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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Work Americans Won't Do

Last week, the normally able and perceptive economist Thomas Sowell published a series of three columns claiming to debunk the myths of immigration bill proponents. I do not disagree with his entire analysis: I do believe there that crass political opportunism is shaping large areas of the congressional debate, and the worries about unassimilated immigrants isolated by tongue and economic status need to be openly addressed.

However, I find it puzzling that a serious, thoughtful economist like Sowell makes this kind of mistake:

Even in occupations where illegals are concentrated, such as agriculture, cleaning, construction, and food preparation, the great majority of the work is still being done by people who are not illegal aliens.....(T)he highest concentration of illegals is in agriculture, where they are 24 percent of the people employed. That means three-quarters of the people are not illegal aliens. But when will the glib phrase-mongers stop telling us that the illegals are simply taking "jobs that Americans won't do"?

Professor Sowell knows full well that the level of aggregation used to construct large industry categories like "agriculture" and "construction" empties this statement of analytic content. He also knows, I would have thought better than I, that economic decisions are not about averages, but about what happens at the margin. The U.S. arguably has the freest labor markets in the world, yet the burden of regulation still affects hiring and production decisions at the margin. The use of illegal, off-books and grey market labor has for years been the safety valve that excused our politicos from having to confront the real costs imposed by the absurdly low levels of legal immigration permitted by our current laws.

We do not need illegal immigration; in fact, it is a national shame that we have looked the other way while it has gone on unabated ever since Simpson-Mazzoli. What we do need is greatly increased legal immigration. There should be no attempt to ration access to the U.S. labor market for any reasons other than criminal background or public health threat. Because there is one job Americans won't do, and haven't done for thirty years or more. Americans will not do the work of begetting and raising children.

The total fertility rate of American women fell below replacement in 1971, and although it has increased slightly since the rate hit bottom in 1976, Americans still do not replace themselves through reproduction. Even more telling , the percent of American women who age beyond childbearing without having borne a single child has, over the same time period, doubled -- from 10% to nearly 20%.

There are many adjustments an economy makes in the face of fewer, and therefore more expensive, workers. One, of course, is to replace labor with capital. The American economy is adept at such realignments, and if we insist on halting illegal immigration without substituting the legal kind, economic actors will make those adjustments. But there are some professions, and some industries, where there is a limit to how much a machine can do.

Thomas Sowell and Tom Tancredo and James Sensenbrenner may not think we need more workers to pick the strawberries, build the roads, or cut up the chickens. But who is going to drain their catheters, swab their bedsores, and spoon feed them Jello when they are too old and frail to blockade the borders?


Evanston2 said...

I read every article Dr. Sowell posts on and am grateful for your critique. Nonetheless, I agree with him that there is no practical necessity to tie border control with legal immigration in one bill. Yes, we should all worry about America's economic future and maximize the freedom offered by this land. Still, these concerns should be dealt with separately as "assimilation issues" (that is, how many legal immigrants can our welfare, medical and educational systems absorb in a given year, as well as how can we maintain what is arguably the most successful culture in the history of mankind). But without true border control, the notion of "controlling" immigration (legal and illegal) and hence assimilation is a joke.
In an earlier post on the Reform Club (regarding Michelle Malkin = Moron), Dr. Zycher asserted in passing that a bill that only addresses border control is a "nonstarter." I'm not sure if he meant politically or practically...but what do you believe, Kathy? This matter has finally bubbled up in 2006 and it'll certainly be interesting to see how it shakes out.

Tom Van Dyke said...

We all seem to agree that it's suicidal for a non-tribalist society founded on culture, ideals and beliefs to permit the rise of a nation within a nation. Quebec should point to the truth of that.

America, at its best, is an idea, not a tribe.

My one lingering criticism of the ancient Greek philosophers and their tolerance of slavery is, if we are to apply your lessons, in a free society who takes out the garbage?

Or per your example, Miz H, what is the value of changing the diaper of someone you're not related to?

Unless we secure the borders, we'll never find out. Capital and labor will remain in disequilibrium, since as of now there is no established limit to the latter.