Trump, Immigration and the Lump of Labor Fallacy

What did Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist, and François Mitterrand, the socialist president of France from 1981 to 1995, have in common with Donald Trump? Both, at some point, believed in what economists call the lump of labor fallacy. This is the view that there is a fixed amount of work to be done and that if someone or something — some group of workers or some kind of machine — is doing some of that work, that means fewer jobs for everyone else.

And Trump clearly shares that belief. As I noted in my most recent column, it underlies his hostility to immigration — well, that and his belief that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” It also underlies his protectionism.

So this seems like a good time to talk about the lump of labor fallacy, how we know it’s a fallacy and why it’s a zombie — an idea that refuses to die and instead keeps shambling along, eating people’s brains.

First, about Vonnegut and Mitterrand.

Vonnegut’s first novel, “Player Piano,” published in 1952, envisaged a grim future in which automation has led to mass unemployment: The machines can do everything, so there’s no need for human workers.

Mitterrand, coming to power in a nation that had experienced a large rise in unemployment since the early 1970s, reduced France’s retirement age from 65 to 60, in part because he and his advisers believed that encouraging older French citizens to leave the work force would free up jobs for younger workers. Mitterrand’s successors have spent decades trying to undo the damage.

Why is there always a substantial group of people — the lumpencommentariat? — who believe that there’s a limited amount of work to be done, so machines that increase productivity or immigrants entering the work force take away jobs? Many of these people probably haven’t even tried to think their views through. But it’s also true that something like the lump of labor story does make sense if you think about an individual industry in isolation.

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