What price labor?

Chris Hayes of In These Times and The Nation writes today on his personal blog:

There are few things that irk me more than when conservatives advocate for increased immigration for low wage workers by saying that immigrants do jobs that Americans don’t want. I don’t want to buy a slice of pizza for $45. It doesn’t mean I don’t like pizza! I’m not particularly interested in writing a book for the total payment of $9. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to write a book!

But what about the demand side of the labor market, she asks? To invert Mr Hayes' formulation, I don't want a job eating live roaches. But at $1 million a roach, or thereabouts, I would take it. The problem is, I very much doubt that anyone thinks it's worth $1 million to see me eat a live roach.

Many of the jobs that illegals do are jobs that cannot economically be done by Americans. It does no good to say that American workers would be happy to gut chickens, or clean houses, or landscape your yard, for $20 an hour, if other Americans cannot afford to purchase those services at that price. If we had no illegals, some Americans would undoubtedly get their jobs at higher wages. Other jobs, such as fruit picking, would probably be automated. Meanwhile, many Americans would have to go without the services that illegals currently provide, such as landscaping, construction, and home care.

One particular consideration I think is underdiscussed is the fact that much of the labor illegal immigrants provide substitutes for women's home labor. And I don't just mean nannies for rich women. I mean cleaning services, and food processing, and dry cleaning, and grocery delivery, and all the other things that make it possible for large numbers of women to work outside the home. In an ideal world, of course, women and men would take equal responsibility for the household. But in the less than ideal world that we actually inhabit, an increase in the price of those services would probably mean that fewer women would find it cost-effective to work outside the home.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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