Friday, September 25, 2009

Bad Economy? The 'Problem' of Immigration?

The three or four people who read this regularly will recall, fondly (I hope), the little blurb I recently posted about my new job: selling energy door-to-door.

Today, as I was making my appointed rounds, I found myself becoming slowly aware of two truly stunning concepts.

The first is that despite what some people say, the economy is actually chugging along quite nicely, thank you. How do I know? When people can sell electricity door-to-door -- and there's a market for it -- and customers love it (and they're buying it by the megawatt, incidentally), something good economically must be happening. Someone must be using all of this electricity for more than just running a laptop or recharging a cellphone, after all. And since I speak almost exclusively to small business owners, one might assume that small business is indeed thriving. It may not be roaring along at the level it was, say, five years ago, but it's surviving this economic downturn rather well. The 'For Lease' signs notwithstanding, the strong are, indeed, surviving and growing.

Not only that, but it's not unusual for me to find similar businesses located within short walking distance to one another engaged in friendly competition, both buying new energy plans and newly-generated, green energy (which is a bit more expensive). Both businessmen may be locked in the death struggle that is capitalism in tooth and claw, but both would seem to be doing rather well. I've seen it every day this week; on the same thoroughfare, it's not unusual to see five laundromats, four nail salons, three liquor stores, and a variety of other outlets selling everything from knit goods to produce all within a few blocks of one another.

I should think the 'bad economy' is a misnomer. Business, apparently is humming along...for everyone but Wall Street, of course. This economic 'crisis' is not one of actual commerce, to judge from the activity I've seen, but rather because some fool with a Harvard MBA can't balance his checkbook without a massive dose of low-interest credit. The Hungarian ex-pat with a small bar-and-grill is happy as a clam. Small business is alive and well, at least in the areas of Staten Island and Brooklyn I've been in recently.

The second thing I've noticed is the business owners, themselves. Every day I speak to Russians, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans, Czechs, Poles, Nigerians and Salvadorans. And where am I speaking to them? In their offices. The ones tucked into little corners in the back of the bodega, small restaurant or coffee house. They own the businesses I'm supplying.

The Little Guy is suffering? Tell these people. They're working. Well. They may not be Donald Trump-wealthy, but they ain't collecting welfare, either.

The American Dream is lost? Let me introduce you to the man who told me how he worked as a non-union carpenter and janitor for 12 years, and saved his pennies, so that he could open his own cleaning company...with 24 employees. How about I introduce you to the Korean woman, missing a finger on one hand, who somehow managed to parlay the veritable fortune she must have made cutting hair into her own beauty salon. You'd be shocked to learn that not only do many of these people own one going enterprise, but they often own multiple concerns. I spoke to a Polish man just yesterday who owns...wait for it...five tanning salons. And he started out by driving a cab and knowing very little English.

You'd be flabbergasted to learn that these people not only (usually) own their businesses free and clear --most don't believe in 'credit' -- but that they very often employ 10 or more people, and they spend an average of $60,000 year on energy bills. Let me repeat that: $60,000 a year on energy (electricity and natural gas) alone. That's before you factor in that they're renting in New York City -- one of the most expensive commercial real estate markets in the solar system, and paying the New York State minimum wage of $7.75 -- which is higher than the federal rate.

How did this happen? I thought all these immigrants were downtrodden victims of destructive capitalism, American racism, and a society that abuses them and takes advantage of them. Apparently no one told them. If someone did tell them, they didn't listen. They have grabbed capitalism by the horns. They seem to have emerged none the worse for wear for having been chambermaids, busboys, landscapers, pizza makers and street vendors.

I have a new-found respect for these people. They certainly have shamed me. I had thought I was industrious. They leave me in the dust.

I used to think that because I wore a tie to work and rubbed elbows with a higher-class (supposedly) of individual, that I was somehow better than these people. Not in the sense that I'm a superior human being, but that I was of a higher social class, and was destined to be much wealthier than they could imagine. My eyes have been opened; these people are better human beings than I am. I have never considered myself lazy, but these folks would work circles around me. They can think circles around me; one gentlemen divided 19,268 kilowatt hours (the amount of juice he used) by the total price he paid for it ($768.00), to four decimal points, in his head to arrive at the average cost of a kilowatt hour before I had finished tapping the numbers into my calculator.

These people are sharp. Very sharp. And for the record, no --- he was not Asian.

Anyone who says that immigration (we're talking legal, not illegal, immigration) is bad had better come meet some of these folks. Anyone who says the great box stores are pushing the 'Mom and Pop' out of business ought to see how these people operate.

They'd perhaps shut their pieholes about 'American' this-that-and-the-other, if they did. I know I will. I've just realized that in many ways, these immigrants are more quintessentially American than I am, the native son.

It's an experience I have enjoyed, and have learned from. I suggest that everyone take the opportunity, whenever they can, to avail themselves of the experience. It's both fascinating and humbling.

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