Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Many years ago, when I was hitchhiking through the US, I met a guy at a highway rest stop who, for no particular reason that I could discern, was agitated about foreigners. (My accent in English strikes some Americans as vaguely foreign, even though it is unmistakably American to any non-American native English speaker.) But I was surprised about why he was angry. I had always assumed that animus toward immigrants was directed at transients who have no roots or attachment, don’t speak English, are really oriented toward their home country. But this guy thought it was great to have people come and do unpleasant work for low pay for a few years, as long as they move on. What he didn’t like were immigrants who come and remain permanently.

Apparently the current UK government agrees. People like me are a failure of the system. Soon after they came into power the government announced the goal of “breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration.” Now, as net immigration ignores the government’s arbitrary goals and continues to rise, they are growing desperate, even forcing out highly skilled and expensively recruited foreigners who thought they had immigrated. They have introduced draconian fines and even prison sentences for landlords who rent to illegal immigrants; since landlords are hardly equipped to judge people’s immigration status, the effect (possibly unintentional) will be to make life difficult for everyone who looks or sounds foreign.

Most of Europe decided that “temporary workers” isn’t a category that you can reasonably force people into. As Max Frisch famously commented on the European experience of the 1950s through 1970s, “Wir haben Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es sind Menschen gekommen.” (“We called for workers, but human beings came.”)

The contrast to Germany is stark. Universities are switching much of their lecturing to English, in an effort to attract bright students from around the world to study in Germany. UK universities scrabble for foreign students, too, but the justification is primarily mercenary: non-EU student fees are uncapped — typically they pay around £20,000 a year, whereas EU nationals pay £9,000. German universities, on the other hand, don’t charge fees. 

We could call it plutocratic tolerance: Germans are, by and large, willing to live with foreigners as long as they can profit from them. Britons are willing to exploit foreigners economically, but only if they don’t have to live with them. (The Home Secretary has particularly identified students as people whose otherwise welcome money is tainted by their propensity to continue existing after they have spent it, and to impose their existence on the long-suffering British. “Universities should now develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students” she said.) Next year’s EU referendum will force the population to decide which of the famous “British values” — greed or xenophobia — has priority.

This issue is not identical with, but obviously not entirely distinct from, the disgusting British government response to the refugee crisis in southern Europe — a combination of “it’s not my problem” and pompous moralising about the moral hazard of encouraging desperate people to make perilous journeys. Angela Merkel has resolutely refused to pander to anti-foreigner sentiment, and has even managed to pressure the UK into taking some small measure of responsibility for taking in some refugees — even if they’ll never accept that they, of all Europeans, bear the most direct responsibility for the Syrian disaster, which is part of the long-term aftermath of Tony Blair’s splendid little war in Iraq.

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