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Sam Quinones: Consumer culture and its consequences
February 01, 2017
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A few years ago, I met a kid whose mother worked in a beef slaughtering plant in Garden City, Kan.

The plant employees were Latino immigrants, and many were in the country illegally. This kid had to massage his mother’s hand after she came home each night because it was frozen in the shape of the knife handle she used all day. Her hand, it occurred to me, was one reason why we have such low meat prices.

I have followed the debate on illegal immigration for more than 20 years, during which time I worked as a journalist in Mexico and the US. The issue is dominated, I’ve come to believe, by Americans’ desire to have it all. We want cheap stuff and low prices. We also want to luxuriate in complaints about strangers in our midst who don’t assimilate as fast as we imagine our grandparents did.

That kid and his mother came to mind as Donald Trump assumed the presidency. Trump has backed away from his campaign promise to deport 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, referring instead to a goal of deporting 3 million people. Even if he follows through on only this low-end figure, it will test the contradictory tendencies of American immigration politics and our consumer culture.

I recognise the anger of citizens at the bottom of the economy who must compete with those in the US without permission. That galls the native born, who know that competition is not trivial, and I don’t like to hear them characterised as racist simply for pointing it out. But they alone didn’t elect Trump. A good measure of the US political culture that put him in office is shaped by people who want to eat their cake and keep it, too.

Over the last 25 years, immigrants have let us live like princes. Growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, I remember no middle-class family who could afford a gardener. Now, so many immigrants have entered the business, and tools made outside our borders have become so cheap, that landscaping fees have dropped to where even working-class families have help with their yards.

Immigrants were a key to the mid-2000s’ housing bubble. Their inexpensive labour allowed buyers to purchase and renovate houses, then turn them quickly and for a profit. In Mexico recently, I met a man who spent three years at a company near Austin that cuts stone for builders; he slept on a warehouse floor, worked 12-hour days and made $8 an hour so Texas houses could have stone facades and walkways.

Few non-Latino workers know how to install flooring any more, or are willing to do it for $10 to $15 an hour. Some flooring workers are here legally, but the trade is a magnet for those without papers. They keep wages – and floor installation costs – low. The same might be said for carpentry, plumbing, painting, roofing, and building swimming pools.

The pallet industry is essential to American commerce and the low price of goods. It supports bulk transportation from farms and factories, and it too depends on immigrant labour – much of it, I suspect, illegal. The same is true of warehousing and distribution in general. Wages kept at $11 to $13 an hour in these businesses go some way toward explaining how companies can provide free shipping for e-commerce orders, which is labour intensive.

President Obama already set records for deportations during his eight years in office – more than 2 million people. Continued or increased large-scale deportation will surely result in a loss of skill sets and willing workers, particularly for certain regions of the country.

With fewer workers forced to take what they can get, wages may have to rise. Slaughterhouses may have to dramatically improve their working conditions. These are good outcomes. Power returns to unions as labour supply dwindles. Again, that’s a good thing in a time when capital’s hegemony seems absolute.

Another logical result of increased deportation would be higher consumer prices, of course. This would touch people in every economic bracket, including many Trump voters, middle-class folks angered by illegal immigration. As consumers, employers or both, they are beneficiaries of cheap landscaping, cheap flooring, cheap pallets and the cheap meat cut by that woman in Kansas.

As simplistic as Trump’s campaign seemed to me – proposing silver-bullet solutions to complicated real-world problems – his presidency may finally force us Americans, including legions of his supporters, to accept responsibility for our contradictory desires and consumer choices.

Put another way, maybe we’ll see whether the courage of our convictions can survive higher-priced meat, the doubling in cost of a new floor, and the end of free shipping.

Tribune News Service

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