Bill Gates, the world's richest man, and purveyor of buggy, insecure, unstable software, recently implored Congress to subsidize importing second-rate talent with low cost guest-worker visas. Such policies only enrich Gates and his wealthy cohorts at the expense of what remains of US engineering talent. (The Axis of Amnesty's Immigration Surge bill also provided expanded guest worker visas for nurses—a move which will destroy nursing as a career for American citizens. Next they'll be coming for the journalists!)
Self-serving, short-sighted, unpopular corporate H-1b/L-1 expansion has wounded America deeply. Hundreds of thousands of American IT workers have been displaced, millions have had their incomes reduced—and American students have been directed out of occupations that have been debauched by legislative whims.
There is outrage over H-1b and L-1 visas by those impacted, but relatively few complain about the "outstanding scientists" visas. (One exception: VDARE.COM's Rob Sanchez.) Theoretically, these "O" Visas might facilitate entry of the next Einstein or Fermi. Even accepting my estimate that citizenship is worth at least $225,000, the US should sometimes extend it. Early in WW II, the military extended a substantial cash prize—and offered US citizenship- to anyone presenting a functioning Zero aircraft. After Pearl Harbor, few doubted the value offered by the enterprising German Jewish engineer, who scavenged enough parts from crashed Zeroes in China to win that prize.
However, sensible "outstanding scientists" recruitment requires:
1) All awards of citizenship are done on a truly competitive basis;
2) The basis of the competition has clear value;
3) Equivalent awards, with an additional cash prize equivalent of the value of the citizenship grant, are available to US citizens;
4) The payment for these grants of citizenship needs to come from the US citizens who most clearly benefit.
Offering substantial rewards requires substantial thought—and security. Organized Asian rings already cheat on the GRE to gain US university admittance and immigration rights. Good technologists create a lot of "positive externalities"—but to get these, we must select for folks capable of making some technical contributions, not just adept at playing corporate/academic politics or fabricating credentials.
The Longitude Prize offered by the British government in 1714 exemplifies good design. A modern example: the fusion legislation promoted by Bob Bussard. A comprehensive set of incentives would provide a de facto US technological policy, similar to Japan's manufacturing policy. The creators of any technology that enables American production of goods for export, or substitution of goods that are currently imported, should be candidate for consideration of citizenship grants.
Why offer equivalent cash awards to US citizens? Because each grant of citizenship has the potential to reduce the niche for an equivalent US citizen. Only a limited number of positions give world-class talent the ability to develop—and some such niches, for example at MIT or Stanford, require considerable funds to set up. The overall package of each prize should be equivalent for citizens vs. non-citizens—so "buy vs. build" decisions can be made reasonably.
Creating grants that are only specifically available to foreigners would have very perverse incentives and driving US citizens out of areas in which grants are being made—unless we expand the rewards for US citizens equivalent to the grants of citizenship being made. Suitable grants could effectively enable production of local talent. If we offered cash prizes to Americans able to pass the professional engineer exams at a level of $225,000 per citizen, there would rapidly be a huge supply of engineers. Granting of residency rights—which are of similar value—to foreign engineers is simply uneconomic.
I do fully expect that some employers will pay high prices to get citizenship for substantial numbers of key foreign employees. The resulting revenues could be used to finance incentives for Americans. (Additional revenues should be obtained by taxing the assets of the very wealthy who have benefited from, and promoted, immigration the most insistently.)
Unlike businessman Gates, few of the most gifted and influential technical pioneers get adequate financial rewards. The creator of jet engines got only modest rewards from them. Kary Mullis got a $10,000 bonus from Cetus for inventing the polymerase chain reaction—technology that sold for $300,000,000!
Gifted people have a variety of options. If we want those folks to choose technological professions—instead of law, real estate, climbing the corporate ladder or crime—we must make technological activities comparatively attractive, not something folks must pursue for solely for reasons of idealism or enormous altruism. The Founders intended the system of patents to reward and enable inventors. Early in the history of the republic, it did function that way. But the Founders included Jefferson and Franklin, who actually did invent things. Inventors are now rare among the US political and economic elite.
I'm not expecting technologists to become economic animals completely. I would prefer more numerous and modest prizes over a few large ones. But surviving in the US requires significant financial resources. One advantage of numerous prizes is we can gradually raise the ante—open them to international competition only when the problem proves difficult—reserving citizenship grants only for the upper end of these prizes.
Let's say we agreed with Gates: the US needs more "really smart people". Well, we could award citizenship on the basis of demonstrating an IQ of 164 (1 in 10,000). If that were done, I'd offer equivalent level of cash rewards to US citizens (perhaps via scholarships, increased gifted education funding and prizes) that meet that criterion so that the buy vs. build decisions were rationalized and the lives of these gifted citizens were made no worse by increased economic competition for their specific economic and social niches.
High IQ visas would mean admitting only a few hundred additional immigrants each year. But there is a real difference between admitting a pool of "really smart people" as equals in America rather than indentured servants willing to serve the current corporate elites—which is what Gates really wants from H-1b expansion.
Gathering even the most exceptional talent presents problems. The mix we create will not necessarily work well together—or produce consistent results. As 9/11 shows, we must consider all costs created by any immigration or visa policy.
But when you look at actively recruiting highly desirable immigrants, it becomes obvious the US has serious problems.
Still, there is an attraction in the US for many. The American public deserves a serious attempt at selecting those that truly are the "best and the brightest"—without sacrificing their own children to the greed of the corporate elite.
Randall Burns [email him] holds a degree in Economics from the University of Chicago. He works in the information technology sector and is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. Burns has been active in furthering the introduction of immigration, trade, and tax realities into the progressive agenda. In 2004, he helped create the Kucinich campaign's position paper on H-1b/L-1 visas.