This is a rather difficult post for me to write. Mostly, because it runs contrary to what I want to believe. It also challenges beliefs that I have had over the years and makes me wonder if I believed them because, well, I wanted to.
So the EPI wrote a paper demonstrating that the market for STEMs is over-saturated. This is being used to argue against the notion that we need to produce more STEM majors. That’s fair enough, to a point, but largely unmentioned in my circles (by anyone but The Usual Suspects) is another natural repercussion of this revelation. Namely, if we have enough science and technical people here, why are we immigrating so many from abroad? The argument for bringing more people in is predicated on one of two arguments: Either (1) the skills that one learns are so valuable that they are job-creators, or (2) we have a shortage. If #2 is not true, then we really don’t need to be bringing more in, do we, unless #1 is true. If #1 is true, then we should go full-throttle at encouraging people to go into STEM because there isn’t a natural limit to the usefulness of the field or if there is then we aren’t close to it.
Outside of strict IQ-based arguments, it seems contradictory to simultaneously against creating more STEM-types here while arguing for bringing more. I am either a STEM-booster or STEM-skeptic depending on the conversation. In this context, though, I am actually a skeptic. Just as I am skeptical of college being the answer at a societal level, I am also skeptical of STEM in this context. At some point, it gets watered down enough that it becomes the useless rush stamp. IQ (or scientific/mathematic aptitude, if you prefer) could tie that particular knot, if we don’t have a sufficiently large base of innate aptitude to produce job-creating Stemmers here but we can import them. This would, however, open up a host of other questions.
Jordan Weissman has my respect. Citing the EPI question, he points directly to the question that it seems others have been avoiding and expresses a degree of skepticism towards plans to expand H1-B visas. And he’s looking specifically at computer programmers, one of the areas I have personally most been sympathetic to visa expansion:
Companies are technically supposed to hire H1-B immigrants only if there are no Americans available to do the job, and then are required to pay them on par with U.S.-born professionals. Thanks to an array of legal loopholes in the way appropriate wages are calculated, though, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way.
Often, it comes down to a matter of age: Companies frequently save money by hiring a young, less experienced immigrant instead of an older American who would command a higher salary. And because the bureaucratic hurdles make it difficult for H1-B holders to switch jobs, guest workers have notorious difficulty bargaining for promotions or raises. They also can’t go off and start their own businesses, as they’d lose their visa. Unlike green card holders, they’re professionally chained in place.
The program has also fed the pernicious growth of IT outsourcing firms. These companies use H1-B visas to import low cost tech workers by the thousands, who they hire out to American corporations as substitutes for better-paid, in-house staff. The Boston Globe reports that just 4 of these companies — New Jersey-based Cognizant Technology Solutions along with India-based Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro, and Infosys — claimed 20 percent of the 134,780 H1-B visas that were approved in 2012.
I say Weissman has my respect, and it’s not actually solely because he is staking out a position that isn’t convenient for a writer for a publication like The Atlantic. It’s also because he had the honesty to, as he learned more about the situation, change his position after having written this piece a while back, which is something much more like what I would expect from The Atlantic and other Respectable Publications.
The thing is, it’s easy and socially convenient, to be a writer in non-conservative political magazines in diverse and liberal echelons of culture and stake out a position in favor of bringing in more talent from abroad. It’s easy because it’s not something a lot of people that matter to you are likely to speak up in protest about.
And to be honest, it’s easy for me to make these arguments. I don’t live in such an area, and I write for The League, but I nonetheless inhabit a cultural and economic orbit where I am not made particularly vulnerable by a potential influx of foreign workers competing with me for jobs. My wife’s job makes my career (or lack thereof) a lot less important. But more than that, the concerns Weissman outlines are not something I see, for the most part. At first thought, nearly every STEM person I know but one (who just recently graduated with a PhD in astrophysics, which is something of a niche) is doing well financially. Even those without college degrees! Back in Colosse, I know more people that are having trouble hiring (and yes, at reasonable rates with reasonable requirements) than I do people that just can’t find work.
But then I think again, and I think of the people in Deseret. Those people are struggling, with or without a degree. I am tempted to dismiss this because, well, they live in Deseret. And not in its capital and not in its tech corridor. What can you expect? But maybe, when I think a third time, that situation is more common than I think, and Colosse is less common than I think. And I wonder how much of what I believed is the comfortable generosity of the relatively invulnerable.
Because at fourth thought, I think back to when I was working at Mindstorm, a very large software company in the Pacific Northwest. I think of the fact that I worked in a department where maybe 20% of my coworkers were American. And this was a job that didn’t require a particularly high IQ. It required job-specific knowledge that could be taught. But why teach it when you can just bring it in? Says Weissman:
there are a few compelling arguments in favor of H1-B. First, and most simply, it’s reasonable to think that companies should be able to quickly and easily fish for talent abroad in the cases where it’s truly necessary.
Now, define “necessary”? Necessary in that they cannot be trained locally? Or necessary in that they are not already trained locally? Because I do know people who could work the lab at Mindstorm. But they would need training. Maybe they could go get the training themselves. But maybe they’re not needed because there’s already-trained talent from abroad. It’s enough to make me wonder how much local brainpower is being shuffled away by opportunities we’re giving to people from other countries?
In addition to a number of other factors, another reason that the benign experiences of those around me in STEM may be less than universal is that, though we graduated from college during the post-Clinton recession, we didn’t have to deal with the Great Recession. And now we really are looking at a lot of under-utilized human capital. According to the statistics I’ve seen, people who major in IT, computer science, and the like appear to be doing quite well even if they’re not finding jobs specifically in their field. But the story on the latest crop of graduates hasn’t been told. It’s tough times for many who find themselves unemployed or underemployed. How wise is it to give them more competition for jobs?
Now, with my last two paragraphs, here is where some people respond, “but why should we consider their fate more important than the fate of those we want to bring over?” The short answer is, quite frankly, because they’re Americans. Just as I would prefer my fellow citizens look after me before looking after a foreign national in some other country, I would just assume do the same. You can call this nativist, if you like. You can call it xenophobic. You can call it bigoted. I don’t wish people harm so much as I place the welfare of some over the welfare of others. To me, expecting otherwise would be to wonder why I value the fate of my adopted cousin over the fate of some stranger. If it’s a bigotry, it’s a bigotry I can live with. To be honest, whether we admit it or not, it’s sewn in to our national discourse with liberals and conservatives alike.
None of this goes very far into lending insight into whether or not bringing in a lot more people by way of H1-B visas actually hurts or helps my fellow countrymen. Everyone’s got an answer for that. Weissman explores reasons that it might help. And I look at inflated wages due to a shortage of local STEM talent as an economic inefficiency of sorts, if it is in fact due to a shortage. I also think that people in a lot of these white collar fields can, to some degree, afford to take a hit on salary for the common good. Mostly, though, I am sympathetic to the notion that increasing America’s high-intelligence brain trust is an overall good thing that will be good for our overall future. I have more confidence in our ability to immigrating that brain trust than I do expanding it significantly through education policy. These are the reasons I have stood where I have stood, against my own interests in a way.
However, a lot of these arguments do not apply to low-skill or semi-skill, low-education immigrants. Many of their children, or grandchildren, will indeed become a part of our national brain trust. I’ve worked with second and third-generation Mexican-Americans who have. A lot more of them, however, won’t. Last I saw, wages and degrees for grandchildren of immigrants from Mexico have lagged considerably from the population as a whole. In an age where it is generally agreed that the greatest contributors to the economy are those who will go to college and be white collar workers, we have a large number of immigrants where getting them there is going to be a real struggle.
The argument in favor of this group is that they’re “doing jobs Americans won’t do.” This is often true. When I was living in Deseret, there were wheat fields and a ketchup factory that was offering significant amounts of money and still couldn’t staff the fields. A lot of the work they do is unpleasant and, though obviously not the case in the Deseret fields, doesn’t pay that well. This explanation sometimes does leave me a bit short, though. Construction jobs did not used to be something that Americans wouldn’t do. Americans are doing the jobs in lots of places. Few immigrants live where I do, but construction occurs, floors get mopped, and so on. For a lot of the jobs they end up taking, it’s a matter of wages. As with the H1-B visas, the low wages are very much contributed to by the availability of immigrated labor.
Economists generally say, with low-skill labor and high, that the costs are paid for with the benefits. In the overall, at least. I am, repeatedly, assured that is the case. By people, I can’t help but notice, are not particularly vulnerable to the effects of the policies they advocate. And, at least some of the time, people that are more likely to benefit.
Now, I have a relatively comfortable existence. I can afford to say “If it’s good for the country, my wife can get paid less.” Or I can get paid less (if I were not a stay-at-home dad). I can afford the comfortable generosity. I can take the chance that the economists are right. I could, if I were so inclined, get high-and-mighty about those who disagree with me being racist. I can look at the big picture and say, “See? Good in the overall.” And get very impatient with the dead-enders and their baseless fears. Or, if their fears aren’t baseless, how they should take it in the chin for the greater good. My good, as it turns out. I truly wonder the extent to which this has influenced my historic views on immigration. I fear it greatly influences my preference for free trade.
It’s not hard to imagine myself, for a moment, if somewhere were to happen to Clancy. I would have a daughter and I’d need to find a job that would support both of us. I’d have been out of the workforce for too long. I could very easily be the kind of employee that employers look at and say “But we can get someone from India instead.” My sense of generosity and the greater good wanes. The sense that I should take it in the chin, or that I should bear the cost of the greater good starts to look downright unappealing. Faith that it even is in the national interest, rather than just being in their interest, becomes much more difficult. I am no longer at a point in my life where I could start at $30,000 a year and patiently try to work my way up. If I could find a job in the first place.
It’s not a large leap from there to truly be able to empathize with those that don’t even have what I have to fall back on, and feel an even greater insecurity. An even greater skepticism of the eggheads – so often coming from a culture that disregards mine – and that they have my best interest. And it’s not something I believe the unions could fix. Or even a stronger safety net. Even apart from the immigration question, I worry about self-supporting jobs in the coming years, so I clearly have my doubts that the road will rise to meet our population.
That conflicts with my natalist philosophy, though, and I have yet to mentally work that all out. But it also conflicts with a lot of my personal desires. I don’t like thinking that, perhaps, people who want to be American’s shouldn’t. I can’t say that we were the best of friends, but I liked my Indian coworkers at the large software company. I genuinely believe that their kids will make great Americans, if they choose to stay (as could they themselves, if they choose to become citizens). When I lived in the immigrant apartment complex back home, I thought most of my neighbors were pretty good people, working hard and creating little trouble. I want to be able to tell all of those people, and everyone who wants to come here, that they are welcome. That’s not possible, but I want at least to share the awesomeness of the American experience with as many people as we can make room for. I want that number to definitely include people like the people I’ve known, over the years.
I fear that, maybe, I want it too much. And that I am perhaps to dismissive of those that believe they are paying a price for it.