America First!

“Give me your energized, your ambitious, your emigrants yearning to roam free, the best and brightest of your teeming shore. Send these, the hopeful, flying high, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


O.K., O.K. Fake news! Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed in bronze on the base of the Statue of Liberty hasn’t been altered—yet. But as Washington considers how to formulate a new, more effective immigration policy, Congress could decide the original version will need updating. The poor woman obviously didn’t understand the political, social, and national interest dynamics of “America First!”

We’ll get to all that in a moment, but (as Paul Krugman would say), first some background.

When I came to this country in the fall of 1968, I did so on a J-1 visa. This stipulated very clearly that I should return to the U.K. for at least  two years after completing my graduate studies at UCLA. Needless to say, having in short order become “Californicated,” I was not anxious to do this, especially since I’d been offered a job teaching linguistics at UC Davis. As fate would have it, I fell in love with a UCLA music graduate, got married, and eventually applied successfully for U.S. citizenship.

I was extremely fortunate. I had to recognize, though, that the original restrictions on my visa made sense. They were intended to prevent a “brain drain” in which Europe’s brightest and best students would go to American universities to get graduate degrees and then stay on permanently. Since at the time European taxpayers largely footed the bill for undergraduate education, it seemed only fair that the state’s investment should be recouped, no matter what the individual student’s preference might be.

Of course, it could be argued that European countries correspondingly profited from a returning graduate student’s training in the U.S., while the U.S. saw no long-term benefit. But we need to understand that European universities could rarely match the quality and sheer diversity of the transatlantic degree programs on offer, especially in key areas like the hard sciences, medicine, and computers, so that American universities were a natural magnet.

Thus one might reasonably see the two-way flow of graduates to the U.S. and then back to their homelands as a kind of educational Marshall Plan. The U.S. did invest generously in foreign students, but on their return these had a highly beneficial effect on their national economies, which in turn helped to promote mutually advantageous transatlantic trade. In addition, for a fairly small sum, America gained a huge amount of goodwill and admiration for its political and social culture.

Fast forward to today. Most debate about immigration reform has rightly focused on the Trump administration’s efforts to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries from entering the country. Liberals, in opposing the ban, often cite statistics showing that immigrants contribute significantly to the growth of the economy. These figures are often debated. More importantly, however, in a certain key class of cases, the wrong inference is drawn from them.

It’s not generally known that over 50 percent of all employment-related (E-1 and E-2) visas are awarded to immigrants of exceptional ability. These include researchers, university teachers, and those brought into the country for reasons of “national interest.” The Department of Homeland Security notes that “national interest waivers are usually granted to those who have exceptional ability…whose employment in the United States would greatly benefit the nation.”

Major beneficiaries of this policy, which will likely remain unchanged no matter what the outcome of the current proposed Trump travel ban and future immigration reform include highly ranked universities and scientific research institutions, and most especially high-tech firms. Silicon Valley companies have long pleaded with the government to increase the number of such visas awarded each year. Walk into any major Silicon Valley computer firm and count the number of cubicles occupied by Indians for example, and you’ll immediately get the point.

When thinking about this area of immigration policy, a different form of logic kicks in. Many immigrants in this category are graduates of Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and other top computer science institutions. Others have been trained abroad. In both cases they have likely been offered jobs with America’s top high-tech firms. Generally speaking they do not replace Americans or depress salary levels, nor do they represent a threat to U.S. national security or cultural values. On the contrary, they mostly assimilate quickly and are welcomed by their colleagues.

An idea of how much this influx is worth is given by the fact that 51% of recent $1 billion startups were founded by immigrants. This U.S. gain from those who were permitted to enter the country “in the national interest” is other nations’ loss, amounting in value to scores or even hundreds of billions of dollars. Much the same could be said of other fields, notably academia, medicine, science, and engineering, albeit without the typical huge multiplier effect for digital technologies.

Well, you might say, we live in a world of global competition. Why shouldn’t the U.S. do its utmost to attract and retain exceptional talent from around the world, talent that will both grow the economy directly and contribute to job creation in unrelated industries (construction, for instance)? Indeed, this is just the argument used by liberal thinkers such as Eduardo Porter, Paul Krugman, and Thomas M. Friedman, senior economic and foreign policy correspondents at the New York Times.

But of course we’re now back with the logic of the brain drain set out earlier. Immigration is a zero-sum game—what America gains some other country loses, thereby impoverishing it. In certain fields, the U.S. is literally skimming off the cream of the cream. This is nothing less than unrestricted human resource extraction, and is little different from the way western countries in past decades openly extracted oil and valuable minerals from the Middle East.

A central concern is that not only is the U.S. effectively diminishing the potential for growth in certain developing countries, it is also preventing them from ever catching up. Laws of dynamic networks govern how relationships change and grow, laws such as the rich get richer (think first-to-market), the fit get richer (think market adaptation), and the fit get fitter (think continuous innovation). In key fields such as technology, science, and graduate-level education, the U.S. already has such a long lead, and so much depth, flexibility and entrepreneurial talent, that these network laws will inevitably work to ensure its ongoing global economic domination.

A few years ago Silicon Valley companies used to aggressively poach one another’s top talent. However, they eventually came to realize that this kind of beggar-my-neighbor strategy was counterproductive in the long run. It produced more ill-will, uncertainty and instability than was worth it. In the end, the leading companies, including Apple, Google, and Facebook, opted for the larger view: what’s good for Silicon Valley as a whole is good for everyone. This led to the signing of a non-poaching agreement.

This was essentially the rationale behind the Marshall Plan, which in helping war-devastated Europe back on its feet simultaneously created a rich new market for American goods and services. By reinstating the principle of the brain drain as part of immigration policy, we are likely in the long run to gain more than we lose. In this case America First is not just selfish and shortsighted, it’s also damaging to the “national interest.”

It’s worth pondering one final issue that’s much broader than the particular topic we’ve been discussing here. Why do so many liberal thinkers support an America First policy in this case, even though they tend to be horrified by it in most other areas? I suggest it’s a symptom of a deadly flaw indicating that 21st century liberalism is so fatally compromised that it is not long for this world. But that’s the topic of another blog.

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