Friday, February 8, 2013

Surprise! STEM immigration skepticism in the New York Times

You've probably heard that there's going to be a STEM section in the comprehensive immigration reform bill that's being debated in Congress. It appears to do 2 things: significantly raise the cap on H-1B visas and to offer a green card to every advanced-degree STEM graduate of certain qualified US universities. I am rather surprised at the level of skepticism I'm seeing in the media on the STEM portions of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, including today's contribution in the New York Times from Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. I'm going to excerpt the most probative parts of his argument:
Nor are we turning away foreign students, or forcing them to leave once they’ve graduated. According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of full-time foreign graduate students in science, engineering and health fields has grown by more than 50 percent, from 91,150 in 1990 to 148,900 in 2009. And over the 2000s, the United States granted permanent residence to almost 300,000 high-tech workers, in addition to granting temporary work permits (for up to six years) to hundreds of thousands more. 
...But almost 90 percent of the Chinese students who earn science and technology doctorates in America stay here; the number is only slightly lower for Indians. If they’re talented enough to get a job here, they’re already almost guaranteed a visa. 
...If anything, we have too many high-tech workers: more than nine million people have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math field, but only about three million have a job in one. That’s largely because pay levels don’t reward their skills... 
..And while unemployment for high-tech workers may seem low — currently 3.7 percent — that’s more than twice as high as it was before the recession...
His conclusion?
Bringing over more — there are already 500,000 workers on H-1B visas — would obviously darken job prospects for America’s struggling young scientists and engineers. But it would also hurt our efforts to produce more: if the message to American students is, “Don’t bother working hard for a high-tech degree, because we can import someone to do the job for less,” we could do significant long-term damage to the high-tech educational system we value so dearly. 
There is no question that the immigration system needs major reform. But let’s not break anything else in the process.
I would really like to know if Mr. Eisenbrey's facts are accurate. Specifically, I'd like to see the data about retention of Chinese and Indian STEM graduates from the US. Rather than talk to you about my opinions of the current bills before Congress (short version: I'm skeptical), I would like to talk about (potential) winners and losers.

Who are the winners? It would seem to me that international STEM migrants under these programs would be the biggest winners of all. Even under the lower wages of the H1B system, their wages would likely be higher here than at their home.

Corporations would certainly be winners, because they would have access to their desired supply of labor at a relatively low price.

Universities would likely be winners, in that the STEM green card program would increase the quality and quantity of their potential labor pool.

Society at large might be a winner, in that, broadly speaking, the country gets the economic benefit of profitable corporations and tax receipts from the workers.

Who are the losers? It's clear to me that the potential benefit to the existing scientific and technical labor force is low. George Borjas is a Harvard economics professor who is prominent for being an immigration skeptic; he has found a negative effect on the wages of the college-educated from high-skill immigration. Even if you ignore his numbers (and a lot of policy types do), the gains to college-educated workers from immigration are not particularly stunning at 1% or so.

Finally, here are two quotes from the STEM immigration bill discussion that I find bothersome:
  • Senator Marco Rubio: "I do not fear that our country will be overrun with Ph.Ds.”
  • Political commentator Marc Ambinder*, emphasis mine: "But at the same time, the benefits to the U.S. economy of an influx of skilled foreign workers is undeniable. If there's a glut, then maybe that's a forgivable side effect."
I would like to get some acknowledgement from people like this that existing workers might indeed suffer a small (or perhaps large!) real loss in wages from this new STEM immigration policy. 

If you're asking me to take one for the team (and I might be willing to), I think you should say so.

*I am a huge fan of Ambinder's national security reporting -- I highly recommend it. 

31 comments:

  1. I see this as being very bad news for US science in the long-term. Why would anyone want to go into science if the resulting job will have low wages? At some point the labor pool of smart people will conclude it's not worth it and will pursue other avenues of employment. It simply takes too long and costs too much money to get a PhD for a resulting low wage job to sustain the incoming labor force.

    I hate to say it but it appears that science is the new liberal arts...in the respect that the trend is moving towards people pursuing it purely for the love of the subject and not for a "good job" at the end of their degrees.

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  2. Giving STEM graduates a green-card if they've done their graduate work in America is pretty sensible. America has already paid to educate them, and after graduating, those workers will be competing in the chemist labor market regardless. An American-educated research chemist in Delhi is functionally equivalent to an American-educated research chemist in San Francisco.

    The motivation behind the proposals in Washington is to keep all the high tech workers that America has already paid to educate. That way, in the long run, America captures the bulk of the wealth and resources that these workers generate. And even if corporations end up collecting most of the wealth, most Americans would prefer an American-based company benefit than a Chinese or Indian company.

    Also, since apparently 90% of Chinese graduates in America already get a visa or green-card, it's hard to imagine how the current proposals that extend that number to 100% will really affect American workers.

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    1. A12:47:

      That's a very succinct summary of the pro position. Thanks for that.

      I'm a little weirded out to be in the Michael Moore position, but here I am: it's quite clear that American corporations are the clear winner, as well as American society (maybe?) Current chemists: not winners in this scenario.

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    2. @Anon 12:47

      How does collecting a large pool of unemployed chemists help America "capture the bulk of the wealth"? Most American based companies consider themselves global companies, they could care less about helping America.

      The U.S. should stop paying to educate foreign students, let their own countries fund them if they want to come here.

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    3. The US govt does not pay their fees. Very very few, extremely talented and deserving foreign students get scholarship. The others (majority of them) pay almost twice the fees an American pays for the same course and University. Fees for an International student is different and higher than a resident.

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  3. I recently wrote about this topic here: www.thepostonperspective.com I'm very interested to see how this policy will effectively weed out the number of domestic students in Ph.D. programs in the physical sciences. In reply to cibatarian, we have already reached a place where the sciences must be pursued for the love of it. Why else are people suffering through their 20s (and now 30s) at low wages, some without adequate health care, and dwindling job prospects?

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    1. Thanks for posting your perspective. Your link in your text isn't working, but here's one that is: http://thepostonperspective.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/skilled-immigrants-vs-homegrown-talent/

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  4. This is labor arbitrage plain and simple. I respect my international colleagues too much to see them turned into a new indentured servant class. This will give too much additional leverage to PIs over international students.

    I also agree with those who say this will discourage able Americans from pursuing science as a career. It is not that there aren't enough Americans smart enough to do these jobs. It's that we've perverted the incentive structure too much and made science not worth pursuing.

    I guess we can take solace in the fact that at least we don't have it as bad as the biologists. That market is so saturated that there is nothing to gain from arbitrage, so we don't want any more of them.

    Hear that sound? It's the sound of the education bubble struggling to maintain its structural integrity.

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  5. We are screwed. Ask yourself how many US citizens work in the fields these days? It is the constant lament of farmers that they need imported field workers because not enough Americans will work in the fields for what farmers want to pay for workers. If farmers had to pay US wages and benefits my god none of us could afford our food. This situation for STEM workers is no different. Accessing a global work force depresses wages as low wage talent floods the market. It will drive out more expensive talent. Eventually the country will benefit from this cheap labor just as it does by having access to cheap farm labor. Wages will adjust to the over supply and the STEM jobs will no longer entice American workers who aspire to a US standard of living.

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  6. Overall, letting in more highly educated workers is a benefit to our country, though in a large sense it is a loss of equal magnitude for other nations. However, I cannot imagine that this will be beneficial for those Americans who are directly competing against those who are let in. STEM wages will be stagnant or fall if this policy is adopted, discouraging domestic students from entering these fields. Two modifications I would like to see

    1: While we can probably rubber-stamp the PhDs, master's degrees might very well turn into green-card mills. I don't think we can just let any master's degree program qualify. It would be better to set a number of slots each year and fast-track them through based on quality of their education and the estimated needs of their field.

    2: We need to shift our federal R&D system away from producing ever more grad students of any nationality, and more towards hiring full-time workers at either national labs or as permanent research staff at universities.

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  7. I just wonder why anyone would spend a large portion of their life pursuing an advanced degree (other than perhaps doctors) - it's clear that based on how much research, training, and long-term planning are valued (unless they're on someone else's dime), advanced degree holders have the job life expectancies of bananas. Since these expectancies generally don't come with MLB wage scales, saving for the inevitable bout of unemployment seems like a Sisyphean task. Other than priest/nun equivalents for science (who do it for their love of it or their own self-worth), who else is going to sign up? If no one values your work, why bother?

    The larger question (not limited to STEM immigration) is what exactly industry thinks they can do. The US used to be a manufacturing economy enabled by research, which we then decided wasn't our bag. We then said that we were going to be the "information economy" through strong research...which we now are shipping elsewhere as fast as we can make it disappear from the accounting tables. Now we say we are going to be an "innovation economy" (though how we can innovate better than the countries we sent our R+D and manufacturing to when they have the advantage of deeper working knowledge of both). The only thing our economy seems committed to is arbitraging past successes to countries who haven't yet developed dishonesty evolved enough to sell their ghosts (or even ghostlier financial instruments based on them) effectively. Seeing how well Chinese entrepreneurs can duplicate those achievements (Diethylene glycol in edibles? It only took about 80 years for them to figure that one out.), I'm figuring that they will be selling junk bonds before long. In that case, what will we do?

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  8. I'm just a little confused that, wouldn't "international" become "American" or similar equivalents at the time of the production of their green cards? It is not obvious that assimilating the best (arguably, for sure) of the world PhDs in chemistry into US Permanent Residency would be bad for the US chemical science and society in general. Please don't tell me that all of you guys are suggesting the "Americans" are of a particular group of people that came to the US a few generations earlier. For those who think "citizens" and "citizens" only should live the "American" standard of living forever, why bother to make these bills? Why not just stop accepting immigrants at all? Just simply vote any Rep. or Sen. out of office if they dare to let foreigners in. Do it now and do it quick!

    To CJ: Thank you for the inspiring post. I can see your points that "current chemists" will likely face more fierce competition. However, the way you vaguely define groups of people is less scientific as expected. Being the biggest winners and biggest losers respectively, "international STEM migrants" and "existing scientific and technical labor force" may well overlap with each other. Yet, arguably most of the "existing scientific and technical labor force" could date back their family history to somewhere out of the US.

    Therefore, the sentiment against "international STEM migrants" is merely a local protection thing - I come first so I have to get most - which everyone knows that it is not how the world works, US in particular (ideally as claimed).

    For the current job situation, a few fellow competitors are not the ones to blame at all. I would argue perhaps because US companies are losing the edge. All markets in China and India are growing: more and more people want clean water, food, air, energy, commodities, daily supplies with fine chemicals, better medicines, and etc. Everyone can see great opportunities for chemical industry as well as research endeavors in these places. The only reason for US chemical industry to stall is that they are losing to their corporate competitors. It is like if your boss fails, you can not survive. Similarly, if your boss wants to sacrifice you for the team's good (massive lay-off), you will not be able to stay. It's not some rookie entering the team that makes you a failure. It is neither your fault nor the rookie's. But I'm sure your boss knows this very clearly and he or she will be extremely glad that you put your anger to the poor rookie.

    For all chemists, those who run chemical industry or have the resources to support chemical industry but knowing nothing about chemistry are probably not very friendly to us. I would suggest "existing chemists" who really "aspire to a US standard of living" take steps to take advantage of these STEM bills (which will allow cheaper and high quality labor force) if they ever got passed, establish something, think from the perspective of a real boss or employer, employ some poor Chinese or Indian STEM chemists that work hard. In that way you solve problems of a lot of people and benefit yourself along with the society much more than simply trying to imagine some barrier for immigration at this politically insignificant professional blog. It is not easy.

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    1. Cheap labor is great for a society. Indentured servitude was great for the colonies, but slavery was an even bigger boon for the US economy. It seems like there might have been some downsides that didn't go on the banker's ledger, though... hmmmmm

      Anyway, all those "American" scientists who thought they would be able to provide a modest standard of living for their families are a bunch of xenophobic whiners. Like I tell my kids, they shouldn't expect me to provide for them when the kid from the ghetto will do their chores for half the allowance. Heck, I can get several ghetto kids to do chores for what I pay Billy. Does he think just cause he grew up in this house I have a responsibility to look out for him. That kid is so racist.

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  9. These senators haven’t a clue about the science part of the labor market in the US. They seem to have this almost romantic conception that the US needs an inexhaustible supply of researchers and technologists, or else our economy will crumble. Now, of course, that is what Bill Gates and his high tech ilk are constantly telling these senators, and unfortunately there’s no one of equal fame to balance out these bombastic statements.
    It is industry that will mostly benefit from these new immigration rules. More workers, lower wages. And because wages are depressed and job security decreased, fewer Americans will want to enter these fields. Which makes it seems as if Americans have no interest in science careers, thereby leading to even more call for immigration rule changes. It’s a never ending cycle. Sadly, if it weren’t for gridlock in Congress, most of these rule changes would already have occurred.

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  10. Yes, we are all descendants of immigrants. My great grandparents came quite literally with nothing and worked in farm fields and factories to give future generations a better life than they had.

    It's rather ironic that today's immigrants are now threatening the livelihood of their great grandchild who works in a lab to give his kids a better life. I'm not so sure they'd be too keen on stapling green cards to anything. I know my wife, who is also an immigrant, sure isn't.

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  11. At least stapling a green card is a lot better than that H1B travesty that depresses wages and lets employers get away with abusing their employees. Looks like companies are asking for more H1Bs though. At least with a green card, you're not a slave to your company, and will not be afraid to leave them for fear of losing your immigration status. That part of the equation gets to move down to the university level where grad students will be afraid to disobey and disappoint their professorial master for fear of losing their green card. But that already happens to a good degree with foreign students from crap countries, so it won't be that much of a change.

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  12. Do foreign born PhD's really earn less than domestic ones? In my experience my foreign colleagues (and neighbors) appear to earn just as much as I do so I don't really see the wage depression. Now greater competition does make it harder to get and keep a job but I can't help but hope that a better pool of scientists would raise everyone's game. Now we would just need to find someone to pay for that better product . . .

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  13. This is not about immigration per se but supply and demand. My college prof was offered $16k starting salary in 1968 for an industrial position. This would be ~$140k in starting salary had supply remained 1200 new PhDs per year. During the 70s 2100 new PhDs graduated and salaries at all levels went flat in a high inflation era. By the early 80s new PhD production dropped to ~1500 per year and things began looking up especially with the new openings from the massive early retirements of that time. Then the huge M&As got rolling and biotech materialized creating an aberration in hiring and temporarily masking long term hiring trends for chemists. By the 90s the world had changed and the US work force was exposed to a large pool of talent it had not faced before. Companies began exploiting this new massive pool of talent which has changed everything. The recent down turn in the economy and ongoing the shrinkage of industries needing chemists has made all to clear the overproduction of chemists by the profs who just need cheap labor to do the job they need done.

    So the question is: with such a large pool of talent in the world that will more than meet the demand for chemists should any US student consider securing an advanced degree in chemistry where the future jobs may be off-shored or hyper competitive do to importation of talent? Chemistry has been a terrific profession for me but I have always felt that I was just one step ahead of a Tsunami with respect to my job. Now I am retired it no longer is a concern for me, but if I were a young person I would have to consider the talent supply I must compete with before embarking on expensive, life burning training for a potentially hyper short poorly paying career. My advice is look over the cliff before you jump because like an actor you may spend a lot of time waiting tables and working for scale at central casting. Immigrants are no less likely to be screwed than native born chemists in this environment.

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  14. I think it's worth considering where the proposed STEM reforms place us with respect to other countries of economic power. The UK, for example, has severely restricted skilled immigration within recent years, including scientists. Permanent jobs in the EU come with restrictions such as proving the job cannot be filled by an EU citizen (though I have no idea how strictly this is enforced?). Germany has special visa categories for scientists, but only when working for a public research institution. Canada is relatively open to immigration, I think. (Etc, etc...) Has anyone seen a more thorough or fact-checked analysis?

    My personal (and quite selfish!) concern is that, if the STEM portion passes as proposed and the labor market does begin to become more flooded, will I be able able to find work in the US (my native country) after finishing a stint as a foreign post doc? If not, in what country WILL I be able to work? I'm young, mobile, and have relatively few familial obligations, but I'd prefer not to be forced de facto into moving to an up-and-coming country so someone from an up-and-coming country can more easily work in the US.

    How do I reconcile this possibility, on a personal level, with the potential 'greater good'? Is it a greater good? Can I (and chemists/STEM employees broadly) see it without a NIMBY reaction? Can non-STEM employees (ie government and policy wonks) see clearly the potential negative consequences that they won't be asked to bear?


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  15. I suggest everyone who OPPOSES or shows skepticism to this bill, to check out (just using LinkedIn) the employees of Intel, Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, quantitative research departments of any Wall Street bank, and the research labs of the big Pharmaceutical companies. 90% of those people that you DON'T like are already able to stay and work for these companies, and believe me they DON'T get paid low.

    This bill will just provide a peace of mind for them, it is not going to be a life jacket, as you think.

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    1. To frame it in terms of like/dislike really does a disservice to readers of this blog.

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    2. Thanks, A3:05. I really appreciate the comment.

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    3. Yea sorry. I definitely didn't mean to say "people you hate".

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  16. Do you want the best people in the field to be working in your country or not...? The US having the top rated universities in chemistry attracts the best internationals to work or do a PhD there. If America is okay with picking from a smaller talent pool and having fewer of the best chemists, then fine... the implication (of some of the things referenced) that internationals are getting perks and benefits all over the shop is ludicrously untrue. Even applying for a PhD as an international is damned difficult and full of hurdles and hidden costs, and I'd probably have given up if I weren't so determined to do it. And once I've got my PhD from a top institution, I could either stay in the USA, or I could take my skills elsewhere, if I were forced to. Who's losing out now?

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    1. If you're a top PhD from a top instituion, I'm going to guess that someone will hire you and it won't be an issue.

      Nobody is seriously talking about throwing people out. The legislation is about giving permanent residency to EVERYONE who graduates.

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  17. Everyone thinks they are the best and brightest, but frankly after 35 years in this business I have encountered very few of those people. Most profs just hire any bright person who fogs a mirror. Chemistry once as reasonable, if demanding, path to a job for your average B student in the US with a passion for chemistry like me. If we are going to pull from the vast global pool of bright people to train for a limited even schrinking number of jobs, people like me should definitely reconsider their options and leave the profession to only those fool-hardy enought to take it on.

    The US really, really needs the World's business class and its new business generating super stars and even those who are just good at it, not your average STEM wage slave. It is the business types with their money and creativity in starting new ventures to which we should grant unlimited entry.

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  18. I think you're probably already a Planet Money listener, Chemjobber, but for others interested in the debate, the latest episode was interesting:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/02/15/172108399/episode-436-if-economists-controlled-the-borders

    While the podcast doesn't deal specifically with STEM immigration, the comment that particularly stuck out to me, by the last economist advocating completely open borders, was that largely the economy expands to accommodate the population. While I can see where this is true in many instances (services, housing, some manufacturing, etc.), would this also be true with regard to R&D of specialty chemicals? Perhaps in the cleaning products sector, or personal care products, but I'm not really sure that I'd see much of a case for that in the pharmaceutical industry.

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  19. As a soon to be STEM graduate.. I don't think I will be staying in the field much longer. I will stick around to see what industry bench work is truly like before making my next move. Getting a degree in the sciences is a feat of itself. A person can only take so much with little return on their investment, time, and knowledge in the end.

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