Jobs Americans Won't Do:

I rarely blog about immigration-related matters, because I have no expertise on the subject, and because I think this is the sort of subject that it's hard to make bottom-line conclusions about without real expertise There are lots of considerations cutting in various directions, and I have no real sense of how to estimate the magnitude of each, much less compare them.

Nonetheless, even in such matters there might be some benefit in discussing a particular factor that people are focusing on. So here's my question:

Can it possibly be right that illegal aliens are doing the "jobs Americans won't do," so that their presence is no competition for workers who are citizens?

I would have thought that, as a matter of basic economics, it makes little sense to talk about "jobs Xs won't do" (at least so long as X is a large and heterogeneous national group). Rather, there are only jobs Americans (or enough Americans) won't do for a certain amount of money. Raise the amount you're willing to pay, and more people will be willing to take that wage to do the job; at some price, that supply would be enough to satisfy the perceived demand for such workers.

Now perhaps "jobs Americans won't do" is shorthand for "jobs Americans won't do unless the wage is raised to a level at which the jobs wouldn't exist in any case, since they won't be cost-effective." (For instance, if current American citizens just won't pick fruit unless they're paid $20/hour, only currently illegal aliens are willing to pick fruit for less, and fruit picked at $20/hour in America won't be competitive with fruit imported from overseas, then it may be that no jobs in fruit-picking would realistically exist for the current American citizens.)

Yet surely this would be true only for some jobs. If getting certain jobs done without the now-illegal aliens requires raising wages, then in some situations the lack of illegal alien workers would mean the jobs would disappear. But in other situations someone will need the job done, and will just pay more -- to a current American citizen -- to get that job done.

Now it may well be that having more cheap and legal labor would be good for the average current-American-citizen worker, or even the average current-American-citizen low-wage worker. The presence of such labor might mean lower priced products for the current American citizens, and might mean more new jobs in new fields made possible by the economic efficiencies that the low-wage workers bring. It's actually pretty sensible free market economics, though free market economics that might lead to at least some results that some advocates of low-wage workers might not like, and that might be distorted by various aspects of the welfare state.

But in any case this argument is a very different argument, it seems to me, than "illegal immigrants just do the jobs Americans won't do." It's

Illegal immigrants just do the jobs Americans won't do for the same low wages that illegal immigrants will take, and it helps our economy to have the jobs done at those low wages.

Doesn't have quite the same ring, no? Or am I missing something here?

Response to "Jobs Americans Won't Do": Eugene raises an interesting point in his post below, but I confess that my instinct is different: It seems to me that when considering a claim about attitudes toward a market good or service, the price of that good or service is an essential part of the claim. For example, imagine someone says, "The new Oldsmobile sedan is really ugly; I'll bet no one will buy one." I think it's implicit in the claim that the sedan is being offered at a market price comparable to other cars. Surely there is some price point at which people would start buying the cars, but normally this need not be made explicit. Similarly, I think it's implicit in the phrase "no one else will do that job" that the no one else will do the job for roughly the currently offered wage. That's my sense, at least.
More on "Jobs Americans Won't Do":

A brief response to Orin's post below: Perhaps Orin is right, and I'm mistaken; it's hard to tell exactly how these short phrases are likely to be understood.

But my sense is that the "illegal immigrants do the jobs Americans won't do" argument is mostly aimed at quieting people's concerns that illegal immigrants will take jobs that would otherwise go to current American citizens. Don't worry, the argument suggests: These are jobs that wouldn't exist (or would go unfilled) if it weren't for illegal aliens who are willing to do them cheaply.

The more accurate phrasing -- "illegal immigrants just do the jobs Americans won't do for the same low wages that illegal immigrants will take, and it helps our economy to have the jobs done at those low wages" -- carries, I think, quite a different message: It acknowledges that illegal immigrants do take some jobs that would otherwise go to current American citizens (and would go to them at higher wages), but argues (perhaps quite sensibly) that legalizing such immigrants would still be a good idea.

Orin suggests (as I understand it) that the "jobs Americans won't do" argument is basically seen as shorthand for this more precise phrasing. That just doesn't seem to me to be so (as the McCain quotes mentioned in the comments to Orin's post and to my earlier post suggest).

Sen. McCain on Jobs No American Citizens Want, Even at $50/Hour:

The comments to one of my posts pointed to this claim by Sen. McCain:

[Speaking to the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, McCain took] questions, including a pointed one on his immigration plan.

McCain responded by saying immigrants were taking jobs nobody else wanted. He offered anybody in the crowd $50 an hour to pick lettuce in Arizona.

Shouts of protest rose from the crowd, with some accepting McCain's job offer.

"I'll take it!" one man shouted.

McCain insisted none of them would do such menial labor for a complete season. "You can't do it, my friends."

How can this assertion of his possibly be right? Fifty dollars an hour is $100,000 per year. I suspect the lettuce-picking season is shorter than a year, but it's still $50,000 per six months, assuming a 40 hour/week pace. It's possible that no-one in that particular crowd would think this is a good deal; among other things, they already had jobs that likely pay pretty well, and perhaps most of them were older and not terribly fit (McCain saw the crowd and I didn't). But surely there must be some substantial number of current American citizens who would be quite willing to engage even in highly strenuous physical labor for an annualized wage of $100,000 per year, no? Even if 99% of all Americans would be unwilling or unable to do the job, the remaining 1% should be plenty to fill those hypothetical jobs.

Now perhaps Sen. McCain should have just chosen a lower number; maybe his claim would have been plausible at that number, though I'm not sure. But it seems odd that he would choose a number that is so clearly out of place for his argument — that he would seemingly deliberately engage in such pretty patent overstatement.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Sen. McCain on Jobs No American Citizens Want, Even at $50/Hour:
  2. More on "Jobs Americans Won't Do":
  3. Response to "Jobs Americans Won't Do":
  4. Jobs Americans Won't Do: