Diverse Cooks Make a Nice Broth

Among us researchers who question the tech industry’s claim of a labor shortage and the related claim of a “need” to expand the H-1B work visa and employer-sponsored green card programs, there is a ton of mutual respect but still considerable divergence of opinion.  For instance, I differ from some of  the rest in that I consider the focus on the outsourcing firms to be unwarranted and counterproductive.  

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” the saying goes, but USA Today is now running an op-ed by a very diverse group of five of us, and I must say that I like the result.  We are a diverse group not only in terms of the outsourcing issue, but also in terms of geography, gender, ethnicity, public-vs.-private institution, and political party.  (I’m a Democrat, and I know of at least one Republican in the group.)  And I think it captures well our view of what we consider a self-serving sham push by the industry for legislation that would be harmful to the U.S. economy and well-being.

There have been some interesting developments lately on these issues, and I have two more blog posts planned for the next few days.  The first, to be titled, “A Fly-on-the-Wall Look at the Claimed Tech Labor ‘Shortage’,” will run this evening if I have time.

Globalism, Sincerity and a Desire for a Decent (Not Lavish) Life

The trigger for my topic here is one of Alan Tonelson’s posts today, titled “Why U.S. Globalization Policies Need More ‘Narrow’ Nationalism.”   Actually, it prompts me to make a number of points I’ve wanted to bring up for quite a while.

In the above post, Alan takes umbrage at a recent column by prominent economist Tyler Cowan on the effects of globalization.  Cowan points to research showing that globalization (a category in which Cowan includes immigration, citing George Borjas’ work) has slammed the middle and lower classes in wealthy nations like the U.S. Cowan notes wryly that these findings are “contrary to what many economists had promised.”

Many who read Cowan’s article must have laughed at the economists’ lack of common sense.  And THAT is my real problem with them, even with Cowan, of whom I am a longtime fan.  Most of them have never experienced serious economic hardship, say a period of extended unemployment or a home foreclosure.  Hence, they just don’t get it.

And that’s why Cowan’s second point is rather hollow:  The good news, he points out, is that globalization has generally (though not in all cases) improved standards of living for the world’s poor.  Alan retorts, in essence, “Fine, but don’t ignore people in the U.S.”  Again, to someone who has always had a comfortable life financially like Cowan, Alan’s words sound selfish.  But I believe most other people know exactly what Alan means.

I do agree that the improvement of living standards in the Third World is good news, as Cowan says.  I’ve been passionate about this issue ever since college, and in fact this was one of the main motivations I had for specializing in statistics.  (I’m a former stat professor, and am still quite active in the field even though I’ve taught computer science most of my career.)

And though I’ve written extensively on the problems of the H-1B work visa, I’m far from doctrinnaire about trade issues.  I’ve mentioned here before, for instance, that I’ve always driven Japanese cars, as I believe they are better made (especially important for someone who lives 60 miles from work, as I do).  I feel the same way about services as about goods, and have actively supported bringing in “the best and the brightest” from around the world.

But the key point that Cowan does NOT address is, to what degree is it possible to have a it both ways–continued progress in living standards in the Third World while still maintaining reasonable levels here?  Clearly, if Cowan doesn’t have an answer to that question, then neither do I.  (Though I don’t lack for ideas on ameliorating the negative effects on Americans.) But what we at least CAN ask for is an honest dialog–and we’re not getting one.  The globalists’ rallying cry, “American consumers benefit in lower prices,” is rarely critically examined, even though the information is out there–the research and even “thought experiments” show that the price “savings” accruing from trade are typically quite small. Indeed, occasionally even those with self-interest, such as the National Association of Manufactures, publicly admit it.

Given my work on the H-1B issue, I see this problem up close.  The industry lobbyists excel at manipulating a generally gullible and even innumerate press.  One of my favorite retorts in that game is one I use when the lobbyists say, “The tech industry is forced to hire mainly new or recent graduates, including foreign students at U.S. campuses, because only the young new grads know the latest technologies.  The older engineers don’t have these new skills.”  I reply, “Well, who taught those young people the new skills?  It’s old guys like me!”  Actually, a bright child could see that gaping hole in the lobbyists’ argument–so why can’t the journalists see it?

Sadly, academia, supposedly a bastion of truth and impartial inquiry, is the source of a lot of the industry PR–paid for by them, in the form of research funding.  Call me old-fashioned, but I simply cannot understand why presumably self-respecting economics professors (I don’t mean Cowan) would take industry funding for research that–surprise!–turns out to support the funders’ views.

So we have government and policy making by lobbyists and others with vested interests.  Yes, part of this is due to the generous campaign donations the tech industry makes to Congress, the president and the political parties.  But I’ve had enough interaction with people on the Hill to know that most of them really believe this stuff.  To them, America’s economic strength depends on importing engineers, and evidence to the contrary is simply cognitive dissonance, automatically dismissed.

So is all the evidence showing chicanery by Microsoft in particular on the H-1B issue, including a recent New York Times op-ed by Bill Gates (plus Warren Buffett and Sheldon Adelson, but I’ll focus on the tech guy here, Gates and the firm he founded). The article told how the H-1B workers are “badly needed” by the tech industry.  Yet days later, Microsoft announced a huge layoff, and then announced that it was going to reduce the work it assigns to its independent contractors.  Microsoft actually has a long history of saying one thing but doing another in connection to the H-1B and alleged tech labor shortage issues.

Folks, Cowan has a point about the up side of trade for the Third World, but I don’t like being lied to by those PR hacks.  Do you?

Yahoo! Sexual Harassment Suit May Have Deeper Implications

If you are the type who is captivated by Silicon Valley scandals, you are probably aware of the sordid, gruesome story of Google executive Forrest Hayes.  But another one surfaced the other day regarding a sexual harassment suit filed by former Yahoo! software engineer Nan Shi, against her former supervisor, Maria Zhang, and against Yahoo! itself. Needless to say, I don’t know either party (ironically, I first read about the suit on Yahoo!), and nothing I say here should be construed as siding with either of them. But if Shi’s allegations are true–not only about Zhang actions, but even more importantly about the claim that Yahoo! HR ignored Shi’s complaint–then this would be one more disturbing example that many in Silicon Valley are “ethically challenged.”  Zhang holds a position of some prominence in the Valley. And there is another possible aspect of Shi’s claims that is quite troubling.  As usual, the reader comments in the San Jose Mercury News report on the suit were interesting, but one in particular caught my eye:

Very sorry for Ms. Nan Shi. I guess being a woman, immigrant, and having her residency tied to the job in a dominating techno-slavery arrangement with her supervisor is pure evil. Wish you strength and peace in this ongoing lawsuit.

The reader assumes here that Yahoo! had been sponsoring Shi for a green card before they fired her.   [Update, July 15:  This apparently is not the case; see post by "j-lon" below.  The principle, of course, still holds.]  We don’t know this.  It’s quite possible, though.  According to Shi’s LinkedIn page, she left Ohio University (not to be confused with Ohio State University) in 2004.  She worked for Microsoft for five years, then joined Zhang’s startup, which was later acquired by Yahoo!. These days there is a long waiting time for employment-based green card applicants from China, often 10 years or more.  It is possible that Zhang did sponsor Shi for a green card in the startup, with the application now held by Yahoo!, and that Shi’s green card had indeed been hanging in the balance while she worked under Zhang at Yahoo!.  If this were not the case, i.e. if she actually did already have a green card, one would assume she would have left rather than put up with the abuse; her credentials certainly would have opened many other doors for her. Assuming hypothetically that Shi was beholden to Zhang/Yahoo! for her green card sponsorship, this would be an illustration of the enormous power an employer has over a sponsored employee. This problem was noted in the congressionally-commissioned report of the National Research Council, and has been openly pitched to employers by immigration lawyers.  Tech firms want to have “tethered,” i.e. immobile workers, because it’s quite disruptive when a key engineer leaves an urgent project for another firm.  The companies can’t keep U.S. citizens and permanent residents from leaving, but they can tether foreign workers by sponsoring them for green cards, often for many years. Immigration lawyer David Swaim, whose online biography notes that he “created the immigration procedures at dozens of companies such as Texas Instruments…”, states,

By far the most important advantage of [green card sponsorship] is the fact that the employee is tied to a particular position with one company and must remain with the company for more than four years…

As noted above, for sponsorees from China and India, the waiting time is typically more than six years these days, often as much as 10 years or even more. Though the press coverage of the H-1B work visa tends to focus on the fact that H-1Bs are typically paid less than their market value, for many employers this tethering of the foreign workers is even more important than saving in wage costs. If Shi had been in the midst of a Yahoo!-sponsored green card application process, her claims of sexual harassment by Zhang would, if valid, be a dramatic example of just how much power the employer has over the sponsored worker.

Why Are We Worried about China’s Paper Chase?

The June 30 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) included an article titled “While Debating Visas, U.S. May Miss Bigger Keys to Scientific Success” (requires subscription).  Given the ultrasensitive nature of immigration topics these days, readers might be forgiven for not catching the nuance in the title–which is intended to (correctly) convey the point that the article is actually NOT about the H-1B work visa or employer-based (EB-series) green cards.  Instead, to me the salient theme of the article is the growing competition between China and the U.S., though this theme turns out to have an H-1B/EB connection, as you’ll see.

I wrote in my recent blog posting on tech ethics of the very much heightened awareness in DC these days of China as a rival to the U.S. in tech prowess.  By coincidence, just this week a Chinese immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was convicted of selling U.S. firms’ trade secrets to companies in China.  (I was startled to learn that he lives in my suburban Bay Area city.)  There have been a number of such incidents, enough that the Wall Street Journal once ran a sidebar listing a number of the more interesting cases.  It’s clear that such cases will be prosecuted vigorously.

Though I am sharply critical of both the H-1B and EB-series green card programs, I have always strongly supported rolling out the immigration red carpet for the world’s “best and brightest” scientists and engineers.  It’s not entirely clear from the CHE article whether the highlighted scientist, Dr. Xiao-Wei Chen, is of best/brightest caliber, but let’s assume that he is.  The main point of the article is that the U.S. is about to lose him.  Basically, China made him a much more attractive offer, and DC finds this alarming.

The China Fear Factor is especially evident in this passage of the article:

“China is about to eat our lunch,” Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, told a staff briefing last month on Capitol Hill. She expressed particular concern about China’s getting close to overtaking the United States in the volume of research publications. “That indeed would be a tragic set of circumstances,” she said.

This is very highly misleading.  Contrary to what some university deans might think, counts of papers do NOT reflect the scientific productivity of an individual, an institution or a nation.  To compete with China on paper counts would make no more sense the the old “browser war” between Microsoft and Netscape, in which there was an escalating “arms race” to add more and more features that had less and less utility.

To be sure, China is indeed engaged in this paper chase.  The pressure is now on researchers in China to produce as many papers as possible, quality be damned.   The primary motivation behind this, I’m told, is that the Chinese government was upset that China has no highly-ranked, world class universities.  Upon investigating, they learned that one of the ranking criteria was…paper counts!  So, they’re gaming the system–just like some American professors do, I might add.

But it’s not good for China or the U.S. in any economic or intellectual sense.  On the contrary, it’s destructive, because it means that precious resources are being devoted to makework rather than on innovative, groundbreaking work.

Nevertheless, various members of Congress and of the Executive Branch see China as a looming economic threat, and they are taking ill-advised steps, such as proposing legislation to give automatic green cards to foreign STEM students who earn graduate degrees in the U.S.  The article correctly points out that the foreign students who want to stay do find a way to stay.  It’s always been that way, and indeed the vast majority of Chinese students and scholars in the U.S. end up staying here–without some blanket legislation that would give even master’s degree students at undistinguished state colleges automatic green cards.

Moreover, what is more disturbing is that many in DC see the green card programs as a way to “steal” STEM workers from China.  I had heard rumors of this for years, but still was taken aback when they were confirmed at a talk at Georgetown University I gave a few years ago on the quality of the foreign STEM students in the U.S.  An attendee came up to me afterward, and turned out to be a young green card case adjudicator at USCIS.  He said something close to this:   “I don’t see what the fuss is about.  My understanding is that our mission is to grab STEM students away from China.  The quality doesn’t matter.”

This is absurd on so many levels, but the most important one is this:  If STEM is indeed so vital to U.S. well being as everyone says it is, we should really focus on excelling in STEM fields–NOT constantly looking back over our shoulder at China, NOT using counterproductive measures of STEM productivity, and above all, NOT establishing policies that discourage our own best and brightest young people from pursuing STEM careers.

The situation in lab science fields, for instance, is atrocious.  We have a huge surplus of trained scientists, making lab science about as unattractive as possible to our young people.  Why are we overproducing doctorates in STEM, and considering importing more,  other than to please certain vested interests, notably the universities?  It would be nice if people like Jackie Spier worried about THAT, instead of counts of Chinese research papers.

Skill Shortages, Hamburgers and Jobs Americans Won’t Do

Alan Tonelson’s blog post today cites a CNBC report on alleged skills shortages plaguing U.S. employers.  In an employer survey, 13% admitted that the “shortages” were due to their simply not offering a high enough wage.

Professor Peter Cappelli of Penn’s Wharton School of Business has written extensively on this point, but I’ll add some comments here in terms of the tech labor market.  First, though, in order to make things concrete, here are a couple of low-tech examples.

I wonder how many air travelers noticed before 9/11 that each major airport differed in terms of the ethnicity of its baggage security screeners.  If you were to fly from SFO to BWI, for instance, you would be served by Filipino immigrants on your trip to Baltimore, and then by African-Americans on the way back.  That changed after 9/11, when Congress enacted legislation that (a) required the screeners to be U.S. citizens and (b) substantially increased wages for the job.  At SFO, the Filipinos had previously tended to be longtime green card holders who, for whatever reason, had not chosen to naturalize.  So positions opened, and lo and behold, there was a flood of applicants from the general population.  So here is one job that had been wrongly assumed to be the type that “Americans won’t do,”  Indeed, that should have been clear even before 9/11, by noticing the ethnic difference between (for example) SFO and BWI.  

Then there is my “hamburger theory.”  In California there is a popular chain of hamburger stands called In ‘N Out, in addition of course to McDonald’s and the like.  A typical McD’s in California will have most of its workforce consist of (adult) Latinos, of which I am assuming most are immigrants.  Yet at In ‘N Out, the workers are mainly teenage Anglos (just like it was at McDonald’s when I was a kid).  Why the disparity?  Last time I checked, the wage at In ‘N Out was about 25% higher.

It’s not just wages.  Many jobs are filled through word-of-mouth via social networks, hence the mainly-Filipino SFO screeners and the mainly-Latino workers at McDonald’s.  But as with most things, money plays a big role.

In the tech labor market, especially for software engineers, there is a rampant age discrimination problem, as noted in the congressionally-commissioned NRC report, and discussed in an excellent recent Fortune piece.  Though some of this is directly age-related, in which the 20-somethings aren’t comfortable working with those over age 35 (yes, I said 35, not 55), it again boils down mainly to employers simply not wanting to pay wages normal for a 35-year-old.

And even though a 35-year-old might be willing to take a pay cut, HR will likely screen him/her out, having set the job at entry-level.  The 35-year-old will then be rejected without even a phone interview, on the grounds that he/she is “overqualified.”

And simultaneously UNDERqualified.  It will be claimed that this older applicant doesn’t have up-to-date skills.  Let’s see now…the applicant is both overqualified and underqualified.  Only in Silicon Valley would such a Kafka-esque assessment be made.

One aspect of this that I like to point out is that this notion of a tech skills shortage can lead to contradictions so blatant that even a child could spot them.  The tech firms say they’re forced to hire only the young new graduates, as only they have the latest skill sets.  Well, now…who TAUGHT those new graduates the modern skills?  It was old guys like me!  So it’s absurd to say only the young’ns know Python, to cite for example a claim made by the San Jose Mercury News last year.

Another problem with that employer survey Alan mentioned is that if managers were among the respondents, many would sincerely assert a skills shortage–without realizing that HR is not sending them the CVs of older applicants who do have the skills.


My Op-Ed Today on CNN: Ethical Problems in Techland

Today CNN ran a piece by me on ethics issues in the tech world, titled, “What’s wrong with tech leaders?”  There I discuss some of the major transgressions by top tech CEOs, and suggest public shaming as the best solution. :-)

In this blog post, I will expand on this passage in the op-ed:

Yet idealistic instruction in ethics may be undermined by the perceptions that one can’t fight the system.


For example, there seems to be no plan to bring criminal charges against the anti-poaching colluders, even though federal judge Lucy Koh indicated she is still not happy with the proposed settlement for the engineers who experienced lost wages as a result of the secret wage-theft pact.

This actually illustrates a general theme in American legal history:   If an illegal action is perceived to be committed by parties engaged in important economic development, there has been a tendency toward tolerance.  A famous example is that of workplace safety.  In the 19th century, the courts were reluctant to come down too hard on employers in workplace safety cases.  Though undoubtedly the general pro-upper-class political mood played a role in this, legal scholars have found that economic progress, as a general public good, outweighed safety considerations.

We are arguably in such a situation again today.  Though the Tech Revolution has been around for a while, there is a sense among many in DC, I’ve found, that U.S. economic dominance depends critically on technology, hence a desire to do whatever necessary to maintain the American lead in tech.

Much of this obsession involves China.  The Obama administration, making a distinction between espionage for the purpose of national security and industrial spying, recently indicted five Chinese nationals (who are in China!) on the latter charges.  China retaliated by threatening to cancel contracts with U.S. IT equipment makers.

In such a climate, note the recent news that Stanford University artificial intelligence expert Andrew Ng announced he was ending his relationship with Google Research, to become the head of the new Silicon Valley research branch of Google’s Chinese rival, Baidu.  This news caused quite a stir among computer scientists in China, but must have alarmed some DC policymakers.

In other words, even putting aside the major campaign donation clout the U.S. tech industry wields on Capitol Hill, there still will be plenty of sentiment in Congress to look the other way concerning the industry’s ethical lapses.


Tiger Moms, Innovation and the Economic and Social Good

In case you haven’t noticed, the economic buzzword of the last few years has been innovation.  It is the word to use if you want to lobby the government for something, for instance.  Are you a representative of some industry group?  Just tell Congress that you need tax breaks for innovative research and development (R&D).  Do you represent a state Department of Education, and want more funding from the federal department?  Just sprinkle your grant application with that magic word innovation here and there.  Frequently, use of the term in political rhetoric is some variant of “The U.S. relies on innovation to maintain its world status as an economic power.”  The word is abused, but there is some truth to the notion that it is vitally important.

Meanwhile, the Tiger Mom, Yale Law professor Amy Chua, has been back in the news.  She had a new book out this year, The Triple Package, in which Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld try to correlate success with the traits of their favorite cultural groups.  Though the authors didn’t quite claim that these groups subscribe to Chua’s ruthless “boot camp” approach to child rearing, Chua and Rubenfeld seem to think the difference is only a matter of degree.

So where — if at all — do these two concepts intersect, Tiger Mom-ism and innovation?  I’ll argue in this post that the first is quite antithetical to the second.  If there is an intersection, it takes the form of a violent crash, rather than a melding.  I’ll also (hopefully politely) question whether Chua is her own best poster girl for her philosophy.

I submit that innovative people tend to be dreamers.  I’m certainly not advocating that parents raise lazy kids, but all that intense regimentation in Tiger Mom-land clearly gives kids no chance to breathe, let alone dream.

Do you know ANY children of Tiger Parents who went on to achieve greatness?  I suppose there must be some, and I hope some of you post examples here.  But I can’t think of any among the real game changers in my fields (computer science, math, statistics) who were raised that way. Indeed, look at all the prominent tech people who did just the opposite of what Tiger Cubs do — they dropped out of college.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison (founder and CEO of Oracle) etc.

What is our (U.S.) comparative economic advantage?  We are not any smarter than the rest of the world, and those of other nations work just as hard as we do.  Instead, we excel at — yes! — innovation.  And it in turn is due to our free spirit, our relative lack of pressure to conform, our tolerance of people who seem to be doing nothing but aimless tinkering, but who are in fact DREAMING.  

In my EPI study, I investigated computer science students who later worked in the field.  The data revealed that the U.S.-born workers were more innovative than comparable foreign-born people who had been international students at American universities.  The natives had higher per-capita rates of patenting, and were more likely to work in R&D, etc  Innovation is what we DO.

Discipline and hard work have their place, of course, but not to excess.  Self-discipline should not mean that a child can’t have a bathroom break during music practice, a Chua household rule. From what I’ve read, Chua’s kids are funny and well-adjusted, kein ein hora (yes, I belong to one of Chua’s favored cultural groups), but it often doesn’t work out that way.  

After Chua’s first book was published, a number of offspring of Tiger Moms wrote moving accounts on the Web of how miserable they had been as kids, and how much resentment they still felt now as adults.  In rare but a disturbingly common number of cases, it apparently is a contributing cause to tragedy.  Chua has actually been asked about such things a number of times, but she summarily dismisses them.

What I think is especially telling is that Chua has admitted that she is not very interested in her own profession, the law.  She’s written that during law school, for instance, she couldn’t understand why her classmates, including her future husband, were so passionately discussing legal controversies.  Her own publication record, vital to anyone in academia, appears to have very little in the legal field.  (Her husband, whose time at Yale Law started before Chua’s, is a prominent scholar of constitutional law, and has served as assistant dean at the school.)  Chua has apparently written some good history books, but truth be told, has not made an impact on her own profession.  Impact requires passion.  In other words, Chua is not a good poster girl for her thesis, and indeed, her case buttresses my own thesis here, that Tiger Mom-ism and greatness don’t mix.  

In fairness, it should be noted that Chua’s father Leon is a fine innovator, the (conceptual) inventor of the memristor, an electronic device.  Did HE have a Tiger Mom?  Interesting question.  But it should also be noted that Chua Sr.’s memristor concept (one was not actually constructed until decades later) was just what I’m talking about, a wacky, pie-in-the-sky idea that no one thought practical at the time, if indeed the concept made sense at all.  In other words, Professor Leon Chua was a dreamer.