The Sources of Unemployment

Immigration contributed to the stagnation of U.S. wages since the 1970s.  It became a critical problem with the sudden contraction of employment in 2008. Immigration totaled some 8.7 million people in the 1980s, 13.2 million in the 1990s, and 13.9 million in the 2000-2010 decade.  In the 1990s, they moved into a growing job market.  In the past decade, the market peaked and collapsed. Most of those 13.9 million (plus various aliens working here on “non-immigrant” visas) are competing for jobs in that smaller market, and not always successfully. Immigrant unemployment in 2009 was somewhat higher than the overall official U.S. rate. They continue to come because conditions here are still better than where they came from, and because the migratory pattern is now well established.  There are family and friends here to help the newcomers adjust. Net immigration may have declined in 2009 and 2010 because of the poor job market, but tentative figures for 2011 suggest that the decline has stopped.2

The drive for more immigration comes from big businesses (“multinationals” or “MNCs”), commercial farmers, the construction and hospitality industries seeking cheap labor. They are assisted, unwittingly, by well-meaning people who believe that others should have the opportunity to come here, as our ancestors did. I sympathize with those feelings but believe that they are misguided. We owe something to our own unemployed and to future descendants, and unlimited immigration is a sure way to impoverish our own country.3

Growth in the labor force would not be a problem if they could be accommodated.  The central feature of this past decade has been the accumulation of evidence that we have overstrained our natural support systems. I have summarized the evidence before and will simply direct the reader to two of the relevant papers.4    Growth as we have known it is coming to a close as fossil energy runs down, natural resources grow scarcer and less accessible, and the growth of food production is reversed by shortages of fertilizers and water, desertification, loss of arable land and an increasingly hostile climate. If our “leaders” and their economists would study the evidence, I hope they would realize that further growth of the labor force promises only greater unemployment and poverty.

What Can Be Done? I believe the remedy is apparent: make immigration policy serve the broadest national interest, not the interests of the powerful.  In part, that would be achieved simply by enforcing the laws on the books.  We need to enforce broader rules requiring employers to check social security numbers to weed out illegal aliens in the work force. We need to weed out “sanctuary” cities that protect illegal immigrants. We need to change our immigration law to reduce the numbers in times of high unemployment, as some other countries do.

 Most important, since most immigration is legal immigration, we must bring the annual numbers down from nearly a million to about 200,000. NPG has listed a number of measures that would bring immigration under control.5

 This is all relatively simple, in theory.  In practice, however, it has not happened because of a hopelessly divided nation’s unwillingness to take action.  The first need is to educate ourselves – and particularly our political “leaders” – as to the real consequences of mass immigration.

 … a formidable task, given the power of the interests who seek cheap labor.  Money talks to politicians. Without deliberate policies to restrict immigration, we can only hope that the paucity of jobs will itself cause migration and fertility to decline, as it did in the Great Depression.

 “Free trade” in an Unbalanced World. Our pursuit of free trade is second only to our immigration policy as a source of our unemployment problems. Immigration increases the demand for jobs.  Free trade sends the jobs abroad.

 It took a masterpiece of bad policy to go from the producer of half the world’s goods just after World War II – with full employment and a trade surplus that we could keep in balance only by giving away massive aid – to our present situation as the world’s leading mendicant, deep in debt to China, Japan, and the rest of the world. Free trade was a major part of that policy.  Advocated by multinational corporations (MNCs) intent on expanding their profits by finding cheaper labor and wider markets, it was sold on the basis that we would retain the higher- paying high tech jobs. That didn’t happen. It has nearly demolished the United States as a producer of real goods, as that work goes abroad. Employment in manufacturing has declined 37% since 1980. Our foreign trade surplus turned negative in the 1970s.  We ran an annual deficit over $600 billion in most of the past decade.  In 2010, after the 2008 crash, it was $500 billion, or 21% of our total imports of goods and services.

Lindsey Grant

Lindsey Grant is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he was a China specialist and served as Director of the Office of Asian Communist Affairs, National Security Council staff member, and Department of State policy Planning staff member. As Deputy Secretary of State for Environmental and Population Affairs, he was Department of State coordinator for the Global 2000 Report to the President, Chairman of the interagency committee on Int'l Environmental Committee and US member of the UN ECE Committee of Experts on the Environment. His books include: Too Many People, Juggernaut, The Horseman and the Bureaucrat, Elephants in Volkswagen, How Many Americans?

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