The Future Costs of Today’s Cheap Labor

May 3rd, 2010 at 12:49 pm David Frum | 68 Comments |

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My latest column for looks at the harmful effects of unrestrained illegal immigration: a future American work force that is less skilled, less literate and worse paid than workers of today.

Many Americans carry in their minds a family memory of upward mobility, from great-grandpa stepping off the boat at Ellis Island to a present generation of professionals and technology workers. This story no longer holds true for the largest single U.S. immigrant group, Mexican-Americans.

Stephen Trejo and Jeffrey Groger studied the intergenerational progress of Mexican-American immigrants in their scholarly work, “Falling Behind or Moving Up?”

They discovered that third-generation Mexican-Americans were no more likely to finish high school than second-generation Mexican-Americans. Fourth-generation Mexican-Americans did no better than third.

If these results continue to hold, the low skills of yesterday’s illegal immigrant will negatively shape the U.S. work force into the 22nd century.

The failure to enforce the immigration laws in the 1990s and 2000s means that the U.S. today has more poorly skilled workers, more poverty and more workers without health insurance than it would have generated by itself.

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68 Comments so far ↓

  • buddyglass


    Technically its not a crime to simply be in the country without legal status. That’s a civil violation. It is a federal misdemeanor to cross the border without permission, however, so approximately 60% of “illegal immigrants” committed that crime. 40%, though, entered the country legally then just overstayed. They are not “criminals”.

  • ottovbvs

    easton // May 3, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    “otto, I agree with jquintana about this: ‘The lack of generational achievement could be attributed to any number of things—economic disadvantages, poor socialization, lack of positive peer groups in Mexican-American neighborhoods, or any number of socioeconomic factors.’’

    …….indeed it may

    “As to what Frum intended I simply don’t believe he intended to say Mexicans are inherently inferior. As I said, I think it was a case of poor writing (I mean, 21st Century? On that statement alone you have to take everything else as just something quickly dashed off without much thought put into it)”

    ……but that’s what he DID say(as you paradoxically admit) whatever you think he may have intended to say …….as for jquintana hw was simply wrong about Frum’s conclusion…..didn’t have the good grace to fess up to it…… then served up a turgid effusion and scurried off.

  • buddyglass

    Springy: Those are editorials. See the relevant quotes here:

    Essentially violating the terms of your visa is a civil infraction, not a federal crime. It is now, however, a crime in the state of Arizona.

  • sinz54

    ottovbs: Hispanic vegetable pickers are inherently less intelligent or less educable than Irish potato pickers!!

    They are less educable,
    but it’s not their fault.

    Learning on the job (which worked for my ancestors), while earning a solid working-class income, doesn’t work today.

    “You ain’t going nowhere without that sheepskin, fella.”
    — Recruiter to Abraham Lincoln, in a famous commercial for CLEP

  • thijsvn

    @ sinz54

    It’s an interesting point though, in regard to the idea of the American Dream. Has the USA become too institutionalized to really offer the same opportunities it used to? Is it because entrepreneurship isn’t as rewarding as it used to be, or is it because new immigrants never really acquire the chance to stop being an employee and start working for themselves, or something else altogether?

    If you look at the Gini coefficient of the USA, there’s been a constant increase in income disparity since the mid 80′s. Is this hampering inter-generational mobility, but why then is there such a difference between different minorities?

  • sdspringy

    Otto stop thrashing around on the floor yelling no one understands me. Poor Baby.

    Your argument is stupid, can you understand that. Your analysis of the AZ law is stupid, your analysis of Frum’s articale is stupid.

    Now go cry on the other Looney Libs websites.

  • balconesfault

    For what it’s worth, I think we should be worrying more about the future costs of today’s cheap oil and Chinese imports.

  • opsimath44

    The only problem I have with this article is that we don’t need to wait for some undetermined future to see the results of this problem. The future is now.

    Kudos to Frum for trying to talk about immigration reform with cold analytics and not emotion. Unfortunately, economists have been mostly silent on this issue. Largely, I believe, because it’s hard to trust many of the numbers associated with this slice of our economy.

    When I hear folks from either side talk about immigration, it’s clear that emotions are ruling the day. But there are measurables we should be talking about. I don’t know all of the answers, but I know that cheap labor made a lot of the housing boom of the ’90s – ’00s possible … which was a good thing for many for a long time, not so good as of late. Cheap labor led to wild growth which freed up capital for more investment, so it’s not a stretch to throw out there that the third and fourth order effects included the VC investment in dot-coms and new industries. Cheap labor had given us cheap food, so we have money to spend on new gadgets.

    And yet, cheap labor has also meant that low skill citizens have been kept in stagnant jobs. When the lowest tier is operating under the table and below minimum wage, there’s no incentive for the other industries to offer higher wages. And how much income tax revenue or social security tax did we fail to collect because of illegal workers who were paid off the books?

    Again, I don’t have the answer, but I don’t see very many people asking the right questions or talking about the important aspects of this issue. Thank you, Mr. Frum, for being one of the exceptions.

  • opsimath44

    // I agree the real success to discouraging illegals is penalizing those who hire them. In Arizona, however, it is already against the law to hire an illegal, and employers are supposed to use e-verify.

    The problem is that the law is not enforced. In the last two years only one employer was charged and that was an out of business employer, who will lose his business license for 10 days should he ever decide to open his doors again. As long as the employment law is not enforced, it really does little good. Why is it not enforced? Good question. Campaign contributions maybe? //

    We hear about this all of the time. There’s a raid at the local sweatshop or chicken farm, and they haul off a bunch of workers, and the owner never gets so much as a fine.

    One thing that’s always bothered me is how quickly the voters respond to “tough on crime” bills instead of “smart on crime.” One can claim to be a fiscal conservative, but no one challenges that claim when he sponsors some “tough on crime” bill that costs a fortune to enforce.

    And sending human beings (with expensive salaries) out in expensive vehicles with lots of expensive communications gear to round up a bunch of guys making $10 an hour doesn’t strike me as cost effective, when a couple of computer nerds could write some code (in exchange for a some pizza and a few cases of Red Bull) that would examine business expenses to look for off-the-books payments.

  • EdCoughlin


    As to the arguments of X race dumbing down the gene pool they are all almost certainly bunk. Race isn’t the primary factor in determining intellectual potential.

    That isn’t to say that the difference between say adult Hispanic Americans who average an 85 IQ (or one standard deviation below average) and adult Jewish Americans who average nearly one standard deviation above normal at 108 is not real, but that it is not necessarily racial.

    You assume that someone born with an IQ of 100 will be an adult with an IQ of 100 but that is demonstrably not the case. In several research studies they have found that black students in kindergarden are nearly the same in IQ as their white counterparts. They are below in IQ by 5, but only by a few points (nowhere near the 15 point adulthood gap) and similarly research has shown that hispanic students, when they enter school, have high level of social skills (ability to pay attention, communicate etc). They fall behind white students over the next 13 years, but they aren’t BORN that way.

    Instead, it is more about culture. If you look at asians, the so called “model minority” that in several parts of the country actually achieve at a higher rate then whites (I went to UC San Diego, and like nearly all the best California schools Asians were over-represented by 200-300% vs their proportion of the California population, whites are, ironically, underrepresented at the best schools as a result).

    “Oh it must be their inborn intellect!” many would think, but in fact Asian’s have, on average, a slightly below average IQ of about 99. What they DO have though, is immense cultural work ethic. This leads to a more serious concentration on the importance of education (in Chinese history passing very difficult civil service exams was the absolute top identifier of cultural success) and a greater understanding of the need for hard work to be successful (rice farmers in rural Aisa work 3000+ hours to produce crops vs less then 1200 for traditional farm crops or hunter societies).

    This work ethic can be contrasted with a culture of corruption present in many South American countries where paying a bribe and breaking the law goes further then working hard. This is reinforced when illegal immigrant parents cross the border imparting even more that breaking the law is a short cut to success. This idea of “short cuts”, many of them illegal. that don’t require as much work is precisely the kind of cultural bias that leads to low achievement.

    This work ethic also helps explain why middle class white students have IQs that stay constant or actually rise with education while lower class students who are disproportionately minority students actually lose IQ as they age relative to their peers. When surrounded by a culture of dependency with high crime, single parent households, limited options for the future and low opportunities for education outside of the classroom negative cultural factors weigh down potential.

    Middle class kids with summer education camps, involved parents, numerous activities and active parenting gain a few points, lower class kids with none of those advantages combined with profound disadvantages lose several points and suddenly where you had a gap of a few points you now have a 15 point gap by adult hood. It isn’t that one race was born inferior to another genetically, cultural differences just make it seem that way.

  • buddyglass

    Ed: It’s also worth noting that the Mexicans who immigrating to the U.S. are, as a group, not necessarily representative of all Mexicans. They’re typically poor and unskilled. If you look at “poor and unskilled” Americans, their test scores (etc.) are also going to be lower than the general population’s.

    Personally, I would argue that some of that *probably* is genetic. But not necessarily racial. In a given population, even if everybody is the same ethnicity, those whose genetics predispose them to low(er) intelligence are naturally going to gravitate to the lower echelons of income and education level. So if you examine the group of people who are unskilled and low-income, “people whose genetics predispose them to a low(er) IQ” are going to be over-represented among that population.

    Again, though, that doesn’t imply its racial at all.

  • Telly Davidson

    I’m surprised so little focus has been on one of the clearest reasons for a Hispanic lag in education, particularly in havens like southern CA and Arizona. It’s the Language Barrier, stupid. Many live in self-contained barrio communities where essentially all commerce and daily business is conducted in Spanish, with “Habla Espanol” signs at all banks, car dealerships, medical/dental offices. (There is nothing especially wrong with this on its face — what could be more free-market Republican than business identifying a rich target audience and tailoring its services to that demographic?) But some, particularly among the least-mobile and most proletarian, essentially draw the false lesson that learning unaccented standard English and American culture (for them or for their children) is an unneccessary conceit — and then, when their kids go out into the global Information Age economy — you write the script.

    For most of the 1990s, California’s right wing passed reactionary (and illegal, as they were found in Federal court) laws like Prop 187, clearly out of fear and disdain for Hispanic culture as much as for economic effects. Meanwhile, doctrinaire left-wing voices made any teacher or administrator who required TRULY “bilingual” education (with heavy-duty English immersion) or acculturation in ghetto/barrio schools seem just shy of Ilsa the Wicked Warden. Banners were even spread at the Y2K protests of Democrat Al Gore (for not being left-wing *enough*) calling for “!Justicia Social!”

    Today we’re reaping what we sowed with the intractable, no-surrender / no-dealmaking polarization of the 1980s and ’90s. I still remember watching the local CBS station’s news broadcast in 1993, when (Rockefeller Republican) Richard Riordan succeeded Tom Bradley as Mayor of LA. Willie Brown and Jackie Goldberg were watching the inauguration like the hawk, and told the newswoman that (despite post-LA riot gang violence, out-of-control crime in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the punishing early ’90s recession), race-based Affirmative Action quotas weren’t just “an” issue — they were THE issue. If that’s really the priority list of our political “elite”, than it’s a tribute to the Hispanic community that they’ve even been able to hold water on the standardized tests.

  • easton

    American blacks (for the most part) and Hispanics are not a seperate race. Most American blacks have white ancestors, and most Hispanics are a combination of Native American and Spanish (and a whole other mixture of people). The former Governor of Oaxaca’s family was from the Middle East, in fact Mexico had immigrants from all over the world and they married and mixed with Mexicans. The notion that Mexicans are anywhere near genetically distinct is just absurd. I know blonde haired and blue eyed Mexicans and one that look like Moctezuma.

    And I find the notion of quantifying iq points across different races to be absurd and counterproductive. Individual variations are far too large to place much faith in it. Lets just be honest and admit it is culture. Mexico has the 12th largest economy in the world and the 12 largest population (thereabouts) yet is ranked 56th in education. I will say though that the work ethic of Mexicans is higher than for Americans. Who does anyone think is picking the lettuce in the heat, or laying tar on a roof in 130 degree temperature, it ain’t people with names like Cody or Tab. It ain’t willingness not to work hard, it is a lack of emphasis on education, maybe it is the heat in the classrooms, it just isn’t conducive to paying attention, to be honest, I don’t know.

  • ottovbvs

    sdspringy // May 4, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    ……don’t bother with the substance stick with the ad homs springy…….the last refuge of those without the most basic comprehensional skills

  • ottovbvs

    EdCoughlin // May 4, 2010 at 3:14 pm


    “As to the arguments of X race dumbing down the gene pool they are all almost certainly bunk. Race isn’t the primary factor in determining intellectual potential.”

    ……..I’m not expressing ANY opinion on the merits of Frum’s argument just that his conclusion says quite explicitly that illegal Mexican immigrants are going to dumb down the American workforce into the 22nd century and the reasons for this have to be that they are either less intelligent or less educable(it HAS to be one or the other since he bases his argument on data covering four generations) …….that’s the WHOLE point of his piece…….that a group of people are denying this in one way and another or mixing up analysis and conclusions is basically (expletive deleted) amazing…..and suggests that it’s not only illegal Mexicans who have learning difficulties

  • EdCoughlin

    @ buddyglass you are almost certainly right about the populations that come here from various locations.

    That goes to the cultural argument I was making. When someone comes here from India, which is quite far away, they tend to be a hard working person who was able to achieve enough to make it over here which means they are likely to instill the value of hard work and sacrifice into their children, making them more culturally predisposed to achievement.

    Similarly it was well off, connected and hard working jews that often made it to the US and other countries during the holocaust and so the jews alive today are disproportionately very hard workers culturally (which is why they are heavily over represented compared with their populations in nearly all high achieving areas of society). These groups were positively selected for merit, which is how I would argue we should award legal immigration in the future, a merit based program of selection.

    Alternately it is the destitute, the unskilled, the uneducated and the immoral who cross the border fence illegally into this country. This leads to an imported culture that is far more negatively correlated with achievement then the culture of the high achievers coming from other parts of the world through merit.

    High achievers in Mexico tend to stay there since Mexico is, in fact, a relatively prosperous country for those who make it. It’s not a coincidence that a man from Mexico is intermittently the richest man in the world these days. Instead of positive merit based self selection which we enjoy with much of the world, in the case of Mexico we have negative destitution based self selection which skews the numbers towards the low end of the scale.

    As to Easton’s point about Americans not being hard enough workers and only Mexicans being willing to do farm work tell that to the millions of hard working American family farmers who have done that work for generations. At our countries founding about 95% of Americans were farmers at least part time, don’t tell us farm work is something Americans can’t or won’t do. American’s just can’t or won’t do it for slave wages and conditions, and I don’t blame them.

  • Galtonian

    This column is important as it hints that David Frum is rejecting the Boasian Doctrine, so now perhaps Frum is beginning to accept the reality ethnoracial group differences in IQ-type intelligence!!!

    The problem with the modern conservative movement is that many smart people who otherwise would be conservatives are still clinging to Boasianism (the view that all ethnoracial groups have equal innate abilities) which is one of the main tenets of left-wing liberalism. Thus we have the intelligentia (college professors, professionals and software entrepreneurs) feeling embarrassed to support any actions toward stemming the massive flow into our country of hordes of lower-IQ Mexicans. All good upstanding Boasians are forbidden to accept the fact that Hispanics (at least the ones with African and/or Native American ancestry) tend to have innately lower IQ levels, thus Boasians must pretend that within a generation or two most Hispanics will be able to transform into middle class Republicans.

    The republican party needs to quit worrying about attracting Blacks and Hispanics and start working to regain the support of the American educated class, but this can not happen as long as the educated class remains fervently Boasian.

    The Republican party needs to again be the default party for higher-IQ people. Prior to the rise in popularity amongst the intelligentia of Marxism (the notion that social class inequalities are evil) and Boasianism (the notion that ethnoracial group inequalities are evil) the vast majority of higher-IQ well educated people gravitated toward the Republican party. For example, prior to the 1930′s graduates of elite colleges (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, Chicago etc.) used to be predominately Republican (and they accepted the reality of social class differences and ethnoracial group differences).

    Now, although most of the intelligentia have retreated from their acceptance of Marxist social equalitarian views, they still wish to be seen as fervently denying the existence of innate ethnoracial group differences in mental and physical traits (because accepting the reality of ethnoracial group differences could be construed as “RACIST” and the charge of racism is the modern secular liberal’s equivalent of the charge of blasphemy). However empirical evidence (both scientific and everyday experience) tells us that ethnoracial groups differ in IQ-type intelligence, in tendency toward crime and violence, and in athletic abilities. Thus the modern intellectual is faced with a quandary, should one reject the Boasian doctrine and accept the facts that some ethnoracial groups (Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics) are innately less intelligent than average Whites and that some ethnoracial groups (Jews, high caste Indians, and East Asians) are innately more intelligent than average Whites, or should one continue to pretend to support the Boasian doctrine that all ethnoracial groups have equal innate abilities?

    This column by David Frum makes the important point that Hispanics have much lower IQ levels, all the stuff about the ETS data about Hispanic SAT scores is just a way of making this point. In case some of you do not know, all cognitive tests are pretty much similar regardless of whether they are called “IQ-tests” or SAT, ACT, GRE, NAEP, or the various state-administered NCLB related achievement tests. Frey and Detterman (research psychologists at Case Western Univ) have published studies showing that the SAT and the ACT are just disguised IQ-tests. Frum also makes the point that the lower-IQ of Hispanics appears to permanent (i.e it lasts for four generations) as would be expected if the lower-IQ of Hispanics is due to innate genetic differences as is predicted by Galtonian/hereditarian theory.

    Conservative people need to wake up and smell the coffee. Come on, you all know that the Boasian/environmentalist view on ethnoracial group equality is false and you know that the Galtonian/hereditarian view that genetic differences are the cause for ethnoracial group differences in IQ-type intelligence is true. So go ahead and allow yourself to explore the world of the truth by reading about the science of IQ differences. To explore the Galtonian/hereditarian viewpoint you may want to read books, essays, and articles by some of these experts: Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, J. Philippe Rushton, Linda Gottfredson, Ian Deary, Thomas Bouchard, Nancy Segal, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray and Neven Sesardic. Some Anti-Boasian blogs and websites include Steve Sailer, One STDV, Half Sigma, Lesacre du Printemps, Alt Right, and TAKI-mag.