Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Monday 22 November 2010

Brain Drain Vs Foreign Invasion

Apparently a lot of people in the USA are upset about the H1-B visa program, especially as it applies to "IT" workers.

I've always found it ironic that at the same time Americans complain about foreigners stealing US jobs, people in the originating countries complain about the "brain drain" of talent moving to the US. Can both groups be right? Would everyone be better off if talent stayed at home?

I tend to think not. I suspect the complainants on the US side undervalue the contributions of foreign workers. If they successfully shut down visa programs, jobs will simply be outsourced to where the workers are. If outsourcing is throttled, entire companies will move. In any event the whole US economy will suffer.

Personally, I think a reduced inflow of talent to the USA would be a good outcome. "Brain drain" effects are destabilizing; they create vicious cycles in the originating countries, and don't deliver commensurate benefits to the destination country.

A confounding issue here is that "IT" and "high tech" are not synonymous. A lot of H1B jobs are IT drudgery; changes there will not affect genuine innovation or national competitiveness. Making it difficult for PhD graduates to stay is a different story, but I suspect this important distinction will be lost in the battle.


I think the common issue here is a misunderstanding of the division of labor, the place of competition in capitalism, and the terrible idea that one is entitled to a job.
John Lilly
Most people in tech want more visas to be issued, not fewer.
And I would assert that intermixing is good for all, not bad. I think the brain drain phenomenon is over argued, and in fact, there is two way tech transfer happening more and more now, benefitting everyone.
Best work on the subject is Annalee Saxenian's The New Argonauts. Important book as a follow up on her Regional Advantage book 20 years ago, still the most thoughtful insight into why Silicon Valley is so unusual and dominant.
Robert O'Callahan
By "most people in tech" I assume you mean most of your peers in Silicon Valley. I'd be interested to see broader poll numbers. The comments in the article I linked to are extremely one-sided (though I immediately grant that they're not a useful representative sample).
"Two-way tech transfer" sounds great, but it's still the exception rather than the norm in my sphere. Maybe it's different if your home country is a superpower.