Sunday, February 25, 2007

assimilation....or not

The American Scene:His Fordship

Second, while Ford's politics were odious in many respects, his belief (and the belief of his fellow industrialists) in the importance of teaching immigrants "American ways" and "the English language" was crucial to early-twentieth century America's ability to assimilate a huge influx of foreign-born laborers. One of the problems facing contemporary America is that the transition from an industrial to a service economy has changed, to some degree at least, the incentives for employers who hire immigrants. When you run a huge automotive plant, you need a workforce that speaks the same language and sticks around long enough to be trained to handle dangerous, complex machinery, and you need to be willing to pay them high(ish) wages to keep them there. Whereas when you're hiring people to dig gardens or mow lawns or clean offices, the benefits of having an unskilled, somewhat unreliable non-English speaking employee base (namely, that you don't need to pay them as much) often outweigh the costs. So where the old business lobby wanted assimilation, the new business lobby wants "temporary guest workers" - which makes Henry Ford look, well, maybe not so bad after all.

Free trade, like most other major policy shifts, has had a whole raft of unintended consequences. A big part of the Democratic Party surge in the "Rust Belt" has been the persistent negative economic effects of international competition on highly paid blue collar workers. The nation as a whole has suffered as well. Union factories were means for those in the underclass to move to a middle class life which in turn allowed them to invest in their children who could go to college and move up the ladder. Still the assumption is out there that Hispanics will be like other waves of immigration and migration and generationally will advance solidly into the middle class. Often you here this from the folks who sing free trade's praises and decry Unions as parasites on society. The conditions on the ground have changed. Hispanics are no worse or better than Southern Blacks that headed to Northern Cities or the European immigrants who came to America for opportunity. The thing that has changed is the economy (and thus the incentives on the actors).

There are good things about the changes (higher quality goods and lower prices) but the costs are still being tallied.

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