Saturday, December 16, 2006

Immigration and technology...

The recent raids by immigration authorities of meatpacking plants across the US signals another ratchet up in immigration enforcement. (We discussed this on USFR this week) This is a hot political topic and surprisingly fractures normal political boundaries.

Most curious about the raid was the cover story of concern about not illegal immigration but identity theft. This is a red herring in my view designed to make it seem desperate Hispanics are phishing your credit card, doubtless to engage relatively unconcerned Americans in the outrage. Reason's Kerry Howley agrees:
Something very backward is going on when anti-immigration officials are trading in dated identity scares. A litmus test for "seriousness" in the immigration debate is support for an employer verification system, a massive federal database that employers will be required to consult before making hires. And one of the chief arguments against creating that database is that it will surely spur a massive increase in actual identity theft, encouraging middlemen to sell, and undocumented workers to buy, more sophisticated false documentation. [More]
It also impacts specific sectors of agriculture, such as livestock (especially processing), dairy, and horticulture. Proponents who favor strong measures to limit illegal entry often envision forcing these industries to raise wages to attract needed workers. Certainly that would be one outcome. But more typically in the US we solve labor cost squeezes with technology.

This seems to be the direction for Europe where labor is even more expensive. Meanwhile, Australian researchers have developed robotic milkers that attach and detach autonomously. This free range dairy concept would drastically reduce the human factor for milk production.

The automatic milking machines are based on ones already used in Europe with special adaptations for Australia's free-ranging cattle. "It is basically a robot with an arm that attaches the milking cups to each teat so it milks each cow," Fulkerson said. He notes that most modern dairies use milking cups that release—but don't attach—automatically. "At the moment the farmers put them on themselves," Fulkerson said. "But the automatic machines use lasers to find the udders, and a computer memorizes the configuration of the udder for the next milking." The machines spare farmers the twice-a-day chore of rounding up their herds and attaching 200 to 300 sets of cups. Cows can visit milking sheds when they want to relieve themselves of their milk and the discomfort of full udders. "It is a better lifestyle for the cows and the farmers," Fulkerson said. [More]

The real puzzler is whether this will disadvantage or aid smaller farms - always the darlings of the media. My understanding right now is Hispanic labor has been a godsend to small dairies and it strikes me as unlikely a massive investment in robotic technology would be attractive to these operators if the source of cheap labor (and c'mon, we know much of it is illegal) dried up. This debate is continuing among dairy producers.

University of Minnesota professor Marcia Endres says often the choice is decided by the personality of the individual running the operation. "You need to fit the system with the manager, I think," says Endres. Endres says robotic milkers work best in computer savvy operations. Score one here for the Goblirsch's. Matt says he and his brother love technology. Good people managers may choose another route. They may go heavy on labor, expanding the herd and then hiring workers to run the place. Endres says each system has its trouble spots.

Other sectors are working to reduce as much manual labor as possible as well. But they have less of a problem with consolidation and larger economic production units. For agriculture, our obsession with small farms necessarily means an obsession with labor intensive farms - it's always written into the script of the agrarian life. Only Americans don't do hard work so much any more. And if we do, we position ourselves directly in competition with people who have no other economic tool to raise their lives.

The motivation factor is obvious in the comparative results.
I think it likely that the uproar over illegal immigration will grow, enforcement will intensify (along with massive budgets), and small businesses will collapse under economic pressures.

Meanwhile, illegal immigrants will continue to find ways to find work.

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