Tag Archives: Silicon Valley

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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Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform group

Mark Zuckerberg, the principal founder of social networking service Facebook, has of late been interested in influencing US politics. Zuckerberg was one of 100 tech executives who signed a letter urging the US Congress and White House to pass significant immigration reforms. His ambitions in the political arena seem to be bigger, consonant with Facebook’s lofty motto of making the world more open and connected.

Evelyn Rusli reported in the Wall Street Journal in the article Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Starting Political Group (March 26) that a planned political group by Zuckerberg would focus (initially) on comprehensive immigration reform. According to the WSJ:

The group, which so far doesn’t have a name, is aiming to raise roughly $50 million and has already secured commitments in the tens of millions of dollars from Mr. Zuckerberg and more than a dozen other tech executives including LinkedIn Corp. founder Reid Hoffman, said these people.


Mr. Zuckerberg has told confidantes that the new group will initially be focused on comprehensive immigration reform and making the pathway to U.S. citizenship less complicated for all immigrants, said people familiar with the CEO’s thinking. The group also plans to focus on issues including education reform and funding for scientific research.

The new group has also enlisted several consultants well versed in Beltway politics. Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is especially active on a day-to-day basis, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

Joe Lockhart, Facebook’s former vice president of global communications and a former press secretary under president Bill Clinton’s administration, and Jon Lerner, a Republican strategist are also involved, another person familiar with the matter said.

More recently, Politico claims to have obtained an internal prospectus (it’s multiple pages, so you may prefer reading the printable version) for the immigration reform group. The prospectus was drafted by Joe Green, a close friend of Zuckerberg’s who seems to be doing much of the legwork for the group. Here’s Politico describing and quoting the prospectus:

Under a section called “our tactical assets,” the prospectus lists three reasons why “people in tech” can be organized into “one of the most powerful political forces.”

“1: We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals. We saw the tip of the iceberg with SOPA/PIPA.

“2: “Our voice carries a lot of weight because we are broadly popular with Americans.

“3. We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment.”

Joe Green has already backtracked from some of the assertions made in the prospectus. According to Politico:

“Several prominent leaders in the tech community, operating solely as individuals, continue to work on forming an issues advocacy organization that would seek to promote issues such as comprehensive immigration reform and education reform,” Green said. “However, some of the information contained in this email is outdated and not representative of the kind of work this organization will perform. Moreover, I regret some of the language in the email was poorly-chosen and could give a misimpression of the views and aspirations of this organization and those associated with it.”

The leaked prospectus confirms the bipartisan nature of the group highlighted in the WSJ article:

Signed on to be the Zuckerberg group’s campaign manager is Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Serving as political advisers are two Bush White House veterans: Dan Senor, who also served as Paul Ryan’s chief adviser during his vice presidential run, and Facebook executive Joel Kaplan.

The prospectus describes the group as a unique entity in the immigration fight. Listed among qualities that “we uniquely bring to this fight,” the prospectus says the Zuckerberg’s group is the “only well-funded bipartisan pro-reform group.”

“We have assembled the best people and most funding on this issue, and will win by focusing our activity in the districts of key members of Congress and senators,” the prospectus reads.

They also appear to intend to use standard political influence tactics of the same sort that restrictionists have successfully employed in the past:

Under a “tactics” section, the Zuckerberg group details plans for “grassroots and grasstops” organizing in targeted congressional districts, online advocacy campaigns, paid online and television advertising that will be “critical to creating the political infrastructure we need” and “earned media.”

“Given the status of our funders and quality of our team, we will drive national and local narratives to properly frame our agenda,” the prospectus states. The prospectus says the group’s support will provide cover for the “many congressmen and senators who want to vote for this but need the political space at home,”

The group’s listed “immediate” goal is to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which it calls “a unique opportunity to launch our organization. It is an issue that is critical to our community, that we can win, but where our help can be the difference maker.”

Elsewhere in the prospectus the group says its qualities include a “pragmatic focus on what moves votes, not talking about ourselves.”

On the apparent direction of the group

It’s too early to clearly say what direction the group will take, though “open borders” is probably not a phrase the group would associate itself with. I think it’s quite likely that it will be focused primarily on what is sometimes called “high-skilled immigration” and will advocate proposals similar to the startup visa. There is likely to be considerable overlap in goals and tactics with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Partnership for a New American Economy and with the March for Innovation.

Zuckerberg’s group’s suggested focus (per the WSJ piece) on a path to citizenship suggests a somewhat different focus from that of hardcore open borders advocates, but more context would be needed for evaluation. From what I’ve gathered based on talking to some Silicon Valley people, most people in Silicon Valley are focused on free movement and the ability to work and found companies, and they do not place much value of the path to citizenship (though they are presumably not opposed to it). In this respect, Mark Zuckerberg’s focus on a path to citizenship (if the WSJ article is indeed correct about this) differs somewhat both from the focus of open borders advocates and that of Silicon Valley migration evangelists.

I doubt that tactics similar to those used to protest against SOPA and PIPA will be successful in a pro-immigration direction. In the case of SOPA and PIPA, the public was mostly indifferent, with no strong sentiment in either direction, and given that many people have probably violated copyright law intentionally or unintentionally, likely to be somewhat sympathetic to the anti-SOPA cause after hearing what it’s about. With the issue of immigration, a sizable minority of the population is deeply restrictionist, and a majority is moderately restrictionist. The use of tactics such as those used against SOPA and PIPA may well drive a nativist backlash similar to the backlash that accompanied Bush’s attempted version of immigration reform, and Obama’s original version of healthcare reform.

I’m not a political expert at all, so there may be many ways to pull off political activism of the sort that Green suggests without engendering a backlash — I just find it hard to think of them. It’s also possible that Green and the group at large may have already decided not to use SOPA-style tactics in their push for their version of immigration reform.

On the size and influence of the group

Given the importance of migration as an issue, it’s heartening to see a person as rich and influential as Zuckerberg devoting his attention to the matter.

$50 million sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not clear what fraction of it will be devoted to immigration advocacy, consider that the group also plans to focus on education and research issues. The timetable of how the money is to be spent is also unclear. It seems highly unlikely that a lot of money will be spent in the near future in order to bring about any significant change in policy direction. The bipartisan nature of the group suggests a potential for long-term influence.

Zuckerberg’s donation history

Zuckerberg, who turns 29 in a month, already has a fairly impressive donation history quantitatively speaking, but the cost-effectiveness and social importance of some of his past donations could be questioned. It’s not clear what impact his $100 million donation to the Newark public school system has had, and skeptics might question his $500 million donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (which, amazingly, does not appear to have a Wikipedia page at the time of writing of this article). Hopefully, Zuckerberg has learned from previous giving experiences and his efforts to kickstart the immigration reform group signifies his switch towards giving opportunities with greater potential upside.

UPDATE: The group launched three days after the publication of the post under the name FWD.us. More information is available in this follow-up post.

Why are academia and Silicon Valley pro-immigration?

Restrictionists often argue that immigration suppresses native wages. How, then, do they explain the significant economist consensus in support of more expanded immigration? They rely on a mix of arguments such as the economist blind spot, elite conscience salve, and other attacks on advocates. The subtext of these, particularly the elite conscience salve, is that most open borders advocates don’t have to live the adverse effects of immigration. In this telling, open borders advocates, safe in their ivory towers from the unwashed masses, can declare open borders and shrug their indifference to the annihilation of their less fortunate fellow nationals.

As a factual matter, George Borjas (the man most quoted by restrictionists on economic matters) found that in the short run in the US, college graduates lose more from immigration compared to ordinary Americans, and lose less only compared to high school dropouts. I’m personally unconvinced by Borjas’s pessimistic estimates, and find the more optimistic estimates of the impact of immigration more convincing. However, that’s not a topic I want to get into in this blog post. Rather, in this blog post, I want to consider two stereotypically high-skilled profession types where people within the profession (including many who aren’t open borders advocates) actively advocate for more immigration of people who would specifically compete with them for jobs. I’m talking about academia and Silicon Valley, both in the United States context.

The case of academia

In the United States, academia is one realm where the current immigration regime is closest to free migration. Student visas are not always granted, but it’s easier to get a student visa than a H1B visa, and it’s definitely way way easier than getting an unskilled work visa (the H2A visa category). For post-doctoral and tenure track positions, academia has successfully been able to exploit a loophole in the H1B regime. The H1B regime states that a H1B work visa can be granted only if it’s convincingly demonstrated that no qualified American could be found for the job. In academia, it is usually pretty easy to set forth a collection of job requirements (such as papers on a specific subset of topics) that are satisfied by only one person on earth. It’s much harder to use this trick to hire people in other high-skilled jobs, and nearly impossible to use the trick for “low-skilled” jobs like restaurant worker or farm worker. The point is not just that the law has a practical loophole, it’s that immigration officials generally let people get away with it. Bryan Caplan explains this between 22:30 and 25:00 of his immigration restrictions video. And Caplan also notes in this blog post that academia already has de facto free immigration. Continue reading “Why are academia and Silicon Valley pro-immigration?” »