The more I go over the economic thinking behind President Obama’s final State of the Union address, and some of the commentary it’s generated, the weirder both get. Here are two especially noteworthy examples, and they both flow from the president’s claim that: “Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.”
Actually, Mr. Obama’s starting point is a straw man. I don’t know of anyone whose views have attracted significant attention who solely blames immigrants for wage stagnation. I don’t even know anyone who blames illegal immigrants. I do know lots of folks who believe that the levels (too high) and mix (too many uneducated and unskilled) of legal and illegal immigration have contributed meaningfully to this problem. But I guess States of the Union are no place for nuance.
Even stranger about the president’s contention, though, was his defense of mass immigration’s role in the American employment picture was its contrast with his treatment of trade deals like his Trans-Pacific Partnership and their own destructive impact on jobs and pay. This issue went unmentioned.
No one blames these agreements and related policies for the entire wage problem, either. But does the president genuinely suppose that trade deals, and the job and production offshoring to very low-wage countries they’ve encouraged, have been totally unrelated to the pursuit of those “quarterly earnings over long-term returns,” and by extension to wage woes? In fact, can he or anyone else reasonably doubt that these same shortsighted boardroom denizens have lobbied so hard to push these deals through Congress precisely because they help maximize short-term earnings so effectively at American workers’ expense?
The second example of State of the Union-related economic weirdness comes from an Atlantic post making the case for the president’s views on immigration and wages. It was perfectly conventional – to the point of predictability – for Atlantic staffer Gillian B. White to trot out the usual studies showing that most economists strongly deny any immigration responsibility for U.S. wage stagnation.
What was a lot less conventional was her neglect of the obvious immigration- (and trade-) related implications of this point from another leading economist that she quoted and then paraphrased:
“‘The weakness of wages and the resulting strength of profits are telling signs that the US labor market is still far from full employment’” Jan Hatzius, the chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs wrote in a 2014 research note. That’s because many companies have learned to be leaner, they hire fewer employees, and still benefit from continually growing productivity. And because the country is still not at full employment, they can keep paying workers less. All of this serves to boost the company’s bottom line, while workers are unable to participate in those benefits.”
It’s clear to any thinking person that Corporate America has gotten much leaner (although this greater efficiency isn’t showing up in the productivity data any more). And it should be equally clear, as Hatzius notes, that this development has increased the supply of labor more than the demand for workers (the ultimate reason full employment hasn’t been reached), and therefore reduced the price of labor (as over-supply will do for anything in a reasonably free market, human or otherwise, that’s in surplus).
Hatzius wasn’t quoted on the link between this labor market mismatch and American immigration flows, but White is confident that “Obama is right” (about immigration – not trade, which she also ignores) and that “the level of wage dampening that immigration is actually responsible for in the broader scope of the problem pales in comparison to the wage suppression that has occurred since multi-billion dollar companies decided to prioritize rewarding shareholders first and workers last.”
Indeed, she states, the immigration effects are so slight compared with the supposedly entirely separate corporate governance and strategy changes that discussing the former is “a bit beside the point.”
But by definition, if she’s right, here’s what’s a bit beside the point, too: At a time of subpar employment levels that themselves are undermining workers’ bargaining power, the United States keeps admitting roughly one million legal immigrants each year. Moreover, it has enforced its borders so poorly that the illegal population stands at more than 11 million.
In turn, White’s reasoning implies, significantly reducing either the illegal population, or the legal flow (or both), and accordingly improving the labor supply-demand balance, would leave the bargaining power and wages of current, legal workers virtually the same.
It sounds like White doesn’t really believe that the laws of supply and demand apply to labor markets at all, or at least not to those with significant immigrant participation rates. Same for that majority of economists she cites. Who’s to say “No”? After all, economics isn’t a real science. But if this is the case, couldn’t these analysts declare their heresy openly, or at least tell the rest of us where supply and demand still matters, where it doesn’t, and why? While they’re at it, of course, they could let the rest of us in on what other venerable maxims of economics they’ve now decided we can do without – and when.