STEM visas and the planned economy mindset

Matt Yglesias writes:

In my first read of the Octogang’s bipartisan immigration reform framework, I thought that making high-skill reform conditioned on receipt of a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics advanced degree from an American institution was too restrictive.

I stand by that… On the other hand, you can read this as a very lax provision. What it does, in essence, is create a huge incentive for foreign-born college graduates to apply to master’s programs in STEM fields. Or looked at the other way, it gives accredited American universities a license to print money by launching foreigner-friendly master’s programs in STEM fields. If an Indian computer programmer can increase his salary sixfold by moving to the United States, then why wouldn’t he take out $50,000 in loans to obtain a master’s degree in computer science from some random American university? The programs would have to be selective enough to avoid totally discrediting the university sponsoring them, but there’s absolutely no need for them to engage in any useful educating whatsoever for the value proposition to be enormous.

Exactly. At bottom, we should be regulating immigration by price, not quantity. It’s not really helpful to say we “need” more STEM graduates. If STEM specialists are expensive, they’re expensive. Some price will clear the market, or maybe we need to outsource some jobs. There may be local positive externalities to STEM graduates, but that’s highly doubtful; to the extent that there’s a fairly strong theoretical case that positive externalities from generating “ideas” are important, these are at the global level. Trying to import STEM graduates in particular smacks of economic planning, with all the accompanying stupidities and inefficiencies. Let the market decide what types of immigrants workers we need, or to be more accurate, what kind of foreigners US employers are willing to pay enough to compensate for any disutility that might be involved in moving. Not Congress. Get them out of it. I can easily imagine useless Masters programs springing up to exploit what Yglesias calls “the advanced degree immigration arbitrage opportunity.” That’s why DRITI is the right way to open the borders.

That said, I’d rather hand out licenses to print visas to random American universities that leave it with State Department consular officials. The less discretion, and the more decentralization, the better. If the right to migrate becomes law for one arbitrarily selected subset of people– those who have STEM degrees from American universities– that’s a small step in the right direction.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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