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Steve Goldstein of Marketwatch.com (an excellent business and economics site for which I’ve been pleased to write) has just done a good job of indicating why you can’t trust everything you read – even when it comes from a fancy-dan economic consulting firm. Check out how he threw some cold water over a new report contending that illegal immigrants have been partly responsible for America’s recent productivity slowdown. As Goldstein notes, for example, this conclusion seems to proceed at least to some extent on a misunderstanding about whether illegals are counted in certain key government economic data.

At the same time, we’ve just gotten additional evidence from The Wall Street Journal suggesting that the notion that illegals exert a drag on productivity growth is on target after all.

The first comes from a Journal article that spotlights a study from another fancy consultancy. It found that heavy use of illegal immigrants is one factor that’s held back productivity growth in the American construction industry. In the words of the Journal piece:

The sector’s fragmentation makes it hard to adopt industrywide standards. Much of the construction industry relies on volatile government contracting, which makes it difficult for firms to plan very far ahead. Regulatory requirements can also reduce incentives to invest in productivity-boosting improvements. And much of the construction sector relies on low-skilled workers—including undocumented immigrants—who tend to be lower-paid and less productive than their skilled counterparts.”

To be fair, the article notes that lagging productivity performance is a worldwide, not simply an American, phenomenon. And it’s not obvious that the construction sectors of other countries rely as heavily on illegal workers as does America’s.

Nonetheless, this analysis might also understate the productivity-killing role played by illegal construction workers in one important sense. It fails to mention that the availability of so much cheap labor greatly reduces construction firms’ incentives to buy labor-saving machinery, or figure out other ways to manage their operations more efficiently.

This article does note the sector’s sluggish adoption of automation – and attributes it to its characteristically tight profit margins, which supposedly make such expenditures inordinately risky. But I can’t help but wonder if the article has causation backward. Maybe its low degree of automation – and the resulting inefficiencies explain some of construction’s weak productivity growth.

The second Wall Street Journal example underscoring the connection between illegal immigrant employment and the productivity slowdown came in a report on a new trend in the restaurant industry: offsetting the impact on their bottom lines of mandated minimum wage hikes by adding “labor surcharges” to checks. Evidently, the idea is that customers will be more willing to pay this extra fee than higher prices for menu items.

I have no idea whether this is true. But I do know that restaurants rely heavily on illegal immigrant labor, that the abundance of these workers has helped keep the wages they pay very low, and that the sector has a long history of crying “Labor shortage!” to justify keeping the legal immigration floodgates wide open and the border porous – thereby ensuring that its potential workforce will in fact remain in surplus. I also know that restaurateurs like to insist that their sector’s profit margins generally are “razor thin,” which means that containing labor costs is especially important.

Add all of these factors and their influence up, and you have a classic portrait of an industry that’s skimped on productivity-enhancing, labor-saving devices because illegal immigration helped it keep labor costs at rock-bottom levels. Indeed, a senior executive at the National Restaurant Association has all but acknowledged this sorry situation: “Productivity growth in the restaurant industry has really been quite minimal over the past decade. Sales per employee in the industry is still low not only compared to other retailers, but it’s low compared with other industries.”

Finally, here’s more indirect confirmation for an illegal immigrant-productivity connection in these two sectors. For all its illegal immigrant usage, construction is a relatively high wage industry. Its average hourly wage ($28.52 according to the latest government data) exceeds that of the typical private sector job ($26 even). Therefore, it’s not vulnerable to the recent minimum wage hikes – and there’s no reason to think that its productivity-enhancing investments are on the rise.

Restaurants, on the other hand, are not only relatively low paying – with average wages of $13.69. They employ lots of minimum wage workers, and are very worried about the spreading movement in states and localities to raise minimum wages. So even though their major illegal immigrant employers, too, the prospect of higher payrolls is generating considerable new interest in automation.

Imagine how much more such investment would be made by both industries if their illegal immigrant crutch was removed, or greatly shrunk, as well. And since productivity growth is widely viewed as the most important key to raising American living standards on a sustainable (as opposed to bubble-ized) basis, imagine how welcome that development would be for the entire economy.

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