Other Perspectives on Reinvigorating U.S. Rural Areas

A prior post painted a grim picture of the prospects of reinvigorating rural areas in the U.S. Now Ellen Rosen, a free-lance journalist on business and finance, has a more optimistic view in two articles in the New York Times.

Offering More Perks to New Workers[1]

 Starting with the same problem discussed in the earlier post—manufacturers’ difficulty in finding new workers–Rosen illustrates how two companies combat that problem.

Alexandria Industries in Alexandria, Minnesota (a town of 13,000  population in the west central part of the state) offers a free health clinic within a block of its facility and requires employees to work at least eight hours of overtime per month

Wigwam Mills in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (a town of 49,000 population on the west shore of Lake Michigan, 50 miles north of Milwaukee) offers cash bonuses to employees who bring in new recruits who last at least 60 days and provides wi-fi enabled buses for employees in nearby larger cities.

Other incentives elsewhere include:waiver of state taxes to persons who relocate to rural areas for four years; relief from state and local taxes for businesses that relocate to distressed areas for at least four or five years;; assistance to employees on repayment of student loans; payments to people who relocate to a state and who work remotely for a business located elsewhere; and on-site day care.

Economic Factors Affecting businesses in Rural Areas[2]

Cheaper labor is often seen as an advantage for firms in rural areas. But sometimes, rural labor costs are equivalent or higher to induce people to relocate, and labor costs may represent a smaller portion of total costs of manufacturing a product.

Other relative costs of real estate, energy and taxes affect location of a business. Proximity to suppliers or customers may be important, especially for those dealing with perishable products. Costs of transportation and proximity to transportation hubs may be important.


[1]  Rosen, Manufacturers Increase Efforts to Woo Workers to Rural Areas, N.Y. Times (Aug. 3, 2018).  This article was reprinted in a special “Technology” section of the hard copy of the December 16 Sunday Times.

[2] Rosen, For Manufacturers, a Complex Mix Can Determine Location, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2018). This article was reprinted in a special “Technology” section of the hard copy of the December 16 Sunday Times.



Robots Replacing Farm Workers 

Prior posts have described the overall shortage of labor in the U.S. today, especially in agriculture.[1] Now these shortages have prompted several firms in this industry to introduce robots and other automation into their businesses.[2]

For example, Taylor Farms of Salinas, California, one of the world’s largest producers and sellers of fresh-cut vegetables, recently unveiled a fleet of robots designed to replace humans. Its smart machines can assemble 60 to 80 salad bags a minute, double the output of a worker. In the process it creates higher-skilled positions that can attract younger, educated workers.

Other examples are Driscoll’s, the berry titan based in Watsonville, Calif., and Christopher Ranch, a giant producer of garlic. Driscoll’s has invested in several robotic strawberry harvesting start-ups, including Agrobot, which uses imaging technology to assess a berry’s ripeness before it is harvested. Christopher Ranch has started using a 30-foot-tall robot to insert garlic buds into sleeves, the nets into which they are bundled for sale in supermarkets. Yet another is Bartley Walker, a family business that  now offers a robotic hoeing machine with a detection camera capable of identifying the pesky weeds that sprout between row crops like broccoli and cauliflower.

In the background is a 2017 survey of California farmers  that reported 55% with labor shortages and nearly 70% for those depending on seasonal workers.

Ideally, growers say, Congress would pass a bill to legalize undocumented farm workers who are already here and encourage them to stay in the fields, as well as include provisions to ensure a steady flow of seasonal workers who could come and go with relative ease.


[1] E.g., Federal Reserve Bank Endorses Need for More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 17, 2018).

[2]  Jordan, As Immigrant Farm Workers Become More Scarce, Robots Replace Humans, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2018).

Fear of Change Driving U.S. and European Clamor Over Immigration

New York Times journalists Amanda Taub and Max Fisher have trenchant insights about the current conflicts over immigration in the U.S. and Europe.[1]

First, they assert that these conflicts “often . . .have more do with race and ethnic identity — or with simple politics.” There is anger amongst the people,, but it “stems less from migration specifically than from a broader anxiety over social change. When people feel a sense of threat or a loss of control, they sometimes become more attached to ethnic and national identities.”

“For some people, the antipathy is explicitly racial. But for many others, the mere fact of cultural change itself can be unsettling. Immigration, unauthorized or otherwise, is just one of the changes that bring about a feeling of the loss of control. Economic dislocation, changes in social hierarchies and demographic change can all produce the same effect.”

In this context, “migrants and asylum seekers have become, for many voters, a symbol of the political establishment’s failure to protect them and their interests.”

Second, in the U.S. “most voters are growing more tolerant of immigration, but a committed minority is increasingly demanding limits on immigration in all forms. Because that minority makes the issue a top priority, it holds considerable power over policy.”

“The two-party American system means that the issue has polarized voters. Both sides see the United States’ core character as at risk of being destroyed. That feeling of existential, zero-sum conflict can make people feel that extreme action is justified to prevent victory for the other side, undermining democratic norms.”


A prior post emphasized this blogger’s opinion that the U.S. needs more immigration to provide (a) skilled and unskilled workers for the American economy, (b) younger people to counterbalance an aging population, (c) financial contributions for the social welfare needs of increasing numbers of retirees and (d) help to rescue small towns from collapse. At the same time, the post said it should be easy to understand why many people fear the  accompanying demographic changes.[2]

Taub and Fisher rightly emphasize why this fear of immigration by many Americans makes them put a top priority on limiting immigration

This current controversy over immigration makes me recall that in American history the once dominant northern European, Protestant population feared new immigrants from southern Europe (Italians and Greeks, for example), Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and others from Eastern Europe (Poland, for example) and from Asia. Now for most Americans the descendants of these newer immigrant groups have been subsumed into the “white” category of the population along with the elimination of the disparaging epithets previously used for such people.

Yet the American Anthropological Association has concluded that race is not a scientific concept. As the Association declared in a 1998 statement:[3]

  • It “has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. . . . [Thus,] any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations [is] both arbitrary and subjective.”


[1]  Taub & Fisher, In U.S. and Europe, Migration Conflict Points to Deeper Political Problems, N.Y. Times (June 29, 2018).

[2] More Immigrants Needed in U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (June 23, 2018); White Anxiety and Fearing Immigration, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2018).

[3] Anthropologists’ Opinion That Race Is Not a Scientific Concept, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2016); Anthropologists’ Statement Regarding the Historical and Cultural Background to the Concept of Race, dwkcommentaries.com (June 8, 2016); Highlights of American Anthropological Association’s exhibit on Race, dwkcommentaries.com (June 27,  2016).

U.S. Needs More Immigrants

With longer life expectancy, increasing numbers of baby-boomer retirements from the active labor force and  a low birth rate that now is lower than the death rate, the U.S. increasingly faces the need to find more workers. The source is obvious: more immigrants.[1]

Barron’s Article[2]

A noted business publication, Barron’s, put it this way, “Across the nation, in industries as varied as trucking, construction, retailing, fast food, oil drilling, technology, and manufacturing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find good help. And with the economy in its ninth year of growth and another baby boomer retiring every nine seconds, the labor crunch is about to get much worse.”

“Census Bureau projections show the overall U.S. population, a rough proxy for the country’s demand for goods and services, growing faster than the workforce— which supplies those goods and services— through 2030 and probably beyond. From 2017 to 2027, the nation faces a shortage of 8.2 million workers, according to Thomas Lee, head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors.”

Another restriction on labor supply is the “people [who] have dropped out of the workforce, owing to factors such as disability, opioid addiction, and prison records that make it hard to snare jobs. The labor force participation rate, which measures the percentage of the adult population that’s working or actively seeking employment, has dropped to 63% from 67% in 2000.”

Washington Post Editorial[3]

A Washington Post editorial opens with this statement: “American employers in an array of industries — manufacturing, agriculture, trucking, home building, energy, food service, retail and others — are warning that a long-brewing labor shortage is reaching crisis proportions.”

While the U.S. needs more skilled and English language-proficient immigrants, the editorial continues, “employers in food processing, retail, landscaping and other industries that rely on low-skilled labor are already desperate for workers.”

“By driving away legal and illegal immigrants even as unemployment flatlines and baby boomers retire, [President Trump] deprives businesses of oxygen in the form of labor. That’s not a recipe for making America great.”


[1]  The above demographic challenges are not just U.S. problems. See World Faces Demographic Challenges, dwkcommentaries.com (April 3, 2018).

[2] The Great Labor Crunch, Barron’s (Mar. 10, 2018).

[3] Editorial, America needs more workers. Trump’s war on immigration won’t help, Wash. Post (April 8, 2018).

Trump’s Macroeconomic Idiocies

President Trump continues to spout with expensive ways to implement at least some of his campaign promises. He has not yet submitted a proposed budget for the federal government that would reveal whether and how the competing needs for federal expenditures would be reconciled.

So far, however, Trump continues to utter macroeconomic idiocies. Here are a few.

First, he urges unspecified huge increases in military spending.

Second, Trump continues to call for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump initially said it would cost $8 billion and subsequently upped his figure to $10 to $12 billion. Last October, however, the MIT Technology Review put the real figure at $27 to $40 billion. (Editorial, The Costs of Mt. Trump’s Dragnet, N.Y. Times (Feb. 26, 2017.)

Second, Trump has called for expansion of U.S. arrests and deportation of undocumented aliens.  Already such efforts annually cost over $19 billion, and the American Action Forum recently estimated that expelling all unauthorized immigrants and keeping them out would cost $400 to $600 billion. (Iibid.)

Moreover, says that Forum, such drastic actions would reduce the U.S. GDP by $1 trillion. “Farms and restaurants, hotels, manufacturers, retail businesses–all sectors of the [U.S.] economy benefit directly or indirectly from immigrant labor.” In addition, they pay income, property and sales taxes and make financial contributions to our Social Security Administration while generally not collecting any Social Security benefits. That Administration estimates that such contributions annually total $13 billion while only getting back $1 billion. (Ibid.)

Another glaring socio-economic idiocy of Trump’s suggested massive increase of deportations of unauthorized immigrants is its failure to recognize obvious U.S. demografic trends. The U.S. has low birth rates and aging and declining population in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas. Immigrants are needed in those areas to care for older citizens in their own homes or in assisted-living centers of various kinds while foreign-born primary-care physicians already are a major provider of medical care.  (E.g., Karl, Minnesota used to attract more people from other states than it lost to them. Now it’s the opposite. What happened!, Minn. Post (Feb. 24, 2017).)

Third, the recent heavy rains in Northern California and the threatened collapse of the Oroville Dam have highlighted the dangerous condition of many dams and other important infrastructure systems throughout the U.S. and the need to repair, modify and replace many such structures. An expert pointed out, “Most of the dams in the [U.S.] are over 50 years old” and desperately need such work. (E.g., Assoc. Press, Rural California Levees Beseiged by Pounding Wet Winter, N.Y. Times (Feb. 24, 2017); Griggs, Aeschylus & Almukhtar, America’s Aging Dams Are in Need of Repair, N.Y. Times (Feb. 23, 2017).) An objective analysis of competing demands for federal funds should put this demand at the top of the list.

Fourth, Trump also has called for reduced taxes and unspecified changes to health care insurance


From a macroeconomic perspective an argument could be made for a stimulative federal budget with expenditures exceeding revenues. But the Trump proposals to date show no sign of confronting the questions of how much is too much.

There are many reasons to oppose Trump’s trumpeting the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall and expansion of arrests and deportations of undocumented foreigners: human rights, human decency and promoting positive relations with neighboring countries. They deservedly have received much attention. Yet another reason is their enormous cost.

President Obama Continues To Demonstrate His Intelligence, Eloquence and Strong Record

Obama ChicagoOn April 7th President Obama returned to the University of Chicago Law School, my alma mater and where he taught for 10 years. He did not give a speech; instead he engaged in a conversation with Professor David Strauss and with current law students. [1] (To the right is a photograph of the President at the Law School.)


The stated purpose of this visit was for the President to stress the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court and of the U.S. Senate proceeding with its normal processes for evaluating a presidential nominee to join the Court and thus to provide a hearing and a vote on the President’s nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

The President did just that.

After pointing out the importance of the federal judiciary in general and the Supreme Court in particular in our system of government, the President stressed that Merrick Garland was an “eminently qualified jurist,” a characteristic not disputed by anyone in either major political party. Obama added that in selecting nominees to the federal courts, he wanted to find out about their personal lives as windows to their character. For Judge Garland, Obama was impressed by the nominee’s impromptu defense of a classmate’s right to free speech in speaking against the Vietnam War and Garland’s careful investigation of the Oklahoma City’s bombing tragedy and his empathy for the victims and their families.

Responding to a question from Professor Strauss, the President suggested that liberals should not be disappointed in the choice of Judge Garland because the role of the courts was only rarely to engage in broad societal change. “The courts are a terrific shield; they are not always a very effective sword,”

Obama added, “If you start getting into a situation in which the process of appointing judges is so broken, so partisan that an eminently qualified jurist cannot even get a hearing, then we are going to see the kinds of sharp partisan polarization that have come to characterize our electoral politics seeping entirely into the judicial system. And the courts will be just an extension of our legislatures and our elections and our politics. And that erodes the institutional integrity of the judicial branch. At that point, people lose confidence in the ability of the courts to fairly adjudicate cases and controversies. And our democracy can’t afford that.”

Mr. Obama warned that Republicans’ stance on this nomination could have lasting effects. If he were succeeded by a Republican, Obama said, Democrats would be unlikely to give a new nominee an easy path to confirmation, potentially leaving the seat unfilled for an extended period.

Watching the President’s informal session at the Law School, I again was impressed by his intelligence, eloquence and very personable and disarming manner.  Later I lamented that this intelligence, eloquence and engaging manner were lacking in so many of the current candidates for the presidency.

I also lament that the current presidential campaigning ignores the amazing economic performance of the U.S. during the Obama Administration: [2]

  • The U.S. economy has added jobs for 72 months straight.
  • Unemployment is down to 5 percent.
  • The U.S. is not in a recession and a massive recession does not loom.
  • The auto industry just had its best year ever.
  • The economy is growing.
  • Most Americans like their jobs and get satisfaction from them.
  • Wages are too slowly rising — but they are going up.
  • The average gap in economic satisfaction between the upper and lower thirds in income is lower than it was during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush years, according to the respected Index of Consumer Satisfaction.
  • Nothing has dimmed Americans’ desire to innovate and make technology work for them.
  • According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, employers are even more determined to provide health benefits than before the Affordable Care Act took effect. The percentage of adults under 65 with employer-based insurance held firm for the last five years after steadily declining since 1999.
  • More than 16 million previously uninsured people now have health insurance.


[1] White House, President Obama Participates in a Conversation about the Supreme Court and Our Country’s Judicial System (April 7, 2016) (video of the conversation); Shear, Obama Revisits Law School to Give a Supreme Court Lecture, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2016); Ellperin & DeBonis, To press his Supreme Court nominee’s case, Obama returns to his academic roots, Wash. Post (April 7, 2016); Tau, Obama Says Garland Fight Putting Federal Court System’s Legitimacy at Risk, W.S.J. (April 7, 2016); Gillespie, Obama Returns to the Law School, University of Chicago Law School (April 7, 2016).

[2] McFeatters, And now for the good news about America, StarTribune (April 7, 2016)

Alarming Federal Government Fiscal Challenges

On August 29th Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote an alarming column on the federal government’s fiscal challenges. Moreover, it was not his own opinion he was voicing, but rather that of the Semiannual Report of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that was issued on August 27, 2014.

The CBO Report, Milbank says, shows that “the long-term fiscal disaster, predicted for some time, has crept into the short term.” Here are the particulars for that conclusion from the Report itself:

  • The foundation for the report is the CBO’s own economic forecast that “the economy will grow slowly this year . . . and then at a faster but still moderate pace over the next few years;” that “inflation is expected to remain below the Federal Reserve’s goal, and interest rates on Treasury securities . . . are projected to rise considerably.”
  • Another basic CBO assumption is “current laws governing federal taxes and spending generally remained unchanged.”
  • Federal debt held by the public will reach 74 percent of gross domestic product this year, more than twice what it was at the end of 2007 and higher than in any year since 1950. In a decade, it will hit 77 percent; in 25 years, 100 percent.
  • “85 percent of the federal government’s spending increases between now and 2024 will be consumed by just three items: Social Security (which will claim 28 percent of the increase), Medicare and other health-care programs (32 percent) and interest on the debt (25 percent). Spending on everything else — military and domestic programs alike — would fall to the lowest proportion of the economy since at least 1940, when such statistics were first collected.”
  • “The persistent and growing deficits that CBO projects . . . would have serious negative consequences, including . . . Increased federal spending for interest payments, Restraining economic growth in the long term, Giving policymakers less flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges, and Eventually increasing the risk of a financial crisis (in which investors would demand high interest rates to buy the government’s debt).”

These problems, says Milbank, will come “because of the cowardice of leaders on both sides, who have avoided serious changes to the tax code and to Medicare and the other ‘mandatory’ spending programs.”

Milbank’s comments came before the release of a report by Northwestern University economist, Robert Gordon, claiming that the CBO’s modest projection of U.S. economic growth over the next decade is unattainable. Gordon for several years has argued that reduced labor productivity, reduced labor market participation and meager capital investment have adversely affected the U.S. economy’s ability to grow. Thus, under Gordon’s analysis, the fiscal challenges facing the federal government will only be worse.