Norm Matloff On George Will`s Ignorance
June 28, 2008, 07:08 PM
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From Norm Matloff’s H-1B/L-1/offshoring e-newsletter

Norm Matloff writes:

George Will and I don't share the same political views at all, but I've usually given him credit for careful, tightly-reasoned analysis. Yet unfortunately, no well-reasoned argument has much chance of being correct when it is based on false premises, as is Will's column enclosed below. And some of the reasoning itself is strikingly poor.

Here is his key passage:

Two-thirds of doctoral candidates in science and engineering in U.S. universities are foreign-born. But only 140,000 employment-based green cards are available annually, and 1 million educated professionals are waiting—often five or more years—for cards. Congress could quickly add a zero to the number available, thereby boosting the U.S. economy and complicating matters for America's competitors.[Building a Wall Against Talent, By George F. Will, Washington Post. June 26, 2008]
Will may not be an expert on the education system or the tech industry, but even he should have realized that we aren't producing 140,000 new foreign PhDs in science and engineering per year. The actual number in 2000, for example, was 29,951, for instance. (See Changing Demographics of U.S. Science-Engineering PhDs, NBER.org) Moreover, PhDs get priority in the immigration queue. So why does Will think 140,000 per year isn't enough?

To be fair, it must be mentioned that spouses and minor children are included in the cap. On the other hand, Will doesn't explain why we need all these PhDs anyway. His main example, the late American inventor Jack Kilby, didn't have a doctorate, nor do Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs or the vast majority of others who've made big impacts on the tech industry. And one has to wonder why Will thinks we need to bestow green cards on, for instance, all those doctorates with dissertations on color change in chameleons.

It gets worse. Though Will may be correct in his statement that "1 million educated professionals are waiting [for green cards]—often five or more years," had he done his due diligence he would have found that these people don't have PhDs, nor do they even have Master's degrees. These are Bachelor's-level people, in the EB-3 category, the lowest of the three employment-based green card categories. Those PhDs Will wants so much are in the EB-1 and EB-2 categories, and the wait in those categories is quite short. Indeed, as of Sept. 2007, the wait was ZERO for EB-1, and it has been zero or short for a long time. See the details here.

Will speaks of these foreign workers in the same breadth as Jack Kilby, inventor of the computer chip. Yet he offers no evidence for this implicit comparison of brilliance or creativity. On the contrary, the vast majority of the foreign tech workers being sponsored for green cards are ordinary people, doing ordinary work, for ordinary wages. (See H-1Bs: Still Not the Best and the Brightest Center for Immigration StudiesMay 2008)

Will offers the argument that at worst, it doesn't hurt to have these people around. Well, it DOES hurt. If Kilby were to come of age and enter the field today, he likely would never get a chance to innovate. Upon graduation, he would probably be shunted into one of the "talking" jobs, such as customer support or production control, while the foreign workers are hired to do the real engineering work. If he did manage to get engineering work at first, he would find it more and more difficult to get such work once he reached age 35 or so, as young foreign workers are paid much less than older Americans. Even the pro-industry NRC report, commissioned by Congress, documented extensively that engineers have trouble getting work in the field 10 or 15 years after graduation. All this is even more interesting in light of the fact that Kilby filed his patent for the computer chip when he was 36.

In fact, Will's point that large numbers of the PhDs that U.S. universities produce are foreign students itself shows why it DOES hurt to have these people around. Back in 1989, our National Science Foundation called for an increase in the number of foreign students in order to keep PhD salaries down—yes, this was their explicit rationale—and moreover, the NSF pointed out that the resulting low salaries would drive domestic students away from pursuing doctorates, which of course is exactly what happened. (See here.)

The proposals now in Congress to give automatic green cards to new foreign graduates in science and engineering would make things even worse than what the NSF wanted. As mentioned above, young workers have lower wages than older ones, and almost all the new grads are young. So the proposals would swell the labor pool at the young end, making it even harder for our Jack Kilbys to make a viable career out of engineering. No wonder our brightest young people with top math talent are finding it far more lucrative to pursue careers in finance than in engineering.

Does that matter? You bet it does. America's only advantage over the rest of the world is its innovativeness. Most of the foreign workers come from cultures which do not foster innovativeness and in fact tend to suppress it. In other words, the muddled thinking Will exhibits here is ruining the only good thing we have going for us. So YES, it matters.

Lastly, Will brings up that constant industry lobbyist refrain that "We'll lose these people to our competitors" if we don't give them green cards. Again, the putative good ones, the ones in EB-1 (for "foreign nationals of "extraordinary ability" and for "outstanding professors") and EB-2 (for those who are either of "exceptional ability" or possess an "advanced degree"), are getting their green cards quickly, so we're NOT "losing" them. However: Even with green cards, the fact is that they often don't keep their technology in the U.S. anyway. The study by UCB Prof. Annalee Saxenian found that many eventually return to their home countries even after attaining U.S. citizenship, that many who do stay here start businesses back home, and that more than 80% share technology with people in the home country. This may not be all bad, but it certainly shows that the shrill "We've got to give them green cards to prevent them from helping our competitors" argument is nonsense.

Very poorly researched piece (or nonresearched, if it was based on from those slick "educational" literature packets that the industry lobbyists send to journalists). For shame, George!

Norm