21 May 2006

Illegal Immigration: A Necessary Part of the American Economy?

Illegal labor has become the backbone of many businesses in America, particularly for agriculture, restaurants, construction, and many service industries, providing low cost labor that reduces consumer prices and increases profit. That may all change with the introduction of Bill HR 4437, which passed in the House last December and is currently being debated by the Senate. Titled the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005”, this bill would enact a mandatory “employment eligibility verification system” to be in place in the next six years. Employers still using illegal alien labor after that time are subject to a fine up to $50,000 for each worker and possibly one year of imprisonment (H.R. 4437, 2006, Title VII: Employment Eligibility Verification).

These extremely harsh penalties and forced conversion to legal workers have many employers worrying about the feasibility of a complete switch of their labor force in the next six years. With many industries so dependent on illegal labor, they wonder if there are enough American workers to replace an estimated 9-12 million illegal aliens. Business owners say they can not find legal workers to do these jobs, many of which are undesirable, hard labor positions. Even if a replacement labor force exists, many companies may not be able to afford the drastic increase in wages necessitated by hiring at minimum wage and providing benefits. The increased costs of labor will have to be passed on to consumers, perhaps causing dramatic price hikes for basic necessities like food. Businesses worry that consumers will be unwilling to pay the increased prices, resulting in serious damage to American businesses. These business owners claim that America depends on the cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants and that a conversion is economically impossible.

According to a study by Thomas J. Carter, a member of the Department of Economics at the University of Florida, illegal workers affect the labor market in two ways. First, illegal workers take jobs that legal workers won’t take, exactly as business owners claim (Carter, 2005, 777). In these sectors, a continual flow of new migrant workers creates a surplus of labor that keeps wages low and allows business owners to increase their profit margins. However, there is a second effect of illegal labor that employers generally ignore: as the number of available workers increases, as it has for the past few decades, industries who used to employ legal workers turn to undocumented workers in order to cut costs (Carter, 2005, 777). Because migrant workers are willing to work for much less than American workers, legal employees become unable to compete for these jobs and are gradually phased out in favor of cost-cutting immigrant labor. Over time, this second effect leads to the first effect: a labor market dominated by illegal labor taking jobs that Americans “don’t want.”

However, it is important to remember that at one point Americans were happy doing these jobs because they provided wages that could support a decent living. These jobs only became undesirable when employers lowered their wages because there was a labor market willing to accept them. This transition can be seen in the many industries currently undergoing the switch to illegal immigration. Take for example the construction industry, in particular, David Shafer, the latest in a family of house framers in Suwanee, Georgia (Feagans, 2006). In the heyday of his business, Shafer had managed to earn over $100,000 a year, a more than decent living by any standard, and owned a vacation home by the lake (Feagans, 2006, Family of framers section, para. 6). The workers on his crew also earned a decent wage, $15-20 per hour, but now Shafer’s company is unable to get any work contracts because of cheap, illegal labor, and “many of his crew members eventually switched to commercial construction or left the business altogether, unwilling to work for such low wages” (Feagan, 2006, Bids weren’t that close section, para. 3). Shafer said, "I can't get a job because these guys work so cheap. . . . I'm going to have to sell a coin collection to buy my wife a Christmas present" (Feagan, 2006, para. 5). The same thing that is happening to Shafer’s construction industry is happening to other jobs all over the country. Jobs that were once respectable have become jobs that Americans “won’t do.” However, we should remember that only a few years ago, Americans like David Shafer and his crew were doing these jobs, but they just can’t or won’t do it for the wage demanded by the illegal labor market. When the labor market is again deprived of this inexpensive labor source, and wages go up, these Americans will mostly likely return to doing the jobs they have done in the past.

But how can increasing the cost of labor be good for American businesses? Won’t the resulting increase in consumer prices cause a large economic collapse? First, remember that increasing wages works on both sides of the argument. It increases consumer prices, but it also raises the spendable wages of the group least able to afford current prices. Indeed, the lower-middle class and poverty classes, the ones who would be most damaged by a price increase, are also those whose improved wages caused the price increase.

Compared to the increased take-home pay for the lower classes, the price increases might not be as harmful as some might think. While statistics on possible price increases due to loss of cheap illegal labor vary widely (from $.19 per head of lettuce to $5.00), a worse-case scenario thought experiment on the subject can give us an indication of the possible effects of using legal labor. Even if an employer is forced to raise wages for agricultural workers by the high amount of $10.00/hr and assuming that worker to only be able to pick 50 heads of lettuce per hour, the increased cost per head of lettuce picked by that worker is only about 20 cents a head. If we add on an increase of pay at packaging plants and grocery stores, it is conceivable that the total price increase might be around $1-2. However, this same full time worker who is purchasing that lettuce would now be making around $400 more every week. Even if the worker’s total weekly grocery costs increase by $100, the increase in take-home pay of workers seems to still be significant enough to allow workers to increase their spending, which could then be passed on to the farm owners, who might stand to actually make money due to an increase in spending.

In general, the upper-middle class will not be as drastically affected by a possible increase in grocery and service prices as some believe. In fact, America’s grocery costs are currently much lower than for similar developed countries. According to an unpublished study by the US Agricultural Department, “Americans spend less on food than the citizens of any other industrialized country” (Katel, 2005, Overview section, para. 31). Specifically, the Encyclopedia

Britannica says that American households spend 7.9% of their income on food in the home, much less than Germany (13.90%), France (14.7%), the United Kingdom (16%), or Japan (23.3%). An increase in grocery prices would simply bring the United States closer to the standard of the world market. The average income in these countries is similar to that of the United States. If their middle and upper classes can afford to pay more for groceries, there is good reason to believe that Americans would be able to do the same.

In the short term view, the switch away from illegal labor may cause some financial problems for businesses as Americans adjust to a new price scale, but these problems are not permanent, devastating, or unsolvable. In the six year transition period, a worker shortage is possible, but there is no evidence that American workers will refuse these jobs, once the wages are brought up to a decent standard. Indeed, workers in industries that are only just experiencing the conversion to illegal labor, like house framer David Shafer, would gladly take their old jobs back. Though wage increases may make a large initial impact on businesses that have been using illegal labor longer, the increased spending capability of their workers will eventually be beneficial to their business and the American economy. Prices will increase across the board, but so will Americans ability to afford them. There is time over the next six years for American businesses to prepare for and survive the transition to a legal labor market, ending America’s dependence on cheap but illegitimate labor.

16 May 2006

Why I Enjoy the Da Vinci Code

In the days leading up to the release of the Da Vinci Code movie, I have been enjoying the opportunity to discuss this book with the people around me. (I missed the first wave of discussion since I was one of the last people I knew to read the book.) So far, I've seen two main arguments as to why people didn't like the book:

  1. Historical Inaccuracy/Improbability - Lots of people complain about the history in this book being just plain bad. I mean, overall, it's not good history: ancient texts taken with much more certainty than they can possibly be given, jumping to conclusions based on only a lack of evidence. Not even to mention that Catholics everywhere are mortally offended by the implications. (Of course, I haven't met any of those, but it must be mentioned.)

  2. Poor Writing/Predictability - Basically, all Dan Brown books are the same. You think you know the way the world works, but just wait! There's this giant conspiracy run by the people you thought you could trust, and if they are allowed to succeed it could revolutionize the world (for good or ill). Additionally, chapters are artificially terminated to enhance suspense, the characters are flat and static, and the quality of the puzzles is uneven at best. (I managed to guess the answer to the crucial puzzle in both Da Vinci Code and Digital Fortress shortly after they were discovered, which sort of ruins the suspense for the next half of the book.)
Somehow, neither of these things are a problem for me. As infinite numbers of people have pointed out, complaint #1 is sort of silly: this book is fiction. The claim at the front about all the information being correct is a classic ghost-story/Scarlet Letter claim: it enhances the stakes of the story by insisting that it is all true. But underneath all that, no one really believes in magical 'A' shaped comets or in campfire ghosts. The claim is put there to help the reader suspend disbelief, not to make them actually believe the story is true.

The way to deal with claim #2 is less obvious. I mean, what is a story besides good writing? On the contrary, many of the "classic" books have poor writing. Tolkien, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky are long-winded (Please don't attack me! I like . . . well, at least Dostoyevsky.), CS Lewis' Penvensie children are flat characters to the core, and Herman Melville can't stop rambling out on tangents. We overlook some faults in writing because of the quality of the ideas and intent behind them.

Which brings me to the reason that I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. The topic was original--at least, I still have never read anything like it. It dealt seriously with divinity, religion, and gender issues, though admittedly very incompletely. It set me thinking about new ideas and things which I never would have even given a second thought. Admittedly, I disagreed with many of the main premises of the book--being married does not cancel out the possibilty of divinity--but the thoughts it led me on could still have significant meaning. But before this, I had given up on modern portrays of religion in fiction: either you are anti-religion (which paints all organized churches as corrupt organizations, and all truly good people as merely spiritual--think His Dark Materials) or you are rabidly religious (think all Mormon novels--the characters are perfectly righteous except for a minor flaw, all doctrines of the gospel are assumed to be standard, and, almost without exception, the prodigal sons return eventually or die miserably). Very few books deal with religion and truth as a serious issue, and this is one of them. (The Women of Genesis novels and Stone Tables by Orson Scott Card have come close, though.) It felt so liberating to have a book which actually looked at this issue that I was willing to overlook almost any number of faults to enjoy it.

Who cares if it follows a formula? One could say the same about Sherlock Holmes, but we still read him today. Sometimes we like a good formula fiction. Like writing a sonnet, strict, predictable form can liberate content.

Oh shoot. I just compared sonnets to formula fiction. The English Deparment secret police will be knocking on my door any second.

14 May 2006

The Circle: A Theory of Knowledge

When I was in the IB program in high school, we were required to take a very interesting class called "Theory of Knowledge." The actual content of the course included basically life, the universe, and everything. More specifically, we talked a lot about how people know things, what truth is, valid methods of persuasion, etc. It was basically a crash course in philosophy, writing, and debate, only a lot cooler because Mr. Campbell taught it. (He has subwoofers under his desks and reads The Simarillion once a year. Yeah, he's cool.)

While I was taking this class, my dad and I came up with our own theory of knowledge. I call it the Circle of Knowledge (third cousin, twice removed, of the Circle of Life . . . not). This idea originated in a discussion of political topics, since that's my dad's main area of knowledge, but ever since I have noted that it seems to apply to almost everything I see it life. Gospel topics, literary criticism, history, you name it, it relates. We noted that for most divisive political issues, there appear to three types of people involved in debate, each with a different level of knowledge and relative stance on the issue. From our observations, we formed the following idea, which I have roughly sketched out below. (I apologize for the bad graphics. I don't have any cool photoshop programs.)

The Groups

  • Group 1 is the uniformed and apathetic, who are involved in the debate only in a figurative sense. They either don't care about the issue at hand or lack the information to form any strong opinion on the subject. Their main purpose is to serve as blind followers to be manipulated by group 2, or subjects to be educated by group 3. Thus, Group 1 is henceforth known as "the Sheep." All people in this group are just about the same with reference to the issue. One sheep is as good as another. Also, problem solving is easy with this group: it simply doesn't matter to them what you do, or if you do anything at all.
  • Group 2 consists of the moderately informed, at least on a social level. They know at least the general banter about the subject: slogans, catchphrases, buzzwords, the latest talk on CNN or Fox. As people begin to gather information, some of the people will form opinions which seem in total opposition to the opinions formed by others on the same information. In the case of a basic knowledge circle, there are two opinions, for ease of two-dimensional drawing, but with a little imagination, you can create a "circle" with 3, 4, or up to an infinite number of such opinions. (I guess you could even do a circle with one opinion, but I'm not sure of its relevance.) Group 2, or the "Party-Line," become convinced that their opinion is the only rational one, and refuse to hear anything to the contrary. You will find these people at all the national party conventions, as well as your local school board, and probably every college issue paper. Obviously, with these people it is impossible to get anything done because they cannot come to a concensus of action. They mostly just sit around yelling about how the other Party-Line is stupid and obviously can't tell black from white.
  • Group 3, of course, is the group you want to be in, but it also happens to be the smallest group. These are the people who push past the categorizing mindset of the Party-Line, and try to actually understand how rational people could come up with these two different views. Then, they add the missing ingredient in this problem: original thought (imagine that!). As they come to understand the other opinions available, the "Solvers" in group three reach the truth about an issue, not by valididating the opinion of any of the Party-Lines, but taking true principles from each and forging it into a new and brighter whole. They gain real understanding and knowledge, and when left to their own devices, can solve problems very effectively.

Of course, there are also any number of intermediaries between these groups. We progress in our knowledge around the circle as we study an issue, hopefully one day reaching the common ground at the top. Another idea which I have failed to include in my diagram is that of passion or ownership of an issue. The scale of passion about an issue runs about the same as the knowledge scale: the Sheep are apathetic, the Party-Line is interested, and the Solvers truly take the issue to be their own. This ownership, or maybe testimony, of an idea comes from the deep thought put in by someone in the Problem Solvers group, which forces them to really understand the significance of an issue. It is when we reach the top of the circle that we can really write something about an idea. Sheep simply don't know enough, and the Party-Line repeat old ideas with little new synthesis.

One of the main things I like about this system is that the difficulty of communication between groups can be illustrated by the distance between the groups on the circle. The two Party-Lines have as much difficulty talking to each other as the Solvers have trying to convince the apathetic Sheep. However, once you have reached the knowledge of the Party-Line, it becomes easier to make the jump into full Solver. Luckily, I believe we can train our ability to move up this circle at greater speed. As we train our mind to think more critically and to be in tune with the truth, we can rapidly ascend to the top, spending as little time as possible as the Party-Line.

Thoughts and comments are welcome. This idea is still much in development, so hit it with your best shot. As a brain starter, here's a few of the issues I have looked at using this pattern, most of which I am working towards a level 3 answer to:
  • Faith/Works

  • Pro-Choice/Pro-Life

  • Soulforce

  • Capitalism/Socialism

  • Post-Modernism/Critical Realism

Questions I am still working on:
  • What would a one-dimensional knowledge circle mean?
  • How could divine revelation/pathos/ethos/other methods of knowing complicate this picture?
  • Is it ever possible to skip from a Group 1 to Group 3?
  • What about backwards reversions?
  • Multiple, intertwined circles? (eg. Your level 3 is really a level 2 or 1 on a higher circle.) Can we ever reach a "last circle"?
Sweet! I feel like Yeats! :DPosted by Picasa

02 May 2006

On Education and Knitting

Some notes from my English 363 reading, both of which are irrelevant to the class, so I thought I'd rant them here. For reference, here's the reading assignment:
The Dynamo and the Virgin - Henry Adams
Venus Transiens - Amy Lowell
Roman Fever - Edith Wharton
A Life Apart - Edith Wharton

"Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts." - Henry Adams

I thought that the Henry Adams piece was very interesting. His statements on education seemed very perceptive. So much of modern education focuses on accumulation of fact, partially because we generate so much knowledge every second that it is overwhelming. There are so many facts that we need to learn that there is no time to sit and talk about what they mean. I think particularly of high school. People are taught to regurgitate facts so they can get the right answer on a multiple choice test or spew them out into a list-of-facts "essay." It's an age of information bulimia, so to speak: we read and read, injesting masses of information, but once the final is over, we throw it all back up, taking little if any important nutrients from the facts to feed our starving minds.

Any digestion of the facts into comprehension, enlightenment, and understanding is left up to the student without the aid or encouragement of the educator. It seems we've decided that it isn't fair to grade students on intellegent thought, only completion of materials. We want to only test them on what the class has taught them. We fear testing students on their actual abilities. Witness the outrage of 4.0 students who score poorly on the SAT because they "can't take tests." What they mean is that they can't take tests that test their ability to think instead of their ability to repeat information. In my personal experience, SAT/ACT are a really good predictor, not of a person's success in school, but of their ability to come up with independent thought. (Most unfortunate that the two don't correlate.)

Whatever happened to demanding essays, research, thought? In high school, it was a rare class in which we wrote an essay which demanded any outside research or thought to write an "A" essay. Simply repeat what you were taught in class coherently with decent grammar and *poof* get a great score. I imagine outside of my honors-track world, it might be much worse. I think more essays need to be present in school. We need teachers who will teach children how to think or, more importantly, how to convey their thoughts to an audience when they write. Teachers seem to shy away from essays, mostly because students complain about them (a lot) or because of the grading workload. But hard work or unpleasantness do not mean that these things are not extremely important.

And now for something completely different and much shorter . . .

"'And you see—' Half guiltily she drew from her handsomely mounted black handbag a twist of crimson silk run through by two fine knitting needles. 'One never knows,' she murmured. 'The new system has certainly given us a good deal of time to kill;'" - Edith Wharton (Roman Fever)

Interesting how knitting is portrayed in fiction. I never noticed this before until 1) I became a knitter and 2) I started knitting in my English classes. Now whenever we come accross a passage about knitting, people stare at me until the teacher notices. Anyway, I think I might like to write a paper on knitting in modern literature sometime. I might have to broaden it out to all sewing arts, but still, there's some interesting stuff. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad's nod to the fates is through two old women knitting at the office in Belgium (? I can't remember), which to me tips knitting as a sinister and mysterious practice. There was one other text in my Brit Lit class about it, but now I can't remember. In this Edith Wharton story, knitting is a sort of "opiate of the masses," assuming that by the masses I mean the upper class. It's a sort of anesthetic to keep you from noticing how truly pointless your life is by giving you something harmless and seemingly productive. Interesting.

I could see how this might be true in my own life. I do tend to knit when I am stressed, nervous, or bored. I should really write this thing. Anyone else know of any knitting in literature that I could add to my list?