What Alaska Taught Me About Economics

I’m recently back in Michigan after working at Leader Creek Fisheries in Naknek, Alaska for the Sockeye Salmon season. Working conditions were wet, cold and messy; I had no internet access, no cell phone service and I lived in a trailer; and when the processing plant was at 24-hour production I was working 100+ hour work weeks. It was a unique experience and taught me some first-hand lessons about how economics work.

Lesson 1: Foreigners aren’t stealing America’s jobs. In fact, we’re practically begging them to take them from us. Consider this: Leader Creek Fisheries hires over 400 workers for the summer salmon season. Perhaps half of those are foreigners, mostly from eastern Europe and the Philippines. Did foreigners just steal 200 “American” jobs? After all, with unemployment over 8% there are plenty of Americans in need of jobs. Of course, there’s no reason why an American would be entitled to a job over another human being just because it is geographically located in the United States any more than they’d be entitled to a job in Kazakhstan but, that fact aside, the notion that scary foreigners our stealing our very livelihoods is absurd and here’s why: when an American company like Leader Creek Fisheries hires foreigners to jobs in America its generally because they have one major advantage over the American workers: they want these jobs and we don’t. Most Americans will not work in such adverse conditions for 100 hours a week, in the middle of nowhere with (gasp!) no internet or cell phones. In fact, when I was at the plant over twenty workers quit after the first sixteen hour shift and 85 had quit by day 5 – all of them were Americans.

Fisheries like Leader Creek do not seek out foreign workers because they are heartless, only care about their bottom line, or because they’re greedy. Maybe they are those things, maybe not but when they hire foreign workers they hire them because those workers want those jobs more than their American counterparts. In the wild Alaska salmon industry the amount of work available is dependent upon the supply of fish, which spikes quickly and requires a large workforce to fully capitalize on the sheer amount of fish available for processing; of course, Alaska is sparsely populated and such a workforce simply is not readily available. Thus, workers must be brought in, not just foreign workers from other countries but other workers “foreign” to Alaska from other states like Washington but also California, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and others. Without these foreign workers the industry would suffer immensely and companies like Leader Creek might even go out of business, unable to compete against similar industries like farm-grown salmon. The result would be that, instead of American workers having 200 out of 400 jobs available, they would have 0 out of 0 jobs. Instead of stealing “our” jobs foreigners enable certain industries to grow and thrive in ways that they otherwise would not, thus leading to more wealth and more jobs overall.

Lesson 2: People aren’t forced to work in adverse conditions (in this country) and such conditions aren’t evil. When you work in the wild Alaska salmon industry you work sixteen hour shifts, seven days a week in cold, wet conditions. If you are tired, you work; if you get sick (and you will), you work; if your body hurts (and everything does), you work. These are very difficult conditions indeed – so much so that some Americans condemn them as inhumane and evil, representative of greedy capitalist elites forcing lowly workers to work like slaves. Remember the Occupy Wall Street protestors who demanded 40 hour work weeks and a $20 minimum wage for everyone? Of course, such demands are absurd and here’s why: first, no one is being forced to do anything. People come from not only all over the country, but all over the world to work at places like Leader Creek, fully aware of the conditions which they will be working under. People want these jobs and are fully willing to put up with the adverse conditions in return for their paychecks.

Of course, its better to work in dry, warm conditions than cold wet ones, to work a nice 40 hour week than a 100 hour one but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with such hard work. 8 dollars an hour isn’t a whole lot of money (in this country) when you’re working only 40 hours a week or less. However, 8 dollars an hour at 100 hours a week with overtime is quite a respectable amount. It all depends on how much money you want to make and how much your comfort is worth to you. Some people prefer to make bigger sacrifices for a bigger payoff and, here in the United States, we are blessed with the ability to freely make those choices for ourselves.

Lesson 3: Minimum wage and government-issued welfare hold people back. There are a lot of young people in inner cities without legitimate work and many of them have become wards of the state, dependent on government welfare and benevolence programs. Yet, simultaneously, there are businesses like Leader Creek Fisheries which, every year, must resort to hiring hundreds of foreign workers because Americans simply don’t want these jobs. So, why is it that the stereotypical oppressed poor of the inner cities, desperate to rise above their current situation don’t flock to these jobs? Leader Creek, for example, offers a $1,200 travel stipend, pays for all room and board and, when the plant is running at 24 hour production workers can make over $1,000 a week for unskilled labor with no prior experience needed. The reason, most likely, is that its very hard work. Some conservatives seem to think that poor people shy away from these difficult jobs because they are lazy. I disagree; I think they stay away from them because they’re smart. The poor people of inner cities are no different than you or me: they respond to all the same incentives and de-incentives that you or I do and, just like anyone else, they take the path of least resistance. Welfare is the path of least resistance. Why should someone on welfare take a temporary job that requires them to work in adverse conditions, 16 hour a day, seven days a week when they can just stay on welfare which requires hardly anything of them? That’s not lazy; that’s human, and that’s how the government, intentionally or unintentionally, creates a welfare state in which millions of people, in the richest country in the world, are unnecessarily and totally dependent upon others – not because they’re unable to depend on themselves but because they’re incentivized not to.

Another interesting phenomenon I noticed in my time in Alaska is the large number of workers from Washington. At first glance this doesn’t seem strange. After all, Washington is the nearest state to Alaska and to fly from Seattle is the easiest way to reach it. What’s strange, though, is that the fishery pays 8 dollars per hour. Washington minimum wage is $9.04 per hour. I even talked to several people from Washington who quit their job in Washington to come work at the fishery. I can’t divine any specific reason why people would choose to forego easier jobs with a higher rate of pay for lower paying jobs in adverse conditions but what I do suspect is that, again because people are smart and will work in their self-interest for what’s best for them, they do so because they believe it to be their best option. So, while politicians demand minimum wages because we must combat “unjust wages” and set “livable wages” that someone can “raise a family on” many people are turning down such “just” and “livable” wages for jobs that pay at rates that by contrast must be unjust and unlivable. It seems that while we say we want minimum wages in our politics we are saying something very different with our actions.


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