Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How simple can it be?

The Chicago Tribune jumps on the Gates bandwagon with a touching story about a young woman who may not get her H-1B visa this week. Since Tribune articles tend to disappear behind the wall after a while, I'll quote liberally:
But it's luck, more than her impressive résumé, that the Indian-born engineer needs this week, as she enters a fierce annual competition for a small number of visas given to highly skilled foreign workers.
Poor Madhura can only plan her life one month in advance:
The H-1B visa program was created in 1990 to draw the best and the brightest foreign workers to America's most innovative companies. The move was heralded by many who said there weren't enough qualified American workers to fill some specialized jobs....Just five years ago, the nation made available 195,000 H-1B visas. This year the federal government will make 65,000 H-1B visas available for a general pool of foreign workers and an additional 20,000 for those with advanced American degrees. About 5,000 more visas are available for foreign workers in other special categories.

Led by such companies as Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc., the technology industry has renewed a push to more than double the annual limit, arguing that leaving thousands of critical jobs unfilled is damaging the American economy.
Naturally, the Tribune rolls out a vice president from Oracle who tells us that, "Our K-12 system is not producing enough young people who want to pursue degrees in math and science." He goes on to point out that, "the supply of labor is less than demand. We are just trying to fill jobs, period."

In the typical A-B-A pattern in which these kinds of stories are written, the Tribune does find some mild dissent, pointing out that "others believe" the fight for visas just might have something to do with their use by "foreign-based outsourcing companies, who want to train employees in the U.S. before sending them back to countries where labor costs are lower." Illinois' own Sen. Durbin, who seems to have a love-hate relationship with the H-1B, argues that, "these Indian companies...have really turned out to be H-1B brokers."

Let's hear from Wipro:
Wipro Limited spokesman Abhishek Mendiratta acknowledged that some of the company's U.S. jobs are temporary.

About 80 percent of the company's U.S. workforce is foreign, he said. But the company plans to recruit up to 1,000 American workers over the next two years.

"Wipro is committed and focused on contributing to the U.S. economy as well as recruiting in the U.S.," Mendiratta said.
The Tribune then abruptly drops that line of thought, moving to the new ban on the practice of submitting duplicate applications for the same worker in an attempt to game the system. And they find that the system isn't perfect:
Investigators found that U.S. officials were lax in discovering whether employers were paying the "prevailing wage" in a given industry or the going company salary for the position, as required by law.

But, the agency that would notice such violations, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is prohibited from sharing those details with the Labor Department, which enforces labor laws and helps administer the H-1B program, the study noted.

Moreover, the two agencies do not have computer systems that work together, making it difficult to know whether an employer is lying about other details in its application, investigators found.
The Labor Department has forced companies to pay back wages to abused H-1B workers (of course, those Americans who had fewer opportunities to get jobs because they were undercut by those workers get nothing from this process).

And, finally, the Tribune brings out the stick, the ultimate threat:
An H-1B is no guarantee of long-term stability either.

Ajay Jain, an Indian engineer who works for a Chicago-based software company, said he hopes to gain permanent residency before his H-1B visa expires in 2011. He has been frustrated by a 7-year backlog in that process, he said.

Like other Indian professionals he is considering returning to his home country, where the economy is booming and there are plenty of opportunities for U.S.-trained entrepreneurs.

"I can make use of my education in India if the United States is not willing to accommodate me," Jain, 30, said.
No, Ajay, don't go, you can have my job.

The real argument is not tough to see, and the seeds for it are contained in this Tribune front-page story. But the reporters and editors don't connect the dots, and they don't expend a second trying to present the other side of this issue: Do we need this program at all?

It's easy to find people who might have to change their lives because they won't get an H-1B, though I should think we would withhold our sympathy from those who are counting on such a program to plan their lives. It's harder to find the other side, those people who have seen their opportunities reduced, their potential pay lowered, because of a government-run scab operation.

(By the way, I'm not criticizing the Chinese and Indians who want to take advantage of this program; they're trying to improve their lives. But we're either a nation or we're not, we either do our best to support our fellow citizens first, or we become an open-air bazaar in which everything and everybody from everywhere is open for the lowest bid. What may have made sense back in the 1970s, attracting good foreign workers to this country to help build our economy, no longer holds up in a world in which goods, services, and labor can freely cross borders. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, and I don't think it jingoistic to claim that those opportunities should first be offered to its citizens.)

The thing is, this isn't very complicated at all, and I will quote economist Dean Baker at length:

It would have been helpful [in a New York Times article] to include some economic analysis. By increasing the supply of highly skilled workers, the H1-B program undoubtedly reduces the wages for the most affected occupations. According to standard trade theory, this is precisely the point of the program. Allowing firms to get lower paid workers will reduce their cost and increase the economy's potential output. It is the same argument that is used for the gains from getting cheap textiles or steel from foreign producers.

The argument from high-tech employers, that they simply can't get enough high tech workers in the United States is ridiculous on its face. If these jobs paid millions of dollars per year (like jobs at Wall Street investment banks), then highly skilled workers would leave other occupations and develop the skills necessary to work in high tech occupations. Obviously, Bill Gates and the other high tech employers cited in this article want to be able to employ high tech workers at lower wages. The issue is wages, not a shortage.

Science has recently printed a couple of articles (here and here) about the myths that surround these matters. I won't quote from these, but they sharply point out the extent to which public speech (from Mr. Gates and Mr. Stephenson, and pretty much everybody else) is just wrong.

Top students from this country are at least as good as those from other countries. There is no shortage of science and engineering graduates. The issue is wages, not qualifications.

But the media has little interest in doing even the minimal balancing; they would rather relate the poignant stories of Madhura and Ajay, even if they end up misleading the public in so doing. This isn't a difficult task, I put this post together without Lexis/Nexis or Bloomberg, so I know that big-city reporters can do it. It's simply not the narrative they've decided to tell.

3 comments:

Citizen Carrie said...

I like Indians. There are several Indian families on my street and in my neighborhood. They are friendly, intelligent, generous, caring, good neighbors, etc.

That said, Americans are constantly told that they must give up their sense of entitlement to jobs, higher education, health care, and retirement benefits.

What about the Indians'? They are brainwashed into thinking that the U.S. will collapse without them. They feel they are entitled to a U.S. university education (which, contrary to popular belief, U.S. taxpayers pick up the bulk of the cost of educating them, not their out-of-state tuition payments.) They feel they are entitled to employment after graduation,they feel they are entitled to be put to head of the line ahead of American workers in the hiring process, and they feel they are entitled to green cards assuring them of permanent resident status.

ChamberPost said...

You can quote Baker, but he is wrong.

http://www.chamberpost.com/2008/04/its-workers-not.html

Androcass said...

CC:

You make some good points. I really don't like to generalize, but, among the many Indians with whom I've worked, there does seem to be a sense of arrogance and superiority. I recall a letter to a technical magazine a few years ago in which the Indian writer contended that Indians were "genetically superior" to Americans in technical matters.

I imagine this is an artifact more of the way this particular crop of Indians was raised, but our system has done a lot to feed that. Our national inferiority complex with respect to Asians has bred that attitude, and the Friedmans and Gates's of the world are not helping.

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