The myth of jobs Americans wont do

Peter Frase has an excellent post today about the way media outlets frame so-called labor shortages. According to theorists of the free market, when a certain employer or industry can no longer attract workers at a certain compensation level, that employer or industry needs to offer more compensation. There is no labor shortage in such a case, only a shortage of businesses willing to pay the equilibrium wage that the labor market demands. But, as Frase points out, that is not how media outlets report these situations.

Instead, media outlets present the perspective of ignorant business owners who seem to think they are entitled to a robust supply of workers at whatever price the owners want to pay. The most prevalent example of this kind of reasoning comes, oddly enough, from the immigration debate. Individuals from all over the political spectrum can be found saying that immigrants do jobs that Americans wont do.

But this is absurd on its face. It is not that immigrants do jobs that Americans wont do; rather, it is that immigrants do jobs at lower compensation levels than Americans will do them at. The dangerous lives of undocumented workers force them to take just about any job that they can get. Undocumented workers lack labor protections, are closed off from most employment opportunities, and are vulnerable to employer exploitation. These factors, among others, push immigrants to take jobs for much lower pay than less vulnerable populations would demand.

When talking about whether certain people are willing to do certain jobs, we need to separate the job itself from the compensation being offered. With some exceptions, people are willing to do just about any job if the price is right. There is nothing particularly spoiled or lazy about rejecting a grueling and difficult job that pays way too little. In fact, the enthusiastic proponents of the free market should celebrate when workers become unwilling to take jobs at certain compensation levels: that is ultimately the market mechanism that increases the income of working families.

The point is that media outlets should not report that certain industries have labor shortages; they should report that certain industries have compensation shortages. Media outlets should not report that Americans wont do certain jobs; they should report that employers wont pay enough for certain jobs. But we do not get stories about how employers and owners are being so stingy with their wages that they threaten to sink their own businesses. We only get stories about workers being too spoiled to work for the ridiculously low wages that some employers have decided to offer.