People, Places and Jobs

Paul Graham has caused a stir with a recent essay that favors immigration of high-skilled programmers:

I don’t think the essay itself was one of Graham’s better efforts, but mostly because it is not bold enough in making the case for immigration. However, the reactions to it on places like Hacker News are dismaying on a variety of levels, both intellectual and moral.


Many of those railing against the idea of letting in more programmers (or workers in general) have a simplified view of the economy, in which there are a fixed number of jobs to go around.  10,272, say.  And if you let in more people, there will be more competition for those jobs, and therefore lower wages.  The people arguing against immigration are afraid that they won’t make as much money.

This is known as the lump of labor fallacy.  It is zero-sum thinking in which for one to gain, another must lose.  It is wrong, with the simplest example being that there are clearly more jobs and more money in the US economy now than 100 years ago.  Currently, there are approximately 320 million people in the United States.  100 years ago, there were roughly 100 million.  Clearly, something happened for the country to have gained both people, jobs, and money: the economy grew.  Graham points out that the economy and business are generally a positive-sum game in one of his earlier essays:

Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is– and you specifically are– one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell your car, you’ll get more for it.

In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven’t made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie. And in fact, when you look at it this way, you wonder why anyone would think there was.

Immigration is also not a zero-sum game – everyone who comes to a country and works also spends money that then goes back into the local economy, in addition to paying taxes, and most likely contributing in other ways.  Many immigrants go on to create companies themselves, which in turn hire more people.  Companies founded by first or second generation immigrants include Google, Apple, ATT, eBay, IBM, and countless others.  People with the drive to get up and go someplace new tend to be, on average, a bit more entrepreneurial than those who stay put.

Most economic research points to the fact that immigration does not depress wages indicating that the fear of adverse economic effects of immigration is not well-founded.  The article is worth reading carefully, because it goes into the details and links to the actual research.

If you’re a programmer, you’ve probably heard of PHP, Ruby on Rails, Java, C#, C++ and Python, just to grab a few projects at random.  These were developed by people who are or were, at some point, immigrants (they did not necessarily create these things while in the US).  We would all clearly be worse off without these people and their contributions.  Or maybe they would have moved somewhere else.  The sun does not revolve around the United States, and given enough bad policy decisions, people can and will go elsewhere to found their companies.  Looking at open source software shows that Graham is on to something with regards to the distribution of talented programmers: many, if not most open source contributions and projects originated outside the US.  Making it difficult and unpleasant for those people to move to the US does no one any good.

Even more average programmers are a positive thing, though: not all of us are brilliant inventors, and there is plenty of room in the economy for those of us who work on all kinds of projects utilizing the tools created by the most exceptional among us.  Having more people available lets entrepreneurs try more new, inventive and creative businesses.  It’s beneficial for everyone.

If you gave the government the job of trying to determine who the “great” programmers are, and who are merely normal ones, how would that work out in practice?  Keep in mind the immigration folks don’t just deal with programmers, so theoretically they’d have to be responsible for judging “great” people in every field out there, which sounds like a very difficult task under the best of conditions, let alone for harried, overworked bureaucrats.

There are something like 11,000 babies born each and every day in the United States.  With 135,991 H1B visas granted in 2012, that’s only 12 days of babies. Granted, those children won’t compete for jobs right away, but eventually they will.  And yet very, very few people loudly complain about other people having children, because children, just like immigration, do not harm the economy.

Another idea I see often in these discussion is: “we should auction H1B visas to the companies willing to pay the highest wages”.  Auctions can be a sensible way of allocating resources, but with a purely arbitrary number of visa slots to auction off (is there any statistical or research-based reason why the numbers are what they are?), you’re not really improving things a great deal, due to the artificial limit (in programming, we often call numbers like these “magic numbers”, and not in a good way). Because some professions simply pay more than others, you also risk starving some professions of talented immigrants entirely.

A few people make the argument that “brain drain” harms the countries people immigrate from by depriving them of their best and brightest.  In this day and age, however, it’s easy for people to make some money, gain some experience, and then return to their countries of origin, not to mention the huge remittance economy that is a lifeline for many families “back home”.  Everyone is better off.  Some workers are simply not valuable at home, so moving allows them to be more productive and make more money.  Consider a fashion designer from a rural town in Oklahoma: forcing that person to stay where they were born is not going to create a fashion industry in that town, so letting that person go to Milan, Paris or New York is going to make everyone better off.

One sensible point people make in criticizing the H1B program is that it does not offer immigrants a lot of bargaining power.  If they were a bit less beholden to their employers, they could more confidently bargain for higher wages.  It is possible for someone with an H1B to change jobs, but you really need to “grasp the next vine before you let go of the previous one”, or you might get in trouble with your visa status.


People living in a country founded by immigrants trying to keep out other people hoping for a better life for themselves and their families is questionable, at best, and very ugly at its worst.  In reading the reactions to Graham’s essay, I would not ascribe blatant, outright racism to most people commenting, but there’s certainly an ugly undercurrent of “us” and “them”.

My own background certainly colors my views, and makes “us” and “them” far more nebulous concepts than they appear to be for some: I was born in the US, and live in Italy.  My wife is Italian, as are many of my friends.  I work at an Italian company.  I do not see these people as inherently different than people who happen to have been born in the same country I was.  They’re people, just like people anywhere.  If they wanted to go to the US, work, and obey the laws, I don’t see any reason for them not to.  I don’t see these people as a “them”: they’re my friends, family and colleagues.  I can’t support policies that would keep out my Italian friends in order to “protect” people who happen to be born in the same country as me, with whom I may have absolutely nothing in common other than a passport.

If someone can, just by going to a different place, make more money and live a better life, there’s a strong moral argument in favor of letting them do so.  To consign someone to a life less fulfilling than it could be because they happen to be born on the wrong side of a line seems unjust to my way of thinking.

This is especially true because none of us has any say in the matter of where we are born: it’s a genetic lottery that those of us born in wealthy countries were lucky enough to win.  It’s the least we can do to let people from elsewhere have a shot at a better life.  And those from other “1st world” countries?  What’s the harm in letting them in if they follow the rules?  If they don’t like it, they’ll probably go home where there’s more of a social safety net than in the US.

There’s also the matter of freedom: If people agree to abide by the laws of a country, and do so, why should we tell them ‘no’?  Believers in liberty should support others’ liberty to live and work where they wish.

Because of the positive-sum economics of immigration, it doesn’t cost us anything to let people in, and it might make the immigrants’ lives a lot better.  Best of all, this helping hand for our fellow human beings is not an act of charity: it’s through their own work that these people will be better off in addition to contributing to the local economy.  Everyone wins.

I recently read a book first published in the 1960ies, called “Business Adventures” (my review is here), with one quote from the boss of Xerox about unions and their relationship to minorities that struck me as relevant to immigration as well:

For example, we’ve tried, without much fanfare, to equip some Negro youths to take jobs beyond sweeping the floor and so on. The program required complete coöperation from our union, and we got it. But I’ve learned that, in subtle ways, the honeymoon is over. There’s an undercurrent of opposition. Here’s something started, then, that if it grows could confront us with a real business problem. If it becomes a few hundred objectors instead of a few dozen, things might even come to a strike, and in such a case I hope we and the union leadership would stand up and fight. But I don’t really know. You can’t honestly predict what you’d do in a case like that. I think I know what we’d do.”

At one time, it was considered acceptable to keep black people out of ‘good jobs’.  Attempting to keep foreigners out of jobs seems broadly similar to me: it’s immoral and based on bad economics.

If someone is willing to obey the law and work, they ought to be welcome in a country of immigrants.

Further Reading

The optimal number of immigrants

Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration

2 thoughts on “People, Places and Jobs

  1. Pingback: Paul Graham on US immigration policy and high-tech programmers | Open Borders: The Case

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