July 24, 2013 8:55AM

Give Me Your Engineers, Yearning to Breathe Free

The final segment of last Sunday's McLaughin Group dealt with U.S. immigration reform, which is currently stuck in legislative limbo on Capitol Hill. In five minutes, the segment deteriorated from a few sensible comments on both sides of the issue, to bad reasoning and uninformed misstatements of the basic facts. More disappointing, it was the ostensibly pro-immigration side of McLaughlin panel that made the worst flubs.

The segment (which starts at 22:38 of the video below the jump) opened, promisingly, with a simple yet sound package on immigration, followed by some good remarks from panelist Clarence Page on the long-term economic benefits of immigration and a reasonable concern by panelist Pat Buchanan and host John McLaughlin that increased immigration could hurt wages for low-income Americans. So far so good—those arguments, along with cultural benefits and concerns, are the right issues to raise on both sides of the debate.

Unfortunately, Page and panelist Mort Zuckerman then took the discussion downhill. Here’s my transcription, beginning at the 26:45 mark:

MCLAUGHLIN: What about existing high-tech workers and engineers? Are their salaries being driven down?

PAGE: No…. Those are the kind of people we need right now, whether they come from overseas or here—skilled workers.

ZUCKERMAN: We have a huge shortage of people like that. We had 195,000 H-1B visas in the year 2000. It was cut down to 65,000. We have a tremendous shortage of these kinds of engineers in this country.

Forget, for the moment, Page's dismissal of the Law of Supply. Focus simply on his and Zuckerman's claim that there's a "need right now" for high-skilled workers. If there is such a "huge shortage," the employment and wage data don't showing it. In the fall issue of Regulation (out in late September), labor economist Daniel Kuehn examines the argument for increasing high-skilled immigration. He writes:

The data suggest that occupations commonly filled by high-skilled visa-holders … failed to exhibit any of the major indicators of labor shortage… Inflation-adjusted programmer salaries as well as the salaries of a broader group of computer and IT occupations have remained essentially flat since the end of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, only increasing or decreasing by a few percentage points each year with no discernible upward trend. … In the period before the Great Recession, the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings in the PSTS [professional, scientific, and technical services] industry was relatively modest, averaging 0.8 from 2004 (after the recovery from the dot-com bust) to the end of 2007. After the Great Recession this ratio increased to 2.8 unemployed PSTS workers for every PSTS job opening. Not surprisingly, the recession has been associated with a loose labor market, but this is the opposite outcome of what we would expect in a workforce plagued with shortages.

So then why, as Zuckerman went on to note, do high-tech industry corporate leaders say they need high-skilled immigrant workers? Kuehn explains:

High-skill visa policy attracts advocates from the ranks of tech company CEOs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, whose primary interest is steering immigration policy to help them access low-cost labor with specific skill sets.

Contra Page, the Law of Supply is quite real—and it's important that supporters of liberalized immigration be honest with the public about that.

Beyond the factual and economic problems with Page and Zuckerman's arguments, there's a moral problem: When they advocate increased immigration for high-skilled workers, they also de facto accept maintaining the current restrictions on other immigrants. It's not particularly noble to say America is the land of opportunity, but only for immigrants with degrees in math and the hard sciences. Again from Kuehn:

The popularity of high-skill visas presents a remarkable contrast with other policies governing access to American public life. Restrictions on voting based on education levels, such as literacy tests in the Jim Crow era, are today considered abhorrent. Low parental education levels are not a basis for restricting their children from public schools. And yet, on questions of citizenship and residence, it is a foregone conclusion for much of the public and even more policymakers and analysts that special accommodations should be made for people with high skill levels and their families.

The debate on immigration reform is frustrating, and supporters of liberalization do not have an easy case to make. That doesn't justify fumbling facts and ignoring economics, much less accepting morally questionable policy ideas. For much better arguments for liberalizing immigration, see Alex's work.