing the heat contents of the ocean (negative Q in equation 5.4) without any compensating increase in entropy because the heat energy is converted to work that represents a very low-entropy (high-order) process, hence the net result of the process is decrease in entropy— which is forbidden by the second law.

Let us apply the principle to another issue: we take a hot object and put it in contact with a cold object—what happens? Our everyday experience tells us that heat will move from the hot object to the cold object and that, as a result, the temperature of the hot object will decrease and that of the cold object will increase until the two objects equal the same temperature. From a perspective of energy conservation, heat can move either way without violating the law. T(H), the temperature of the hot object, is larger than T(C), the temperature of the cold object. So Q/T(H) will be smaller (due to the bigger number in the denominator) than Q/ T(C) . If we extract heat from the hot object (Q negative) and put it in the cold object (Q positive), the entropy of the hot object will decrease, but the entropy of the cold object will increase by larger amount, so the change in entropy is positive and in agreement with the second law.

As a final example, let us construct an abstract power station and try to see if the second law imposes any limit on our ability to generate power. This will be useful later when I discuss possible alternatives to current energy sources. The most common power stations generate electrical power by rotating a coil inside a magnet. Usually the rotation of the coil is performed by a steam turbine; hot steam at around 400°C enters the turbine to rotate the coil that generates the electricity. We get the steam by heating water with whatever energy source we choose— nuclear, coal, natural gas, and so forth. Whatever energy source we use, the energy of the hot steam is converted into the mechanical energy in the rotation of the coil that results in the production of electrical power. The internal combustion engine, which is mostly responsible for the propulsion of our cars, works on a similar principle: we inject a mixture of gasoline and air into a cylinder, the mixture gets compressed, and a spark ignites the mixture to a temperature higher than 1000°C. The fuel gets “burned,” meaning that the hydrocarbons get oxidized by oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water. The oxidation releases energy that heats the gas. The hot gas expands to push a piston that rotates the crankshaft that, in turn, rotates the wheels. We are converting the chemical energy in the fuel (by burning it) into heat energy and converting this heat into the mechanical energy of the car. In both cases an exhaust of cooler steam or exhaust gases exits the engine. The second law imposes an absolute limit on to the efficiency of converting the heat energy. The limit depends on the operating temperature of the engine (approximately 400°C for the electric generator and 1000°C for the car engine). This limiting efficiency is called the Carnot efficiency after the French physicist Sadi Carnot (1796– 1832). It states that

Maximum efficiency (as a percentage) = (1 – T(C)/T(H) ) × 100.

The temperatures here are in Kelvin— for the electric generator the hot source (hot steam) reaches the temperature of 400°C = 400 + 273 = 673 K. The cold sink is the exhaust gas that at ambient temperature will be 25°C = 25 + 273 = 298 K.

So the maximum efficiency of the generator will be = (1 – 298/673) × 100 = 56%.

The concepts of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics have expanded from describing the physical world to the workings of society as well. Within the focus on human migration, the emphasis lies with “left on its own, a system tends to evolve in such a way as to increase disorder,” Under this logic, immigration acts as an interrupter – the sovereign states are no longer left on their own. It’s an important step; while there are often disparities between the states, their cross-mixing can help with stability. In contrast, actively fighting against immigration negates that interruption.

Thermodynamics doesn’t have much to say about rate of the processes; it only describes the delicate equilibrium that so many states strive towards. If Donald Trump succeeds in building his high wall on the Mexican border, it will inevitably slow down immigration between the two countries. European countries, meanwhile, are themselves scrambling to construct barriers. This has an impact. What Physics has to say about the situation is actually rather self-evident: on a global scale, countries are competing to optimize their conditions and catch up with more developed states, but they face obstacles along the way.

I will continue this discussion in the next few blogs to try to highlight the consequences of this push-pull mechanism.

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