Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The horrors of redistribution

About a week ago, noted demographer Michael Teitelbaum took to the (online) pages of The Atlantic to speak to "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage". Here's a great summary by Derek Lowe of the article, also noting that Teitelbaum has a book coming out about it. I'm really looking forward to reading it (an early Father's Day present, Mrs. CJ?). Anyway, here comes Robert Atkinson*, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation with a retort in Washington Monthly. (ht @unstableisotope) I'm pretty sure that Teitelbaum and Atkinson are basically talking past each other, but here's something that I find really amusing as a comment:
Teitelbaum would also have us believe that all is well because more students than ever are interested in STEM. If so, why then do 4 times more high school students take the AP Art History test than the AP Computer Science Test? It’s not because of those high wages in art history jobs. 
If I were to hazard a guess as to why the AP Computer Science test is not often taken, it's because it isn't seen as a key prerequisite to going to college in computer science. (As I recall, and perhaps I am wrong, it's seen as a bit out of date?) Also, I'd think that there's a lot more legacy infrastructure around the AP Art History exam (i.e. a lot more high schools have arts teachers than qualified CS teachers?)

Finally, a rather wonderful blast at the cohort of professors that have been raining on Atkinson's parade for the last three or so years that he's been plumping the STEM shortage:
So what’s behind the man bites dog STEM stories? The short answer is ideology. Most of the advocates of no-shortage, including people like Ron Hira, Hal Salzman, Richard Freeman, and of course Teitelbaum are focused more on an agenda of redistribution, ensuring higher wages for workers, including STEM workers. Arguing against shortages is part of a strategy to oppose high-skill immigration policies so that shortages increase even more and already well paid STEM workers get paid even more. 
Yet policies established to achieve nothing more than an increase in STEM wages by restricting the supply of workers would have two bad effects. First, they would lead to higher prices for products and services that have STEM talent as a significant input. This would be a transfer payment from all consumers, including low income ones, to some workers, many of whom are already very well paid. Restricting the supply STEM workers would also reduce the competitiveness of U.S. establishments that rely on STEM labor, reducing U.S. jobs and economic growth. 
Higher wages for workers! What a travesty. It's a frickin' shame that Zuckerberg has to pay so much for developers and corporate America cannot import enough back office folks. Goshdarnit, we're all ideologues.

I'm not much of a trade unionist (much like Derek Lowe), but articles like Atkinson lay bare his agenda and make me want to start buying Billy Bragg albums.

*He was featured in this video last week, too.  


  1. The comments on the Washington Monthly website for the above article are really fun to read, including the obscene ones. No one believes this shill Atkinson.

  2. 1) Well, we've spent the last few years lowering people's wages, yet nothing seems to be cheaper, except bad logic.

    2) It isn't STEM pessimists who require labor-modifying government support, but STEM advocates. The problem could be solved by paying more, but that would require higher costs for consumer goods (that people can stop buying if they wish) and employers to pay more and train more. So instead, we need government policies which will require lots of education money (which will presumably end up in training rather than actual education), much of which will come from those consumers in the form of taxes and in education costs, and support for the immigration system, and support for the soon-to-be-laid-off immigrants and other people, all to keep wages down and profits high. And of course, all of this money is going to benefit companies that make mostly expensive consumer products, likely purchased by people with disposable income. (Who could that be?) In addition, it also allows employers to further decrease training giving them to their (tenously employed) workers.

    So, when Atkinson talks about transferring costs to consumers, he must hoping no one will look at the larger costs his policy advocacy shifts to society and individuals, and that his costs are imposed on a system that (allegedly, at least when it comes to taxing people and companies) already gives a just result. I guess if you are a large business (or set of them) and you don't like the answer you get from the economic system, it can't be right.

    3) I'm sure America's willing to recruit lots of cheap labor to keep Google and Facebook shareholders (and their executive suites) happy.

    4) I wonder how much Atkinson makes - I'm sure there are lots of Indians who would love to be paid shills for software giants for lower wages than he gets. Sauce for the goose...

  3. Oh, and haven't the economic policies of the last ten to fifteen years been all about redistributing wealth from the poor and (shrinking) middle class to the rich, so that they will invest and make a strong economy and good jobs, as opposed to our Communist years earlier?

    1) How's that working again (for the economy, not the recipients of largesse)?

    2) I guess redistribution and class warfare are only OK when it's the rich taking from everyone else.

    Isn't there a British (ex-union) coal mining community to send this guy to?

  4. Wouldn't a decrease in CEO and top management pay also yield a decrease in consumer prices? Huh. Atkinson must have innocently overlooked that for some reason.

  5. So anytime wages aren't falling there's a shortage?

  6. We have the same garbage here in Canada. The government is trumpeting a skilled-labour shortage and even their own budget watchdog has called them out on it:

    "The report adds that particularly among young workers, there is indeed a skills mismatch: young workers are often overqualified for their jobs."

    Whoops, that doesn't quite fit!

  7. i wish he (and everyone who discusses this topic) were required to quantify phrases like "already very well-paid". just what does he think, for instance, PhD chemists with 5 years experience are paid on average? how much does he think they should be paid, and how much does he think these evil protectionist instigators are hoping for?

    to me, the competitiveness of "US establishments" that rely on cheap immigrant labor is not a major concern

  8. It was one of those articles where I wanted ragequit reading it, but forced myself to read to the end.

  9. Well, look at the only good side of this article, CJ: it makes you want to listen to the great Billy Bragg!

  10. Concrete DovetailMarch 27, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    There was an interesting article by Whitesides recently in which he comments on the difficulties scientists have in finding jobs. In particular, he is fearful that there won't be any interesting job opportunities for his grandchildren by the time they become "adults". He was part of the ACS commission so his views are not surprising, but always worth referencing when people with high feelings of self-importance trumpet the shortage alarm.

  11. Here it is:

  12. Atkinson is right. The average annual wage for slaves is $0.00 and their unemployment rate is 0%.

  13. I passed the AP English exam (or some other AP humanities) and was able to shave 3 or 6 credits off my undergrad. I did my undergrad in 3.5 years at a fancy school and took 1 semester of Shakespeare, 1 summer school art history, 4 1-credit art classes ... and the rest was science, math, engineering. I had an aversion to writing papers, lol.

    The popularity of AP art history may be due to its power in "counting" as humanities and facilitating a humanities-free undergraduate education.