Man Without Qualities

Monday, February 25, 2002

Can Any Immigrant Ever Be Too Smart Or Too Rich?

Americans are rightfully proud of a nation that has assimilated – or, perhaps, digested – many millions of disparate immigrants. Immigration has also been highly controversial at least since the “Know Nothings” raised their particular alarms about the influx of Catholics, mostly Irish, in the first decades of the nineteenth century. But from the beginning the contentious issues concerned immigrants of less education. With respect to upscale immigration (that is, immigration of educated people) Americans generally share the sentiment once voiced by the Director of the New York Institute of Fine Arts (although I have heard a similarly phrased sentiment attributed to a director of the Institute of Advanced Studies), about an earlier generation of admirable foreigners to reach these shores: “Hitler…shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” Is such upscale immigration an unalloyed benefit to the United States? The benefits are clearly enormous, but, as Shakespeare put it in The Rape Of Lucrece: “But no perfection is so absolute, That some impurity doth not pollute.” Are there also significant costs?

Of course, there is always the question of direct displacement of American workers, such as a computer programmer who may be displaced by an H-1B visa holder. But since educated immigrants generally create jobs (many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are Asian, for example), “direct displacement” considerations have rightly not played a major role in the sometimes super hot American political debate over immigration.

Nevertheless, it appears that there may be significant costs to upscale immigration, costs that must be netted against the benefits to evaluate the phenomenon. Simply put, the possibility of upscale immigration allows users of educated labor to relax their attention on the improvement of the domestic education system, to the likely detriment to the education of American children and, more curiously, of downscale immigrant children. The Man Without Qualities believes that even allowing for the costs, the benefits from upscale immigration are clearly huge. However, not acknowledging the costs has helped to create an unrealistic and dangerous nostalgia in the minds of many public school advocates.

It is worth considering California as an example. It is well known that California once possessed a very good public education system, crowned by an excellent public university. Companies dependent on what was then advanced technology – largely defense contractors - played a large role in lobbying for the development and maintenance of that system. California has long since grown out of and away from defense contractors, but, if anything, the state has become even more dependent on high technology and even more needful of educated people. At the same time, California’s educational system has all but collapsed, especially at the primary and secondary level. But none of the high technology firms that fill Silicon Valley and beyond, or the biotech companies that swarm in Southern California , or the remnants of the defense companies, or any other powerful industrial group dependent on educated workers, has been loudly demanding that the system be restructured to produce people who can actually staff those industries.

Now, when industry feels a shortage of educated workers, its calls are more directed to Congress demanding easier upscale immigration rules than to the states demanding an upgrade in the public education system.

Why the change? It is simply not necessary to California industry, even its high tech industry, for California’s educational system to function. California easily imports the educated brains it needs and does not produce locally, and much of those imports come from overseas. That is a very big change from the days when California industry was a major force supporting the statewide education system – and needed to be. California is representative of the United States generally.

The United States has been successful at attracting a fair portion of the world’s best and brightest. For example, at the time of this post, there are very few American students in the Harvard University mathematics doctorate program – and that phenomenon is generally the rule at most top American universities. Too, in dollar terms (as opposed to sheer numbers of people), the dimensions of upscale immigration should not be underestimated. The Milken Institute, for example, has estimated that the disintegration of the Soviet Union alone – and the resulting relaxation of its preposterous emigration laws - released perhaps One Trillion Dollars of upscale human capital onto the international market. That the United States was the principal destination for these people is likely, since it is highly unusual for highly educated people to immigrate illegally, and in 1997 (a recent year for which reasonably reliable figures happen to be available) the United States accepted more legal immigrants than all other countries combined. And the old Soviet Union is by no means the only major supplier of educated immigrants. The large, ready supply of educated potential immigrants has changed the American need to educate its workers in a way which is similar to the way the large, ready supply of foreign-made automobiles has changed the American need to make its own cars.

In a way, the above concerns with the effects of upscale immigration on the entire education system have some elements in common with the anti-school-voucher argument that vouchers would allow parents who care about their children’s schooling to remove those children from public school, causing the public schools to lose an invaluable resource of concerned parents. Only the parents who don’t care – the argument goes – would remain, and the schools would suffer. The “costs” contemplated by the anti-voucher argument are real, although that argument fails unless one views education in a school owned by the government to have a special virtue. The anti-voucher argument fails because the overall quality of education would probably rise in a voucher system. But the incentive effect of upscale immigration appears to be general – it applies to both private and public schools. Indeed, it reduces – obviously not eliminating - the need to educate children at all. Of course, parents will still desire education for their children. And other incentives to educate the populace will remain. But that does not mean an important reduction in support for high quality, universal education has not occurred in the United States as a result of upscale immigration.

Formal immigration policies are of course only part of the story. A foreigner is less likely to immigrate voluntarily to any country to the extent the immigrant may experience discrimination or discomfort upon arrival. Referring to the manufactured goods analogy again, imports are practical substitutes for a competing domestic supply (of people or goods) only where both formal import (or immigration) laws permit entry into the country and “internal non-tariff barriers” do not block the substitutability of imports (or, in the case of immigrants, discrimination does not impose prohibitively high costs on the immigrant). American culture has been relatively open with respect to upscale immigrants. To the extent internal resistance to immigrants is prominent (as it can definitely be), such resistance in this country is normally directed against less educated immigrants.

To the extent any country has a culture not accepting of immigrants, there is less likelihood that upscale immigration will be a reliable and major source of human intellectual capital. Such countries will of necessity have to educate their own people if a modern, technologically driven society is to be maintained. It should therefore come as little surprise that the more infamously “closed” modern societies, such as Japan, famously maintain broad and intense educational systems.

It therefore appears that the willingness of the United States to welcome upscale immigrants at both the level of formal immigration policy and through its culture of acceptance is working to remove incentives on technology companies (and other users of educated people) to support the broad education system in the United States. Such incentives effects are a direct link between the consequences of upscale and downscale immigration. Historically, education – especially public and parochial education – have played a huge role in the process by which new immigrant groups are assimilated into American society where such groups have lacked either general education of specific American educational component (such as English language proficiency). It therefore appears that one effect of upscale immigration is a reduced incentive to maintain the kind of educational system that has historically been used to integrate downscale immigrant groups. Looking again at California, the above analysis helps to explain why a state heavily dependent on a huge technology sector also maintains a failing public education system largely incapable of educating and integrating more recent Hispanic immigrants into mainstream American culture – all without intense outcry on the part of the commercial users of educated workers.

The purpose of this post is not to propose “solutions” to any of the issues that the above analysis may raise. That is for another time and another post or place. For now, it is enough to make the observation that our naïve acceptance of the gross benefits of upscale immigration should be tempered with an awareness that even positive developments in the life of a society carry their own costs and obligations.


The discussion above does not address the issue of allegedly "subversive" immigration (such immigrants would often also be upscale immigrants, as that term is used above), which has from time to time in the past loomed large in the minds of at least some prominent American political actors. Perhaps this displays a bias on the part of The Man Without Qualities, who has difficulty taking concerns of "subversiveness" as much more than posturing and paranoia. In any event, the focus of this post is limited to one aspect of the current educational and economic situation. But one must admit that the events of September 11 and the educated nature of the terrorists involved in those acts likely intersect with aspects of what might be called "true" upscale immigration in ways not considered here.

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