Vernon Briggs: Prophet of the Economic Divide

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on May 30, 2012

The New York Times recently published a laudatory review of The Great Divergence, a book written by journalist Timothy Noah to explain how the widening gap between haves and have-nots came to be. Here is an excerpt:

The principal influences on inequality that Noah examines include the failure of America's schools to keep pace with the step-up in skills that advancing technology demands from our labor force; America's skewed immigration policy, which inadvertently brings in more unskilled than skilled immigrants and thereby subjects already lower-income workers to greater competition for jobs; rising competition with China, India and other low-wage countries, as changing technology enables Americans to buy ever more goods and even services produced overseas; the failure of the federally mandated minimum wage to keep up with inflation; the decline of labor unions, especially among employees of private-sector firms; and what he sees as an anti-worker and anti-poor attitude among American politicians in general and Republicans in particular.

Noah's observation about our "skewed immigration policy" struck me because I am writing a portrait of a man who has been warning about its consequences in books, scholarly articles, congressional testimony, media interviews and letters to the editor for four decades. That man is Vernon M. Briggs, Jr, emeritus professor of labor economics at Cornell and a member of the board of the Center for Immigration Studies.

A few details:

  • In 1973, after, the Johns Hopkins University Press published Briggs' book Chicanos and Rural Poverty, a review in Social Science Quarterly called the book "a powerful indictment of public policy being continuously responsive to the interests of corporate farm owners while being unresponsive to minimal wage and welfare needs of Southwest farm workers."
  • In 1978 testimony at a congressional hearing, Briggs said: "Immigration policy in the Southwest has been used as an instrument to oppress many of our poorest citizens who are least able to protect themselves. It is precisely to end this institutional manipulation of the supply of labor that there is a need to control illegal immigration."
  • In his masterful 1992 work, Mass Immigration and the National Interest, Briggs said: "The United States needs to adopt an immigration policy that is consistent with its rapidly changing labor market trends. If congruent immigration policy can provide a valuable tool to national efforts to enhance economic efficiency and to achieve societal equity. If contradictory, immigration policy can present a major barrier to the accomplishment of either or both goals."
  • In a 1990 letter to The New York Times, Briggs identified the source of the problem, lamenting that "immigration policy is designed to accommodate political goals. It is not accountable for its economic consequences."

The Times review of The Great Divergence said Noah's "chief concern is the fear that ever-widening inequality will undermine our democracy." No one has chronicled the reasons for that concern more powerfullly, nor warned about it more presciently than Vernon Briggs.