Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Walking the middle

We're having a discussion on yesterday's post about whether paying for labor is a plausible alternative to whining about it and importing people. My conclusion was that we should be rational about it, explore all options, instead of leaping to expedience. North Dakota does have other ways of getting doctors than to eliminate H-1B quotas. Rational examination might still lead us to the importation of doctors, but it might not; the challenge commands us to think more broadly than the first (and possibly cheapest) solution that comes to mind.

But I don't want to rehash that here. What I want to talk about is the tendency we all have to over-contextualize arguments people make, to focus on the back story instead of what's really being said. I've had comments on this blog (and in private e-mails) that deal, not with what I'm writing, but with the motivations of those who provide the evidence. There is enough validity to that view to make it worth considering, but it is not sufficient to allow the arguer to ignore the actual argument.

I have often cited sources that come from people who are clearly more anti-immigration than I am. I do that because the conventional media seems to ignore a lot of the evidence that conflicts with the common wisdom that Americans aren't good enough to fill certain jobs (the PR-fueled, CEO position). And if you read what I write, really read it, you will see that I'm taking a more nuanced view than, simply, we must close our borders. To lump me in with the people who do believe that is, while convenient for you who want to disagree with me, spurious and insulting.

Let's take the H-1B question, at least one aspect of it. There are people who believe that the number should be 0, and their views have become marginalized. There are other people whose self-interest drives them to believe that the number should be essentially infinite. And there is the actual number, based on historical accident more than science, of 65,000.

Where I have tried to walk is the uneasy middle, because I really want to understand what the "right" number is. Unfortunately, that stance means that I have to disagree somewhat with both sides, that I don't have the false comfort of saying, on the one hand, that abuses in the program imply that it should be abolished, or, on the other hand, that there's a (rather bogus) study that "proves" that H-1B applications create jobs. Moving in either direction would, I assure you, be far easier; I could jump in bed with one side or the other and sway along with one mantra ("H-1Bs are bad, bad, bad") or the other ("H-1Bs are good, good, good").

I'm not contending that I am unaffected by my own experience, that's asking a bit much. But I do believe I can remove myself from the midst of whatever biases I have, at least enough to ask the right questions. For example, I've worked with H-1Bs who had no business programming a computer, and certainly should not have been allowed in a position where they could undercut native talent. That's happened enough times to make me think that, more than perhaps, the quota is too high.

But that's a first-cut reaction, and I like to dig a bit deeper. So I ask myself how we actually come up with the people who receive these visas. And I look at the conventional media, which pretty much accepts the idea that H-1Bs go only to the "best and the brightest," but is weak on details. It turns out that there is no great selectivity there, that we're not necessarily skimming the cream from other countries. Additionally, the biggest H-1B users are Indian offshoring companies, who have their own motivations for bringing in their countrymen for a few years, then sending them back to the subcontinent.

If we really take the time to look at this, or any other, issue, we find that there is a complexity that doesn't quite line up with political simplicity, that, if we're trying to find truth, we can't just line up with Bill Gates or Lou Dobbs. Each may have contributions to make to the dialogue, but neither seems to capture the full difficulty of the problems inherent in immigration policy - each is quite selective in their choice of facts.

But each of them may have facts to contribute to the discussion, and it behooves the inquirer to look at both sides and try to determine what truth can be found. Sadly, our news providers seem incapable, most of the time, to appreciate this. It's easier to brand Gates an eminent statesman and assume that his wealth gives him special insight into topics that are well beyond his ken (but within his sphere of self-interest). In this way, extremes are relabeled "conventional wisdom," and any dissent becomes relegated to the fringes; you're either with Bill Gates or you're part of the radical nutjob Dobbs contingent.

That may make the job of commenting on things a lot easier, but it's also colossally lazy. Some of the people who disagree with me are guilty of that (and I am, at times, just as guilty). It's hard to question assumptions, to look skeptically at what both sides are saying, especially when you can sort people into two classes ("agree with me, disagree with me").

I'm pretty sure that the 65,000 number for H-1Bs is "wrong," because it was not determined based on much of anything that I can tell, and because it doesn't change in response to any externalities. Is it too low, or too high? Well, that depends on what our goal for the program is, and that's not something that either side spells out particularly well.

[I thought of trying to hash some of the two sides out here, but this isn't the post for that, because I'm using the H-1B question to illustrate the thought process.]

Hey, facts are tough, but that doesn't make truth something we should ignore. Since I don't have the ability to run an experiment on the H-1B question, my guess is that there are gains and losses whichever path we select. If we dropped visas to 0, some people would be better off, some would be worse. If we expanded them to 200,000, same thing. If I can acknowledge that, try to figure out who falls into each category and determine the magnitude of the life change, then so can everyone else. Of course, that wouldn't be as much fun as the shouting off the top of the head that most people seem content to do, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.


Anonymous said...

There are interesting details in your backstory (bad leadership at work, negative appraisals of imported foreign labor, bad investment decisions) and my own (good leadership at work, good appraisals of imported foreign labor, good and bad investment decisions) that do matter to the discussion, and we all lose when you choose to censor these details. I'm not sure we can remove ourselves from our biases! You know devs who are unemployed, while I know devs who turn down so many offers it hurts. Our conclusions are based on our experiences. This is where Red Oak maligns experiences when they arrive at conclusions he disputes, but that's because he's freakishly attracted to excoriating emnity masquerading as an intellectual discussion. You're not like him. You can aspire for objectivity. But I'm not sure we're better off when you leave out your personal experiences. Especially when they clearly do figure prominently in your conclusions. So do mine. Blogging is personal.

- mcfnord

Androcass said...

And that's why I have spelled out my backstory, though I would find it boring (and anticipate any reader would too) to do so in every relevant post. Censorship has nothing to do with it.

Let me, however, correct your misimpressions. It takes only one counterexample to disprove a blanket theory, so I have pointed out that some of my management has been incompetent to counter the idea that business is solely based on rational decision-making. I have never said all "imported foreign labor" was bad, not by a long shot; I have pointed out that the existence of some who are not up to snuff implies that we are not applying any real standard (which we are not) - we can do better. As for investment decisions, I too have made some good and some not-so-good, though I'm not certain I've gotten into that with much specificity.

I stated in this post that I try to keep my biases out of the questions I ask. It would be easy, having seen some of the misfortune I have, to attempt to twist those questions to give me an answer ("keep them all out") that might satisfy people I care about; indeed, I've written posts that have offended those people because, "you haven't gone far enough."

Blogging is personal, but that doesn't mean it has to be a massive wallow in self-pity. I have severed my feelings from my thoughts many times, because that's been my goal here. I'm sure I have not always succeeded in that spirit of skeptical inquiry, but that's been the intent.

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