Tag Archives: suppression of wages of natives

America Does Not Have A ‘Genius Glut’

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

On Friday, Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “America’s Genius Glut,” in which he argued that highly-skilled immigrants make highly skilled Americans poorer. 

A common way for highly-skilled immigrants to enter the United States is on the H-1B temporary worker visa. 58 percent of workers who received their H-1B in 2011 had either a masters, professional, or doctorate degree. The unemployment rate for all workers in America with a college degree or greater in January 2013 is 3.7 percent, lower than the 4 percent average unemployment rate for that educational cohort in 2012. That unemployment rate is also the lowest of all the educational cohorts recorded. 

Just over half of all H-1B workers are employed in the computer industry. There is a 3.9 percent unemployment rate for computer and mathematical occupations in January 2013, and an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent for all professional and related occupations. For selected computer-related occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages,” real wage growth from 2001 to 2011 has been fairly steady:   


 11 percent of H-1B visas go to engineers and architects but wage growth in those occupations has been fairly steady too:


Mr. Eisenbrey concludes that those rising incomes would rise faster if there were fewer highly-skilled immigrants. 

The unemployment rates for engineers and computer professionals are low but not as low as they used to be. There are a whole host of factors explaining that, but highly-skilled immigration is not likely to be one.  

Mr. Eisenbrey also claims that American firms hire H-1B visa workers because they are paid lower wages. Complying with certain regulations prior to hiring an H-1B can cost a firm $10,000, filing and other fees can cost additional thousands of dollars, and legal fees can be steep. The cost of hiring H-1Bs is high.

Contradicting Mr. Eisenbrey’s story about H-1Bs lowering American wages, IT workers on H-1Bs actually earn more than similarly skilled Americans. According to survey data, H-1B workers are more willing to work long hours and relocate to a job, making them more productive and raising their wages. Additionally, H-1B engineers are paid $5,000 more a year than American born engineers. If the goal of employers was to hire cheaper workers through the H-1B visa, they’re going about it in an odd way. The high regulatory costs and wages of employing H-1B workers incentivizes firms to hire foreign workers when they are expanding and can’t find American workers fast enough.  

Mr. Eisenbrey’s doesn’t touch on other characteristics of highly-skilled immigrants such as their high rates of entrepreneurship, inventiveness, or skill complementarity. If the New York Times chooses not to run one of my letters to the editor about those topics, I will be writing about them in the upcoming weeks.

Eisenbrey argues against increasing US visas for high-skilled work

Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute has written an op-ed in the New York Times titled “America’s Genius Glut” with the argument that the United States should not increase non-immigrant guest worker visas for (allegedly) high-skilled workers (the H1B visa category). Eisenbrey’s argument is thoughtful and nuanced, and he comes at this restrictionist conclusion from a more progressive stance than the majority of restrictionists I read (though, to be fair, many allegedly right-wing restrictionist groups often use very similar rhetorical arguments).

Below are my quick thoughts on Eisenbrey’s piece. These were written very quickly, hence my sincere apologies to Mr. Eisenbrey if I misrepresented his position. I’ve also tried to argue based on (what I understand to be) Mr. Eisenbrey’s framework of assumptions and goals, even though I don’t share them in many respects.

  • Eisenbrey writes:

    But America’s technology leadership is not, in fact, endangered. According to the economist Richard B. Freeman, the United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, employs a third of its high-tech researchers, accounts for 40 percent of its research and development, and publishes over a third of its science and engineering articles. And a marked new crop of billion-dollar high-tech companies has sprung up in Silicon Valley recently, without the help of an expanded guest-worker program.

    I’m in broad agreement with Eisenbrey that the United States (or for that matter, the world at large), is not at risk of systemic collapse if it fails to increase H1B quotas or relax the requirements for getting a H1B visa. I expect that things will keep getting better for the world, with or without open borders. I don’t think that Silicon Valley, or any other stereotypical high-skilled worker sector, is at risk of folding up due to a lack of immigrant labor. The current guest worker visa regime seems good enough to keep these sectors alive, though at the same time they may face competition from other jurisdictions outside the US that are easier to migrate to (see, for instance, here and here). Those who claim imminent collapse are probably mistaken.

    But while the crisis argument is misguided, that is hardly an argument for the status quo and hardly an argument against improvement. The relevant question to consider with any proposal is how it compares with the alternative, not whether it is absolutely necessary. So overall, while it’s valuable to point out what Eisenbrey did, the point of contention is still open to debate.

  • Eisenbrey writes:

    almost 90 percent of the Chinese students who earn science and technology doctorates in America stay here; the number is only slightly lower for Indians. If they’re talented enough to get a job here, they’re already almost guaranteed a visa.

    I think it’s true that the vast majority of high-skilled and qualified workers educated in the US can stay in the US if that is their primary aim. But not necessarily doing the job of their choice, or the job that would create the maximum value for society (from either a citizenist or universalist perspective). The existing H1B regime favors (in relative terms) large established companies that can afford the legal fees and other resources to help procure visas. Of course, this isn’t to say that these large established companies are favored in absolute terms — even these companies would prefer not to have to make these outlays. But what’s an inconvenience for large established companies can be a dealbreaker for startups and small companies. Also, the inflexibility of the guest worker visa program means that it’s difficult for workers to do short-run internships at companies before deciding whether to work there long-term, and other intermediate and flexible arrangements may also be ruled out. Many foreigners who want to create a startup, or work at one, or attempt a flexible arrangement of this sort may compromise either by not choosing to stay in the US, or working at a large company instead. John Lee’s recent post had some examples, see also the quote from Natalie MacNeil here or the story of entrepreneur Amit Aharoni.

  • Eisenbrey writes:

    If there is no shortage of high-tech workers, why would companies be pushing for more? Simple: workers under the H-1B program aren’t like domestic workers — because they have to be sponsored by an employer, they are more or less indentured, tied to their job and whatever wage the employer decides to give them.

    I’m not sure if, controlling for all relevant skill variables, this is true, but if, in fact, those on H1B visas get paid less than identically skilled natives, one simple explanation might be all the legal outlays, as well as uncertainty, associated with H1B hiring, which factor into the cost on the employer side but don’t actually reach the employee’s pocket. That’s the demand-side story. The supply of workers story is that workers prefer to take lower wages than natives that are still substantially higher than wages in their home country.

    Eisenbrey is also correct that guest worker programs that are tied to a single program lock workers in and may allow employers to offer lower wages to workers because of lower fear of exit. But this also cuts in another direction: employers aren’t able to “poach” such guest workers that easily from their competitors. Overall, I don’t think that the inflexible guest worker programs are all that beneficial to employers in the big picture (though you could make an argument that employers as a whole benefit modestly by keeping wages slightly lower than they would be in a market equilibrium, this effect would still be lower than the naive estimate due to greater friction in hiring employees from competitors). In any case, in so far as the proposal being critiqued by Eisenbrey fails to offer flexibility with respect to changing employers, this is a valid critique. However, in as much as it doesn’t make things worse than the status quo, I’m hard-pressed to see why Eisenbrey would oppose it. (note that most versions of guest worker programs proposed by open borders advocates allow for easy change of employers — see here and here).

  • Eisenbrey writes:

    Bringing over more — there are already 500,000 workers on H-1B visas — would obviously darken job prospects for America’s struggling young scientists and engineers.

    The citizenist connotations here are striking, but it would be pointless to critique citizenism yet again here. Still, there is an interesting question: to what extent does high-skilled immigrant labor depress the wages of high-skilled native labor? It’s hard to measure “skill” so most labor economists use proxies such as education level and type of degree. There are theoretical reasons to believe that many sectors using high-skilled work may enjoy more complementarity than substitution between different workers. At any rate, that’s my guess, as I mentioned here. But this is a controversial position. The most pessimistic estimate I’m aware of is that by George Borjas, which estimates that the last few decades of immigration have depressed the wages of college graduates by 3.9% in the short run and 0.5% in the long run (interestingly, in Borjas’s numbers, the only groups experiencing long run wage declines are college graduates and high school dropouts). I think that Borjas’s model by design ignores complementarities, making some of these conclusions suspect from my perspective, but this is something I’d need to examine far more closely than I’ve had time for so far.

    Now, obviously, the numbers could look a lot different under open borders. But Eisenbrey is talking of marginal changes to an existing system, not complete open borders. A 0.5% long run wage decline is nothing to be laughed at, but it is hardly a catastrophe, and not the same as destroying people’s livelihoods and life prospects.

  • Eisenbrey writes:

    But it would also hurt our efforts to produce more: if the message to American students is, “Don’t bother working hard for a high-tech degree, because we can import someone to do the job for less,” we could do significant long-term damage to the high-tech educational system we value so dearly.

    Although I’ve read many restrictionist arguments, this is a new one: immigration of high-skilled workers lowers the pay for high-skilled native workers, which lowers the payoff of acquiring high skills, which lowers people’s degree of education. I’d have to think a lot more about this to come up with a clear view on the matter, but offhand, this does seem plausible once you agree with the preceding claim that high-skilled immigration lowers high-skilled natives’ wages (again, in practice, we’ll proxy “high-skilled” with “college graduate” or something similar when measuring stuff).

    Still, if this is true, is this an additional reason to worry about high-skilled immigration? I don’t see why. If, for some reason (immigration or otherwise) the returns to high-skilled work fall, and people respond by pursuing less of education in those skill areas, this seems like an appropriate response to the changed economic conditions, that is both privately and socially beneficial. If you believe that education is mostly about signaling, then this is even more socially beneficial than it appears. The only way I see where you’d consider this bad is if you think either that people undervalue their own gains from education or if you think education confers significant social benefits over and above the private benefits it offers.

    The undervaluing story may be valid, but you’d then need to show that the extent to which people undervalue education also increases with a reduction in the return to education, which would seem somewhat self-contradictory and hard to show.

    I’m not opposed to the idea of significant social benefits to education (though my personal view is that it’s more than canceled by signaling, but let’s set that aside for now). However, if these significant social benefits exist in the form of positive spillovers, it seems prima facie plausible that educated guest workers would generate very similar positive spillovers, so this fails to be an additional argument against guest worker programs, even from a citizenist perspective.

UPDATE: Here’s a somewhat more forceful response from Alex Nowrasteh, that critiques some of the numerical and empirical claims made by Eisenbrey. Alex’s critique is largely complementary to mine (in that it covers a different set of points, with minor overlap).

The Case of Detroit

Between 1900 and 1950, the population of Detroit increased more than six times over. But this understates how radical the growth really was at its peak—between 1900 and 1930, the population grew by 4.5 times. In the decade between 1910 and 1920 alone, the population grew by nearly 115 percent.

A lot of this population increase was due to inflows from other regions of the United States, but no small fraction of it can be attributed to foreign born immigrants. In Wayne County, where Detroit is located, the foreign born population increased by about 326% between 1900 and 1930. If our current foreign born population increased by a similar proportion, it would add another 130 million to their numbers.

And it’s not as though the native-born Americans who migrated there were cut from the same demographic cloth as the Detroit residents of 1900. African Americans from the south, for example, migrated to Detroit by the tens of thousands during that time period.

Moreover, the migrants to Detroit were overwhelmingly competing for very similar factory jobs–foreign in origin or not, the straightforward supply analysis of immigration restrictionists would suggest that wages for these jobs should have plummeted due to all the new arrivals. After all, the people who were there in 1910 had to compete against a labor market that was more than twice as large a decade later! To say nothing of the people who were there in 1900 and in three decades had to compete in a labor market that was more than four times as large as the one they started in!

But this is exactly the opposite of what occurred. It was precisely during this time period that the median wage of low-skilled workers in Detroit was exploding, rather than falling. The reason was largely the auto manufacturing revolution, an economic phenomena that owed quite a lot to one son of an immigrant. The innovation in manufacturing drew over a million people to Detroit like a magnet, and still a huge portion of the benefits of the innovation ended up with the average worker, even with the dramatic expansion in the supply of their competitors.

If we had gone back in time and closed America’s borders prior to 1900, hundreds of thousands of the people who helped make the Detroit boom happen would never have come. And if we applied the same restrictionist logic to Wayne County and limited the inflows from the rest of the country, far from helping out Detroit’s residents, the city would have played no part in the auto manufacturing revolution whatsoever; it would have gone to another, less restrictive city.

Immigration inflows are not random. They are likely to occur where the labor is most highly valued–and the increase in scale can have dynamic effects beyond simple supply and demand analysis. In Detroit, it made an entirely new industry possible.

So what can we learn from this specific episode in one city’s history? In my next post, I will discuss that very question.

The economic effects of Arizona’s immigration crackdown

The state of Arizona in the Southern United States, which shares a border with Mexico, has carried out various immigration crackdowns over the past few years, the most recent of which has been the SB-1070 law. Pro-immigration groups, along with various civil rights advocacy groups, have generally opposed these laws as wrong-headed, while groups opposed to immigration (particularly illegal immigration) have been generally supportive of these laws. Some pro-immigration groups, such as the Immigration Policy Center, have argued that the strategy of attrition through enforcement, which is the general approach that Arizona has followed, is flawed:

These conclusions are bolstered by new research from the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Los Angeles and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. This research indicates that, when it comes to Mexican migration patterns, “northbound flows are holding steady with signs of increasing unauthorized migration, while southbound flows are decreasing. The result is that the size of the Mexican-born population in the United States has fully recovered from losses experienced during the recession.” Moreover, “given the available indicators as of mid-2012, it appears that even a relatively small increase in the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. economy would prompt a positive response in the migration flows despite intensified enforcement efforts by the federal government, several states, and some local governments.”

I’ve been critical of this economic determinism in the past, and I think that in this respect, restrictionists are right when they argue that increased enforcement (a) decreases the number of new illegal immigrants entering the state, and possibly decreases the total number of illegal immigrants entering the country, and (b) leads some immigrants to leave the state, though this is usually to other states, not the country. Now, in the case of Arizona, the fact that other nearby states like California and New Mexico did not carry out similar crackdowns means that most of the attrition from Arizona happened at the expense (or to the benefit, depending on your point of view) of these nearby states. This reconciles the “economic determinist” observation that state-level immigration crackdowns did not affect the overall flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, and that the decrease is completely explicable by economic trends, while simultaneously vindicating restrictionists’ claim that attrition through enforcement does work at the state level.

But the mere fact that restrictionists’ “attrition through enforcement” strategy “works” in the sense of reducing the number or proportion of illegal immigrants (relative to the counterfactual) does not imply that the strategy “works” in the more relevant sense, i.e., that it brings about the improvements in native quality of life that restrictionists hope to achieve with their policies. To figure out what’s happening to native quality of life, it’s not good enough to look at the proportions of illegal immigrants. Rather, one needs to look at what’s happening to native.

For convenience, I provide here a spectrum of five possibilities:

  1. Dramatic cut in native quality of life. This kind of apocalyptic narrative relies on the idea that immigrants do jobs natives won’t do, and on the questionable assumption that when immigrants leave, the jobs will vanish entirely and there will be no adjustment or reconfiguration. In this view, for instance, if 90% of restaurant workers are illegal immigrants in a city, then when the immigrants leave, then 90% of restaurant jobs will vanish.
  2. Modest cut in native quality of life. This narrative relies on the economy readjusting to the absence of immigrant labor, but while the readjustment optimizes for the new ground realities, the fewer resources available overall means that native quality of life reduces somewhat.
  3. No effect on natives. In this view, either the readjustment is perfect, or the reduction in other problems that immigrants create (crime, welfare state use, etc.) compensates for the economic inefficiencies generated by their departure.
  4. Modest gain in native quality of life. In this view, native wages go up with less immigrant competition, and natives have more resources for themselves now that there is less crime, welfare state use, etc. by immigrants. A few rich and powerful natives lose out because they have to pay higher wages.
  5. Dramatic gain in native quality of life. In this view, all immigrant jobs get replaced by natives doing the same job, so native unemployment goes down to (near-)zero, crime is at an all time low, and the economy undergoes a renaissance.

(1) and (5) are relatively extreme positions, which people more often accuse their opponents of espousing than they themselves espouse. The relevant range is (2)-(4). My view is that the truth lies somewhere between (2) and (3). But is there any research on the issue in the context of Arizona?

The Immigration Policy Center has a page with various ways that Arizona’s immigration crackdown has hurt the state. Some of the data here does would lead a person to be skeptical of whether Arizona’s immigration crackdown has been beneficial to the state. Still, one does not need to be a hardcore restrictionist to find the material on the page unconvincing. The main problem: most of their anecdotes do little to specifically separate out the costs and benefits to natives in isolation, which is what the state-level citizenist really cares about. Also, some of their cost statements seem hypocritical. For instance, they argue that bad publicity from the law, and legal challenges to the law, themselves cost the state of Arizona a lot of money. That’s true, but it sounds an awful lot like victim blaming to me, given that the Immigration Policy Center is at the forefront of generating the bad publicity and supporting the legal challenges.

To my knowledge, the best single piece on the Arizona immigration crackdown, that specifically considers and attempts to isolate and discuss the effects on the native population, is the paper The Economic Case against Arizona’s Immigration Laws by Alex Nowrasteh. Alex traces what happened in Arizona and the nearby states of California and New Mexico in some of the industries that most heavily use (illegal) immigrant labor and would be most likely to be affected (positively or negatively) by Arizona’s crackdown: agriculture, construction, and the restaurant industry. Since there is too little data on SB 1070, Alex looks at the effect of earlier, less comprehensive, crackdowns on immigration.

His findings differ somewhat for the three sectors, but the construction sector findings are perhaps the most interesting: the share of natives employed in construction declined somewhat over the period studied by Alex, even as the share of immigrants employed in construction declined much more. Moreover, the decline in the population share employed in construction for Arizona was more than for California and New Mexico (Alex also told me over email that the decline in share of native employment in construction was also more for Arizona than for California, although he does not mention this detail in his paper). The comparison with other states is relevant because the confounding factor of a recession in the United States around that time that disproportionately affected the construction sector. Similar data discussed by Alex makes the strong case for position (2) in the spectrum I listed above: the immigration crackdown did not spell disaster for Arizona, but likely had a small negative impact on native quality of life.

I have a few reservations about the paper, which I will discuss in a subsequent blog post. Clearly, as with all social scientific analyses, there is a lot of guesswork involved regarding counterfactuals. If you start off with the neutral position which I list as (3) on the spectrum (i.e., no effect on natives), it’s possible that reading the paper, you may still stay at (3), though my sense is that the evidence presented in the paper should move you at least somewhat towards a (2). But at any rate, I don’t see the evidence as moving one’s position towards the restrictionist side.

To my knowledge, there isn’t any comparable analysis written from a restrictionist perspective. The Center for Immigration Studies has a page on SB1070, but this focuses almost completely on the legal aspects, not on the economic effects. The best I could do with a quick search on various restrictionist websites was an article on VDARE titled Arizona Economy Booming Without Illegal Aliens. But this three-paragraph article doesn’t offer any direct evidence — only a link to and quote from a USA Today news item:

As of February, the state had added 42,6000 new, non-farm jobs over the previous year, and state revenues have increased 8.7% so far in 2012. The Arizona Office of Tourism found the state generated $17.7 billion in direct travel spending in 2010 — a 7.9% increase over the previous year. Brewer said there may have been a negative effect in the immediate aftermath of the law, but that the state has rebounded and the “Arizona comeback” is here.

“Businesses are coming. People are recruiting,” Brewer said. “We should get a lot of kudos for what we’ve accomplished.”

Although this discussion might be more directly relevant to SB1070 — since it is over the time period relevant for SB1070, as opposed to Alex’s analysis which is for an earlier period — it does not seem to me to be a very convincing argument for the positive effects of Arizona’s immigration crackdown (just as some of the Immigration Policy Center’s anecdotes are not too convincing in the other direction). If there are more thorough and sophisticated analyses of the economic effects of Arizona’s laws from a restrictionist perspective, I’d definitely like to read through them. Please leave links and references in the comments if you know of any good analyses.

I’ll blog my criticisms and reservations regarding Alex’s paper in a subsequent post.

Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job

This piece was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author. The original version features footnotes that have not been included here. Also, links to relevant Open Borders material have been added to the post.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) [Open Borders note: CIS describes itself as pro-immigrant. The fine print is discussed here] and author of the book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Illegal and Legal, criticized a remark I made to Washington Times reporter Stephen Dinan about a new CIS memo.

The memo, which can be found here, claims that immigrants are taking most of the jobs created since President Obama took office. I told the Washington Times that the memo “makes a mountain out of a molehill” because it ignores key economic explanations that have nothing to do with demonizing immigrants. Steven Camarota, one of the authors of the memo, even agreed that one factor I mentioned could explain his findings.

In response, Mr. Krikorian wrote that I should, “Tell that to the 23 million Americans who are unemployed, forced to settle for part-time work, or gave up looking for work altogether.”

My response is that the CIS memo is so flawed it should not be taken seriously.

Location, Location, Location

The memo looks at native and immigrant concentrations in different sectors of the U.S. economy. It points out that immigrants have made gains in some sectors where there is are high native-born unemployment rates. But the memo fails to take into account one very important factor when studying labor markets: labor mobility. This issue is so important that Harvard economist George Borjas, the most respected economists who is skeptical of the gains from immigration, called it “the core of modern labor economics” and criticized his fellow scholars for overlooking its importance. The authors did not heed Professor Borjas’ criticism. Continue reading Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job