Monday, February 10, 2014

Yes there can be too many 'smart' people

Currently there is an immigration ‘reform’ bill under consideration that would provide an unconditional amnesty to countless foreign nationals who are in the country illegally, and to all of their relatives overseas.  But that’s a detail.  The main event is the opening up of massive increases in legal immigration: many of these new programs have no numerical limits.  In other words the country will be completely open to the entire overpopulated third world.  The point of this ‘reform’ is obvious: to flood the market for labor, to drive down wages and living standards for the many, while driving up profits for the few.  End of story.

However, there is a toxic meme that some of this massive increase in immigration is because you will somehow benefit from having more people with ‘skills’.  This is, typically, pure rubbish.  This ‘reform’ will not only impoverish all workers – skilled and unskilled alike – it will also destroy the ability of the United States to innovate at the cutting edge of science and technology.

The immigration policy that gave the United States people like Einstein, Fermi and Szilard was a restrictive one, that used your wealth and opportunities to attract the best from around the world, while sharply limiting the number of more ordinary people (even those with nominal physics degrees) to a number that would not drive wages down nor increase crowding.  This restrictive policy helped make the United States the world’s preeminent technological power.

The current policy has a very different purpose.  It is to open the doors to unlimited immigration of people the majority of whom have (for their job classifications) average or below average ability.  This will surely boost the profits of tech CEOs with business models based on large numbers of low-wage workers, but it will drive away the best minds.  Albert Einstein never expressed a desire to move to Bangladesh now did he?

Immigration ‘reform’ won’t just drive away the best minds from other countries; it will do so at home as well.  As job prospects in science and engineering continue to stagnate and decline, more and more of the hardest-working and most talented Americans (including the descendents of recent immigrants) will gravitate to protected fields such as medicine.  There is nothing wrong with medicine attracting good people, but if only losers who can’t get into medical school do science and engineering, well, how is that improving the quality of American science and engineering? 

Imagine a big research university.  To improve it should both support current faculty and also work hard to recruit the best talent from outside.  Suppose that this University simply hired all external applicants without limit or discrimination, and divided up the existing funds for salaries and lab and office space.   Before too long the faculty would be crowded and poor, and anyone with any real talent would have left.  As with a University, so with a nation: it can happen here.

Of course a University – or a corporation, or a nation – can grow, but always mindful of the available opportunities and resources.  Dumping an additional ten thousand engineers into a company that only has need for a thousand will NOT instantly cause this company’s business income to grow enough to pay for them.  That’s ridiculous.  So is the notion that bringing in more average-level scientists and engineers, when you don’t have enough jobs for the ones we have already, will magically improve your industries and create more than enough wealth to cover the living expenses for them and their extended families.  Not gonna happen.

There is something else here that gets little consideration.  It used to be that universities competed for the best students by offering the best education.  Immigration ‘reform’ stands this on its head and will corrupt the entire system.  Consider: there are a lot of people in the world who would do anything to escape where they live.  Here is the trade: they come here, take out 100,000 dollars in student loans, and the university gives them a paper degree in science or engineering.  The student gets an automatic green card, and is an indentured servant possibly for life but it’s still probably better than where they came from. 

Ten million such students would net the universities a cool trillion dollars.  University presidents will get paid like investment bankers.  But think about the incentives.  There is no call for the degree to mean anything, and the more throughput the better.  Twenty million students taking out loans of $200,000 each will net four trillion dollars.  And so on. The pressure to grant these degrees to anyone will be overwhelming.  So if the United States has countless millions of semi-literate PhDs in engineering who are working off their debts performing random jobs – including manual labor - how is that improving your science and technology? 

Remember: a degree is just a piece of paper.  By itself it means nothing.  You don’t need an ocean of people with pieces of paper.  You need to attract the best people with real skills. 

Finally, immigration ‘reform’ will destroy the integrity and honor without which high-level science cannot exist.  Competition is necessary for you humans: without competition even the most self-motivated hominids tend to slack off.  On the other hand, when competition reaches the point that even the best have more chance of winning the lottery than succeeding through honest achievement, well, people will eventually stop playing by the rules.  Cronyism and nepotism, which will always be present in all human societies but which under good circumstances can be reduced to a tolerable level, will dominate.   Past a certain point too much zero-sum competition will reduce the level of achievement, not increase it.

Consider present-day India.  The population is about a billion crammed into a country a third the size of the United States.  There are more people there with above-average intelligence than the entire population of the United States.  And yet half the Indian population is chronically malnourished, and the average physical standard of living is below that of late medieval Europe.  All those smart people have made a lot of money for India’s high-tech billionaires, but seem to have done little for the average Indian.  And more: despite all this talent, the contribution of India to modern science is negligible.  Part of this is because the most talented Indians leave, part is because the resources required to innovate are in short supply, but a lot has to be the culture of corruption and cronyism that this level of poverty always creates.  When people can only feed their families by cheating, you cannot blame them: blame instead those vile politicians and pundits that pushed to create these circumstances in the first place.

This is the future of the United States if immigration ‘reform’ passes.  The average person will be slowly but steadily crushed into poverty, and the torch of scientific and technological innovation will be passed to some other, less impoverished land that has fewer people with 'skills', but that has more available resources and the ability to keep and attract the best.  That’s how it has always worked, and it’s how it will work in the future.

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