Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Wouldn't or Couldn't? Immigration and an Economics Question

If you want to feel completely intellectually overwhelmed, think about the immigration question currently facing the US. Would more border guards or a fence mean less exploitation by smugglers and American business owners of people just trying to help their families by working extremely hard or would it just mean that those people would have it even worse? Would a guest worker program like that in Germany make for safer, more fair working conditions or would it undercut our labor protection laws by providing a permanent underclass of wage slaves that would harm American unskilled workers who are struggling so badly as it is? Would some sort of earned citizenship or amnesty program cause a flood of people into the country or would it just allow those who are here and contributing to be recognized for what they do? I know the answers to none of these questions.

Indeed, they are all empirical questions, but instead of hypotheses based upon good data, we get political rants. Offerring guesses based on intuition as if it were fact has a long history amongst philosophers who thought that they could derive the laws of physics through metaphysical contemplation, but now we see this "philosophers' fallacy" all over our political discourse. The form is to pick one factor that certainly has some role in the complex situation and pretend that it reigns over all other factors and gives you a simple answer to how a complex system will behave.

One of the places we see this error repeated is in the claim that there is an employment vacuum in our economy that sucks the people over the border. There are "jobs Americans won't do" and because of this lack of people to fill these open positions, a low pressure region in the unskilled labor market is created. But while we have a low pressure region here, there is an adjacent volume of high pressure in workers looking for these sorts of opportunities across the border and, according to the economic version of the first law of thermodynamics, the workers flow from high pressure to low in order to establish equilibrium. This is why we need a guest worker program, the line goes, because the invisible hand will pull in these workers anyway, so let's do it under conditions that will cause the least strain.

The part of the argument that baffles me is the first premise that there is necessarily a vacuum because there are jobs Americans won't do. There seem to be three competing lines of argument behind this claim. How seriously ought we take this oft repeated proposition?

The interesting version of this discussion seems to hold that this claim is really elliptical for, "There are jobs Americans won't do for low wages." We just conveniently leave off the end when we talk about it. One side then argues that if there really are these jobs for which there is a need, but little demand, the labor version of supply and demand dictates that the wages should rise to attract workers.

Labor advocates and organizations argue that this is exactly what employers don't want and like having illegals or guest workers who can be paid less, to keep wage costs down. It is a ploy to make the cost of doing business cheaper. Business groups, on the other hand, argue that paying market prices for filling these jobs would raise the overhead so much that prices on most goods and services would have to be raised significantly and this would cause inflation and deep problems for our economy and our cushy way of life. "Americans would be screeming at the prices" is the argument and it is simply obvious that we should have low prices even if some people must have a hard time feeding their families after a hard day's work to guarantee it. Would being able to buy less mean a slower economy and thus fewer jobs or would more money in the pockets of people working tough jobs mean that they would buy more and pick up the econoomy creating jobs around their increased wealth? Don't know. Economists?

But, like Greg over at The Talent Show, the line that fascinates me is the claim that "These are jobs Americans won't do" is not short for anything, that it is simply a fact of the world that no matter the wage, Americans won't...or CAN'T do these jobs. This was expressed explicitly by John McCain said in a speech to the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. When questioners argued that the answer to filling those positions was to pay a decent wage,

"McCain responded by saying immigrants were taking jobs nobody else wanted. He offered anybody in the crowd $50 an hour to pick lettuce in Arizona.

Shouts of protest rose from the crowd, with some accepting McCain's job offer. 'I'll take it!' one man shouted.

McCain insisted none of them would do such menial labor for a complete season. 'You can't do it, my friends.'"

So, the logic here is that no one would volunteer to do it, even at a higher wage, but when an American did accept the offer at the higher wage, the claim was switched from "No American would do it." to "No American could do it." In logic, we call that question-begging definition -- changing the meaning of a claim to guarantee it's truth. Do people like McCain really believe that these jobs can't be filled with higher wages or is it simply a disingenuous charade to make sure we keep prices (read: labor costs) low? Or is there an element of making sure that we don't allow those people upward mobility? Is this that Sneetch thing, again?