Capitalism Is Not A One-Way Street

For all of you conservatives who love to praise the “free market”, let me call bullshit on this enduring lie that the President frequently cites to sell his immigration plan. From yesterday’s speech :

As we enforce our immigration laws, comprehensive immigration reform also requires us to improve those laws by creating a new temporary worker program. This program would create a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do. Workers would be able to register for legal status for a fixed period of time, and then be required to go home. This program would help meet the demands of a growing economy, and it would allow honest workers to provide for their families while respecting the law.

The “jobs Americans won’t do” lie was also recently advanced in the Washington Post by a spokesman for the Labor Department and a “panicking” farmer (via Kevin Drum) :

“There are just some jobs people don’t want to do,” Nassif said. “It’s the most developed nation in the world using a foreign workforce, and people need to recognize that. We need to make them legal.”

Jack Vessey said he listed openings for 300 laborers at the state office of employment last week to prepare the lettuce fields for harvest. “We got one person,” he said. “He showed up and said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”

The key to unraveling this bullshit is that the anonymous laborer quoted above likely ended his gripe with “unless you pay me more”. The President wants you to think this is because American workers are shiftless elitists, but it’s the employers and their shills who are the assholes here.

What people like the George W. Bush don’t understand is that capitalism is not a one-way street. When the demand for workers is high and the supply of laborers is low, the rational solution would be for employers to raise wages, increase benefits, or both to ensure that supply catches up to demand. But that would mean actually spending more money, and we can’t have that.

Instead, employers have found a way to get around their obligations by employing “undocumented” workers (and thus creating a demand for illegal labor). Why are these men and women willing to do the same job that Americans are unwilling to do for less money? Well, they’re here illegally, for one. They probably don’t speak English well and have little familiarity with existing labor laws. They’re doing a job that’s unskilled while under the constant threat of deportation. Sounds like the new face of indentured servitude to me, but the President and his allies are trying to figure out ways to make it acceptable.

But here’s the key to all of these proposals : These illegal workers aren’t being offered citizenship, but membership in a “guest worker program”. Bush and co. don’t give a damn about the working class in this country, they just want to make sure that the crooks aren’t penalized for breaking our labor laws. The solutions bandied about would create a pseudo-citizenship which will protect employers but do little to lift immigrant workers from the bottom rung on the economic ladder. When residence is closely tied to employment, the threat of deportation doesn’t go away, it just gets hidden a little better.

Which makes this whole debate even more galling. Immigrants are being exploited, American workers are getting screwed, and the whole debate is happenening as if these two groups of victims are on opposite sides. If you want to stop illegal immigration, you don’t need to build a fence. The supply of illegal labor will go away once the demand for it ceases. We don’t need new plans, we need to rigorously enforce the laws already on the books. If that means that employers are going to have to pay more to the people doing the jobs that “Americans won’t do” and pass those costs on to the consumer, then it’s hardly our place to question the wisdom of the invisible hand, right?

Also, it should be stressed again that George Bush and his allies should be ashamed of themselves for slandering us with their anti-worker rhetoric. Aren’t you paying attention, America? The President of the United States just called you an indolent snob. He thinks you’re too lazy to do an honest day’s work and too effete to do work that will get your hands dirty. Doesn’t that piss you off? It should.

22 thoughts on “Capitalism Is Not A One-Way Street

  1. I completely agree with your point in this article that farmers would likely find legal American workers if they would pay a fair wage, and that the supply of illegal workers would stop if the demand for them would cease.

    Now, let’s look at it from the farmer’s viewpoint: food is a commodity. Farmers cannot set the prices for their produce. They get what the buyers will pay at the time of sale, based on supply and demand. With improved transportation and storage technology, US farmers are now in direct competition with food producers in countries with much lower labor costs. If they sell their produce at market price, they are likely to lose money due to their higher costs. No business can operate for long with out a profit. I couldn’t afford to run a business or do any work that didn’t provide me with a living – would you?

    So what often happens is subsidies: we use govt tax revenues (from the work of others) to pay the farmers an artificially high price for their produce, just to keep them in business and keep their workers paid a decent wage. We pay higher taxes and higher prices so the farmers and farm workers can make decent livings. Is this the best solution? I don’t think so, but I don’t really have anything better.

    The intersection of economics, politics, and sociology make for complex problems with inadequate solutions.

  2. Nice post. I’m sharing it with our Issues group within the Glendale Democracy for America group.

    You cut through a lot of the bullshit with this post. Thank you!

  3. Now, let’s look at it from the farmer’s viewpoint: food is a commodity. Farmers cannot set the prices for their produce. They get what the buyers will pay at the time of sale, based on supply and demand. With improved transportation and storage technology, US farmers are now in direct competition with food producers in countries with much lower labor costs. If they sell their produce at market price, they are likely to lose money due to their higher costs. No business can operate for long with out a profit. I couldn’t afford to run a business or do any work that didn’t provide me with a living – would you?

    I think you’re making the common mistake of confusing family farmers, who do have very little control over market prices and have been consistently getting screwed by the “free market” mindset for years, with huge agri-corperations, who are very capable of controlling market costs and are one of the biggest employers of illegal immigrants in this country.

    Family farmers, by and large, don’t hire employees period, much less the 300 workers that Jack Vessey the “lettuce farmer” needs; they do the work themselves and produce limited amounts of crops, which combined with the small crops of other farmers in the surrounding area makes lots of crops and good old-fashioned “free-market” competition. That family atmosphere and willingness to farm the same land over the course of generations (and subsequent disinclination to “expand” their operations or grab up as much credit, property and money as possible) also makes them vulnerable to the growing rise of big agribusiness, which now owns almost everything and controls the market absolutely (and, I’ll add, is the major recipient of so-called “farm welfare,” but that’s a lengthy diatribe too).

    Big agribusiness (also known as corperate and/or factory farming) gains an unfair advantage over family farmers and the market with the use of illegal labor, and that unfair advantage is one of the major sources of drastic market downturns in the last ten years (the other are the so-called “Freedom to Farm Acts,” laws specifically designed to give large factory farms more advantages and more handouts, championed by – you guessed it – Republicans).

    It’s all very convoluted, and this post could be even longer if I wanted to really make myself clear. The short version is this: No “farmer” who needs to hire 300 undocumented individuals to work his crops is anything but the face of a large corperation with plenty of money and a disinclination to put that money in the hands of anyone but its CEOs. Those evil fuckers would “hire” slaves if they could, and in fact they basically do.

    - The daughter of a fifth-generation Nebraska farmer

  4. Amen!

    One thing I don’t understand about the immigration debate is why they don’t talk about going after the people who employ illegals. Deporting them obviously isn’t working because there is a demand for them (as you pointed out). I discussed this with my wingnut brother once, and this was something we could both agree on.

  5. Business needs illegal labor so they can pay slave wages. So when a “guest worker” program is enacted and once-illegal workers now have the protection of our labor laws, business will again gripe about how the labor laws and minimum wage laws are too harsh and how they, SURPRISE, will still need illegal labor.

    Business gripes about labor costs, workers comp, health insurance, etc. when their executive compensation is going through the roof and while they rake in record profits. Also, they’ve been handed some sweet tax breaks in the last few years and, if they’re lucky enough to be a defense contractor, billions of dollars courtesy of all of us working saps who work hard for our paltry wages. Business will never stop complaining until we are all slaves surviving on 6 dollars an hour.

  6. Dear Amaz0n – You’re right that was imagining farming the way it used to be, not as it has become today. Seems like everything has become WalMarted, doesn’t it? One definition of Fascism is corporate rule: where big corporations run the government for their own benefit. Seems that that’s what we have today.
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BRI411A.html

    How do we turn this around?

  7. Yeah, Mexico needs to get it’s shit together.
    I personally know some illegal Mexican workers, and most of them all have wives and kids in Mexico, but are here because that is how they can feed them. It is a huge strain on their families. Imagine having a child who is a year old that you’ve never seen!
    I don’t know what we can do to help Mexico lift its people out of poverty, but we gotta do something. Unfortunately, the current government here is working to make the USA more like Mexico, not less. (In terms of: no welfare, poor healthcare, tax loopholes for the rich, corruption and cronyism, no environmental protection, outlawing abortion, etc.)

  8. I was also raised on a farm and have two brothers farming today. We’re in the drought area of the midwest and the government announced low interest loans to help the area farmers affected by the drought. The loans came due in six months. A small farmer, dependant on his crops for an income, couldn’t pay back a loan in six months, he wouldn’t have the cash for at least a year and that would depend on the next season’s crops. The government loan program was, by its nature, entirely aimed at corporate farmers.

  9. “Why, with all your blather about supply and demand, next thing you’ll be advocating legalizing mary-ju-wanna so the price’ll go down ‘n it’ll reduce violent crime! You some kinda Communist?!?”

  10. Legalizing maryjane would bring the price down? That’s a great idea! I own stock in Phillip Morris; they would probably be first to market. I bet they even have the brand names already trademarked. Ka-ching!

  11. my_crackpot_theories said:
    Dear Amaz0n – You’re right that was imagining farming the way it used to be, not as it has become today. Seems like everything has become WalMarted, doesn’t it? One definition of Fascism is corporate rule: where big corporations run the government for their own benefit. Seems that that’s what we have today.

    It’s not anything new in this country by any means – farming and the economy associated with it are very cyclical items. Agribusiness as we know it today is virtually identical in form and function to the factory farms of yesteryear, by which I mean Southern plantations. Huge agricultural establishments operated under the control of one person or small group of persons, reaping a huge amount of money for those persons thanks to nearly-free labor and a system of laws fixed in their favor – that’s the basic formula that agriculture in America was based in until nearly fifty years after the Civil War (think sharecropping).

    Our image of the small-time, successful family farmer is really based 50% in fantasy and 50% on the agriculturalists of the Midwest between 1880 and 1940, when the area was being settled, mainly by immigrants accustomed to the family-based farming economies in Germany and Ireland. They were actually considered a fairly pioneering bunch (no pun intended), introducing the radical notion of ecologically sound farming practices like crop rotation, and getting firmly involved in the labor movement.

    Farming cooperatives were the equivalent of trade unions, only they weren’t bargining with bosses – they were getting involved in local government to protect the “free market” from the legislative fingerfucking that occured in the South a half a century earlier, which as we all know became such a clusterfuck that we fought a war over it.

    Sadly, I have a hard time believing that this century’s situation will be any different. We might not fight a war over it, but the people with money (big agribusiness) will keep greasing the pockets of the people with power (our government) until everyone who doesn’t own their own multi-billion-dollar corporation is starving, jobless and itching for any kind of fight (see pre-Civil War non-plantation-owning Southerners for reference). Whatever form it takes, it will not be pretty and it will be volatile.

  12. Kamachanda -

    Yeah, my uncle got one of those fucking loans, although he was specifically told not to by every member of my extended family. Now he owes the government a shitload of money, can’t file bankrupsy because of the conviniently recently-passed bankrupsy laws, and because Nebraska’s liability laws are the most thoroughly fucked bunch of bullshit imaginable, everyone who that stupid man has ever looked at is now being named in a lawsuit to extort said debt.

    I’m not afraid to say that I hate this country sometimes. We work 16-hour days to grow your food, and in response you kick us in the gonads, again and again and again.

  13. Kamachanda -

    Yeah, my uncle got one of those fucking loans, although he was specifically told not to by every member of my extended family. Now he owes the government a shitload of money, can’t file bankrupsy because of the conviniently recently-passed bankrupsy laws, and because Nebraska’s liability laws are the most thoroughly fucked bunch of bullshit imaginable, everyone who that stupid man has ever looked at is now being named in a lawsuit to extort said debt.

    I’m not afraid to say that I hate this country sometimes. We work 16-hour days to grow your food, and in response you kick us in the gonads, again and again and again.

  14. I think your article is right, the problem is that we need a social democratic president that would put some pressure on the corporations to achieve the aims you describe. Bush is a corporation disguised as a human being (as Nader calls him or somesuch), his left hand is not going to put pressure on his right. Obviously, you don’t think Bush is going to do this, as I do, I’m just pointing out you need an adversarial relationship between the exective branch and the corporations that are aiding and abetting illegal immigration to get a good policy.

  15. In the 1800s, millhands struck over abusive work situations. The ringleaders, ironically enough, were young women who incited the guys – or perhaps not ironically; we see the roots of the conservative hatred of feminism here, those who have not fully bought nto the system challenging it the hardest.

    The answer was to beat them down and bring in laborers who didn’t speak English, every time. First from Canada, then from across the sea. And every time again they would forge Solidarity and start fighting back, and every time the media would back the Owners and so would the police and most of the mainstream churches, until finally they just moved the mills away down south where there were enough desperate helots white and black in the wake of the [un]Reconstruction that they didn’t have to worry about them getting uppity…for a while. And by then international outsourcing was feasible.

    In the 1400s, the Black Death put peasants in a position to demand better pay. They did. The nobles responded by oppressing harder. Eventually you had the peasants’ revolts – the capitalists of the proto-early modern era, inefficient capitalists as they might have been, nevertheless saw the threat of Liberation Theology (q.v. Rev. John Ball) and Historic Class Consciousness (“when Adam delved and Eva span/Which then was the gentleman?” and stomped it down hard.

    Back in antiquity, the Romans kept their bloated economy with its top 5% of staggeringly wealthy plutocrats and their boughten senate going by military expansion to subsidize their need for cheap oil and food, and by “insourcing” cheap labour with slavery, much of it from people who sold themselves or their kids because there was nobody paying a living wage (Vicious Circles R Us!) and much of it also imported helots caught in those foreign wars (it’s not a bug it’s a feature) – and the Cunninghams of the day were too many for even the most diligent of emperors, like Diocletian, to successfully fight the profiteering and corruption…

    Nothing new under the sun.

  16. notice also the historical slander of the ancient proles: we’re always told that the Roman citizens just *wanted* to sit around scarfing free food and watching TV – *never* that they couldn’t get jobs because all the work had been “given” to insourced slaves…and that if they got uppity and protested, there was always that massive army to put down riots, much of that army conveniently recruited from foreigners who had managed to avoid being enslaved, but *not* having their own economies and societies ruined by the empire, and were tempted in with the dangled lure of full citizenship rights if only they signed their lives away for a few measly denarii – and when it turned out that soldiers had to buy their own arrow-proof vests and didn’t get their promised bonuses, and got uppity, well – kill them too, the unpatriotic bastards!

    At least, that’s how the PTB saw it then – and how modern historians have taken the side of the ancient plutocracy describing the revolt of the Legions, too…

  17. Sorry to hear about your uncle Amazon. My brothers avoided that program like the plague.

  18. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I heard a point on an NPR discussion of this issue last night that hasn’t been mentioned here. While two of the commentators were going back-and-forth about whether farm wages were higher or lower than in the past, a third pointed out that agriculture is a seasonal business — CA’s Imperial Valley and AZ’s Yuma valley grow 90% of the country’s fresh produce between Nov.-Mar.

    He mentioned that workers weren’t turning down the jobs because of low wages, but because they wanted full-time employment.

    When my wife was a kid, she had the daughter of migranmt workers in her scool class in Ohio part of the year — then the family would move to Florida. When I went to middle school in Arizona and south Texas, migrant workers were a regular feature — in fact, I don’t remember anyone using the phrase “illegal aliens”; they usually said “migrants” to mean essentially the same thing.

    It strikes me that soon after WWII, it became culturally unacceptable for white Americans to be migrants. Prior to WWII, we had a large lower class; after that, and esp. from the 50s on, the American dream was a ranch house in the ‘burbs, a 2-car garage, etc. You don’t get that being a migrant worker — it keeps you permanently in the lower class. Today, our own lower class is either aspiring to raise itself, or to some extent wants to be fed on the dole (cf. families living in housing projects for multiple generations). The only people seemingly willing to take seasonal jobs of this nature are those to whom an American lower-class wage is still a big boost over what they get at home.

    The premise of the argument was that if we could offer Americans year-round work, they’d take the farm jobs — that wages weren’t the problem.

    I don’t know how much of this is correct. And the seasonality applies mainly to agriculture jobs, not e.g. construction or housecleaning or gardening, etc. But I don’t hear the point argued much at all, and I recognize the dynamic as a real one. Any thoughts on this aspect of the problem?