Can Your Existence Be Illegal?
|September 6, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Can Your Existence Be Illegal?
Calm Truth About Immigration
Imagine! A long, careful essay on the subject of immigration, without slogans of hate or blame! Many thanks to author Mike Curtis for making this article available to readers of The Progress Report.
Three Views of Immigration
by Mike Curtis
Illegal immigrants make great workers. As a group, they are among the best people you could possibly hire to pick up garbage, dig with a pick and shovel, unload trucks, pick vegetables or wash dishes. When you consider that twelve million illegal immigrants might provide more than 5% of the U.S. workforce, you can see how profitable these low cost, highly efficient workers really are.
Time and again we are told that illegal workers only take the jobs that no one else wants. They are needed. Without them the economy would fail. Restaurants would go out of business. Small farmers would go broke and large farmers will move their operations to other countries. There is little doubt, if all illegal immigrants were deported, many employers would go broke. Not only would the Gross Domestic Product go down, but so would the general level of productivity per worker.
And yet, from the workers perspective, isnt that how you actually get a raise — by limiting the competition? Labor unions that have actually gotten their members a higher wage, have kept out the competition. Doctors and Lawyers, who have a reputation for high wages, have limited the competition with laws that require degrees, exams and a license to practice their profession. Highly paid craftsman, teach only the apprentice. Even a real estate salesman, needs a license to sell a house. Supply and demand is how the world works, and allowing people across the borders to immigrate is one sure way to increase the competition for Americas jobs.
But, there are really three factors involved in the equation. First, employers think they should have a right to hire the best and cheapest person who is willing to work for them. Not only because the workers are free and un-coerced, but because it is good for the economy.
The second factor is the American worker who knows that if citizenship is to offer any real status, it must at the very least grant exclusive rights to the already limited number of jobs in the United States.
And three, the inherent drive of all people throughout the world to develop their fullest potential. The border is there, yes. The border is respected like a mountain or the ocean, but it does not have the moral sanction of personal property. No one feels guilty for crossing it.
So, if youre going to take the moral high ground on the question of illegal immigration, youll have to start with the question of what gives any people the right to claim a specific part of the Earth, declare it a nation and close its borders? Most of the illegal immigrants, who are in the United States today, are descended from people who walked across the Bering Straits form Asia between 10 and 20 thousand years ago. And, if claiming something made it yours, Im sure they would have uttered the words as they made their way south and east into Mexico and beyond. Id be surprised if the first Europeans had not been given ‘permission’ to land at Plymouth and Jamestown, if they would have turned around and sailed away, or felt guilty because they didnt.
As surely as motion seeks the path of the least resistance, labor is drawn to the employer offering the highest wages. Not only is there a large portion of the population in Mexico without full employment, but, most Mexican workers would enjoy a higher standard of living, if they lived and worked in the United States. If they work in the United States, and support a family that lives in Mexico, the difference in the cost of living between the two countries makes a profound difference in their ability to accumulate wealth. There is a great temptation for young, strong, healthy, and ambitious Latinos to sneak across the border, work for a few years and save enough money to buy a house or start a little business when they get home. This seems like our own adventurous young men who went to sea or worked on the oil rigs.
So, as long as America is the land of opportunity, higher fences will simply mean that the guy who shows up for an illegal job can not only walk across the desert with nothing but a bottle of water and some dried beef, but he can climb a 50 foot fence or tunnel under it. And hes willing to work for a whole lot less than anyone else who seems remotely comparable in his level of skill. The better the workers and the less you have to pay them, the more tempted you are to hire them.
Obviously, with 12 million highly productive, highly illegal workers without any rights, there is a lot of money to be made. And it is likely, without a serious commitment to seal the border, the U.S. will end up with a lot more illegal immigrants than we have now.
The U.S. could seal the border, if it were willing to spend the money building and guarding the barrier. The cost could not be more than a small fraction of what it cost to build the interstate highway system. We could send millions of Mexicans back to Mexico, and it certainly would raise the wages of those U.S. citizens who took their place. But, instead of increasing the gross domestic product, like the highways that lowered the cost of transportation, it would diminish the average level of productivity within the country. Those who had been unable to win employment in the competition with illegal immigrants would then be employed, but their output would be less efficient. Ten or twelve million fewer workers would mean many fewer divisions and specializations of labor, and that too would diminish productivity. Therefore, the increased cost of production would increase the price of everything that had previously been made by those who returned home, and several other things, as well.
The vast majority of Americans are consumers, in varying degrees, of the products or services of illegal workers. Whether you buy hand picked beans, a meal in a restaurant, house cleaning, child-care, plants or yard work, illegal workers are involved. At the same time, the vast majority of Americans do not compete for work with illegal immigrants.
The people that do compete against illegal immigrants, dont eat hand picked vegetables, eat in restaurants, hire baby sitters or pay someone else to cut their grass. They dont make up a majority of the voters either. Therefore, unless they become the tie breakers in the next election, those illegal immigrants who are here, are likely to stay and a lot more will trickle in as well.
The population is probably not increasing as fast as the number of immigrants would suggest; our own birth rate has declined. However, there is a much bigger consolation than that. As the population of the United States has increased, so has the general level of productivity. Not only have more workers produced more goods and services, but through some combination of new technologies, infrastructure and greater divisions of labor, every worker has produced more goods or services than before. Computers, nail guns and optical scanners have grossly increased the productivity of those at the bottom of the pay scale as well.
During the last 20 years, the U.S. population increased by about 20 percent, but the average productivity of our workers (discounted for inflation) increased by more than 47 percent. That is not to say that there isnt a point at which an increase in population will diminish productivity, but only to show that we are not near it yet.
How many people the U.S. economy can economically absorb under the present conditions is not clear, but if we look at some other prosperous countries, we get a clue. The number of people per square mile of arable land in France is about 850; Germany: 1800; The United Kingdom: 2500; The Netherlands 3500; and Japan: 8,000. The United States still has less than 400 people per square mile of arable land. In other words, the United States could more than double its population, and our natural environment would still have to support less people per mile of arable land than the European Union.
While the American workers now produce almost 50% more than they did two decades ago, wages, in terms of what they can buy, or a standard of living, remain pretty much the same. The problem is that our free-land-frontier is gone. The nineteenth century and the Homestead Act are over. There is no alternative way for people to employ themselves. Therefore, wages of the least skilled and educated workers tends to a minimum in the market. Thats why Congress enacted the legal Minimum Wage in 1935, and maintained it ever since. Superior workers are only paid more because they are in shorter supply. Clearly, the increase in productivity has not eliminated unemployment or increased wages. A rising tide, in this case, does not lift all boats. So what do we do?
Before we consider a very moderate social policy proposal, a policy that shares the benefits of immigration with the least intelligent, least educated, segment of our population as well as the corporations and everyone in between, lets consider what is possible.
One look at Singapore, and we get a glimpse. They have 14,000 people per square mile, and they are one of the most productive countries in the world. This is in spite of the fact that only 2 percent of their land is capable of growing anything. Who knows how many people the United States could support in a just and prosperous society, but each of our major cities could, and once did, support many more people than they do now. We could rejuvenate our urban slums, provide healthy and comfortable housing and create many more jobs. In the suburbs, we could create an orderly development that provided open space and park land without the sprawl that now consumes much of our natural environment.
Taxes now total about a third of the nations output. By shifting those taxes, from income, sales and buildings, to the rental value of land, we would encourage people and business to hold the smallest amount of land they could, and produce as much as possible on it. Large numbers of people would save by living in apartment buildings and sharing a view. Business would build the highest buildings that were profitable.
There would be no penalty for the erection of building, but there would be a great expense for those who held on to valuable land and did not put it to use — the land value tax would have to be paid, but there would be no income out of which to pay it. There would simply be no reward for holding unused and underused land for future use or sale.
Soon, within a few miles of every city, there would be land without value. It would be good for building houses or growing crops. It would be capable of supporting a small business, but other land would be so superior, so much more in demand, that this land would have no rental value at all. It could be used without the payment of rent. It would deliver high wages for everyone, just like it did in the nineteenth century when America had a free land economic frontier. Not that everyone would become a yeoman farmer, but no one would work for someone else, unless they were offered more than they could produce working for themselves where the land was free.
Those who held the superior land would fund the costs of government by paying rent for the land they held. Every increase in productivity would increase the returns to capital — buildings, machinery and inventories. Every increase in productivity would, as it does now, increase the rental value of superior lands and provide more revenue for the increasing needs of society. Every increase in productivity would increase the amount that could be produced where the land was free — just beyond the land that was economically demanded and valuable.
Under these conditions, every increase in the population would permit greater divisions of labor and greater economies of scale. It would increase wages and the return on productive investment. And, it would increases the rental value of land, which funds our infrastructure, police, defense, education, healthcare, welfare and the future needs of society. Under this arrangement, every increase in the population will increase the quality of life for every person in the country. And it will continue until we reach the point of diminishing returns.
We could probably open the border and declare the more the merrier. As each and every person left Mexico and Central America, the value of the land in those countries would fall. How long would their ruling families stand by and watch the rental value of their land go down? In self defense, they would implement some competitive measure to draw their workers back. Hopefully they would raise wages rather than shoot those who tried to leave. That is what is possible. We know that a serious tax shift that encourages the most efficient use of our resources will take time. In the mean while, we can simply peg the Minimum Wage to increase at the same percentage rate as the increase in the Gross Domestic Product. That way, workers too, share in the benefits of increased population.
Second, lets have the government provide low level Min Wage jobs for everyone whos willing and able to work. They can clean up the highways, fix up the parks, and replant the forests. This way, the government will have a vested interest in not letting more people in to the country than can be economically employed.
Until we have serious tax reform there will be a shortage of affordable housing. Lets have the government provide enough public housing so that everyone on the Minimum Wage can get decent shelter at an affordable price. If we do those three things, we will have eliminated the ill effects of legal and illegal immigration on our own citizens.
However, in a few years, we will have another recession. What are we going to do with our non-citizen workers then? In the nineteen thirties, they were sent back to Mexico, where there werent enough jobs and the Mexican government had far fewer resources then the United States. If we welcome people into the country to work, we require them to fulfill all the obligations of a citizen, they play by the rules and pay their taxes, shouldnt they become one of us; shouldnt they be worthy of our support when theres a hurricane or earthquake or the next depression? If theyre good enough to contribute to our economy, they ought to have a vote.
Mike Curtis is an educator and community leader in Arden, Delaware, and New York City. Rita Rowan inspired and assisted in the development of this article.
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