I had a brief conversation with a co-worker this morning that bothers me. He is a liberal type and a big supporter of this Occupy Wall Street thing, and during our conversation he referenced the “99%” and the “1%” to prove his point. However, the only point I really got from it is that he does not understand economics at all.
He asked if I had heard about the fact that crops were rotting due to “illegals leaving Alabama” and what I thought about it. I told him I think it sucks and it is an extremely sad day for America when crops are not harvested due to political blundering based on racial hatred and economic ignorance. He said he thought the “rich corporate farmers” deserved it because they had been mistreating immigrant farm hands for years and all they had to do was pay better and there would be dozens of unemployed Americans lining up to take those jobs.
There are so many fallacies with his train of thought that I hardly know where to begin. First off, I believe there is no such a thing as an illegal person. People are people, and that is all, it doesn't matter if their moms expelled them on one plot of land or another, they are people and deserve the opportunity to contract to work for whomever they want, wherever that job is, and for whatever wages are agreed upon. To me this is the only moral position, because to oppose this position means you do not believe people should be able to work for whom they wish, live where they wish to live, and earn as much as they can doing what they wish to do.
Looking at this from an economist perspective and not just the moral perspective it is also hard to understand his position. I am having trouble understanding how higher prices for food because some was left to rot in the fields is good for anyone. The farmers have to compete on a worldwide level and if their costs are too high then they will be unable to export food around the world and in many cases there is not enough demand in the US to accommodate all of the food that is grown here. This limits the amount of pay a farm hand can earn, however from everything I have read the pay is based on productivity and is generally well above minimum wage. The pay is also high enough to convince immigrant workers to leave their homes in Mexico and other places and travel thousands of miles for the work, often times making enough in a few months to allow them to move back to Mexico in the non-harvest season and living without the need to work. That does not sound abusive to me, you work for five months a year really hard, and then don't need to work the rest of the year.
I also have to really question this idea that the farmers effected by this are all wealthy corporate farmers. Many of these Alabama farmers are small time operations with fewer than 100 acres. 100 acres will not make you rich, many are vegetable farmers who receive very little or nothing in farm subsidies. I would rather buy my sweet potatoes from Alabama, but if there is no one to harvest them then I will get them from South America. I don't even know where they come from when buying from the grocery store. How on earth is this a good thing? Are people really this short sighted? They are willing to starve or suffer higher prices for food just to punish some supposed rich corporate farmers?
If you really are against corporate farmers, the answer is not to restrict immigration, but to be more selective in who you buy food from. Find small farms, buy from local sources when available, buy from co-ops where you know exactly where the food comes from. Buy a cow or a section of a cow from a local farmer and store it in your freezer. Punishing whole communities, punishing hard working people who are looking for a better life is not the answer. It would also be good to advocate a cessation of farm subsidies and the government encouraging large corporate farms in their farm policies.
I also don't see Americans lining up for these jobs at any wage, harvesting is a skill learned over time. Even if Americans would be willing to do the work, they are unskilled at it and therefor would be less productive. This means the level of pay they make is low, since they are not paid by the hour, but by how productive they are. It also creates the need for the farm owner to find more employees than typical due to the lower productivity of each individual employee.