Dr. Norm Matloff Profiled In Business Week
July 02, 2009, 12:03 AM
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Dr. Norm Matloff writes
BusinessWeek was originally going to do a piece on the various players in the H-1B reform movement, but decided to focus on me instead. The article is here: An Academic's Labor Helps Fight H-1B Visas | Norm Matloff, a computer science professor with a Chinese-born wife, says the U.S. skilled-immigrant visa system exploits workers everywhere, By Moira Herbst, BusinessWeek, June 28, 2009.

Of course, I do have some comments.

As are most advocates on immigration issues, Matloff is a controversial figure. He's admired by supporters—including activists on H-1B visa issues—but criticized by other academics who don't share his views and who chafe at his often-abrasive rhetorical style. Critics also suggest there could be a xenophobic undertone implicit in his critique of the H-1B visa program. Matloff posts opinionated blog entries on the Web site of Numbers USA, a group calling for lower levels of immigration. His writing prompted one tech worker, Arthur Hu of Bothell, Wash., to create a Web page criticizing Matloff, whom he calls the "Hatchet Man of Asian Immigration."
Some of the reader comments on this article take BusinessWeek to task for giving a voice to "Kevin, the IT Grunt," who is obviously some fringe guy on the H-1B issue. I might say the same for Arthur Hu. With hundreds of millions of Web users, there is likely to be one that rants against any topic under the sun, and it happens that one of Arthur's topics is me. :-) That's fine, but some readers of the article may mistakenly take this to mean that Asian-Americans agree with him on the H-1B issue, which they don't. Every time I'm invited to speak to an Asian-American conference, such as the Asian Pacific American Conference on Law and Public Policy at Harvard and the Asian-American Out of the Silence Conference at Stanford, I get solid support from the audiences. This should be no surprise—with so many Asian-Americans in engineering, H-1B puts their jobs at risk. My support from my own students, two-thirds of whom are Asian-American (not Asian foreign students), is also quite strong. I'm proud to say that they've nominated me for various teaching awards, some of which I've been fortunate to win.
Matloff has influence on the H-1B visa debate beyond his Web page and e-mail newsletter. He has worked with Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) on a bill introduced in April that would add restrictions to the H-1B visa program.
Small correction: Though I've worked with Grassley's office, I've never talked to the senator himself.
(itgrunt.com). "THAT IS ONE ARTICULATE [expletive]", wrote Kevin in a post in April referring to Matloff. (Matloff distances himself from "Kevin" and his Web site and says his views are "unrepresentative.")
Maybe this is a small correction too, but I want to clarify that what I told Moira Herbst, the reporter, was that I had never even heard of Kevin/IT Grunt until she herself brought him to my attention.
Matloff has his share of supporters and critics in the academic world, too. "Matloff routinely attacks the work of other academics by citing statistics and data which have no basis," says Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke University engineering professor and fellow with the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. (Wadhwa is also a columnist for BusinessWeek.com.) "He claims to have performed his own research, but this research doesn't seem to have been published by credible authorities or have received any form of peer review."
I wish Ms. Herbst had given me a chance to comment. Vivek's statements here are unfair and I believe close to being legally actionable. They are not quite as bad as what he told a San Francisco radio station recently, which I reported on here at the time. To suggest that an academic is dishonest in his research is to endanger his ability to make a living, and I wish BusinessWeek had not given its colleague such latitude. I'll leave the reader to peruse the details here but I will comment on a couple of points here.

First, my University of Michigan article that Herbst mentions was indeed peer-reviewed, and obviously was in a very prestigious venue. To my knowledge, it is the most extensive paper ever published on H-1B, 99 pages in length with over 300 footnotes. My other article cited by Herbst was in a publication of the California State Bar Association, and was written at their invitation. I've also written articles at the invitation of publications of the Association for Computing Machinery (the main computer science professional organization), IEEE (the main electrical engineering association), and so on.

Second, the vast majority of my analyses use publicly available data, from the U.S. Census PUMS database, the U.S. Dept. of Labor PERM data, NSF's NSCG survey and so on. Thus anyone can confirm my analyses.

Putting Vivek's remarks aside, the much more important point is that he and I agree on the main issues: (a) H-1B is widely used by employers as a source of cheap labor. (b) The employers underpay the H-1Bs in full compliance with the law, exploiting loopholes. (c) There is no tech labor shortage.

Vivek wrote the following in The American last year:

Moreover, I know from my experience as a tech CEO that H-1Bs are cheaper than domestic hires. Technically, these workers are supposed  to be paid a �prevailing wage,� but this mechanism is riddled with loopholes.
We also agree on point (c); see for example here.

Finally, there is a quote from Lindsay Lowell:

But other academics say they respect his work. "Matloff understands the guts of the issue in a way many academics don't," says B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration. "He brings a lot of passion to the subject, which has its upsides and downsides. At times it can detract from his message." Lowell adds that "as a professor, I believe he may take the career options of his students seriously and believes, to some extent, that an oversupply of highly skilled immigrants—H-1Bs in particular—is not in the interest of the domestic supply line." But Lowell says that like many researchers in this area, Matloff lacks definitive data on, for example, the proportion of older workers who are laid off and replaced by younger workers or H-1B visa holders.
In turn I have had high praise for Lindsay. Readers will recall my praise of his Urban Institute study with Hal Salzman that contradicted the doomsday reports we see so often in the press (often fed to the press by organizations with their own agendas) on America's educational system. See my postings on this at here and here.

Concerning Lindsay's "lacks definitive data" comment, though, I must point out the following. The data showing the underpayment of the H-1Bs and the problems of older (age 35+) workers in the field is overwhelming. What Lindsay is referring to, though, is a connection between the two. Has the negative impact of H-1B on older tech workers been "definitively" established? I believe it has, though not in the way in which Lindsay has posed the question, in terms of layoffs.

Yes, it does sometimes happen that older Americans are laid off and replaced by younger workers or H-1Bs. (Statistically, most H-1Bs are young.) But typically it's not so direct. Instead, a job opens, and the young Americans and H-1Bs are hired instead of the older Americans. There is excellent, yes "definitive," data on this, such as those by American University and the National Research Council, the latter commissioned by Congress.

The industry lobbyists try to spin this as lack of modern skills on the part of the older Americans. This is a red herring, as I show extensively in my University of Michigan and California State Bar articles. Even Vivek, a former tech CEO, has said this many times, e.g.

...even if the [older] $120,000 programmer gets the right skills, companies would rather hire the younger workers. That's really what's behind this.
As a professional statistician and former statistics professor, I would like to make one more point about data: It must be coupled with qualitative knowledge of the matter being studied. Otherwise, the analyst is like the ancient astronomer Ptolemy, constructing ever more intricate mathematical theories based on totally false premises (sun revolving around the Earth). In the H-1B salary area, for instance, there are lots of pitfalls for the unwary. I have a detailed discussion of this in my University of Michigan paper.

Sorry for my absence these last few weeks. I've been busy with family matters. But I've got a lot to write about in the next couple of weeks, including my long-awaited analysis of the Kerr/Lincoln paper on immigrant patenting.

Norm