Low-skilled labor vs. technology

By James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

During the current debate over immigration, how many times have you heard someone arguing that the U.S. economy depends on low-skilled immigrant labor?

Well, dont believe those open-borders proponents -- those who argue, in effect, that the United States has to run itself like a Third-World country. The vision of a rich elite ruling over a poor mob may appeal to some, but its not the American Way.

Asked specifically about illegal immigrants, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue told USA Today last month, We absolutely need these workers. A similar view comes from Tom Hensley, chief financial officer for a Gainesville, Ga. factory farm, who tells The Washington Post: Absent Hispanic workers, we could not process chicken. Gee, how did people back in merry olde England manage to feed themselves? Where did chicken soup come from, way back when?

The answer, of course, is that our ancestors did it, and they did it more easily as they began to figure out how to substitute technology for labor. Thats also how a country moves from low skills and low wages to high skills and high wages.

Thats the path America took on its way to becoming a great power. In agriculture, the big breakthrough came in 1831, with the invention of the McCormick Reaper. Mass-produced in Chicago, the reaper enabled two men to cut as much grain in a day as a dozen or more men using traditional reaping hooks. As a result, labor was freed up to work in factories, accelerating the Industrial Revolution -- and the American Dream.

Yet, its noteworthy that the reaper and similar productivity enhancing inventions came to the American North, not the South. In slave-holding Dixie, where labor was free -- if you dont count flogging and lynching and putting down bloody uprisings as costs -- there was little incentive to develop labor-saving technology. The low-tech status quo seemed quite OK to plantation owners.

But then came the Civil War. All of a sudden those Yankee factories that made farm machinery started making war machinery; the Confederates were overwhelmed by Union troops and their ever-improving rifles and railroads.

The lesson is this: The same technological advances that make a country rich also make it militarily powerful; the engine of prosperity can always be converted into the arsenal of democracy. Moreover, using technology instead of labor reduces a countrys casualties; one shudders to think about American losses if we had fought World War II without the Higgins boat, the B-17 and, of course, the A-bomb.

So now, back to the present. Those who say that we need open borders so that the country can be flooded with tens of millions of low-skilled workers have a vision not dissimilar to that of past slave owners: Why bother with technology when cheap labor does the job?

But, in fact, four-fifths of the farming in this country is already done with machines. And what of the rest? What of apple-picking and chicken-processing? Well, its time for another dose of technology. But you neednt take my word for it. Go to the Web site of the University of Illinois and look up the robotics work of Professor Tony Grift; he and his colleagues have built harvesting agbots for as little as $150 each. And thats before mass production.

Many similar programs exist across the U.S., although, of course, they are neglected. So long as labor is cheap, theres no incentive for food producers to invest in productivity-improving technology. Which is to say, for as long as the border is open, complacent agribusiness will want to turn much of America into a Third-World country, filled with Third-World people. It worked for Mississippi, right?

The better answer is to close the border and upgrade our labor-saving technology. In the short run there will be extra costs, but in the long run new industries will bloom, making us richer and stronger.

Special to Newsday

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.