Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Hardly Working?

"While many still believe immigration takes U.S. jobs, a shrinking birth rate and history argue that economic misery is no more likely to be the result than it was during past immigration debates. As Bush said in Mexico, setting up legal, temporary work could be an alternative for 'doing jobs Americans aren't doing.'"
Americans aren't doing these jobs because they don't pay enough for the Americans who aren't doing them to find them worthwhile, not because there aren't enough Americans to do them. Were we really dealing with a labor shortage, there wouldn't be so much oppositon to a greater opening of the borders, except on the somewhat specious grounds of national security.

But still, it's not really accurate to say that immigrants (legal or otherwise) "take jobs away from Americans." They do, however, increase the competition for those jobs. By adding to the pool of "low-skill" workers, they make low-skill labor less valuable - just like finding new oil deposits lowers the price of crude.

Most Americans (and Westerners in general) live at a standard of living that is too high to make us competative in a 100% globalized marketplace. One reason is that western currencies buy more goods and/or services in poor countries than they do in their home countries, making it relatively cheaper to attain that standard of living. Another reason lower expectations for standard of living prevail in poorer countries around the world. As far as a couple billion people are concerned, even lower middle-class Americans live like kings. The day laborers standing on the corner can afford to work for low wages because they are more accepting of a standard of living that most of us would find completely unacceptable.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our understanding that common American expectations for standard of living are tied to a certain amount of technological literacy and skill, and not just long or hard work. My job requires a lot less physical effort (and usually time, as well) than working in the fields, but it requires a greater level of education. My standard of living is, in effect, a reward for being educated and experienced, rather than backbreaking labor. If the number of people at my education level were to suddenly swell, the demand for my labor would drop, and my current standard of living would become unsustainable, as wages declined.

Immigration enforcement policies that prevented unauthorized persons from working would squeeze the unskilled labor market, which would place upward pressure on both direct and indirect compensation. This would translate into higher prices, as corporations sought to preserve profits by passing those costs on. Most of us don't consider the low-skilled to be worthy of lowering our own standards of living (or risking inflation) to put more money in their pockets. Instead, we tolerate a thriving underground labor market that has the effect of linking access to what most of us consider an "acceptable" standard of living to a certain level of skill. Since what many Americans consider an unacceptable standard of living can still be a vast improvement over being dirt-poor in Latin America, many people find risking their lives to get to the United States to be worthwhile.

And while there might be any number of people who feel that they have a right to a better life, or that it's not compassionate to deny them, we have to remember that there is a price that someone is paying for their opportunity (Opportunities always cost!), and we shouldn't be so quick to disparage those who pay that price as lazy or dismiss them as non-existent.

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