As “everybody knows,” one of the main reasons that the U.S. economy desperately needs a huge population of low-paid immigrants (whether legal or soon-to-be legalized) is that these workers do crucial jobs that the native-born population snubs. And with the immigration policy debate continually intensifying in this presidential campaign cycle, expect this claim to be trotted out again and again by champions of Open Borders-style approaches to the issue. (Here’s a good post indicating just how often it’s been made by major political and chattering class figures.)
What a surprise, then, to keep discovering evidence showing that the “jobs American won’t do” contention to be completely bogus.
As should be clear to anyone familiar with standard economic thinking, the idea underlying all such claims – of chronic labor shortages that can only be eased with big new influxes of foreign workers – is nonsensical theoretically. The reasons have to do with time-honored concepts of supply and demand. When they’re out of balance – which in this imperfect world happens all the time – actors in free markets adjust in several ways, all involving the price mechanism. Employers facing such labor market mismatches will either raise wages, in order to attract the workers they need, or they introduce labor-saving machines or other efficiency-enhancing improvements if the former option isn’t appealing. Of course, in the real world, responses are often some combination of these alternatives.
But whatever business’ choices, the implications for the economy as a whole are the same. “Jobs that Americans won’t do” will before too long be filled by better paid workers or by the proverbial robots.
Both options, moreover, contain ample potential to strengthen the economy to everyone’s benefit. The pluses of higher wages (up to a point, of course!) are self-evident. But although the labor-saving technology strategy sounds like a formula for mass unemployment, centuries of history teach that automation ultimately creates many more, and better, jobs than it displaces. (Will this record continue in an unfolding age of more and more sophisticated robots and artificial intelligence? I sure as heck don’t know. But that’s a medium-term challenge, not an imminent one.) Moreover, more use of machines is typically a sign that the economy is becoming more productive. And that’s as good as it sounds – including for wages and broader living standards.
There is an important caveat: Not all companies, or even whole industries, are capable of making these adjustments (whether they want to or whether they’re confident that immigrants will keep flooding to their rescue). But that doesn’t mean that labor shortages need to or should be dealt with by new government measures like opening borders even wider. Instead, it mean that these companies and industries have lousy, and even completely non-viable business models. Why should they be bailed out with immigration policy at the expense both of native-born workers and greater efficiency?
It’s true that theories can be and often are wrong. But not this one. Exhibit One has to do with technology. Immigrants both legal and not comprise a big share of America’s agricultural workforce, and the farm sector has long insisted that the depressed wages that result from immigrant-fueled labor surpluses are crucial to keeping food affordable. Further, they and their supporters argue, few native-born Americans would want to toil in the fields even if pay was raised.
As it turns out, however, meager wages ultimately were making workers harder and harder to find throughout the ag sector. And rather than close up shop – and let entire crops go unplanted, immense harvests rot on the vine, and widespread hunger to emerge – guess what American farmers have started to do? Yep. They’re spreading mechanization beyond the grains and other commodity crops for which its use has been commonplace for decades! (Thanks, by the way, to Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies for a recent tweet that first alerted me to this development.)
In fact, thanks to ever more sophisticated robots and similar devices, they’re even mechanizing the picking of fruits and vegetables long considered to be too delicate to be handled by machines, like strawberries and blueberries. And it’s pretty reasonable to suppose that these machines will keep getting cheaper, better, and able to perform an ever wider range of tasks. .
Exhibit Two isn’t a real-world development yet. Instead, it’s a proposal that dramatically shows how higher wages could slash the nation’s supposed need for illegal immigrant labor. According to folks ranging from former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis to reform-minded California Republican multi-millionaire businessman Ron Unz, a healthy increase in the minimum wage would draw many legal U.S. residents back into the nation’s workforce and reduce the attractiveness of hiring illegals – many of whom are poorly educated and speak limited English. And of course, businesses that hired only legal residents would have no law enforcement worries. Even George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, an unabashed supporter of completely Open Borders (seriously!) has acknowledged the “logic” of the proposal.
So the next time you hear the “jobs Americans won’t do” argument, you can be pretty sure that it’s coming from someone who just doesn’t know their basic economics, whose ideologically committed to completely unfettered immigration, or who has a big political or economic self-interest in importing poverty on a huge scale into the United States.