Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Think About It

There was an interesting juxtaposition of two articles in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

The first one talked about citrus growers in the Central Valley, who are looking at the potential destruction of their crops due to a prolonged cold snap, and included this point:
Philip LoBue of Lindsay (Tulare County), who has a packing operation and grows citrus on 1,000 acres, said Monday morning that another destructive dose of cold had just struck.........

LoBue said that California's chronic shortage of farmworkers worsened his problems. He wanted to speed up his harvest last week to try to beat the freeze, but no additional field workers were available. He had his own crew of 125 workers but could have used 200, he said.

"We need a guest worker program," LoBue said, referring to a program proposed as immigration reform.

Meanwhile, over in Atlanta, the tune was a bit different.
Against the backdrop of an escalating war in Iraq and increasing economic disparity in the United States, many who spoke during the ceremony used King's pulpit to call for a return to the principles of social justice and nonviolence that defined the civil rights leader's life.

"Millions can't find jobs, have no health insurance and struggle to make ends meet, working minimum-wage jobs," said Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta. "What's going on?" she asked, invoking the title of the Marvin Gaye song.

Why haven't the twain met?

Simple answer; the growers can't afford to pay what the "millions" want, and the "millions" won't work for what the growers can afford to pay.

What people are continually missing in the immigration debate in this country is that we don't have a worker shortage; we have a disconnect of priorities between the groups involved. Consumers want cheap fruit, growers want cheap labor, and laborers want high pay. But if laborers receive high pay, labor is no longer cheap for the grower, and neither will fruit be for the consumer -- which means consumers, by and large, will either eat less fruit or switch to imported fruits produced by cheaper labor, thus collapsing the grower and putting the laborer out of work.

Thus we see the great unexpected consequence of the immigration debate. If we continue to allow what is, for all intents and purposes, unlimited immigration of labor, our growers can remain competitive with foreign producers, but at the cost of driving down labor rates and taking jobs that Americans theoretically could hold. However, if we tighten the borders and do nothing else, the cost of labor will skyrocket, driving up prices, making our growers uncompetitive in world markets, and forcing them out of existence -- or slapping tariffs on imported fruits and forcing the consumer to pay more.

One area where I differ from classical economic libertarianism is that I do believe there is a place for government intervention in the market -- and resulting higher costs -- when it can be justified from a strategic and defensive standpoint. For instance, we do not allow foreign-owned companies to act as primary contractors on defense projects; even though they could in theory do it more inexpensively, we believe the added risk is not worth the cost savings.

Agriculture is a similar situation. Without food, we cannot survive, period; thus, it makes perfect sense that our government should take proactive steps to protect our capability to grow and harvest our own food.

Towards that end, what I would suggest is that the government set up an internal "guest worker" program for American agriculture. Growers who employ verified, registered American citizens who are part of the program would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax cut reimbursing them for every dollar above the local prevailing wage they pay; in addition, anyone enrolled in the program would be immediately eligible for Federally-funded health insurance.

Yes, it is subsidizing. But it's subsidizing growers who employ Americans and pay them above-average wages -- which ensures not only that growers will survive, but that Americans will be employed, their dollars earned will remain in our economy, and we will have a workforce capable of keeping us in food in the event of an international emergency or incident.

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