Contra Paul Graham On Importing Programmers
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Venture capitalist and fine essayist Paul Graham writes in favor of Silicon Valley billionaires’ efforts to pass the Senate immigration bill, which increases H-1B visas from 85,000 new ones per year to 180,000.
Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In

December 2014

American technology companies want the government to make immigration easier because they say they can’t find enough programmers in the US.

Anti-immigration people say that instead of letting foreigners take these jobs, we should train more Americans to be programmers.

Who’s right? The technology companies are right. What the anti-immigration people don’t understand is that there is a huge variation in ability between competent programmers and exceptional ones, and while you can train people to be competent, you can’t train them to be exceptional.

Exceptional programmers have an aptitude for and interest in programming that is not merely the product of training. [1]

The US has less than 5% of the world’s population. Which means if the qualities that make someone a great programmer are evenly distributed, 95% of great programmers are born outside the US.

Funny, then, how we mostly seem to wind up with upper caste Indians as H-1Bs. If you asked H-1Bs if programming talent was evenly distributed just within India, they’d scoff at the notion: “Untouchables? I say, that’s a good one!”
The anti-immigration people have to invent some explanation to account for all the effort technology companies have expended trying to make immigration easier. So they claim it’s because they want to drive down salaries.

But if you talk to startups, you find practically every one over a certain size has gone through legal contortions to get programmers into the US, where they then paid them the same as they’d have paid an American.

I was going to enumerate the non sequiturs, economic fallacies, and slippery changes of focus, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.
We have the potential to ensure that the US remains a technology superpower just by letting in a few thousand great programmers a year.
Okay, so let’s say “a few thousand” means 5,000. Then what do we need 85,000 H-1B grunts for, much less 180,000?

Let me refocus from Silicon Valley to another giant California industry that is highly talent-dependent and remains totally dominant globally: the movie industry.

Here, from Box Office Mojo, are the top three dozen box office smashes so far in 2014 at overseas theaters (i.e., excluding revenue from North America):

And, finally, the 37th biggest movie outside of North America so far in 2014 is the first non-English language movie, by the Japanese animation master Miyazaki: Now some of these movies are likely more British or New Zealander than American, but the first three dozen are all English-language movies with substantial American involvement. Everybody complains about Hollywood, but it’s a spectacularly successful export industry.

But here’s the relevant fact for thinking about Graham’s logic: Hollywood, unlike Silicon Valley, makes very little use of H-1B visas. Indeed, overall Hollywood is a high cost industry, with fairly strong unions and a lot of nepotism.

Hollywood’s world dominance is not because America has a monopoly on talent. When I went to Turkey in 2009 I was amazed by how spectacular their home-grown TV commercials were. And the best foreign talent — e.g., Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman, The Tree of Life) does get to the United States, even though Hollywood seldom uses H-1b programs.

So, once again, what do we need H-1Bs for, much less vastly more H-1Bs?

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