Monday, May 16, 2011

Noah Smith leaves out an important distinction

There's a good post at Noahpinion wondering where the opposition to high-skilled immigration is coming from. I suspect Smith is too quick to dismiss the role of xenophobes who see any increase in immigration as the first step down the slippery slope toward an open border, but it was this paragraph that really bothered me.
What about high-skilled native-born Americans? Are American-born computer programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs afraid that high-skilled immigrants will take their jobs? I guess this is conceivable. I've heard some low-level grumbling from American-born engineers about the low wages and long hours that immigrant engineers are willing to accept, but I know of nothing even slightly resembling an organized movement or lobbying effort. And my guess is that smart Americans are smart enough to know that it's a positive-sum game - that the positive impact of the businesses started by smart immigrants vastly outweighs the effects of wage competition.
I may be opening myself up to an obvious insult here but having worked as a statistician in companies that used highly skilled immigrant labor, I'm not sure that this is automatically a positive-sum game.

At least not without one important caveat.

When we talk about naturalized citizens, students and green card holders,* it really does tend to be a net gain when we bring smart, highly-educated people into this country. Putting aside students (whose contribution is a topic for a different post), the positive impact of these highly skilled immigrants is due in large part to a labor market that does a reasonably good job matching employer and employee and setting compensation levels that reflect skills and productivity.

For H-1B visas, however, the labor market is severely distorted. Though the situation seems to have improved somewhat,** employees still face significant hurdles when changing jobs and limitations on what sort of jobs they can take, a situation sharply satirized by John Oliver in the clip below.

Having said all that, there's still a strong case to be made for increasing our H-1B quotas and this country could certainly use a good, healthy debate on the subject, but the specifics make a difference. You could argue that every time we bring someone smart and creative into the U.S.A it's a win for us, but the win is bigger when that person is allowed to participate in a more efficient labor market.

* Green cards are a bit more restricted than many people realize, but probably not to the extent that it affects this conversation.

** See the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000

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