Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The STEM workforce conference yesterday

...was a great experience. Attribution isn't allowed, but a few things struck me that I'll try to reference more vaguely:

- The incentives of the administration officials there and of the economists there was really obviously different. I asked one question (about why a certain visa was tied to educational status rather than occupational status - which would have made a lot more sense and would have been a lot more efficient solution to one problem they were having in assigning visas), and the answer was simply that even though it was a de facto work visa, it was politically billed as a student visa, and so they couldn't tie it to anything to do with jobs.

- So some people support immigration restrictions, and that's pretty standard fare. Even if supproting orderly immigration necessarily involves some regulation of the migrant experience. But one thing that surprised me (although I guess it shouldn't have) was how many of those present treated visa quotas, etc., as a distortion of the market in that they supposedly artificially increased labor supply, which of course sounds exactly backward to me. For several years, the high-skill work visa had around 130,000 applicants but 85,000 slots - so they had to resort to a lottery. Many attendees saw this as a distortion that artificially increased labor supply by 85,000 workers. Of course I think it's far more accurate to think of it as a distortion that artificially decreases supply by 45,000 workers. It's not so much that some people were pro-quota. That didn't surprise me and really didn't even bother me. What surprised me was how many people (certainly not all) saw the natural state of things as being a closed labor market.

- I got some very good thoughts and insights on revisions for my NBER chapter.

- People are not their politics. One of the guys that aggravated me the most during the workshop because of his restrictive stance on high-skill immigration was really a pleasure to sit across from and talk to about other stuff during dinner.

- Someone made the demand vs. supply point on science and technology that I strongly agree with. We often treat science policy with supply solutions, when arguably we should have more demand oriented policies. There are no obvious failures in the science and engineering labor market. If we think we should put a man on the moon, we should pay to put a man on the moon. We shouldn't ramp up aerospace engineer education and assume a man will automatically be planted on the moon.

- It is smart, in organizing a workshop that will touch on immigration, to put the first discussion about immigration about halfway through. Every single discussion after that is going to come back to immigration. So if you don't want the workshop to become about immigration, don't put the immigration talks first.

- Similar to earlier points, the idea that labor markets work was notably suspect (this was less surprising to me). Also similar to earlier points, the economists in the room were more sympathetic to the idea that markets work. In this case, though, the administration officials were also very willing to accept the idea of labor market efficiency. It was the "policy analyst" types - the research types who weren't directly involved in the policymaking process - who were the most likely to question labor market efficiency. My co-author (a sociologist, actually) admirably stood up on this particular point.

1 comment:

  1. "People are not their politics."

    They are to the people harmed by those politics. So I beg to disagree, people are their politics.

    "We shouldn't ramp up aerospace engineer education and assume a man will automatically be planted on the moon."

    There is a pretty broad effort to centrally plan college and professional degrees in the country; problem is that they are not very much in-step with the needs of employers - so there is always a lag.


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