Sunday, August 6, 2017

Different Understandings

Abigail Cooke: There's some evidence that native-born workers who don't finish high school do compete with low-skill immigrants for the same jobs - in some cases. And when that happens, some of those people lose their jobs, their wages don't go up over time if they're having to switch jobs. But the size of this effect is really small. And one of the other things that happens, at least as often, is that those native-born workers are prompted to find new jobs doing maybe slightly different things. And often, those end up being slightly higher-skill jobs that come with higher wages.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Oh, like what?

Abigail Cooke: Back of the house versus front of the house in restaurant service, even sometimes, you know, bumping up to a sort of lower management level, or something where you're required to have a bit stronger English skills.
Does Data Back Trump Administration Plan To Cut Legal Immigration In Half?
I'm not sure that this is the sum total of the effect in play here. Ms. Cooke implies that the very same workers who are displayed from low-skill jobs find themselves in higher-paying, higher-skill jobs, and elsewhere in the piece implies that those new jobs exist partially because of the influx of immigrant consumers. But then at the end of the piece, she makes this point:
But I also think it's easier to point the finger at people who seem different than it is to really think about how the structures of our economy are really not helping a lot of low-skilled, low-wage people in this country. So I think there's a little bit of scapegoating going on.
So... the presence of immigrant workers in the United States does nothing to most workers, and for every worker for whom there's a direct negative or neutral impact, there's a another worker for whom there's a direct positive impact. But the economy isn't helping low-wage workers, and so they're taking it out on the very immigrant communities who are the rising tide that's lifting their boats. Hmm.

Part of this is the simple fact that you can't really get into the nitty-gritty of the economics of mass migration and the human psychology that accompanies that in four minutes. And so you wind up only briefly touching on topics that turn out to be very important - such as do low-skilled immigrants to a country, in their role as new consumers, spark enough demand for goods and services that they themselves cannot provide that they take more slack out of the labor market than they put into it? Do any front of the house restaurant jobs or low-level management jobs that are created genuinely go to the same people who were ousted from the back of the house or individual contributor jobs that the immigrants now hold, or do they go to other people whose skills or a more immediate match?

One of the recurring factors of the immigration debate is the disconnect between personal anecdote and aggregate data. And this allows the who side to both be right, and to talk past the opposition, due to the different level of granularity. It does seem strange that not-quite lowest skilled workers who found themselves pushed up the employment hierarchy by immigrant labor would be complaining about that fact. And so I suspect that that the new "native-born" waiters in a restaurant that uses immigrant labor in the back of the house aren't the same people who would have been hired for the back of the house had the immigrants not been there. And it's a safe bet that the people who are displaced from the sorts of jobs that lower-skilled Americans often complain have been lost to immigration - things like food processing and low-skill manufacturing jobs - haven't found themselves in the role of supervising those new hires, or being liaison to English-speaking upper management - a job for which a knowledge of the immigrants' language is just as important as "a bit stronger English skills."

If you're a person who has never studied economics, let alone only a high-school graduate (or dropout, for that matter), it's likely that a simple understanding of "supply and demand" is all you've ever been taught. And Ms. Cooke is right that the actual economy is more complicated than "when the supply of labor goes up the price of labor goes down." But it's not helpful to presume that this knowledge is widely-available, yet being ignored, when it's somewhat difficult to find explanations of what's actually going on that are accessible to laypersons.

Whether or not low-skilled workers born in the United States are competing with low-skilled immigrant labor for the same jobs is a matter of individual's experience and perception of the world. To the person who was turned down for a job at particular employer, who sees people who look like immigrants going to and from that workplace on a daily basis, and has had to settle for a job less to their liking or less closely-matched to their skills, an academic saying that someone like them might be supervising those workers is cold comfort. And telling them they should blame distant and impersonal "structures of our economy" doesn't give them any actions they can take to better their circumstances in the here and now.

This isn't to say that the aggregate data about how immigration impacts the country overall isn't important. But in a representative republic, studies that tell the people who are suffering that they're a small enough segment of the population that they can be safely ignored (which while likely never the intent, is often the result) simply reinforce the idea that they've been forgotten - or are being deliberately sacrificed.
Immigration undoubtedly has economic costs as well, particularly for Americans in certain industries and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment. But the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs, and smart immigration policy could better maximize the benefits of immigration while reducing the costs.
An Open Letter from 1,470 Economists on Immigration
And that leads them to vote for people who will confirm their understanding of the world and offer to help them with it. If that's a problem, it's time to start doing something about the problems that are creating it.

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