The dusty topic of Miami in the 1980s is back in the news, with the new Nobel laureate (sort of) in Economics Esther Duflo declaring that the boring, featureless history of Miami in the 1980s proves that low skill immigration has “zero” effect on the wages of low-skilled natives. And the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed the scandalous news that White House aide Stephen Miller must be a white nationalist because he cited Cuban-born Harvard professor of economics George Borjas’s study of Miami in the 1980s that came to the opposite conclusion.
As I may have mentioned once or twice over the decades, while economists have a hard time remembering much of anything about Miami in the 1980s, the place actually got a little publicity at the time, not all of it good.
One reason why economists can’t remember anything about the effects of immigration on Miami in the 1980s is crimestop, the protective stupidity that clever careerists undergo when suddenly Oceania stops being at war with Eastasia and now has always been at war with Eurasia.
As we all know now, immigrants, especially refugees, have always been sacred. Only veritable Nazis like Stephen Miller utter a word of criticism of migrants.
But was that always true? In fact, back in the 1980s, the most visible refugees in America were the fervent Latin American anti-Communist refugees from Cuba and Nicaragua pouring into Miami. Thus, the New York Times in 1987:
CAN MIAMI SAVE ITSELF?
A City Beset by Drugs and Violence
By Robert Sherrill
July 19, 1987, Section 6, Page 18
… For several years now, Miami, the nation’s youngest major city (officially only 15 years older than Ronald Reagan), has had the reputation of a juvenile delinquent. …
Expanding on that point not long ago, Javier Souto, a State Representative from Miami, told a reporter, ”Miami must seem like a foreign country to a lot of members. Here in Tallahassee, many just don’t realize the magnitude of our crime and drug problem, and what it’s like to be an immigrant.” …
Last spring, on behalf of Cushman & Wakefield, one of the largest commercial real estate brokers in the country, the pollster Louis Harris asked 403 chief executive officers to rank 30 metropolitan areas in terms of desirability for establishing a business. Miami came in 28th; only Cleveland and Detroit were rated less appealing.
Corporate relocation experts say that Miami – if it weren’t for those little warts like crime and drugs -would be very appealing to their clients.
They could draw on scads of cheap labor. Wages are 40 percent lower than the national average and there isn’t much danger of organized resistance because only 8 percent of Miami’s work force is unionized, compared with 20 percent nationally.
As Dr. Borjas recently documented, contra the much publicized David Card study of Miami wages in the 1980s …
… So why the reluctance of managers to test the magic of ”The Magic City”? One New York relocation consultant told Florida Trend magazine not long ago, ”Eight times in the last year Miami made our clients’ list of final six to 12 cities. But in all instances they flatly rejected it. In corporate America, Dade County is an unacceptable location due to image.”
That image is of a city and an area that is too ”foreign,” too volatile. When corporate managers say they feel they would have to sacrifice too much to come to Miami, they are clearly saying that, among other things, they don’t like the racial mix. In 1960, the city of Miami was about 75 percent ”Anglo.” (In Dade County, if you are white but not Hispanic, you are Anglo, even if you really are Jewish, Greek, Italian, or whatever.) Today, the Anglos in Miami are down to 15 percent. The other 85 percent are American blacks, Haitians, Salvadorans, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, and others – but mostly Cubans.
Whatever Miami is today, it reflects the influence of Cuban immigrants, or, more exactly, of two waves of Cubans: ”The Promising Ones” of the early 60’s and ”The Frightening Ones” of the early 80’s.
EVEN THE MOST xenophobic Anglos welcomed the Cubans who arrived after Fidel Castro seized the island in 1959 – rich landowners, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, teachers, secretaries, stenographers, bookkeepers, technicians, the cream of Cuba’s professional crop. Eager to make use of this treasury of Spanish-speaking talent, multinational corporations came by the hundreds, setting up Latin headquarters in Miami and right next door in Coral Gables. Right behind them came the banks, so many that today the Miami area’s international banking community is the biggest south of New York. (Not all the banks had their eyes solely on the treasures of Exxon and Dow et al. Some also trooped in for a bit of that ”hanky-panky,” as an executive with the giant Southeast Bank called the billions of drug dollars that passed through Miami to be laundered, an activity that in some years left Florida banks with twice as much surplus cash as all other American banks put together.)
This is relevant to the conventional wisdom among economists other than Borjas that David Card’s study of Miami wages in 1980-84 proved that Law of Supply and Demand is automatically suspended in the case of immigrants having any effect. Card’s study depended on his assumption that only thing different between Miami in the 1980s and his four control cities such as Atlanta and Houston was the supply side shock to Miami’s labor market of the sudden arrival of a hundred thousand or so Cubans in the May 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
In reality, of course, Miami’s economy also experienced a vast demand side stimulus from the giant piles of cocaine cash flowing into Miami from 1980 onward, which would naturally work to boost wages. So, Card’s crucial assumption that ceteris was paribus in Miami in 1980-84 versus his control cities was obviously, flagrantly wrong.
The approbation given by economists who can’t remember that Miami in the early 1980s was more awash in cocaine cash than anywhere else in history are much the same economists who greeted Steven “Freakonomics” Leavitt’s 1999 draft paper claiming that because the American crime rate was lower in 1997 than in 1985, that proves that the legalization of abortion in 1969-1973 weeded out the bad apples.
Leavitt took his spiel around to many leading economics departments where, apparently, nobody pointed out that Levitt had completely overlooked what happened between 1985 and 1997: namely the huge spike in murder, peaking in the early 1990s among teens born after the legalization of abortion that is known to historians (but, evidently, not to economists) as the Crack Cocaine War. (I was evidently the first person to point out this inconvenient history to Leavitt in our debate in Slate in 1999.)
”And then,” recalls Puerto Rican-born Maurice A. Ferre -who was Miami’s Mayor during the turbulent years from 1973 to 1985 – telling it as though it were a fairy tale, ”all of a sudden, people who needed to come up to make business transactions found that it was a lot easier to jump on a plane in Lima or Sao Paulo and fly to Miami and do their business and go back home the next day than go up to New York and get caught in the snow and the traffic. And the people in New York couldn’t speak the language. … All these things have an internal dynamic that the community eventually recognizes, and starts putting up buildings.”
Indeed, the buildings did go up. Miami’s once-runty skyline became towering (topping at 55 floors) and dazzling with ”moderne” glassines s. Loaded with drug money and oil money, the jefes descended on the area’s real estate market and bought with more whim than reason – ”bang, bang, shoot’em up days” of wild shopping, as Barry Dick, a real estate specialist, remembers them.
The boom continued into the 1980’s, and then Latin America’s passionate affair with Miami cooled. The price of oil collapsed and left the area’s biggest trading partner, Venezuela, flat. Other Latin American countries, smothered in debt, retrenched radically. Dozens of the multinational corporations departed. Now, realtors are trying to corner West German, British, French, Canadian and Japanese investors, so far with only modest luck. In 1981, foreigners (mostly Latin) bought nearly 45 percent of the commercial real estate in greater Miami. Last year, they bought less than 10 percent of it.
The banks that moved to Miami to lend at towering interest rates to Latin customers have almost stopped lending altogether. Now they are there mainly to sop up ”flight money” deposited by Latins who are afraid their countries’ governments may topple.
Thomas R. Ferguson, president of the Beacon Council, says with the sadness of a betrayed lover, ”Miami’s ups and downs . . . have to do with the fact that we’ve become very reliant on trade with Latin America. When it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s bad, it’s terrible. We have to begin to focus on other markets.” …
ITS IMAGE PROBABLY would have come through that recession unscathed if Miami had not at the same time been dealing with the fallout from ”Those Events” of 1980. Miamians speak of 1980 as San Franciscans who survived the great earthquake and fire must have spoken of 1906.
It was in 1980 that the Haitians sharply increased the size of their wretched, illegal armada, sailing across in leaky skiffs and bumboats and anything else that seemed likely to stay afloat for 600 or so miles. Some made it to south Florida and disappeared into the immigrant underground; many were caught and stuck for a while in a quasi concentration camp on the edge of Miami; others drowned and washed up on the Florida beaches in unseemly numbers.
It was also the year of the great riot. Angered by the exoneration of four white policemen who had killed a black insurance man, the residents of Liberty City, a predominantly black section of Miami, launched what was arguably the worst race riot of this century. It wasn’t just a civil protest. Blacks went out specifically to get whites, to assault them, to kill them. Some whites were doused with gasoline and set on fire. Some were beaten senseless in the street and run over, repeatedly. Nobody in Liberty City apologized. And when President Carter visited the area a few weeks later, to promise money for rebuilding the sacked neighborhoods (money that apparently never got there), blacks booed him and threw rocks and bottles at his motorcade.
But mainly, 1980 was the year of Castro’s great revenge. The United States had seriously hurt him when it recruited Cuba’s elite in the early 1960’s. Now he paid us back. In effect, he took control of United States immigration policy – he decided who and how many would come our way – and unloaded 125,000 Cubans, primarily on Miami, within a matter of months. Never before, it seemed, had so many foreigners come to one city in one year, to stay.
The great majority of these immigrants were not only law-abiding, but gutsy hustlers. Former State Senator Roberta Fox, a Democrat, has no reason to be happy about the flood of Cubans, because in 1986 they helped replace her with a Republican. But she does acknowledge that ”there are whole areas of the city that might have gone belly-up economically if it had not been for the entrepreneurship of the Cubans. They were amazing. You had middle-aged Cubans showing up without a penny, working as dishwashers, saving their money, starting little businesses – and succeeding.”
There was also, however, an abysmal downside to the class of 1980. By the reckoning of Lieut. Mike Gonzalez of the Miami Police Department’s homicide bureau, ”In one year, we got 10,000 additional killers and thieves.”
The effect of the Mariel invasion – so called because most of these immigrants left through Cuba’s port of Mariel – can be read in the murder statistics. In the first five months of 1980, the city of Miami had 75 murders. Then came the Marielitos. In the last seven months, there were 169 murders. In 1980-81, Miami had the highest murder rate of any city in the world. So many bodies piled up in the morgue that at one point the coroner had to rent a refrigerator van to handle the overflow. The narcotics wars were escalating. It was an era when Colombian and Cuban dealers would pull alongside each other at stoplights and blast away with submachine guns.
… But on the other hand, he points out, there were only four machine-gun murders last year. (For the last several years, the police themselves have been accused of some of the flashiest crimes – racketeering, multiple murders, extortion, drug peddling. Cops have stolen money and drugs from the department’s own safe.)
… MIAMI – WHERE VOODOO is practiced by many and an estimated 50,000 people are devotees of Santeria, a religion that requires animal sacrifice -has definitely taken on a quality that outside critics call ”foreign” and inside boosters call ”exotic.” Either way, the quality can be costly and abrasive and inconvenient.
The Dade County school system has to cope not just with bilingual education but with trilingual – Creole for Haitian students. The Beacon Council says it is afraid that ”Businesses around the country view our community as having a large, non-English-speaking population.” How could they view it otherwise? Responding to a corporate survey in 1980, about one-third of Hispanics said Spanish was their primary language at work; in a survey this year, the number had risen to 50 percent. Celia Dugger, a Miami Herald reporter, recently showed how the Hispanics, using their $8 billion in annual buying power, are persuading more and more Anglo businesses to run advertisements in Spanish.
If you don’t speak Spanish, you may need an interpreter to deal with hotel help or store clerks. You may even have trouble negotiating with the city and county governments. A couple of years ago, when the county offered free English lessons to those on the public payroll, one-third of the 4,500 Hispanics working for the county admitted they had difficulty speaking and reading English.
This makes a lot of Anglos uncomfortable and angry. They find it hard to adjust to a city where the immigrants seem more at home than they do. Former Mayor Ferre describes the traumatic change this way: ”When the southern Italians and the Eastern Europeans were coming to New York at the turn of the century or in the 1920’s, they never were more than 15 or 20 percent of the total population of New York. But here you have Hispanics making up 60 percent of the city of Miami, 80 percent of Hialeah, and more than 43 percent of Dade County.”
”And when those other groups immigrated,” adds Ferre, ”they came and assimilated over a long period of time. These people have come to south Florida in very large groups over a short period of time and established themselves with everything they needed. In [ New York’s ] Little Italy, you lived in the ghetto, but you had to go out of the ghetto to get a job as a clerk or carpenter or whatever. In Miami, the Cuban community is self-sufficient. It has its own banks, newspapers, television stations, gas stations, insurance companies, hospitals, doctors. The city has become the ghetto.”
When the Haitians (70,000 of them, at the official guess) adopted Miami, they brought with them a host of medical needs that are going to cost state and local taxpayers a lot. A high incidence of tuberculosis, AIDS and pregnancy among these illegal immigrants only adds to the problems already facing overburdened health care facilities such as the county hospital, Jackson Memorial. ”We have a very, very poor population in Dade County, as you can imagine, with the aliens coming in,” says one politician. ”We suffer from very high indigent health-care costs. Jackson Memorial is No. 1 in the state in the amount of charity it provides.”
CUBANS GAINED power, culturally and, later, politically, mostly because they moved in, but partly because the Anglos moved out. Those who left thought it cute to sport bumper stickers that read, ”Will the Last American to Leave Miami Please Bring the Flag?” But in fact it was a quip of surrender. As Mayor Ferre said at the time, ”The Anglos can’t adapt. They can’t take it, so they’re moving.”
For a while, because many Cubans were slow to seek citizenship or to get politically involved, they had little influence in elections. But now, only one Anglo remains on the City Council, and he’ll probably be the last.
The Cubans – 73 percent of those who are registered to vote are Republican – have ended Dade’s reign as Florida’s most liberal county. Before 1984, the mostly Democratic, closely knit, heavily Jewish condominium dwellers in the retirement villages in North Miami and North Miami Beach could swing county elections.
Anne Ackerman, 73, a snappish former Chicagoan who is one of the political leaders known as the ”Condo Commandoes,” admits, ”We lost our clout in 1984. A Democrat can still get elected in this county, but it will be difficult for a liberal Democrat.”
Dade County elected its first Cuban to its 28-member delegation to the State Legislature in 1982. Now there are eight Cubans, seven of whom were born on the island. All voted this year to make it easier to buy handguns and carry them hidden – a vote that 10 years ago would have been unthinkable for Miami legislators.
Nowhere else in America is local politics so permeated with foreign policy, which in Miami has sometimes meant an almost hysterical anti-Communism.
… James I. Mullins, former head of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, used to fear that Miami might become another Beirut. Lately, he has begun to sound more cheerful. He still isn’t sure that the political extremists aren’t dominant among Cubans, ”but I feel very encouraged by the events of the last year and a half.” …
If you hunt hard, you can find an Anglo who sympathizes with the Cubans….
To find prominent Anglos who will speak on the record of the Cubans’ excesses is virtually impossible. If they are politicians, they are afraid of being voted out; if they are in business, they are afraid of being boycotted, and whatever they are, they are possibly afraid of being blown up. All three forms of retribution have been known to occur.
Offered anonymity, however, the Anglos open up. Here, for example, is the view of a liberal Anglo professional who has lived and worked in Miami for several decades:
”The Cubans have shamelessly exploited their role in the international game of politics, the cold war. My personal bitterness is that the Cubans are fascists and they are promoting fascism in my democratic country and in my city. They don’t believe in free speech. They believe in strong-arming. They are bullies. Individually I never met a Cuban I didn’t like. But collectively I can’t stand them because of their politics.”
… ABSENT FROM THIS budding coalition is the area’s American black population. There are some important blacks in Miami, including the police chief, who get interviewed occasionally on television and get their pictures in corporate annual reports. But the rank-and-file black knows from experience that the only sure way to catch the community’s attention is to burn down a few city blocks.
Blacks rioted at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach in 1968. They rioted at Liberty City 12 years later. In 1982, they rioted in Overtown, a black community just a stone’s throw from downtown Miami, after a Hispanic police officer shot and killed a black youth.
Some say that in each instance the blacks were, at least to some extent, telling the world they were tired of seeing immigrants get favored treatment. Why had the Government subsidized unemployed Cuban men but not unemployed American blacks? Why were Cubans so much luckier at getting business loans from the Government? Many jobs formerly held by blacks were going to the newcomers.
If the rioters meant to raise questions, they got no answers. Income disparity between blacks and whites has widened. Cubans, who have started most of the small businesses in Miami in the last two decades, are notoriously unenthusiastic about hiring blacks, and the riots did not soften their attitude in the slightest. …
During the ”Year of Liberty City,” a disk jockey on a black radio station regularly chanted, ”Go away, Jose.” Irby Martin McKnight, 39, a crime prevention specialist for the Miami Urban League, says that’s the way blacks still feel. ”Before the influx of Latins,” he said, ”virtually all of the hotel and restaurant jobs were held by American blacks. When the Cubans came they worked for less because they could supplement their pay with stipends from world church organizations. Why pay $2.10 an hour for a dishwasher when you can get one for $1 an hour?
But the Science of Economics proves that the Law of Supply and Demand was suspended in the case of immigrants in Miami!
That’s just good capitalism. Nothing wrong with it. But the unskilled members of the black community feel that their dilemma was brought on by the Latins. And now the Haitians are taking over those menial jobs.” Asked what the displaced American blacks were doing now, McKnight said, ”They are standing on street corners and doing nothing.” …
In a recent advertisement in Fortune magazine saluting those who stayed, the Beacon Council admitted, ”For a while during the early 1980’s, it seemed like Miami’s future was anything but certain. . . . For a while, it seemed that Miami might never recover.”
But in fact, that gloomy appraisal was largely restricted to the Anglo business establishment.
The young Cuban business leadership never for a moment thought of leaving. To most of them – immigrant scramblers who had built their fortunes from scratch and against heavy odds – a bad image was the least of their problems, and one which their successes will probably do much to erase. …
Most of the upper-crust Cubans in the 30-to-50 age group react with impatience when reminded of the reasons for the bad image. The early 1980’s? To them that’s ancient history. …
Robert Sherrill is a freelance writer living in Florida.
This New York Times article provoked a Dave Barry retaliation in the Miami Herald:
Sunday, August 30, 1987
… The story itself was more balanced, discussing the pluses as well as the minuses of life in South Florida, as follows:
* MINUSES: The area is rampant with violent crime and poverty and political extremism and drugs and corruption and ethnic hatred.
* PLUSES: Voodoo is legal.
I myself thought it was pretty fair. Our local civic leaders reacted to it with their usual level of cool maturity, similar to the way Moe reacts when he is poked in the eyeballs by Larry and Curly. Our leaders held emergency breakfasts and issued official statements pointing out that much of the information in The Times story was Ancient History dating all the way back to the early 1980s, and that we haven’t had a riot for, what, months now …
So the Miami Herald dispatched Dave to report on Joker era New York City:
… We’re riding in a cab from La Guardia Airport to our Manhattan hotel, and I want to interview the driver, because this is how we professional journalists take the Pulse of a City, only I can’t, because he doesn’t speak English. He is not allowed to, under the rules, which are posted right on the seat:
NEW YORK TAXI RULES
1. DRIVER SPEAKS NO ENGLISH.
2. DRIVER JUST GOT HERE TWO DAYS AGO FROM SOMEPLACE LIKE SENEGAL.
3. DRIVER HATES YOU.
Dave later returned to the subject of New York taxicab drivers in a 1990 column to top his 1987 punchline:
The driver was also careful to observe the strict New York City Vehicle Horn Code, under which it is illegal to honk your horn except to communicate one of the following emergency messages:
1. The light is green.
2. The light is red.
3. I hate you.
4. This vehicle is equipped with a horn.