Three years ago, I was asked to deliver the keynote address at the American Jewish Committee Annual Dinner.  I chose to use that opportunity to explain what was so special about my childhood neighborhood, Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After the attack in Squirrel Hill yesterday, just a short walk from the front door of my childhood home, a number of people contacted me about that speech. I am reprinting it below because I think that the world should know just how special a place Squirrel Hill has always been. What follows is the text of that speech:


When I was asked to speak about bringing communities together, my first reaction was that, I’m no expert on this subject. But I happened to be asked on an unusual day for me and my family. It was a rare day for us because it was the only Saturday in the year when neither of my two teenage sons had a football or basketball game. They wanted to do something we never get to do – they wanted us all to go see a movie together.

They were disappointed, however, because my wife had made a prior commitment. She explained that she could not go with us because she had promised to volunteer at the Dewali festival for my son’s high school. Dewali, of course, is the Hindu festival of lights. “But mom,” my son Claude said, “you’re not even Indian.”

My sons were disappointed – but not surprised. Last month, a few Korean moms at our sons’ school re-scheduled their monthly coffee to accommodate my wife’s new work schedule. She’s not Korean either.

What she happens to be is all too rare, I think. While she is, in fact, an African-American, she views her community – our community – much more broadly than that. In the thirty years in which we have been married, I never once heard her refer to our community as “the African-American community.” Instead, she always referred to “our community” as the circles in which we live our daily lives.

So it occurred to me that while I may not be an expert on bridging communities, I’m pretty sure I am married to one. So I asked her, “Angie, how do you suppose you came to view your ‘community’ this way.” To my surprise, she pointed at me and said, “I think I got it from you.”

While I was flattered, I rejected this praise. Her response was, “Who do you think took me to my first Seder, my first bar mitzvah, my first Bris?”

This led to a conversation that, after thirty years of marriage, I had never imagined having with my wife. We talked about our feelings with respect to the killings of Michael Brown in Fergusson Missouri, and of Eric Garner in Staten Island. We talked about our mutual fears of raising two African-American teenage boys in a town – Palo Alto, California – where they are about the only African-American boys for miles around. We also talked about the kind of community in which we wanted to raise our boys.

By the end of that conversation, it became clear to both of us that her appreciation for the breadth of her community didn’t come from me at all, but instead, came from the values I experienced and internalized in the Shtetl in which I was raised.

Yes, I said “Shtetl,” because that is the only way to describe the very special place I grew up.

As my closest friends know, I spent my early childhood in the Terrace Village Housing Projects of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a boy, I never thought much about my relative circumstances in life; we didn’t have a television, and all I really knew was the neighborhood in which I spent every day.

But one day that neighborhood changed – suddenly and dramatically.

It was my father’s birthday, and all I recall was how the candles on his birthday cake were the only source of light in our basement apartment. I also recall the fear on the faces of my parents as we huddled together in our kitchen. You see, my father’s birthday was April 4th, and on that April 4th in 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. Those birthday candles were our only source of light because our neighborhood, Terrace Village, erupted in flames, rioting and despair that night.

Shortly after that, my parents were determined that we would move out of the ghetto. But unfortunately, in 1968, families from the ghetto were not welcomed everywhere. Except for one very special place. In the summer of 1968, my family moved from the Terrace Village Housing Projects of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, to an even older “ghetto” – the historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

Squirrel Hill was like a completely different world to me. If you know it, you know that it is the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. To me, it was the first real “community” in which I’ve ever lived. Everything I’ve ever needed to know about being a member of a community, I leaned from my friends and neighbors in Squirrel Hill.

When the rest of Pittsburgh seemed closed to my parents and our family, our neighbors in Squirrel Hill welcomed us in. From our very first days in Squirrel Hill, we were embraced as both very different, but very integral members of a thriving, diverse and healthy community.

While I learned a lot of things growing up in Squirrel Hill, I think I can point to three important life lessons about bridging and building communities from the people of Squirrel Hill. And I can express these lessons in three phrases:

  1. Never let your first taste of latkes be by surprise;
  2. Every Shabbos is a special day, and every day can be Shabbos;
  3. Kosher salt is salt.

Please bear with me as I explain what I mean by these three important life lessons.

First, Never let your first taste of latkes be by surprise.

When we first moved to Squirrel Hill, our neighbors made every possible effort to make us feel welcome and part of the community. One of our first visitors eventually became my closest friend. His name was Michael Goldbach, and he and his mother came to our house to welcome us. Michael was exactly my age, and loved baseball as much as I did. Michael’s mom brought us a bunch of treats from her kitchen. As it happened, my mom was cooking when Mrs. Goldbach dropped by, and she invited the Goldbachs to stay and eat with us. I remember very clearly that they graciously tried everything my mom had prepared. I, on the other hand, was really reluctant to try anything Mrs. Goldbach had brought with her: blintzes and latkes.

Had I been more open-minded, I would have discovered some of my favorites foods years before I actually did. I can’t explain my original reluctance, other than the fact that these foods were unfamiliar and strange. They caught me by surprise.

What does this have to do with bringing communities together?

Well, I think that much of what we are seeing in places like Fergusson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and even in places like Dresden, Germany, is a tendency of people to be more like I was, and less like Michael Goldbach’s mom.

Do we have police encountering people in communities where their only experiences with “those” people are ones that take them by surprise?

Are these surprises always occurring in settings that are beyond their choosing? (Well, by definition, a surprise encounter has to be one that occurs under circumstances that are not of our choosing).

Could we reduce the “Fergussons” and the “Staten Islands” of the world by being more like Mrs. Goldbach? I think so. I think that the idea behind community policing is to get police to encounter the people of the communities they protect in less confrontational, more congenial circumstances. And when we meet people where they are, and show a genuine interest in who they are, it does more than just bring people of different communities together. It forms new communities, and changes those of us in those communities.

Mrs. Goldbach was so typical of many of our neighbors in Squirrel Hill. Mrs. Goldbach didn’t wait to encounter us; she came to us, and embraced us. She made up her mind early on that we were part of her community, and she determined the time and the place of her encounter with us. In other words, she planned to expand her notion of community. She made it her purpose.

That doesn’t mean that our plans will always be successful. Sometimes they will be met with skepticism, suspicion or worse. But if we don’t take the chance, then our encounters with the unfamiliar will be under circumstances not of our choosing. They will catch us by surprise.

To be honest, not everyone in Squirrel Hill was a “Mrs. Goldbach.” But there were more people like her, and many of them were shaped by the community in which we lived, just as I was. And I may never have learned this if not for the second of my three lessons, namely, that: 

Every Shabbos is a special day, and every day can be Shabbos.

In Squirrel Hill, even to this day, Shabbos is the quietest day of the week. With a large observant and orthodox population, there are very few cars on the streets, and most of the shops are closed. Most — but not all.

And this is an important point about Shabbos and Squirrel Hill. While a large percentage of the people of Squirrel Hill observe Shabbos, it is precisely because they observe it that you can see the true character of the people there. On Shabbos, because the majority of the people are at home, or at services, the otherwise hidden diversity of Squirrel Hill becomes readily apparent. It was on Shabbos, more than any other day, that I learned just how many people were just like us, minorities – refugees from other communities – who were taken in by the people of Squirrel Hill.

While all of the Kosher butcher shops and bakeries were closed on Saturdays, those of us who did not observe Shabbos patronized the shops that were open. The best hoagies, pizza and Chinese food to be found anywhere in Pittsburgh was available in Squirrel Hill on Saturdays. In fact, Murray Avenue, the main shopping street in Squirrel Hill, looked like a true melting pot on Saturdays. The true openness of the people of Squirrel Hill was on full display on Saturdays.

But one Shabbos, more than any other, stands out in my mind. It was late on a Friday evening in 1968. As the sun began to set, my little sister expressed a craving for strawberries. My dad tried to explain to her that the shops had already closed, but she really wanted them, and he wanted to get some for her. So he piled me, my sister, and my brother who was just three years old at the time, into our car to drive to a different neighborhood to get strawberries.

While we were successful in getting the strawberries, we picked up something else as well. A car full of three young white males began following us, and followed us all the way back to our home in Squirrel Hill. Suddenly, as we drove up to the front of our house, these men pulled their car in front of ours and jumped out. They had a bat and a tire iron in their hands, and as my dad jumped out of our car to confront them, they beat him, crushing the left side of his face, and leaving him to bleed all over the windshield of our car, all in front of his three little children.

In moments, the men of our neighborhood, hearing the commotion, rushed out into the street, immediately defending my father, and chasing the assailants away. They called an ambulance and the police, and they stayed with us while my mother accompanied my father to the hospital.

While that night was a traumatic experience for us as children, it was never lost on us that our neighbors came to our immediate defense. I often wonder, in today’s world, whether others seeing a fight between white men and a black man would immediately jump to the defense of the black man. It happened in Squirrel Hill, and in 1968.

I don’t claim, however, that Squirrel Hill is the only place in America that this would happen. In fact, I have proof that it is not. Four years before this incident happened to my father, three “Freedom Summer” civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney, were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Two of the three, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, were Jews. They were not fighting for their own right to vote. They were fighting for mine.

They gave their lives for me.

Although June 21, 1964 was a Sunday, not a Saturday, it will always be a “Shabbos” – or holy day – a holy day – to me.

Any day can be a Shabbos, and every Shabbos is a special day.

I think that all of these heroic men, both the ones in Squirrel Hill who came to my father’s rescue, and the ones who died in Philadelphia, Mississippi, understood the third lesson I learned growing up in Squirrel Hill, namely, that:

Kosher salt is salt.

Salt must be one of the most fascinating compounds ever. It is a very simple compound – NaCl – but it is essential for human existence. It was so valuable that it was once used for money; our word “sale” comes from the Latin word for salt. But it also has much more than practical power. It was Ghandi’s march to the sea for salt that threw off the yoke of British rule in India. Indeed, Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent social change has its origins in Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violent, but symbolic, march to the sea for salt.

But salt is also interesting because of the way it is perceived. All salt, after all, is just NaCl – sodium chloride. But Morton’s is celebrated in marketing circles as iconic for getting people to perceive their salt – Morton’s salt – as somehow “different” – more pure, better tasting, healthier – than any other brand of salt.

What makes Kosher salt different from all other salt is not chemical. It’s spiritual. This is something I didn’t understand until we were out of salt and had to try what was available. And anyone who has tried Kosher salt comes to the realization that Kosher salt – is salt.

Its true that Kosher salt has religious significance, and that difference is important for those who are observant. But for those of us who are not observant, we come to realize that, despite the religious significance, at its core, all salt – even Kosher salt –is salt.

Despite our differences – our religious differences, our racial differences, our political differences – at our core, all of us share the same essence. We are, at core, all the same.

In fact, for the best people, those who “preserve” our communities – people like Mrs. Goldbach – we refer to them as “the salt of the earth.”


Actually, my wife Angie reminds me so much of Mrs. Goldbach in many ways. She takes the same view of community, and sees the unfamiliar as an opportunity for a new experience. And she impresses the importance of this on our kids every day.

As Christians, we say a prayer with our kids every morning before we send them out into the world. We pray for them, and for all of the people they will encounter during the day. We do this each and every day.

My wife often often tells our sons that “it is very important to believe in miracles, and that it is very important that we pray for miracles. But it is also just as important to recognize that sometimes God wants us to be a miracle for someone else.” She tells our boys, “Be someone’s miracle today.”

Wouldn’t it be a miracle – a wonderful miracle – if we had no more Fergussons, no more Eric Garners, no more attacks like the one on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, no more Hollocausts — No more Shoah?

I believe it can happen. But as important as I believe it is to pray for this miracle, I also believe that it is just as important to recognize our role in making miracles like this happen. Not just for ourselves, but also for our communities, as broadly defined as we can make them.

Let us each be someone’s miracle today. Thank you.

Today the Parliament of Catalonia declared independence from Spain, a move Spain declares illegal. It is the first contested independence declaration in Western Europe since Sinn Fein declared the Irish Republic in 1919.(*)

In an effort to understand the positions of both sides, I have created a dialogue between two imaginary characters, both Catalan. Gemma is for independence, and Toni is against. I’m not recreating the most commonly heard arguments for and against independence, but rather what I regard as the most plausible arguments on both sides. I hope that this exercise helps some readers understand the key arguments, but I also look at this as a learning opportunity for me as the author. What have I left out or gotten wrong? Who is more persuasive?

The Right to Decide

GEMMA: Surely, Toni, you concede that the people of Catalonia have a right to decide their own political future. Eighty percent of us wanted a binding referendum on independence, and that is what the Parliament has tried to give us.

TONI: I am not opposed to a binding referendum on independence, but then there is the little matter of the Spanish Constitution, which declares the country “indivisible.” Puigdemont’s referendum was illegal, and its results are of no validity.

GEMMA: Fighting the Nazis was also “illegal” in Germany. An unjust law is no law at all.

TONI: Germany was not a democracy in the 1930s. Spain is.

GEMMA: The U.S. was a democracy in the 1950s, but it discriminated against African-Americans. The civil rights movement’s sit-ins and protests were often illegal, but weren’t they morally justifiable?

TONI: I agree. But Catalans are not discriminated against today in the way that African-Americans were.

GEMMA: I don’t claim that we are. But we still have a right to decide our political future, and it is wrong for Spain to deny us that, constitution or no.

TONI: The right to self-determination is not an individual right like freedom of expression or the right to vote; it’s a collective right and therefore subject to far stricter limits. Your right to secede infringes on the rights of others who do not want secession. Like me.

GEMMA: That’s the reason why we have to be guided by the opinion of the majority. If we must force some people to go along against their will, it’s better to force the few than the many.

TONI: But do the majority of Catalans want independence? I deny they do.

GEMMA: We’ll talk about that later. Let’s focus on the question at hand: if the majority of Catalans do want independence, is it not morally acceptable for them to claim it?

TONI: Making such a big change on the basis of 50% plus one votes is a dubious proposition at best. And this is not the best of circumstances, in fact. Declaring independence now means breaking Spanish law and inviting economic and political disorder. Even when you have justice on your side, it is prudent and wise to exercise your rights in a careful and cautious fashion. That is not what the Catalan Government is doing.

GEMMA: I don’t understand why the status quo should be privileged here. If a majority of the voters clearly express their will to gain independence, forcing them to go along with the minority causes more disorder and more injustice than moving forward with independence. And the economic and political disorder is the fault of Spain, not the Catalan Government.

TONI: Now it’s you who are straying from the topic. Look, I don’t think we are all that far apart here. I favor a right to decide, although I would prefer a threshold like 52.5% or 55% for independence, not 50% plus one. I might even be willing to concede that denying the right to decide is unjust, but I nevertheless maintain that it is a small, almost trivial injustice.  Furthermore, you deny the right to self-determination to your own minorities.

GEMMA: The Catalan Government has recognized the right of the Aranese to independence or rejoining Spain. Our treatment of minorities within Catalonia is exemplary.

TONI: But what about L’Hospitalet de Llobregat? A large majority of people there oppose independence. Should they not have the right to rejoin Spain?

GEMMA: Perhaps, eventually. But look, the Catalan Government envisions allowing dual Spanish-Catalan citizenship after independence. So no one is going to be forced to give up Spanish citizenship and all its rights and privileges.

TONI: You’ll still have to pay taxes to the Catalan state.

GEMMA: As we do now to the Spanish one. It doesn’t make sense to strain at gnats and swallow camels here: Catalonia is indisputably more liberal toward its national minorities than Spain is.

TONI: The point is that if a majority of Catalans support independence (which I deny), it’s an extremely small and tenuous majority, and even if there is a right to decide on independence, it can be unwise and imprudent to stand upon your rights.

GEMMA: As for the wisdom and prudence of the independence declaration, we can discuss that later. But since we don’t disagree very much on the right to decide, let’s get to the real issue: whether Catalonia ought to become independent or not.

Catalonia’s Political Status

TONI: Catalonia is currently one of the most autonomous regions in Europe. Spain is an advanced democracy. Catalan is widely and freely spoken within the region. Our economy is prosperous. Why should we ruin a good thing by chaotically leaving Spain?

GEMMA: Because Spain is not really a free country, and Catalonia doesn’t really enjoy the autonomy you say we do. Look at the Regional Authority Index: Catalonia enjoys a lower self-rule score than the Canadian provinces, the Swiss cantons, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Aland, U.S. states, Republika Srpska, Mount Athos, Australian states, Canadian territories, German Laender, Italian regions, the Azores, Madeira, Navarre, Puerto Rico, District of Columbia, Sarawak, Sabah, and the states of Mexico.

TONI: But it still enjoys a higher self-rule score than French regions and on par with the Austrian Laender, Belgian regions, Argentine provinces, and Brazilian states — those four are federal countries!

GEMMA: But even the autonomy we do have is a sham, because the Constitutional Court is controlled by the central government. The World Economic Forum survey shows Spain has less judicial independence than China, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Kenya, never mind other European states. It’s no surprise then that the courts always rule against Catalan autonomy. We can’t have true self-government if the Spanish state can always reinterpret it according to its own desires.

TONI: Judicial reform is a great idea. Why don’t we work toward that rather than independence? You could build a broad coalition across Spain for that reform. The problem with secession is that it avoids problems rather than confronting them. If Catalonia actually does become independent, it will make constitutional reform in Spain even more difficult.

GEMMA: Isn’t that like defending immigration restrictions on the grounds of preventing “brain drain”?

TONI: How so?

GEMMA: If it’s wrong to force doctors and engineers to live in poor, authoritarian countries because we want them to do good there, isn’t it also wrong to force me to continue to be a Spanish subject just so that I can be a vote for constitutional reform?

TONI: Who’s talking about forcing? This is a total red herring. I support your right to decide, but I deny you ought to decide in favor of independence. The costs outweigh the benefits, and one of those costs will be a less free Spain.

GEMMA: Independence might actually teach Spain a lesson and cause them to become freer in future.

TONI: Come on.

GEMMA: No, seriously. You can’t defend the behavior of the Spanish state in Catalonia recently, can you?

TONI: No, but the five people who went to the hospital after the police charges hardly constitute a wave of authoritarian repression.

GEMMA: What about the “Jordis” held in prison without bail? What about the websites shut down? What about the cyber attacks against the Catalan Government? What about the newspapers ordered not to print referendum notices? Don’t these acts violate the Spanish Constitution just as much as the Catalan Government’s acts?

TONI: They acted foolishly; they should have let the referendum go ahead and then just refused to recognize its legitimacy. I don’t defending holding Cuixart and Sanchez without bail, but it’s appropriate to investigate them for organizing a demonstration that trapped police in a building while they were merely performing their duties.

GEMMA: This sort of popular resistance is what you can expect if you unleash a campaign of repression. But earlier you decried the Catalan Government for breaking the law, and now you seem inclined to excuse the Spanish Government’s doing the same as mere “foolishness.”

TONI: I put them more or less on the same level, although I will note that most of the orders against websites and so on came from judges, not ministers. Presumably they know the law better than you or I.

GEMMA: Now we’re back to the problem of the judiciary in Spain.

TONI: Look, the bottom line here is that I believe Spain is reformable and you do not.

GEMMA: I have good reason to think Spain is unreformable. There are hostile, implacable majorities to Catalan self-government in the rest of Spain. The vast majority of Spanish voters oppose reforming the constitution to allow a binding referendum on self-determination or to create a federation. There is no political path forward here.

TONI: If Podemos won the next election…

GEMMA: …Which won’t happen.

TONI: Okay, but maybe they would do well enough to form a coalition with the Socialists and, say, the PNV, and get the process started.

GEMMA: Now you’re dreaming.

TONI: It could happen, but only if we stay in Spain and make the case. Persuasion is the way to go, not just leaving. Once you leave, you can’t go back.

GEMMA: Actually, we could. Independent states have joined together before. Look at how the German states came together to form Germany in the 19th century, or the American colonies joining together in the 18th.

TONI: It won’t happen here. There is so much bad blood now because of this independence process that Spain and Catalonia will be adversaries for years to come. And that’s bad news for us, because we need their support to get into the EU.

GEMMA: That bad blood isn’t our fault. If it weren’t for the independence process, the same Spanish mentalities that have brought about this campaign of repression would have hurt us in the future for one reason or another. If Spain wants to keep us by force, what does that say about their intentions toward us?

TONI: It says nothing about their intentions, but about their conception of the Spanish nationality.

GEMMA: If you had a girlfriend who told you that she would beat you violently if you ever tried to leave her, wouldn’t that make you want to leave her more?

TONI: Bad analogy. Spain and Catalonia are groups of people, not individuals.

GEMMA: But the basic point carries through: if Spain is willing to use force to stop us from self-determination, they want to have the power to exploit and abuse us.

TONI: Stop collectivizing “Spain.” Plenty of Spanish people do not want to use force against us.

GEMMA: But most do.

TONI: Now we’re arguing in circles. Let’s move on to the economic problems of an independent Catalonia.

Catalonia’s Economic Status

GEMMA: What you call “problems” I call opportunities. Right now Catalonia pays about 8% of its GDP every year to the rest of Spain. Despite being the economic powerhouse of the country, public spending per person is actually lower in Catalonia than the rest of Spain. That’s fiscal exploitation, and we will get an immediate economic boost from independence.

TONI: I say that figure is closer to 5% of GDP than 8%, but whatever. I don’t deny that there are selfish reasons behind independence, but I’m against selfishness as a political agenda. It’s our duty as a well-off region of Spain to help the less well-off parts of the country.

GEMMA: It’s not selfishness, it’s basic fairness. We work harder and pay higher prices for things, but we don’t get to reap the rewards.

TONI: I agree that the regional fiscal formula should take cost of living into account, and we would get some more public funds if that were the case. I even think Spain ought to give the autonomous communities more taxing powers. But you can do that without independence; look at the Basque Country and Navarre as possible models for Catalonia (“Concierto”).

GEMMA: But how do we get the Spanish Government to agree to a Concierto for Catalonia?

TONI: I don’t know, but certainly not by violating the Constitution and declaring independence.

GEMMA: The issue of how to negotiate with Spain is really separate. All I want you to concede here is that if Catalonia became independent, all else equal, our economy would be healthier – right?

TONI: Are you assuming Catalonia stays in the European Union? Because that’s far from guaranteed.

GEMMA: I said “all else equal,” so yes.

TONI: Well, by that definition I would have to concede it. But I don’t think we should just care about the economy of Catalonia; I care about the fate of our fellow Spaniards.

GEMMA: So do I, but that doesn’t mean I must be in political union with them. If fairness requires that Catalonia give 8 or 5% of its GDP to Spain every year, doesn’t it also require that Spain give 5 or 8% of its GDP to Morocco? In fact, if this is an argument against Catalan independence, isn’t it also an argument against Spanish independence? Shouldn’t Spain politically unify with Morocco? Then it could help the citizens of Morocco quite a lot.

TONI: I’m not sure Morocco would like that. Too many Spaniards; it would be colonialism all over again.

GEMMA: Well, India then! Indians could well and truly outvote Spaniards. Spain could be an Indian colony. That’s only fair, by your logic, isn’t it?

TONI: The question of foreign aid is a difficult one. We should be giving foreign aid to India, but that doesn’t mean we need to be politically unified with them.

GEMMA: Then Catalonia can give aid to Spain without being politically unified with it.

TONI: Of course. I’m just pointing out that if some aid is to continue after independence, the economic case for independence is less than it seems at first sight.

GEMMA: Fair enough. But there is still a substantial case for it, especially when you take into account the opportunity to get away from Spain’s corruption and wasteful public spending on Pharaonic projects.

TONI: Catalonia is not much less corrupt than the rest of Spain. Just look at the corruption in the old Convergence and Unity party. How many of the politicians in today’s (pro-independence) Democratic Party of Catalonia were involved in corrupt contracting practices?

GEMMA: As far as you or I know, no one. You can’t seriously dispute that Catalonia is less corrupt than Spain.

TONI: It’s a very near thing as far as I can see. And Catalonia has plenty of wasteful public spending too. We have one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios among all autonomous communities.

GEMMA: The reason for that was the incentives set up by the old system. With the central government footing the bills, all the autonomous communities spent wastefully. Independence offers us an opportunity to get away from the old way of doing things.

TONI: Even if that’s true, it shows that there is nothing inherently virtuous about the Catalan political system or the nationalist parties currently running the government. Let’s talk about something much bigger than these considerations: the European Union and World Trade Organization. Independentists have tried to mislead us for years about the prospects for Catalonia’s joining the EU. Accession would not be automatic, and Spain will never allow it. Being outside the WTO will be even worse. Catalonia is a small, trade-dependent economy. The tariffs our goods will face will crush our export industries. These effects alone could be larger than the 8% of GDP you say our net fiscal transfers to Spain represent.

GEMMA: No one denies there will be short-run costs to independence. The long-run benefits are larger. If Spain is willing to harm Catalans by keeping us outside the EU after independence, they will also be willing to harm us when we are under their thumb. At least independence lets us negotiate with other European countries as an equal. WTO membership will happen relatively quickly. Also note that as long as other countries do not recognize Catalonia’s independence, our goods will have access to European and global markets on the same terms as Spanish goods. There is no reason recognition of our independence and accession to the WTO and EU could not happen around the same time.

TONI: It’s odd, you have to admit, for independentists to hope that Catalonia’s independence is denied recognition so that Catalonia’s citizens are still treated as if they were Spanish citizens. If Catalonia is denied recognition, other European countries are not going to negotiate with Catalonia as an equal. You cannot have it both ways: all the rights and benefits of independence but none of the duties and costs. The short-term costs of secession could be huge. Just look at all the businesses moving out of Catalonia.

GEMMA: Those businesses are just moving their headquarters, not their actual operations. It’s for legal reasons, such as access to European Central Bank bailouts.

TONI: Actually, some executives of companies are moving too, and statistics I’ve seen show tourism to Barcelona is down.

GEMMA: Over the long run, tourism will rise because Catalonia’s profile will rise as a destination when we’re an independent state.

TONI: That’s just speculation.

GEMMA: Independence is only risky and costly because the Spanish Government is making it so. If they were willing to negotiate, independence could be seamless and efficient, like Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce.

TONI: But they’re not, and we have to deal with reality as it is.

GEMMA: The more Spain punishes Catalonia for the independence process, the more desirable independence becomes, because the more obvious it becomes that Spain is willing to harm Catalans for its own political purposes. The choice is between being ignored, exploited, and trampled forever or suffering those costs all at once for a chance at living free and prosperous forever.

TONI: Even if you support independence, which I do not, you cannot endorse the manner in which it is being pursued. What ever happened to common sense and good judgment? A unilateral declaration of independence is a terrible idea. We Catalans are about to lose everything we have worked for since the 1978 transition, including the self-government we currently have. Spain may even ban independentist parties.

The Declaration of Independence

GEMMA: What was the alternative? Simply submitting and accepting punishment and humiliation? Spain was imposing direct rule even before Puigdemont called the session to declare independence.

TONI: It should never have gotten this far. After October 1, Puigdemont should have called off the process, because the referendum was not held in free and fair conditions. It gave no mandate for independence even if you take the result at face value.

GEMMA: Whose fault was that? Not the Catalan Government’s. They had everything in place for a regular, legal vote, until the police intervention.

TONI: Even without the police intervention, many Catalan voters would have boycotted.

GEMMA: Still not the Catalan Government’s fault. Should we be held hostage to a boycotting minority? That’s not how democracy works.

TONI: They’re not the minority. May I remind you that only 42-43% of the eligible electorate voted on October 1. And on November 9, 2014, only 37% voted. Neither vote can be considered representative. Every poll by the Center for Opinion Studies since July 2016 has shown more Catalans opposed to independence than in favor. And in the “plebiscitary elections” of September 27, 2015, independentists won only 47% of the vote. The declaration of independence is undemocratic and illegitimate.

GEMMA: I’ll take your points one by one. First, the police violence of October 1 undoubtedly suppressed turnout, and the 9N2014 consultation was nonbinding, which also depressed turnout. Let’s assume that an agreed referendum could have gotten 75% turnout on October 1, a huge number. Even if every single one of those additional voters voted no, the pro-independence vote would still outnumber the anti-independence vote. And support for independence has only grown since the police violence of that day. Polls are volatile and often biased. Elections are the only way to secure democratic legitimacy. In the 2015 election, support for independentists outnumbered support for unionists. The balance was provided by parties with no position on the issue, like the Pirate Party and Catalonia Yes We Can.

TONI: And Catalonia Yes We Can opposes the declaration of independence. I would wager that most of their voters oppose independence. So the implications of the 2015 election are not as clear as you think they are. Even if a majority of Catalans support independence right now, that could easily change. Such a slender, ephemeral majority is hardly the basis for such an important step.

GEMMA: What choice does the Catalan Government have? They have tried everything to gauge the will of the Catalan people. After the massive independence demonstrations of 2011, they held an election on a platform of beginning the self-determination process. The pro-sovereignty parties won the 2012 election with 50% of the vote. They repeatedly tried to negotiate a referendum with Spain, which is not banned by the Constitution. Rajoy repeatedly rejected those overtures. Then they tried to do their own referendum, which because of court rulings was downgraded to an informal consultation run by volunteers. Independence won that vote. No one forced anti-independence voters to boycott. Then the plebiscitary elections were held. Independence won again. Finally, the October 1 binding referendum confirmed that result. Every time independence has been tested at election, it has won. If opponents of independence want to stop the process, all they have to do is win one, single, solitary Catalan election. That they cannot do. Now exercising our right of self-determination cannot be conditional on a thug’s veto, that is, Spain’s violent disruption.

TONI: We anti-independence voters boycott these fake referendums because they are illegal. It is pointless to participate in them. If Puigdemont were so sure of a pro-independence majority today, why didn’t he call elections?

GEMMA: Because the process has been going on for more than five years now. It is time to bring it to a conclusion.

TONI: You have to deal with the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. Even Andreu Mas-Colell says Catalonia cannot have real independence right now. There is no question of having territorial control. Spain will intervene and crush the independence movement, rule Catalonia directly, and call new elections. Independentist parties will either boycott these elections or be banned, and unionists will govern Catalonia. Catalan public media, schools, and police will be purged of independence supporters. The Catalan immersion program in our schools will be abolished in favor of Castilianization. This is all a disaster from your perspective as well as mine. Is all this theater of independence declarations and singing “Els Segadors” in the streets really worth that political reality?

GEMMA: The fact that the Catalan Government does not have territorial control does not mean that the Spanish Government does. We saw that on October 1 they could not stop the referendum from happening. The people will be in the streets to defend our sovereignty. The world will not allow Spain to kill us all, and that is the only way they could actually rule directly.

TONI: I shudder at the coldness with which you contemplate such extremes.

GEMMA: Not coldness at all. I am merely plotting out the game tree. At the end of the day, Spain’s capabilities may be higher than Catalonia’s, but Catalonia’s resolve is much higher than Spain’s. I don’t think any of the “extremes” you mention will actually come to pass.

TONI: And if your independence adventure turns out to be catastrophe, there will be no turning back, no way to undo the damage.

GEMMA: To the contrary. There is a constituent process for a new constitution. Spain should allow it to continue. Unionists could win those elections and write a constitution defining a political link with Spain. This negotiation might even allow a way to unblock the constitutional reform problem. Bilateral negotiations between Catalan and Spanish states could come up with a new institutional arrangement without the need for a constitutional amendment.

TONI: Now you are really lost to high speculation. I have never heard any independentist minister or politician discuss such a scenario. Every historical precedent suggests that once a country attains independence, it doesn’t go back. That said, I don’t expect it to get that far. Spain is fully capable of taking total control of Catalonia, regardless of how many of your friends go into the streets.

GEMMA: We shall have to see, won’t we?

TONI: Unfortunately, yes.

GEMMA: Don’t be so glum, Toni. It’s a beautiful moment. There were a lot of loyalists in the American colonies when they declared independence, and Britain was much more powerful, but look what happened there.

TONI: Are you counting on French intervention too?

GEMMA: Slovenian? Belgian? Estonian? Once a few EU countries recognize us, the EU as a whole will have to get involved.

TONI: As you said, we shall have to see.

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Over at Learn Liberty, I take on the recent kerfuffle over intergenerational mobility. Some scholars and journalists are saying that the U.S. has a major “problem” with mobility because its “churn” numbers (the rate at which children of rich parents fall into lower income deciles and children of poor parents rise into higher ones) are lower than those of some other advanced industrial economies. The problem is that “churn” can come from anywhere. It might mean openness of opportunity, but it might also mean instability or political control of the economy.

In a free society, people’s incomes correlate with the marketable value they create for others. The traits that help you create marketable value include your work ethic, honesty, conscientiousness, and intelligence. Parents often pass down these traits to their children, whether through their genetic contributions or through training and socialization. So if two parents have traits that correlate with creating value for others, their kids are more likely to have those traits, too. And in a free society, that means parents with high incomes will tend to have kids who go on to earn high incomes, too.

(And before anyone asks, I didn’t write the “different…than” construction. My formal blog posts are edited into informal, conversational English over there!)

My latest for Learn Liberty looks at proposals for starting an equalization program to redistribute from rich to poor states in the U.S. and finds them wanting. Due to the audience for that blog, I kept that post nontechnical and brief. I’ll reproduce part of it here and then elaborate on some of the complexities and possible counterarguments.

[C]ritics of federalism point to one big disadvantage: federalism, they say, is unfair.

This criticism particularly applies to the fiscal aspect of federalism — that is, the ability of states to choose their own tax burdens and spending levels. The argument runs like this: states have different tax bases per citizen (some are richer than others), so richer states can tax their citizens at lower rates than poorer states, offer more benefits and better public services, or both. In this view, federalism is unfair because it helps the residents of rich states and hurts the residents of poor ones.

I will argue, by contrast, that fiscal federalism actually helps people living in poor states more than people living in rich states.


But there’s a more fundamental problem with the fairness argument for equalization: it ignores migration. Presumably, we care about the welfare of actual people, not the arbitrary geographic categories they live in. In a federal system in which people can easily move across state borders, migration accomplishes everything an equalization program might, without the negative side effects.

Think about a positive productivity shock, like the emergence of a new, highly profitable industry, which raises real wages in one state. Workers will move from other states to the state with the higher wages. The increase in the labor supply will return real wages to their normal level, at which point the migration flow will stop. Those who have moved have become better off, and even those who have remained in the initially poorer states are, at the end of the day, earning just as much as those in the initially richer state. Being able to pay a lower tax rate in a richer state will only accelerate this process — and ultimately eliminate the rich-state tax advantage.


[S]ome places are just more desirable to live in than others. These places will tend to have higher home prices and rents and lower wages. Think about it: if I take some of my compensation in the form of higher amenities, I’m willing to earn a lower real money wage. For this reason, nice places to live that don’t have a lot of industry, like New Mexico and Maine, have low real wages, while places that are less nice to live in but do have industry tend to have high real wages (see figure 1).

But New Mexico and Maine residents surely don’t deserve to be subsidized simply because they prefer to take their compensation in a nonpecuniary form, just as North Dakotans and Bay Staters don’t deserve to be taxed for choosing to live in unpleasant places where the market demands their labor.


Certainly, housing regulation is disrupting equalization through migration in the United States. An equalization program that specifically punished costly states and rewarded low-cost states might discourage excessive development restrictions and get migration flowing more freely again.

But housing regulation might end up being a self-correcting problem. As people flow from high-cost to low-cost areas, eventually the latter will enjoy more agglomeration economies that promote economic growth, and the high-cost areas will start to falter by comparison. By regulating housing so strictly, residents of coastal California, the Boston metro area, and elsewhere may be digging their own graves in the long run.

The argument I’m making here about how migration is a more effective equalizer than fiscal transfers makes some simplifications.

One simplification is that the major reasons why some states have higher per person incomes than others are exogenous productivity shocks and amenities (“desirability”). But there is another important reason: different places just tend to suit workers of different skill sets. If you have access to coal deposits and navigable rivers, you might have developed a steel industry and attracted manual laborers. If you have old, prestigious universities and a seaport, you might have developed high-tech export-oriented industries and attracted highly specialized workers. The latter sort of place will tend to have higher average wages, just because the average skill level of workers is higher.

So what changes about the argument if we relax this simplification and allow states to have different skill mixes? Very little. Yes, Massachusetts can have a lower tax rate than Mississippi because it has higher-skilled, higher-wage workers. But as a result, workers will tend to migrate to Massachusetts, driving pretax wages for Massachusetts workers below where they would be in Mississippi (adjusting for cost of living). Importantly, Massachusetts could still end up having much higher average wages than Mississippi, due to a higher ratio of high-skill to low-skill labor, but the posttax income of any particular worker will tend toward equality between the two states, leaving no benefit to moving from one place to the other. You can’t get around the fact that tax differences between jurisdictions will end up being incorporated into market wages and real estate values. (In real estate economics, this process is called “capitalization.”)

Now, what happens if we assume away labor migration? This is indeed an important change, and it may well make some sense once we talk about multinational federations like Canada. Anglophones might be willing to move to any one of the nine anglophone provinces, while Francophones are stuck in Quebec. Thus, a supporter of equalization could defend the program on the grounds that it is a legitimate way of preventing Francophones from being forced to migrate to anglophone areas or fall irretrievably behind the rest of the country economically.

Still, I wonder whether places like Montreal and Quebec City do not have very different economic profiles from, say, Chicoutimi or Trois Rivieres. There is ample room for labor migration within Quebec. If Quebec itself is large enough that some parts of the province tend to do well while other parts of the province do poorly, it may not need equalization to protect itself from economic shocks.

But let’s say it isn’t large enough. Let’s say there are economic shocks — like import competition, new technologies, and resource discoveries — that could cause Quebec either to race ahead of the rest of the country for 10 or even 20 years or fall behind for a similar length of time. Let’s say the Quebec economy is really volatile. If we don’t want Quebeckers moving out after every adverse shock (or Anglophones moving in when times are good?), an equalization program can help, right?

Possibly. But here’s another alternative: a rainy-day fund. If equalization is really supposed to be insurance against economic volatility, then don’t redistribute from rich to poor provinces, redistribute from rich to poor time periods. The provincial government itself could put away lots of money in cash or retire debt when times are good and take on debt or draw down cash when times are bad. Or if we think provincial governments aren’t competent and far-sighted enough to do this, we could have a program forcing provinces going through better-than-normal times for them to subsidize those going through worse-than-normal times, with the idea that each province comes out balanced over the long run. This insurance-type program might not have as bad incentive effects as equalization, not to mention the unfairness of subsidizing high-amenity places. Still, a publicly run insurance program for provincial budgets will likely create some moral hazard, a reluctance among provincial governments to take politically difficult steps to reduce economic volatility and therefore expected future payouts.

So there you have it. Instead of equalization programs, federal systems should facilitate equalization through migration, or when that is not possible, encourage rainy-day funds or possibly intertemporal insurance for regional budgets.

Over at Learn Liberty, I take up the question of what the rest of the world should do if Catalonia’s referendum on independence on October 1 succeeds, as is expected. I apply some straightforward assumptions about justice and individual freedom to the case. Secession is hard because it always involves violating some people’s rights — but then, so does stopping secession. The question has to be about how to preserve the greatest degree of freedom.

“Working from the premise that it is more just to allow people to live under a government they prefer, we can see the attraction of deciding controversies over sovereignty with a referendum. If more Catalans prefer to live under a Catalan state than wish to live under the Spanish state, then it is better to allow independence. If fewer do, then it is better to forbid it.”

I then take up some common objections to this formula and conclude that they do not apply to the Catalan case:

“In conclusion, the more Catalonia does to guarantee respect for the rights of all its citizens after independence, the more confident we can be that Catalonia’s independence should be recognized following a successful majority vote.”

More here.

My latest post at Learn Liberty explores the close parallels between certain arguments for immigration restrictions and gun restrictions:

A common argument for restricting immigration to the United States and other developed countries — maybe even the most plausible one — runs like this. Opening the borders will bring in people who will consume more public services than they pay for in taxes and who will vote for more statist politicians who support those public services. The result will be less freedom for everyone in the long run. Therefore, many conservatives say, immigration control is a regrettable but necessary step to securing freedom.

Meanwhile, a common argument for restricting gun ownership in the United States and other developed countries — maybe even the most plausible one — runs like this. Opening the market to the free sale and possession of guns will allow criminals to get their hands on deadly weapons, perhaps through theft if not legal purchase, resulting in more murder and less freedom in the long run. Therefore, many progressives say, gun control is a regrettable but necessary step to securing freedom.

These are not the only arguments for immigration and gun controls, but they are among the most familiar arguments and likely the most persuasive arguments for those who see freedom as politically central. Few people who find the argument for immigration control persuasive find the argument for gun control persuasive, and vice versa. This inconsistency suggests conservatives and progressives suffer from ideological confirmation bias in evaluating these issues.

In the piece, I explain why these arguments still fail: a moral reason and an evidentiary reason. More here.

In my latest blog post for Learn Liberty, I take on arguments against decentralizing health care policy to the states on the grounds of fiscal capacity:

So if federal ACA spending were cut or even zeroed out, why couldn’t states that like the legislation simply reinstate the same taxes and spending that the federal government currently uses under the law? If the net budgetary impact of the health care law really is zero, there is no inconsistency with state balanced-budget requirements…

[T]he federal government faces a stricter constraint than the states in one crucial respect: its total debt burden is much larger. Federal debt is already greater than 100% of GDP, leading to higher interest costs and crowding out private investment. Expanding the debt even further would only exacerbate these serious problems.

State and local debt is much lower, at about 16% of GDP. State and local governments are much more fiscally responsible than the federal government, and that’s precisely what gives them room to spend if there’s a good reason for it.

More here.

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