The Unexploded Grenade

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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‘They’re not stars. Screw ’em’-Revisited: At Wonkblog, Dylan Matthews mounts a revealingly unconvincing defense of the still-unidentified Marco Rubio aide who said  (to New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza) that we shouldn’t worry about immigrants taking jobs unemployed Americans need because:

“There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it. There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly because …”

Matthews takes this toxic bolus of contempt and aridly decides that the issue it raises is “whether adding more immigrants to the population will make unemployment increase.”. With the traditional Wonkblog tone of someone explaining to sixth graders a concept he just learned 25 minutes ago, he then discussess “complementarity”:

…[W]ithin manufacturing, immigrants tend to perform low-complexity tasks while native workers perform more communicatively and cognitively intense work, resulting in very little competition between the two. [Giovanni] Peri and Colgate’s Chad Sparber found that, across the economy at large, immigrants tend to specialize in manual or physical tasks while native workers specialize in communication-heavy work

 True, the influx of immigrants into “manual or physical” work “reduces the compensation paid to manual tasks”–and presumably increases unemployment in those “substitutable” jobs. But, hey, since natives can move into “more communicateively and cognitively intense work” they can be the winners! And there might well be more winners than losers.

If more Americans work in fields where their labor is complemented by immigrants than in fields where Americans and immigrants can be substituted for each other, then substitutability isn’t a reason for Americans as a whole to oppose immigration.

It isn’t? Here’s what Matthews is leaving out:

1. What Rubio’s staffer (“Aide 1” in the transcript) said wasn’t offensive because it took Giovanni Peri’s side in a dsipute with George Borjas over whether immigration hurts American workers by raising overall unemployment. It was offensive, in the first place, because it seemed to assume that the 11.8 million American unemployed were unemployed mainly because they were bad workers. Mightn’t a big recession or bad luck disrupt the meritocratic perfection of the labor market–so lots of good workers find themself unemployed, at least temporarily?

2. Aide 1 didn’t just say the workers weren’t all “star performers” (obviously true).  He suggested they sucked–“can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it.” It was as if those 11.8 million were all part of an unemployable underclass, which doesn’t jibe with any reality I know.**

3. More important, even if you assume, thanks to the perfect efficiency of the market, that all those Americans who are unemployed are worse workers than those who are employed, and all those who would be displaced by immigrant labor are worse laborers than the immigrants who displaced them, why would that lead you to give up on the unemployed Americans, and say, in effect, ‘Screw ’em’?  They’re fellow citizens whom politicians are elected to help, no?  What are they supposed to do, give up and go on food stamps and disability? How does that solve the problem? If they really are an “underclass” then putting them on the dole is apt to make the problem worse. What’s better for society: Having people who ‘don’t get it” hanging around home collecting checks or having them work at jobs even though they might not be “star performers,” or even average performers? If they work, they’ll be contributing something.*** Work is centering and socializing–it forces people who don’t get it to get it! A society with a large class of non-workers isn’t pleasant for those who have jobs either.

4. That said, let’s go back to “complementarity.” Even in the optimistic Peri scenario, there are winners–those who move from unskilled labor to “communication-heavy work” (from digging ditches to supervising immigrants who dig ditches, for example–or becoming an entrepreneur and hiring them). And there are losers, those who can’t or don’t move into the more “cognitively intense” work and who must compete directly with the immigrants. Even if the winners outnumber the losers –and if they do it’s only barely–the losers are the people we care about, because they are trying to make it at the bottom of the labor market. Here I thought liberals–even economistic Washington Post Money Liberals–cared about the working poor, about those “with the least.” Rawls, maximin, etc.  Does all that go out the window when Obama wants “immigration reform”?

In dollar terms, this is the main immigration debate in a nutshell: Is it worth further harming Americans at the bottom in order to maybe boost average incomes and total GDP?

5. What Peri is saying, in effect, is that after immigrants come into a market you get a new little distribution curve of success and failure, a distribution that replicates the invidious meritocratic distribution going on in every other area of society. Smarter people with “communication” skills do well. Those who rely on muscle and stamina do worse. Is Aide 1 saying that if they “can’t cut it” in this new cognitive economy, there’s no place for them?  They’re not only not stars. They’re failures! No point wasting energy trying to get them jobs. 

The alternate view, which not too long ago was the only view a politician or an aide could get away with, is that everyone who shows up every day and works, even if they are dumb and even if they are not all that good at what they do, is all right. They may not deserve as much money, but they’re as good as anyone else. They can hold their heads up and should be able to live a dignified life on a minimally decent income.  If we lose that idea–if we’re so high-powered and skills-oriented and productive that we don’t have time to respect or acknowledge basic lunchbucket Americans–they’ll have to rewrite about half the country songs ever written. And we’ll have lost what was close to a defining trait of our country (as well as the normative basis for replacing welfare with work). 

Socially and morally, this is the crux of the immigration debate. It’s not about money but respect. (It’s always about respect.)

6.  Matthews’ fancy ‘complementarity’ defense of low-skill immigration pretty clearly doesn’t vindicate Aide 1’s diagnosis. Are the screwed-up Americans who “can’t get it, can’t do it,” when faced with unskilled immigration, supposed to suddenly move in to “communicatively and cognitively intense work”? If not, then “complementarity” doesn’t solve the problem–and it’s unlikely to have been what Aide 1 was talking about.

7. So what was Aide 1 talking about? It’s hard not to notice that his dismissive attitude (and his reference to underclass-style behaviors of those who “don’t want to do it”) corresponds to a common attitude among Latinos toward African Americans.  I’m not the only one who suspects that this–and not “complementarity”–is the unexploded grenade buried in the Lizza transcript.


** — The traditional “underclass,” defined as those living in dysfunctional neighborhoods, topped out at a little over 3 million, and overlapped only partly with those on the formal unemployment rolls.

***– Even if they aren’t “stars” they will at least have to produce more than what they are being paid, or else they won’t stay employed (in the private sector, anyway).

Mickey Kaus