by Doctor Science
As far as I'm concerned, Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, where we acknowledge how grateful we are that there was enough to eat this year, and that we'll have enough to eat this winter. We've been members of a CSA for almost 20 years now, and one of the things it's done has been to give us an old-fashioned gut sense of how fragile food production is.
For instance, there's never been a year without one crop or other failing. That's why the CSA grows more than 50 crops in 350 varieties: one crop (or a number of them) can fail without the whole season failing, especially since there's always some crop that does much better than expected. This year was a really hard one because of the wild weather, so more crops than usual failed: green cabbage, onions, winter squash (including pumpkins), leeks. On the other hand, we've never had so many carrots.
We've also developed a real appreciation for the actual labor of agriculture and how difficult it is. A number of the crops we get are pick-your-own. In some cases -- like okra or tomatillos -- that's because only a subset of CSA members are really going to want the crop, so it's not worth harvesting and including it in the share for everybody.
But for strawberries, green beans, peas, and berries (black- and rasp-), most people will want them, but they can only be picked by *lots* of hand labor. To save costs, those are PYO. Picking a couple of quarts of green beans on an August day in NJ turns out to be a considerable amount of work, taking both physical effort and skill. I don't see how anyone who did it regularly could look down on field workers -- but then, I never understood looking down on agricultural labor or the people who do it, in *any* society.
As you've probably heard, Alabama and Georgia have recently adopted harsh laws against illegal immigrants, and one result has been crops rotting in the fields for lack of pickers. This Business Week article does a pretty good job of going over the issues, but it doesn't really explain why farm labor isn't acting like a free market.
Field labor is physically demanding, semi-skilled, and dangerous (though much less so on an organic farm, where workers aren't exposed to pesticides and herbicides). Why do employers *expect* to pay minimum wage or less for this kind of work? Why don't employers naturally respond to supply and demand, and raise the pay they offer until it's in line with the American labor market? It's almost as though there's a mental block operating, such that "pay people what the market demands" doesn't seem to be an option.
Meanwhile, I just started reading Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin, which I think I found through a reference in Fukuyama. Kolchin points out that serfdom and slavery both started growing in the 17th century and ended in the mid-19th, contrary to the Whiggish narrative of increasing liberty since the Renaissance.
Kolchin argues that both slavery and serfdom were responses to labor shortages in frontier areas, and specifically to a shortage of the basic farm labor needed to grow crops for an export market. He also says
There was one other, subsidiary, precondition for the introduction of bondage: the prevalence of a system of values compatible with its existence. (It is unlikely that should a shortage of labor improbably materialize next year in the United States, slavery would emerge as the solution.)You keep telling yourself that. In fact, the shortage of farm labor in the US over the past several decades has already led Florida tomato growers to find unfree, near-slave labor a logical solution.
What I don't understand is why free-market solutions are so particularly unattractive for field labor. Is it something about the labor itself? Traditionally, the work of a field hand is the definition of unskilled labor. However, in my experience it definitely requires skills, and also physical exertion that not all workers are capable of. Now that literacy is effectively universal, it seems to me that may traditionally "semi-skilled" jobs are really unskilled -- but the skills for farm labor are no longer "things everybody knows", so it really counts as semi-skilled.
One explanation in the Business Week article:
"Agricultural labor is basically 100 percent an immigrant job category," says Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who studies population migration. "Once an occupational category becomes dominated by immigrants, it becomes very difficult to erase the stigma."In trying to trace down the source for the quote, I came across a 1993 paper Massey co-authored, which explains:
Massey says Americans didn't turn away from the work merely because it was hard or because of the pay but because they had come to think of it as beneath them. "It doesn't have anything to do with the job itself," he says. In other countries, citizens refuse to take jobs that Americans compete for. In Europe, Massey says, "auto manufacturing is an immigrant job category. Whereas in the States, it's a native category."
people believe that wages should reflect social status, and they have rather rigid notions about the correlation between occupational status and pay. As a result, wages offered by employers are not entirely free to respond to changes in the supply of workers...Does anyone who actually knows about economics have any opinion about this? Bear in mind that Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review thinks Massey is over-selling his point: currently, around 29% of hired fieldworkers are American-born, mostly non-Hispanic, and the proportion of American-born workers has gone up since the late 90s, when it was only 18%.
If wages are increased at the bottom, there will be strong pressure to raise wages by corresponding amounts at other levels of the hierarchy. If the wages of busboys are raised in response to a shortage of entry-level workers, for example, they may overlap with those of waitresses, thereby threatening their status and undermining the accepted social hierarchy. Waitresses, in turn, demand a corresponding wage increase, which threatens the position of cooks, who also pressure employers for a raise ...
Thus the cost to employers of raising wages to attract low-level workers is typically more than the cost of these workers' wages alone; wages much be increased proportionately throughout the job hierarchy in order to keep them in line with social expectations, a problem known as structural inflation. Attracting native workers by raising entry wages during times of labor scarcity is thus expensive and disruptive, providing employers with a strong incentive to seek easier and cheaper solutions, such as the importation of migrant workers who will accept low wages.
I've also noticed, time and again, that employers will complain that they "can't find workers" (or can't find non-illegal-immigrant workers) to do certain jobs, without any suggestion that there's a law of supply & demand and that the obvious thing to do is offer to pay more. It's as though they've already decided how much they're going to pay based on what would be profitable for them, and then get angry because workers won't go along with their plans. It just doesn't seem like a very capitalist, free-market attitude, to me.
 Wow, when you google "meaning of thanksgiving" you get some wacky stuff. I particularly admire the mental agility of the American Institute for Economic Research, arguing that the iconic Pilgrims sitting down with the Natives for a mutual feast really shows "The Triumph of Capitalism over Collectivism" -- mostly by erasing the Native Americans completely from the picture. It would have been more logical for AIER to argue that it was the Natives' collectivist generosity that doomed them, and that if they'd only had the capitalist sense to make the Pilgrims pay for their help I'd be writing in Algonquin.