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Paul Graham on US immigration policy and high-tech programmers

I’m a great fan of Paul Graham, essayist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator (along with his wife Jessica Livingston, whom I also admire greatly). Through Y Combinator, Graham has changed the startup and tech company landscape and profoundly affected the world. (Some Y Combinator-funded companies you’ve probably heard of are Reddit, Airbnb, Dropbox, Scribd, Disqus, and Stripe). Graham also started Hacker News, a Reddit-of-sorts for the programmer/startup crowd. In the world of letters, Graham is better known for his long-form essays that include incisive social commentary. If you haven’t yet read his pieces, I encourage you to check them all out (I particularly like this one, that might be somewhat relevant here). He’s done more for the world than most people, including me, could dream of. And he knows a lot more about how the world works than I do.

Recently, while investigating the reasons for a surge of traffic to the site from Hacker News, I came across Paul Graham’s essay Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In. Though I was in broad agreement with Graham’s premises and conclusions (which broadly agree with the innovation case for open borders), I found some of the argumentation weak. In many ways, I thought that Graham both overstated and understated his case. He conceded too much to citizenism and to flawed framings of the issue, even if he didn’t directly endorse them.

A warning at the outset: it is quite possible that I am mistaken. In fact, given Graham’s substantially greater knowledge of the issues, your Bayesian prior, as you start reading this, should be that I am mistaken and Graham is right. But also consider another possibility. As Graham himself said, there are some things he can’t say. Graham is a contributor to high-tech immigration advocacy group FWD.us (see Nathan’s post on them). In that capacity as well as in his capacity as Y Combinator partner, he is keen to see high-tech immigration reform actually achieved. Even if he is broadly sympathetic to freer migration for all, coming out in favor of that might be a risk he’s not willing to take if it jeopardizes high-tech reform (relatedly, see my post on the dearth of moderates’ critiques of open borders). Thus, it could well be that my criticisms of Graham are epistemically correct but that his apparent results are a reflection of political savvy rather than intellectual sloppiness.

Paul Graham and others at FWD.us event

Paul Graham, Congressman Mike Honda, and founders of some leading Y Combinator-funded companies at a FWD.us event on high-skilled immigration to the United States. Source: FWD.us

Here’s my “list of N things” of criticisms, followed by elaboration of each:

  1. The 95% statistic is a gross exaggeration: Graham’s framing, and his choice of title, radically overstate his case. His actual text, if read carefully, is less misleading.
  2. Graham overstates the need for reform specifically targeted at exceptional workers: He overstates the case for letting them in, and the difficulties they face.
  3. Graham understates and undermines the importance of letting in the merely competent: The merely competent include many who may go on to become exceptional. They support the exceptional through division of labor and comparative advantage. And their children may go on to become exceptional.
  4. Graham concedes too much to the flawed jobs-and-wages-focused economic framework: He tacitly endorses the view that it’s somehow bad for companies to let in workers for the purpose of cutting costs. But cutting costs (holding the quality of service constant) is critical to economic and social efficiency.
  5. Graham couches things too much in the language of American competitiveness: He is right that there is a chance that the global hub could move out of Silicon Valley due to poor policy choices (including immigration policy and local land use policy). But the sad thing about this cost isn’t so much that America loses out, it’s the huge social and global costs of the transition.

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“Brain drain” does not harm political activism: my experience, and open borders

I just picked up my copy of the latest edition of The Economist, which had plenty to say about the recent elections in Malaysia (see this story, for instance). I’ve been asked to comment on this from an open borders standpoint — specifically, on how being a Malaysian living overseas has affected my ability to contribute to the political life of my nation. A common concern raised about open borders is that permitting migration more broadly might delay political reform in dysfunctional countries. I think I am well-placed to discuss this: this was the second Malaysian election in my adult life, and also the second I’ve participated in from overseas.

When I was a student during the last Malaysian national elections in 2008, I contributed financially to the causes I support. I also helped write campaign communications material, and I had no issues following the campaign from my university’s New Hampshire campus. Throughout the time I’ve been in the US, I’ve stayed abreast of Malaysian affairs, and for a few years, penned a regular column on Malaysian politics for a popular news website .

It’s actually remarkable how to a significant degree, online news and social media have made it easy to keep one’s thumb on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Sometimes readers would ask me how I knew what people were thinking or feeling back home, and it almost felt cheap to say that I just read blog comments or listened to what people were saying on Facebook. Of course, it also helped that I spent a few weeks at home whenever I had vacation time. This recent election, I similarly helped by donating money to the candidates I supported. Coincidentally, I donated to one of these candidates because another Malaysian currently living and working in Mongolia prodded me to, and offered to match my donation.

But beyond these basic things, which I could have done from Antarctica, I also plugged into the Malaysian diaspora in the US. There aren’t many of us here, but for the past 5 years in a row, I’ve helped organise a conference on Malaysian affairs in the northeast (and advised others as they began to organise similar gatherings in the midwest and west coast) — the Malaysia Forum. I organised and attended demonstrations in Washington, DC and New York City demanding a fairer political process.

I still remember how only a couple days after moving into my apartment near Washington, DC I was preparing a poster saying “Where is MY vote?” — a reference to how Malaysian policy then disenfranchised most citizens living overseas. I don’t think any of us at that demonstration outside the Malaysian embassy in DC less than two years ago expected that by this election, we would have the right to vote. And yet, our struggle came through. We were part of a global movement holding simultaneous rallies, in Kuala Lumpur and across the globe, for free and fair elections in Malaysia. At the same time I demonstrated in Washington, I had friends gathering and marching in London, Paris, Melbourne, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. The global synchronicity of it lent a powerful impetus to the movement; it was inspiring to Malaysians to think that scattered across our planet, there were Malaysian citizens sharing in the same struggle for democracy in our country. This election, I not only voted for the first time in my life at our embassy in Washington, but I also served as an election observer.

There is a concern that under open borders, people would flee dysfunctional countries instead of trying to fix them, this “brain drain” dooming these countries to failure in perpetuity. This concern is definitely applicable to Malaysia, and it’s something Malaysians openly wonder about and discuss all the time. (If you doubt me, come on over to next year’s Malaysia Forum and listen in.) The size of our diaspora perennially raises concerns that bad government policies are driving Malaysians away — which itself puts paid to the suggestion that emigration papers over domestic political problems.

Moreover, it’s not enough to suggest that apathetic Malaysians are disproportionately represented among emigrants as proof that permitting such migration is an issue. After all, there’s a selection bias going on: would the kind of people who leave Malaysia because they don’t care about it start caring about the country if immigration restrictions forced them to stay back? On the flip side, would the kind of people who love Malaysia but decide to leave it for other reasons stop loving their country?

I think these questions speak for themselves. But some further historical evidence unique to the Malaysian context: the overseas Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia were extremely politically active in their homelands up until World War II. Sun Yat-Sen paid frequent visits to Malaysia to fundraise and organise, and Jawaharlal Nehru toured Malaysia to drum up political awareness. With a modicum of open borders, people were able to travel and so stay in touch with affairs of their respective homelands. Nowadays with the internet, there is absolutely no reason one can’t play an active role in the political life of one’s home, even from afar.

Another curious political event of note: the affiliates of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang / Guomindang) and the Indian Congress Party in Malaysia eventually morphed into the Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress. Both went on to fight for Malaysian independence from the British, and remain influential Malaysian political parties today. It is not easy to classify political participation as an either/or thing.

Migration is a socially complex phenomenon. Not all who leave choose to do so permanently. Many return. Some stay. I have met many Malaysians in the US who, for various reasons, have wound up staying here and may wind up dying here. Perhaps their children will grow up as Americans rather than Malaysians (something I personally, at this point in time, can’t conceive of doing as a parent). But they have impressed on me their love for Malaysia despite spending years, if not decades, away from home.

There is no denying that living away from one’s homeland is tough, whether or not you have line of sight to eventually returning home. There are certainly things I could have contributed in this past election had I been home, instead of in the US. But I confess I do not see how forcing me to remain in Malaysia instead of being in the US would have made the political life of my country significantly better off. Neither do I see how forcing the thousands of Malaysians who have left the country to instead stay behind our country’s arbitrary borders would have made things significantly better.

Malaysia may be a unique case because we are a partially democratic country, and so overseas Malaysians have more opportunities to plug into the political struggles of our homeland. But neither pre-WWII China or India were democratic, and yet the Chinese and Indian diasporas stayed looped into the struggles of their respective home countries. One would not refuse refuge to someone fleeing North Korea. The US has open borders for Cubans who can make it to US soil, and Cuban-Americans continue to be vocal about the affairs of their ancestral homeland.

My suggestion is that political involvement primarily depends on how much you care about the issues at hand, not where you are. It might be that where you are affects your ability to hear about the issues, and thus how much you care about them. But that was not much of an excuse when the borders were open enough to let dissidents like Nehru travel, and it certainly isn’t much of an excuse now when we have the internet and Facebook connecting us to far-flung friends and family.

If anything, because of how it promotes exchanges of ideas and commerce, open borders arguably lends greater impetus to far-flung political movements: I earn far more in the US than I could in Malaysia, and can remit my income to Malaysian causes I support. The ideas I learn of in the US are ideas I can translate to a Malaysian context — and similarly I can transmit Malaysian ideas to my US friends and colleagues. Malaysian opposition leaders Anwar Ibrahim (a former Georgetown professor) and Lim Guan Eng (a former Australian student) are fond of quoting American figures like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr. In a world where ideas are free to roam, it hardly seems right to keep the people behind them in a cage.