Bryan Caplan  

"The Jobs Americans Won't Do": The Fallacy and the Reformulation

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Chris Hayes inveighs against the economically silly argument that immigrants do jobs Americans don't want:

I don’t want to buy a slice of pizza for $45. It doesn’t mean I don’t like pizza! I’m not particularly interested in writing a book for the total payment of $9. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to write a book!

Raise. The. Wages. You’ll find plenty of workers. I promise.

But then Megan McArdle correctly reformulates the argument:
It does no good to say that American workers would be happy to gut chickens, or clean houses, or landscape your yard, for $20 an hour, if other Americans cannot afford to purchase those services at that price. If we had no illegals, some Americans would undoubtedly get their jobs at higher wages. Other jobs, such as fruit picking, would probably be automated. Meanwhile, many Americans would have to go without the services that illegals currently provide, such as landscaping, construction, and home care.
In short, as always in economics, you find the inefficiency by pinpointing the the deadweight loss - the services that would have been purchased in a free market, but aren't purchased given immigration restrictions.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
PrestoPundit writes:

The way to make an instant "deadweight loss" by this logic, all you need to do is give a government subsidy to an input -- say underwrite 50 percent of the cost of sugar consumed by a producer -- and then limit the importation of qualifying sugar from abroad. Now you've got your parallel. Drop the restriction and continue the government payments for 1/2 the cost of imported sugar, and you've got "the services that would have been purchased in a 'free market', but aren't purchased given [importation] restrictions."

It's a dumb argument Bryan -- you seem to have an endless supply of these.

Buzzcut writes:

Here's an idea: mow your own lawn.

What about this deadweight loss: the technical solutions to lawn care that aren't developed because you can hire an illegal to do it for $20 per week.

Maybe there would be a cultural change away from grassy lawns to something else (prarie?). Or maybe people would just accept unkemp lawns.

We should have lawn mowing robots and slow growth grass that doesn't need much mowing. But these solutions don't make sense in the current immigration environment.

8 writes:

If we had no slaves, some Americans would undoubtedly get their jobs at higher wages. Other jobs, such as cotton picking, would probably be automated. Meanwhile, many Americans would have to go without the services that slaves currently provide, such as landscaping, construction, and home care.

Dog of Justice writes:

Um, isn't it a clear win if price signals cause society to be restructured such that humans rarely have to do these unpleasant jobs, because they've either been automated or their need is otherwise minimized (e.g. slow growth grass)? The size of the underclass responds to incentives too, even though it's a slow process.

Think about the asymptotics of the situation for once, rather than just considering the immediate first derivative, and even doing that in a narrow manner that ignores major social costs.

mgroves writes:

What is it about this blog that attracts so many vitriolic comments? I mean, come on people, you can find this stuff in textbooks.

Troy Camplin writes:

When chicken plants opened up in Kentucky over a decade ago, the first people to go work at them were white -- Kentucky being mostly white and poor, the latter meaning many wre willing to go work for the relatively high wages. Before long, the whites started quitting. They quickly discovered that they didn't want to work gutting chickens, even at the wages they were given. But guess who stayed? And guess who now works in those plants?

So there are jobs that Ameircans don't want to do -- even at a decent wage. And it may not have anything to do with money. Offer to pay $1000 per hour, and you still won't get vegans to work at a chicken processing plant. I suspect the same would be true among African Americans if you offered them the same to pick cotton, though their objections would be historical. In fazct, I read a study that suggested that African Americans specifically avoided field work precisely due to their cultural history. Hispanics don't have that history, so it doesn't bother them to do that kind of work. There's also a bit of reinforcement going on as well. If some Hispanics are working at a particular place, they will tell their friends and family -- who are mostly Hispanic -- about the job. Further, if you have hired a large number of Spanish-speakers, it makes sense to continue to do so, for communicaiton purposes.

Then there is the issue of seasonal and temporary work. How many people want to only work for the summer? Or to have to move around the country to keep working? Cultually many Hispanics are willing to work for a short period of time so as to not have to work the rest of the year. My wife (who is Mexican) has family and friends who do precisely this. Many illegals too are only inteerested in working in the US and want to go back to Mexico with the money they make. Thus, they are willing to do seasonal and temporary work that someone who wants to live and work in one location would not be willing to do.

Of course, the problem really is that Americans (and let's also be honest here: when we say "Americans" we mean mostly white Americans, and at least non-Hispanic Americans) are not willing to do these jobs at these wages. They would be willing to do them at much higher wages. I suspect chikcen would start to get very expensive, though.

8 writes:

Not vitriolic, reductio ad absurdum.
There is no free market. Welfare payments and social services, even free education for children, need to be calculated into wages. These cost are external, hence the subsidy to workers not earning a high enough wage.

Interestingly, which no one on either side mentions enough, is that some illegal immigrants are earning $15 or more working skilled jobs. Instead, illegal immigration defenders always trot out the argument that someone can't get their lawn mowed. Here's a case where you could legitimately make a case for deadweight loss:
http://apnews.myway.com/article/20070825/D8R820QO0.html

Lord writes:

And the public services, like education and healthcare, that would have been paid for by the rest of us, but aren't given immigration restrictions.

Matt writes:

This argument is completely falacious.

Any economy of 300 million is perfectly capable of filling in inefficient labor slots.

Think, Brian, you have an economy possibily imbalanced because of labor productivity gaps. The force that causes the productivity gaps are still there, using an N of 500 million to correct an imbalance in an economy with an N of 300 million does nothing, the imbalance just re-emerges.

Troy Camplin writes:

One factor we have not considered: welfare makes it possible for people to decide that they would rather not work than do certain jobs. Illegal immigrants don't get welfare, so they do the jobs those on welfare would do if we would get rid of welfare and make them work if they want to eat and have a roof over their heads.

Doug writes:

Your article assumes a status quo. You allude to a key benefit of capitalism that is often viewed as a curse.

"Other jobs, such as fruit picking, would probably be automated."

That's the Creative Destruction element of Capitalism. Those predicted automated fruit pickers would produce new jobs and possibly new businesses in the design and manufacture of said fruit pickers.

Of course to turn a phrase. That might upset the Apple Cart of the comfortable status quo.

"Competition is a Sin" - John D. Rockefeller

Steve Sailer writes:

An early scene in "The Man Who Would Be King" takes place in the office of an English colonial administrator in India. To stay cool, he had a big fan over his head flapped by a servant via a string attached to the servant's toe. That's pretty great! If wages weren't so damn high here in America, I could have my own Untouchable toe-fanning servant too, instead of having to use my boring, totally uncool electric fan.

Think of all the other hundreds of millions of jobs that could be created in America if wages fell to 19th Century Indian levels!

Of course, I couldn't actually afford to pay my toe-fanning flunky the full cost of what it would take for him and his family to live in America, but I believe the externalities of my servant's existence should be borne by the public at large, not by me. Thus, my worker's kids should get free schooling, the whole family should get free health care at the emergency room, his tenement should get fire and police protection, he should drive without car insurance, etc. Why shouldn't I cost shift my conveniences on to everybody else?

Mark Seecof writes:

hat Steve Sailer said! And louder!

Also, the whole debate is over low wage workers. Those low wages are key, because they tell us there isn't much demand for that labor!

Suppose we kicked out 5 million illegal aliens whose wages (exclusive of all the social spending they consume) averaged, say, $7/hour. Suppose we paid $9/hour on average to replace them with citizens (spot shortages of burger-flippers don't really indicate wages would rise more than that-- it takes a few months to mobilize the reserve army of unemployed citizens). Even if we (heroically) assume zero elasticity of demand, the whole exercise would only cost the country $20 billion yearly in increased wages.[1] We would save much more than by reducing social spending on aliens (and victims of their childrens' crimes), and for social spending on citizens currently idled by competition from illegal aliens.[2]

Really, Prof. Caplan, perhaps you should stick to your (curiously leftist for a self-proclaimed libertarian economist...) moral arguments for importing poor people-- your economic ones seem ill-considered.


[1] I calculate very crudely: $9/hour - $7/hour = $2/hour. $2/hour times 2000 hours/year times 5 million illegal aliens = $20 billion/year.

[2] People often assume that competition from aliens just depresses native workers' wages a little. In fact, illegal aliens frequently displace native workers into unemployment because businesses built on illegal aliens commonly discriminate against citizen workers. Firms which employ many illegals commonly operate in languages other than English and exploit employees in ways that citizens (who needn't fear deportation) would not tolerate.

PK writes:

These are not jobs that Americans don't want. These are the ones that Americans think they have evolved through. Now that incomes are higher, Americans are willing to pay someone else to do these jobs. Aren't these immigrants living what we have created; "the American Dream" or the desire to create a happy life/living for themselves.

AR writes:

Without a doubt a crackdown on illegal workers would lead to higher wages for workers who do less than desirable work. Which would probably lend to a corresponding increase for the goods and services demanded from these workers. However, those increased prices would not last forever. I feel the increase in price for the goods and services would only serve to motivate entrepreuners and expand the realm of opportunities in our society. After all isn't innovation and adaptation the nature of the society in which we live in?

Ben writes:

For what it is worth: I worked on a very large farm in Idaho in the late 80's and early 90's. Aside from myself and the farmers family, the rest of the workers were illegal. Why? There were no other takers for the $1000/month we were paid. I did it because that was the best job available to me at my age in the area. But I was the only one I was aware of that did it over working at McDonalds. The illegals, all wonderful people by the way, were glad for that wage and kept coming back year after year for it.

Matt writes:

"Without a doubt a crackdown on illegal workers would lead to higher wages for workers who do less than desirable work"

There is my doubt.

The cost of moving workers into and out of the U.S. are variable and expensive costs over time. Once the population demographics retune to the natural economy, however, then all slots are filled and productivity returns to the norm. The time of equilibriation is propotional to the rate of change of the worker totals.

The reason workers want in is because of a very long term trend of over-valuating our suburban lifestyle. The federal legislature, mainly, price fixes suburbia at higher than global market values, while the efficient mega cities of asia are devaluing the surburbia lifestyle. Our economy can either await the correction in the federal legislature, or import workers to valuate surburbia up.

The cost of awaiting a correction in the federal legislature is increased debt payments over time, in supposed investment for infrastructure that increases the efficiency of surburbia. But mainly we continue to inflate surburbia.
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