Thursday, June 26, 2008

George Will on High-Skilled Immigration

This morning, George Will wrote about high-skilled immigrants, and advocated increasing the number of H1-B visas that these workers use to enter the U.S. I'm very torn on this issue. On the one hand, I can't reasonably oppose free markets and open borders. The logic behind these policies is absolutely unimpeachable, in my mind. However, that doesn't mean there aren't extenuating circumstances, market failures, and opportunities for government to pursue a "sub-optimal solution" that satisfies other goals.

One thing that Will does make a good point on is the irony that we throw the doors wide open for foreign students to study in the U.S., and then errect barriers to coming here to work. These foreign students take up as much as two-thirds of the slots in prestigious science and technology graduate programs in the U.S., and are then forced to go back to their home countries, or to Europe for employment. Essentially that means that we are subsidizing the economic growth and human capital stock of our competitors, and that is ridiculous. We need to open the doors to our universities and our corporations in a coordinated way - if we only let students in, but not workers, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

However, there is a very real question about whether a skills shortage even exists in the U.S., an issue which Lou Dobbs addresses with his usual gusto. If this research is correct and skills shortages don't really drag down the U.S. economy, there is no reason to get apoplectic about the availability of H1-B visas. In fact, strong evidence against the existence of real skill shortages may even force us to reconsider further cuts in H1-B visas, although I'm not necessarily convinced that's a wise move right now. I'm going to be exploring this issue further in a paper I'll present at the 2008 Southern Economic Association conference, and I may blog on this research in the future.

Currently I'm an agnostic on this issue, but Will raises interesting points. It's also great that he considers student visas and H1-B visas together - they do need to be understood as two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, I'd like us to be able to have a very liberal student visa and H1-B visa policy - but I don't think we should move there until we find a way to get American companies to hire American graduates in these high-skill fields. As the research summarized by Lou Dobbs suggests, we seem to have a surplus of American graduates... who is hiring them???


A second note that my more philosophically inclined readers may be interested in:

I was struck by one line in the Will article about modernity. Speaking of computer chips, he wrote: "modernity means the multiplication of dependencies on things utterly mysterious to those who are dependent"

An interesting thought. But that leads me to ask... how is that any different from pre-modern dependencies on various superstitions and shibolleths?

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