THE BLOG
04/25/2006 12:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Delusions About the American Dream

A talent agency will offer its college-educated assistants minimum wage plus a dime to start, with the guarantee of fourteen-hour days filled with verbal abuse and menial tasks, but that's only the second worst deal you can get for your time in California. Drive a little more than an hour up the 101 and you'll see who's faring even worse: the illegal migrant farm worker.

Forget $5.75 an hour -- the salary that these men and women pull down is more like $5.75 a day. And their employers can get away with playing that because people think, "they're taking jobs Americans wouldn't."

Of course they're taking jobs that Americans wouldn't take -- this is the land of opportunity; your pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in the constitution! Who would be happy plucking strawberries for pennies hours on end, sleeping in a reconstituted garage and having no health insurance? Certainly not you or me!

Yet we let ourselves get suckered into this idea that illegal immigrants do want this life for themselves. I hear it all the time: they're draining the economy! They're taking advantage of our lax border controls and public school and health systems! Right now, a group called The Minutemen is down at the U.S.-Mexico border, assisting the Border Patrol with their duties. This will be as effective as when I leave my half-eaten dinner on the table and admonish my cat for trying to get at it. The problem isn't Jelly; the problem is me. I left the food out there. We're all complicit in leaving the temptation of illegal labor out there.

The problem isn't with the people trying to obtain a better life; it's with the businesses trying to exploit labor and the growing American desire to make more for doing less.

Listen: there is no vast Mexican conspiracy to re-take the southwest through underpaid labor. Just because this situation is better than the one they left, doesn't mean it's beneficial for them in any way. We should be appalled that living in a garage in Fresno and making $7500 a year is a superior situation for anyone. We should be appalled that Mexico, a neighbor country, is deteriorating right before our eyes and we can't gin up any real aid efforts. But these are the intangibles, and it's hard to argue them.

Plan economics will give a more immediate picture of the situation: if we demanded that our farms and other corporations hired only legal U.S. workers and paid them true pursuit-of-happiness wages, people would line up around the block to be hired.

And that is where we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. By making base assumptions about foreign workers in the service and farming sectors, the U.S. citizenry is helping keep itself tied to low wages and low benefits in other industries. In the last decade or so, the American dream has become grossly inflated -- it's gone from having a home and a car or two to having a small mansion with a brand new car, every year, and are the six-foot plasma TVs on sale at Best buy this week? The American dream becomes more of a delusion and no one wants to take a good job when they could have a great job -- one that will make them virtually uncountable sums of money and cause their descendants to go on at great length about the unfairness of the "death tax." Being comfortable financially isn't as appealing as it once was, and people fight for the rights of the tax bracket they want, not the one they're in.

But imagine if Americans did fight for the rights of workers: how many people could be made happy with a $17-per-hour salary with good benefits, safe transportation to and from work and an onsite cafeteria where you could take your lunch and two OSHA-mandated 15-minutes breaks?

Well, probably still not me, because I'm pretty bookish and have a bad shoulder, but plenty of other more able-bodied folks would. And sure, orange juice prices might rise a bit, but the taxes paid into the system by the legal workers would pay down some of the country's debt, which would make the dollar stronger, which would ultimately make it easier for us all to vacation in France.

A tradeoff I'm willing to make.