Chain Migration

One of the aims of the White House immigration proposal is to reduce chain migration — John immigrates to the US, then sponsors his wife Mary, who sponsors her brother Bill and so on. As one goes through the chain, the connection to John becomes weaker and weaker, at some point becoming nil.

Ironically, you’ll find no better example of chain migration than this article extolling it. This passage says it all:

The young engineer arrived in America when he was 23 with a good education and little else. He landed a job at a nuclear test site, and built a home in Nevada. Between the 1970s and the mid-1980s, he brought his wife, mother, five sisters and a brother over from India, his native land.

In later years, his siblings sponsored family members of their own, and their clan now stretches from Nevada to Florida, New Jersey to Texas — more than 90 Americans nurtured on the strength of one ambitious engineer, Jagdish Patel, 72.

90! Mr. Patel sounds content and proud, as he well should be. But the implication that that nuclear test site couldn’t have filled its position had he not been available is of course false. Moreover, if any of those 90 people immigrated at or near retirement age, it is very likely that they used government services — cash in SSI, health care in Medicaid, access to subsidized senior housing and so on. (Many government-supported senior housing facilities are heavily populated by immigrants with little or no work experience in the U.S.  This is causing long waiting lists, with many people, native or immigrant, who did work in the U.S. now being frozen out.)

In the last 10 years or so, there is been bipartisan support for ending the core driver of chain migration, the Fourth Preference, under which naturalized citizens can sponsor their adult siblings for green cards — until now. Today, with both parties refusing to cooperate on immigration (and virtually everything else), the Democrats hope people won’t remember the Dems’ past stance, and are treating ending the Fourth Preference as Evil Incarnate.

For the record, I’ll remind everyone that I do not like elitist policies, and thus I oppose the Trump immigration reform proposal. But that doesn’t mean I support the fallacious arguments against it.


Lawsuit Against Harvard Admissions

Haven’t had much time to post here recently, largely because of travel — in order, China, Chicago, LA, Vancouver BC and Eugene OR. There have been no new developments on the H-1B work visa or other topics that I like to comment on.

However, there is another topic of keen interest to me, Affirmative Action (AA), both in general and especially in college admissions. I’m a strong supporter of AA from way back, so I’ve been quite interested in the lawsuit being brought against Harvard, claiming the latter’s admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants. (Actually, none of the plaintiffs is Asian, but there are some Asian groups, mainly Chinese-immigrant STEM professionals, supporting the suit.)

In my view, the plaintiffs’ arguments are uninformed, misleading and fallacious. Thus I’ve written a Web page, titled “A Statistician Looks at Affirmative Action in College Admissions,” taking a careful look at the issues. I invite you to take a look, and let me know your comments.

Microsoft Threatens to Move (More) Work Offshore

The opening of this CNBC report on Microsoft and immigration policy says it all:

Microsoft does not want to move jobs out of the United States but certain decisions out of Washington could potentially force its hands, the company’s President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith warned.

This of course is an age-old threat by the industry: “Allow us to bring more foreign workers here, or we will move the work abroad!” This always resonates with Congress, conjuring up images of shuttered factories in the Northeast and South. But its one of the more deceptive lines in the H-1B debate.

First, of course, is that pesky little fact that Microsoft is overwhelmed with US job applicants, plenty of whom are well-qualified. The notion that Microsoft’s work won’t get done without foreign workers is just plain false.

But more interestingly, the two-faced nature of Microsoft’s statements like this has been exposed in the past. Back in 2001, for instance, a Microsoft employee smuggled out an internal slide presentation which contained the exhortation, “Pick  something  to  move offshore today!” In other words, instead of being forced to offshore work, the firm was actively seeking to do so. Microsoft has also been caught asking its contract workers to take a furlough, and admitting that most of its jobs are not open to older workers. All this, of course, while continually claiming they need foreign workers to fill their jobs.

The CNBC reported here should have been a little less trusting.

Just One Data Point, But…

Sorry for my lack of posting for a while. I have a ton of material to discuss, but just don’t have the time. But I couldn’t resist posting this one. Bear with me, as it takes some setting up.

Some of you know, or know of, Mark Regets, retired from the National Science Foundation. In his heyday, he was NSF’s biggest booster of the H-1B program (a high bar!). Well, both Mark and I recently got into using Twitter. I’ve had an account for years (@matloff), but didn’t really use it until an unrelated issue came up.

A week or so ago, journalist Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) and I were discussing PhD production in the US. Though Noah has been a big promoter of H-1B in his Bloomberg View column, the conversation wasn’t really about H-1B or foreign students. But I did state that we are overproducing PhDs, and in jest I wrote “Look at all those PhDs working as barristas!”

Well, Mark saw that, and said this a myth, the PhDs are mostly in decent jobs, etc. I replied that it was just a joke, but seriously many PhDs are UNDER-employed.

I am quite active in the R programming language, which is widely used in the data science field. The annual worldwide R conference, useR!, is currently in progress in Brisbane, Australia. One of the attendees tweeted, I believe seriously, the following:

BARISTA: What are you doing today?

ME: I’m at an conference .

B: Oh I love R, I just moved from SPSS and Stata!

(SPSS and Stata are two commercial products that are fast losing ground to the open source, better quality R.)


Once Again, China Treated As Bogeyman

Today’s Washington Post ran a piece in what is becoming an increasing popular genre: “China is overtaking the U.S. in science research.” I’ve argued that such claims are vastly overblown, made by those in the U.S. with vested interests and a sensationalism-hungry American press. Yet there are legitimate questions raised here that sorely need a national conversation.

The article of course cites AI (itself a sensationalist term)  an example, one that I debunked here a few weeks ago. And another perennial sensationalist favorite, supercomputers, is cited as well. I’ve debunked that one too. Actually, that example is even worse: In the AI case, at least the field is important, even if the claim of impending Chinese superiority is unwarranted, while bragging about having the world’s largest supercomputer is really akin to Trump and Kim arguing who has the larger “button.”

That said, though, there is absolutely no question that China is offering a much better deal to top researchers than is the U.S. — high salaries, mind-boggling signing bonuses, and most importantly, guaranteed research funding. The article greatly errs, though, in asserting that the U.S. is simply not allocating enough resources to STEM. Ironically, the problem is that we are overdoing it.

We are producing too many PhDs. The total amount of U.S. government research funding has been  generous over the years, but is being spread out among a larger and larger pool of researchers. It has thus become more and more difficult — a better word would be agonizing — for researchers at U.S. universities to secure funding.

The problem is compounded further by the increasing number of foreign students. A 1989 internal report in the National Science Foundation, one of the two main STEM funders in the U.S., actually advocated bringing in more foreign students, on the grounds of costs savings, and noted that as the foreign students flooded the labor market, fewer domestic students would pursue PhDs, further bringing down salaries and thus making doctoral study even less attractive, and so on, a vicious circle (though a virtuous one from NSF’s point of view, as they “get more bang for the buck” in their research funding).

Now “they” are warning that the foreign students might go home after their study here, or not come here in the first place. I think that warning too is overblown, but really folks, they can’t have it both ways.

In other words, our national STEM policy has been just plain wrongheaded for years, in many respects. We need to have a national, rational, vested-interests-free-zone discussion of just what it is that we want. I would pose the following questions as among those that urgently need discussion:

  • How important do we really consider STEM research, both fundamental and applied?
  • Do we want quality research (American tradition) or merely quantity (China’s current strategy)?
  • Is the policy of the last 30 years, which has the direct effect of discouraging talented U.S. students from pursuing careers in STEM research, acceptable? (And if not, why have we allowed it?)

I won’t hold my breath waiting for such a discussion, though.

Yes, China Too

An alert reader pointed me to this Bloomberg article on ageism in the Chinese tech sector. I’ve observed it myself, in the experience of a relative and her husband.

But the article incorrect in saying that the problem is even worse in China than in the U.S. Wrong! It’s just as bad in the U.S.; note that they even set 35 as the cutoff point (though some lower numbers are mentioned too), just like I do for the U.S. The U.S. firms are better at hiding it, that’s all.

One difference is that in the U.S. the primary motivation is cost savings, while in China it is a misguided notion that only young new graduates know the Latest and Greatest technologies. (U.S. companies make statements like that too, but it is mainly an excuse.)

China and AI

As you may have heard, the Chinese government is investing quite heavily in artificial intelligence (AI), aiming to become a world leader in the field within the next decade. And some in the U.S. believe it. But if I were advising the PRC government, I would suggest that this may not be the best field for China to focus on. The old tradition of a rote memory approach to learning is still thriving in China. There is no change likely, as it is a cultural issue, not just policy. And rote memory thinking is absolutely antithetical to good AI.

As I write this in China, the emphasis on AI is in evidence in many ways. One that really struck me the other day emerged in my visit to my favorite bookstore in China, Shanghai’s Shucheng (“Book City”). Wonderful place, five or six floors, mostly in Chinese. And there it was, an entire table devoted to AI:

IMG_20180427_202052.jpgThe other side of the table, not pictured, is also completely filled with AI titles.

This put AI on an equal footing with famous programming languages such as C++ and Java, and dwarfed the stock of two or three AI titles I saw on my last visit two years ago.

And yet, my talk about AI at a Chinese university the week before exposed the major cultural obstacle I described above. The hospitality shown me was great, and people asked good questions during the Q&A at the end of the talk. But one of the questions floored me: “How can you be so passionate about your subject matter?” I believe that the questioner, a grad student, was curious about this because he himself lacked such passion. He was there to study this field mainly because of a perceived hot job market. He will learn a few AI methods, but will have no idea as to what they really mean in actual applications. Keen intuitive insight is key in applications, and the rote-memory, learn-some-recipes approach just won’t work well.

This was not an isolated incident by any means, as I have written in detail before. Indeed, even though the professor who invited me does have a genuine interest in the subject, he too wondered about my passion, saying “It’s amazing that you are still so active” (i.e. in spite of my gray hair).

With such a huge population, China does in fact have some people who are not rote-memory oriented, and who are quite creative. Unfortunately, the system does not favor them, and arguably tends to weed them out. The Chinese government is aware of this and wants very much to remedy it, but I don’t think even they realize how deep the cultural roots go on this matter.

So, fear in the U.S. that China is breathing down its neck on AI is misguided. But so is the hoopla on AI itself. What is today regarded as AI is not traditional artificial intelligence in the first place. “AI” today means machine learning, which in turn is hype about old nonparametric statistical prediction methods, applied to modern huge and complex data sets. Highly important and useful, yes, but not new.

One thing the U.S. SHOULD do is not doom its own people trained in the field to short careers, which it is doing via the H-1B work visa, ironically done in part by hiring foreign students from China. U.S. policy on the visa should be similar to the one China has on foreigners working in their country — only take the genuinely best and brightest.