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New York Daily News: “How immigrant labor helps us all”

This post is an entry in my on-going effort to archive at Cafe Hayek all of my opinion pieces. The one archived here appeared in the June 20th, 2012, edition of the New York Daily News. You can read this piece in full beneath the fold.

How immigrant labor helps us all

When Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro blurted out a question to President Obama during the President’s recent announcement of a halt to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, a tempest erupted over the propriety of a mere reporter daring to interrupt the President of the United States. (Even Bill O’Reilly sided with Obama on this matter, saying something about the need to “respect the office.”)

My instinct is to side with Munro regarding the decorum of interrupting the President. The human beings who occupy the Oval Office are treated today too much like royalty. Bringing them down a notch is healthy both for them and for the Republic.

Much as I applaud Munro for daring to break White House press corps protocol, however, I abhor the actual question that he posed to Obama: “Why do you favor foreigners over American workers?”

This question reveals regrettable economic shortsightedness. And I say this as someone who’s usually classified as a conservative economist.

Of course many undocumented foreigners in America compete for jobs here. And in some cases the result is that Americans lose jobs or are obliged to settle for lower wages.

But three facts about our economy render it utterly inappropriate to blame immigrant labor for hurting Americans.

First, the number of jobs isn’t fixed. Second, the types of jobs are not fixed. And third, technology, far more than immigration or globalization, has for the past two centuries been the greatest “destroyer” of existing jobs — even as it has helped improve our lives.

This last fact suggests that the destruction of particular jobs not only does not lead to job losses generally, but that such “destruction” is in fact key to widespread and growing prosperity.

A little history is in order. In 1950, there were about 60 million jobs in America. Over the six decades since then, the U.S. population exploded and a greater portion of women entered the workforce. Yet, except for relatively rare periods of recession, the number of jobs has kept pace with the exploding workforce.

Even with today’s high unemployment rate, there are more than twice as many jobs now — about 140 million — than there were 62 years ago. And nearly every one of these jobs pays inflation-adjusted wages and benefits far higher than were earned by all but the richest Americans back then.

None of this implies that the economy is trouble-free. But we mustn’t let today’s high unemployment — a problem caused by faulty monetary and fiscal policies — blind us to the reality that the number of jobs historically grows with expansions in the number of workers seeking jobs.

This growth in the number of jobs is a vital source of workers’ rising pay. The reason is that, with a larger labor force, workers become more specialized . The types of jobs change. We have today, for example, not only pediatricians, but pediatric cardiologists and pediatric gastroenterologists. Because a worker’s productivity typically rises as he or she becomes more specialized, each worker earns more and the economy’s total output swells.

Which leads us to the role of immigration.

Immigrants today — no less than immigrants in the 19th century, and no less than women who entered the workforce during the post-World War II decades — will contribute to this increasing specialization and, hence, to expanding the size of the pie.

Perhaps Munro’s worst error lay in his assumption that any policy that threatens specific jobs is thereby suspect and un-American. If this assumption were correct, Munro should complain not about a few hundred thousand immigrants. Instead, he should complain about technology. When it comes to destroying specific jobs, nothing comes close to technological advances.

In 1776, for example, nearly 90 Americans had to work on farms to feed every 100 Americans. Today, it takes only two Americans working on farms to feed 100 of us. This massive destruction of agricultural jobs is the result of mechanization (such as in diesel-powered tractors), chemicals (such as in fertilizers) and other technological advances. As a happy consequence, each farmworker today produces vastly more food for consumers’ tables than did his counterparts in the past, so we need far fewer farmworkers as a portion of the population.

Likewise with many medical advances. The polio vaccine introduced nearly 60 years ago destroyed many jobs in factories that built wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces and iron-lung machines.

Yet we rightly celebrate these advances as promoting our prosperity and recognize that they did not permanently reduce the overall number of jobs. For the very same reason, we should celebrate peaceful immigration, even when on the surface it “destroys” some jobs held by Americans.