Friday, May 19, 2006

Be Our Guest [Workers]

Immigration is not my issue. My German ancestors had all made it here by the Civil War. I’ve gotten used to hearing Spanish spoken around me, but nobody I’m close to is worrying about deportation. I don’t employ any nannies or housekeepers or other servants, legal or illegal. I actually enjoy bilingual signs; trying to match up the Spanish and English words is how I stay amused on public transportation. (That’s what I love about Montreal -- the whole city is subtitled.)

So what I’m saying is that if you want to boil my blood, if you want to distract me from my lost constitutional rights or the American blood and treasure swirling down the drain in Iraq, immigration reform is not going to do it. But prime-time presidential speeches do tend to get my attention, so even though I can no longer endure watching President Bush on television, I did take a look at the text of his speech .

Mostly, he said what you’d expect: protect the borders, enforce the law, but don’t imagine that you’re going to deport the 12 million people who actually do most of the work around here. (OK, he didn’t say that last part. My mind wandered back to the movie A Day Without a Mexican .) But one phrase of the president’s speech did stick in my mind: temporary worker program.

Here’s the context:

I support a temporary worker program that would create a legal path for foreign workers to enter our country in an orderly way, for a limited period of time. This program would match willing foreign workers with willing American employers for jobs Americans are not doing. Every worker who applies for the program would be required to pass criminal background checks. And temporary workers must return to their home country at the conclusion of their stay.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You match non-criminal Mexican workers up with (one hopes) non-criminal American employers. The workers come up, make a wage higher than they can get in Mexico, send money to their families (who stay home and don’t clog up our schools), and then go back. Everybody wins.

Now picture it in a little more detail: Who protects these people from abuse? The current system (or lack of system) gives illegal aliens very little protection. (Rent the movie Dirty Pretty Things to see how this works in London.) But at least they can run away and try again in some other American city. That option vanishes under this temporary worker program. The worker is here on a work contract with a specific employer. If things aren’t working out -- say, because you won’t kick half of your salary back to the company, or you object to wading through ankle-deep toxic waste, or you refuse the foreman’s sexual advances -- back to Mexico with you.

In short, President Bush’s temporary worker program is an improved version of the permanent worker program we had in the South until 1865. The central improvement is that we get rid of these people before they become old and useless. Either way, we get a cheap labor force that can’t vote. I have one further improvement to suggest: Count each temporary worker as 3/5 of a person in the next census. It’s traditional.

But hey, we need the foreign temps because there are, as the President said in his speech, “jobs Americans aren’t doing.” In previous statements (his December 20, 2004 press conference for one) Bush has phrased this more bluntly as “ jobs Americans won’ t do .” In his March 27 New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman debunked that claim like this:

The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays -- and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

In other words, it’s not that Americans refuse to carry a leaf-blower in the hot sun, it’s just that we refuse to do it for $3 an hour. The American labor market is like any other free market -- there’s a price at which the market clears. If you are willing to pay that price you can get labor done, but otherwise not.

Only by writing the wage into the job description can you get “jobs Americans won’t do.” I would like to drive my car to California for 65 cents a gallon. I can’t, but that’s not because there are “jobs gasoline won’t do.” I’m just not willing to pay the market price.

Because I’m a generous soul, I have chosen not to interpret this “jobs Americans won’t do” rhetoric as hot air President Bush knows is bogus. Instead, I think he’s admitting that there are parts of the economy where the free market doesn’t work.

We should remember this logic for future issues -- drug prices, for example. Why do we need to import cheaper drugs from Canada? It’s not that Merck and Pfizer are price-gouging bastards, or even that the Canadian government protects its citizens better than our government does.

It’s just that there are jobs American drugs won’t do.


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