Point of Order

The problem with Congress's idea to base immigration on economic merit.

As the U.S. Congress barrels ahead on immigration reform, Canada and Australia have emerged as favorite prototypes. The so-called Gang of Eight in the Senate may end up proposing the United States take inspiration from those countries' merit-based systems, which evaluate would-be migrants by their potential to contribute to the economy. That strategy has also found favor with conservatives like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), both of whom sit on the House Judiciary Committee, which will weigh in heavily on the final bill.

It's not hard to see why the points system is having its moment. Broadly speaking, it culls skilled workers through a selection process that allocates -- you guessed it -- points for attributes like higher education, language ability, and youth (under 40 is preferred, because those applicants have a long work life ahead of them). That means -- on paper at least -- that immigrants will be poised from arrival to make economic contributions to their new country. Our current approach -- which allocates the vast majority of visas for family reunification, and a smaller number for employment or humanitarian reasons --  doesn't seem to hold the same promise of promoting our global competitiveness.

Before we embark on the Canadian and Australian way, however, it's worth remembering that the best immigration systems reflect a country's geography, system of governance, and societal contract. Points systems work best when governments react nimbly to events on the ground. That's because the government is in the business of picking migrants; if the selection criterion isn't capturing people who are prepared to compete in the U.S. job market, the process has to be tweaked. The U.S. Congress, though, doesn't have a track record of being proactive on immigration: the last time it passed significant legislation on the topic was in 1990.

Moreover, even if the United States builds a points system that has a mechanism for assuring consistent reevaluation of the selection process, it doesn't mean we will be able to replicate the Canadian or Australian experience. We are more dependent on low-skilled labor than either of those countries, and our geography does not allow the same kind of control over migration that Australia or Canada can exercise. 

Neither Canada nor Australia shares a border with a developing country. In addition, both nations have parliamentary systems. That style of governance gives ruling parties strong leverage in implementing their policy agenda, which is a boon in running an immigration system that needs constant tending. Both governments regularly make changes to their selection criterion: Last year, Canada began allocating more points for youth and less for overseas work experience while in 2010 Australia placed more emphasis on work experience. If we were to adopt a points system, we would need to create an independent board -- possibly something along the lines of the United Kingdom's Migration Advisory Committee -- to ensure we can also respond to changes in our job market. Our system of government is simply too slow-moving to expect legislative changes to occur consistently enough to keep our selection criteria up-to-date.

Even with regular updating, points systems can't determine with certainty who will thrive in a new country. Migrants with master's degrees can find their foreign diplomas don't carry much weight abroad. A points system also can't calibrate "soft" skills, like how a person might come across in an interview. Finally, points systems often miss market signals: it's challenging for governments to stay on top of fluctuations in the job market, so they select people who end up unemployed or underemployed. Intriguingly -- in part because of stories of engineers driving cabs -- both Canada and Australia have made their systems more like our system by allocating points to migrants who have already been offered jobs. If we go the points route, we should keep that part of our approach.

Designing a points system that doesn't operate on autopilot and acknowledges the drawbacks of having the government conduct the selection process would increase the chances it could operate effectively in the States. But a merit-based system that makes it difficult for the unskilled to qualify could end up being a poor fit. For one thing, we are dependent on low-skill labor in a way that Australia in particular is not. As one Australian government official put it to me, "We have a tradition of cleaning our own gutters." That can be traced in part to its culture and history, but also the fact that lower-skill jobs actually pay something there: The country's minimum wage is more than twice ours and the country has a generous social safety net. The United States provides little in the way of social support, and its minimum wage is among the lowest of the OECD countries. As anyone who has visited a restaurant, a construction site, or a suburban home can vouch, we look to immigrants to do everything from bus tables to stir cement to watch children. And as the baby boomers age, we will increasingly need foreign labor for elderly care.

There is, reportedly, going to be a so-called W visa to allow some low-skilled migrants to fill those positions legally. Even with that addition to our immigration code, we shouldn't expect illegal low-skilled immigration to simply disappear. While the numbers coming from Mexico have dropped, migration continues unabated from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras. And the numbers will climb if our economy makes a solid recovery.

Some U.S. lawmakers might hope to replicate Canada's and Australia's immigration systems, but we can't replicate their immigration populations. We are not an island nation, nor is our sole border shared with the wealthiest economy on earth. And that means we will never have the same level of control over who lives here.

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National Security

How to Stop a Nuclear War

What the Cuban missile crisis teaches us about facing down North Korea.

As he ponders how to respond to the military bluster of North Korea, President Obama is learning a lesson that was driven home to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: When it comes to a possible nuclear confrontation, pre-delegating authority to the generals can be a big mistake.

According to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal, the White House has abandoned a pre-approved "playbook" calling for a show of force against North Korea in response to its nuclear saber-rattling. Instead of a series of well-orchestrated, and well-publicized, moves designed to increase the pressure on Pyongyang, the Obama administration is now reported to be looking for ways to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. White House officials are said to be upset with the Navy for publicizing the deployment of two missile-guided destroyers off South Korea -- a step that could provoke an unpredictable response from North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un.

The hints of civilian-military disagreement are reminiscent of a celebrated confrontation at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, and the chief of naval operations, Admiral George Anderson. After the president announced a naval blockade of Cuba, Anderson felt he had all the authority he needed to stop Soviet ships from crossing the "quarantine line," by force if necessary. "We know how to do this," he told McNamara, waving his well-thumbed copy of the Laws of Military Warfare. "We've been doing it ever since the days of John Paul Jones."

The confrontation climaxed with an apoplectic defense secretary telling a red-faced CNO that there would be "no shots fired without my express permission." A few months later, Anderson was dispatched into exile as U.S. ambassador to Portugal.

The episode marked a significant turning point in civilian-military relations. During the Second World War, military commanders enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was ordered to "liberate Europe" -- but he did not have politicians breathing down his neck, supervising every aspect of his operations. He took history-making decisions -- such as his refusal to race the Soviet army to Berlin -- all by himself.

The nuclear era spelled an end to the traditional military ethos of "Tell us what to do, but don't tell us how to do it." Mistakes are inevitable in war -- but there is no margin for error when it comes to handling nuclear weapons. Worried that a single misstep could lead to a chain of cataclysmic consequences, Kennedy and McNamara insisted on centralizing military decision-making. The symbol of this shift was the creation of the White House "Situation Room," which permitted the president and his advisors to acquire close-to-real-time information from the battlefront, and therefore exercise a much greater degree of command and control.

With sufficient material for just half a dozen nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un can hardly be compared to Kennedy's nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. (As a second-tier bad guy, Kim is more reminiscent of the fiercely nationalistic Fidel Castro, who excelled at playing the "madman card.") In 1962, the Soviet Union had 300 nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. territory, including 32 in Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida Keys.

Nevertheless, there are unsettling parallels with the Cuban missile crisis. While it will likely be several years before Kim can reach the American mainland with a missile, he could turn the South Korean capital Seoul into a pile of ashes tomorrow. With his Mao-like suits and Doctor Evil persona, Kim may be fodder for the late night TV comedians, but he controls a growing nuclear arsenal that poses a threat to key U.S. allies. Like Kennedy before him, Obama must be concerned about the possibility of miscalculation that could result in what McNamara termed "a spasm response" by the other side.

Four decades have passed since the world came to the brink of nuclear annihilation in October 1962, but the reverberations from that near-miss remain relevant today. The following is a run-down of the most important lessons of the Cuban missile crisis, as they apply to North Korea (or Iran):

1. A single nuclear weapon changes everything. Confident that the United States enjoyed a 10-1 nuclear advantage over the Soviet Union, the advocates of war, led by General Curtis LeMay, urged the president to settle matters with the "Commie bastards" once and for all. But overwhelming nuclear superiority meant little to Kennedy, who later acknowledged that the possibility of a single Soviet nuclear warhead landing on an American city constituted "a substantial deterrent to me."

2. Avoid blind escalation. When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba on October 27 at the height of the crisis, Kennedy was informed that existing war plans called for immediate retaliation against the offending Soviet SAM site. Worried that this could provoke a chain of unforeseeable consequences, he ordered the Pentagon to delay a response, to allow more time for diplomacy.

3. Pay attention to the "unknown unknowns." However confident your intelligence chiefs may sound, there is much they are unable to tell you. During the missile crisis, Kennedy was unaware that Soviet troops on Cuba possessed nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons, capable of wiping out a U.S. invading force. The president was like a blind man stumbling through the semi-darkness, only dimly aware of what was happening around him. Like JFK, Obama is discovering that he must operate on instinct, as much as reliable, real-time intelligence.

4. Understand the limits of "crisis management." In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy acolytes such as Arthur Schlesinger fed the myth of a resolute president using "calibrated" military power and skillful diplomacy to face down his opposite number in the Kremlin. Believing their own propaganda, the "best and the brightest" felt that they could use a similar strategy during the Vietnam War. But they over-estimated their ability to control events. Unfamiliar with the principles of game theory as taught by the RAND Corporation, the North Vietnamese Communists matched the Americans escalation for escalation.

5. Avoid drawing lines in the sand that you might later regret. Prior to the missile crisis, Kennedy found himself under increasing pressure from Republican politicians who accused him of ignoring the Soviet military buildup on Cuba. He responded by issuing a public statement saying that the "gravest issues would arise" if the Soviets developed a "significant offensive capability" on the island. After it turned out that Khrushchev had in fact sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, Kennedy wished he could take back his earlier statement. He was compelled to take action, not because Soviet missiles on Cuba appreciably changed the balance of military power, but because he feared looking weak. He had boxed himself in.

6. Talk to your enemies. After seriously considering an air strike against the missile sites, Kennedy opted for the intermediate step of a partial blockade of Cuba, limited to "offensive military equipment." The blockade bought time for everyone to come to their senses. Khrushchev later praised Kennedy for his "reasonable" approach. Had Kennedy followed his initial instincts, and the advice of people like LeMay, Khrushchev would likely have been obliged to authorize some kind of military response, triggering an unpredictable chain of events.

7. Containment worked. Communism was not defeated militarily: it was defeated economically, culturally, and ideologically. Exhausted by the military competition with the United States, Khrushchev's successors were unable to provide their own people with a basic level of material prosperity. By acquiring nuclear weapons, the North Korean communists have warded off the threat of foreign intervention. But they have failed to resolve any of their underlying economic problems and may even have deepened them. Communism will eventually defeat itself in North Korea -- just as it did in the Soviet Union. We just have to be patient.