Thursday, April 25, 2013

Some press for the EPI high skill visa report

Washington Post
Science Careers
Slate (Matt Yglesias)

Been in contact with a couple other reporters, so more should be on the way. So far I like this coverage a lot - it is overwhelmingly focusing on the shortage issue and not visa volume issue. As I noted in the last post, there are really two policy conclusions that can be legitimately derived from this research: (1.) limit high skill guestworker visas, and (2.) don't limit guestworker visas, just stop giving high skill workers an advantage. EPI itself would probably be happy to see (1.) talked about more, but I'm personally glad they largely focus on the shortage issue.

Which brings me to Yglesias's discussion of the report (which I'm very appreciative of!). He writes:
"One of my more heterodox political views is that advocacy groups do themselves a disservice by adopting BS rhetoric that simply sounds good, because they leave themselves excessively vulnerable to attack. A great illustration comes today from an Economic Policy Institute study from Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and Lindsay Lowell that shows pretty persuasively that there's no real "shortage" of STEM workers in the American economy...

At the same time, if you'd just framed the case for skilled immigrants correctly in the first place I don't think this study does really any damage to it. An influx of STEM migrants is good for the migrants themselves. It's good for the fiscal posture of the United States and for the tax base of the localities in which the STEM workers reside. And it's good for people with complementary skills or occupations, whether that's journalists or dentists or barbers or waitresses or cab drivers or what have you. Whether or not STEM migrants impose some kind of pecuniary externality on native born American STEM workers, it's a good deal all things considered."
My question to Matt Yglesias would be, why would you think that an influx of STEM workers is better than an influx of any other type of worker? What is it about STEM workers that we need to give them a special visa to come here, making it easier than it is for other people with other skill sets? One reason we might want to do this is if there were a shortage, but there's not a shortage. So what reason is left?

By talking about "pecuniary externality on native born American STEM workers" he misses the point and abuses the term "externality" to boot (market competition is not an externality - I don't experience a negative externality because the rest of you bid up the price of gasoline that I have to pay). He misses the point because the problem isn't whether native STEM workers bear a cost or not - the problem is if there is a distortion in the native labor market that maybe a guided immigration policy could correct.

If not, then why emphasize STEM workers at all?


  1. Okay, you're expressing the same puzzlement that I feel -- what's with the wierd emphasis on STEM employment? The best answer I've been able to come up with is that the US has a science and engineering fetish -- we really want to think of ourselves as being world leaders in science, in computers, in space, in managing our environment, etc. But we're being outstripped in construction and transportation and some fields of manufacturing by foreigners, and we really don't want to actually (bleech!) spend real corporate and federal money on new high speed railroads and nuclear power plants and manned rockets to the moon and all that jazz. So we keep talking up the need for STEM workers instead to convince ourselves of just how wonderfully high tech and super-scientific we've become. It's psychology, not economics -- and it strikes me as evidence of decline.

    My 2 cents.

    1. I largely agree - it's a fetishism. But it's also very popular to promote education in this country. We really have two options if we like to be on the cutting edge of science (and I want to!). We can go out and buy more science - the demand side, or we can boost our capacity to do science by getting more or better educated STEM workers - the supply side. It tends to be a lot easier to advocate a supply side argument, so that's what politicians go for. Meanwhile we're not putting down the money for the things you list.

      If we did put down the money for it, wages would be bid up and students would be attracted to the field. It's not clear how it works in the reverse. Making more astrophysics and aerospace engineering graduates doesn't give us a mission to Mars unless someone (Elon Musk or NASA or someone else) decides they want to pony up and pay for a mission to Mars.

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