Livin’ Large in the Lettuce Field

April 25, 2008 9:06 a.m.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how John McCain could have changed his positions on the economy by 180 degrees, not once, but actually twice in the last decade. There are many examples. But the clearest is on tax policy. Remember, McCain was one of the few Republicans who voted against the Bush tax cuts. And he was quite clear at the time that he did so not only on fiscal responsibility and deficit grounds but on equity grounds equally if not more so. Now, he’s not only championing the tax cuts he voted against and pushing for them to be made permanent; he’s pushing for a new round of tax cuts on the Bush model.

There’s a reason why McCain has been relatively consistent over the last decade on foreign policy but all over the map on economic policy: he just doesn’t know very much about economics. That’s something he’s often admitted. But I’m surprised at a number of his quotes over the last year that have cast this point into exceptionally high relief.

This got a little attention at the time. But in a Q&A with construction and building trade unions, in an effort to illustrate why undocumented migrant farm workers will do work Americans will not, he used this example …

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Now, my friends, I’ll offer anybody here $50 an hour if you’ll go pick lettuce in Yuma this season and pick for the whole season. So — OK? Sign up. OK.

You sign up. You sign up, and you’ll be there for the whole season, the whole season. OK? Not just one day. Because you can’t do it, my friend.

(ed.note: see further discussion of what McCain might have meant below.)

Undocumented migrant farm workers make $50 an hour? Let’s do the math. Obviously the work is seasonal, not all year long, but let’s compute it on an annualized basis. $50 x 8 hours (which understates the hours) = $400 a day x 5 is $2000 a week x 52 is $104,000 a year.

I think would put these migrant farm workers in like the top 5% of the US labor force in income. Does this guy have any idea how much money ordinary Americans make or don’t make?

Late Update: Some readers say that I’ve misconstrued McCain’s meaning, that he’s not saying migrant farm workers make $100,000 a year but that Americans wouldn’t do the work even if it paid $100,000 a year. And on second reading I think they may be right. But in terms of out being of touch with the wages most Americans make, I think it’s basically the same difference. Who thinks you couldn’t find Americans willing to work in lettuce fields if it paid over $100,000 a year? US labor statistics say the actual wage for this work is about $10,000 per year. And at that wage — which, let’s be honest, we all reap a benefit from in the form of cheap lettuce prices — no wonder Americans are unwilling to do it.

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