Andrew Hacker, a distinguished political scientist, has published a provocative piece in the July 9 issue of the New York Review of Books., titled “The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent.” It has been brought to my attention by a number of readers of this blog, and interestingly, by a number of people who I know who are only vaguely aware of my rantings on the H-1B work visa and related issues.
One style in the book review genre consists of the reviewer discussing several books collectively, using this as a springboard to pontificate on the reviewer’s own view of the subject. Such is the case here. Hacker starts with Michael Teitelbaum’s Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, which I’ve cited a number of times in this blog, and includes other books such as The Smartest Kids in the World, by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Ripley.
I’ve been an admirer of Professor Hacker’s work for many years, and thus was pleased to see him address the topic (which he apparently will do more of in a forthcoming book). Though his analysis errs in certain aspects (discussed below), I’m quite pleased to see him bring up what has become a taboo topic: Is technology that important, so much so that it would be desirable for the U.S. to greatly increase the proportion of university students to major in STEM? For example, Hacker quotes a Microsoft reporting lamenting/warning that 31% of university students in China major in engineering, compared to a minuscule 4% in the U.S.
It’s a classic fallacy (and no doubt a deliberate one). The fact that a smaller percentage of students in the U.S. major in engineering doesn’t mean we don’t have enough. But fear of China is driving a lot of U.S. policy these days (e.g. on the Trade Promotion Authority), and Microsoft’s PR experts knew which buttons to push in playing the China Card here. As Hacker seems to realize, the press, pundits and politicians fall for this kind of stuff, and thus have not called out Microsoft on such claims. Indeed, Hacker’s questioning here is akin to heresy — as in Teitelbaum’s book, and for that matter, this blog. 🙂
Hacker does make a number of missteps. Unfortunately, he badly misquotes me. I’ve never written about the wage gap between CEOs and the “proletarian” engineers, for instance. (I suspect that the CEOs are drastically overcompensated, but if their boards want to be so generous, it’s no concern of mine.) I don’t approve of tech boot camps, contrary what is implied by Hacker, and no, Microsoft is not going to switch from hiring university tech grads to raiding the boot camps. He makes the common error of stating that the H-1B employers must give hiring priority to Americans. In spite of having an H-1B “how to” manual as one of the books he is “reviewing,” Hacker seems to be unaware of the four-tier wage floor structure, key to the use of H-1B workers as cheap labor (most of which is fully legal). In referring to the fact that foreign workers tend to be de facto indentured servants, he confuses the H-1B program with the (equally pernicious) employer-sponsored green card program.
I wish Hacker had gone more deeply into the question of how all this frenzy over STEM came about. As the Teitelbaum book points out, various parties with hidden agendas have created a STEM frenzy at various times over the years, and we all know about the influence of Sputnik. But the current frenzy can be explained in just four characters: H-1B. In 1997, the industry, led by the Information Technology Association of America lobbying group, started pushing Congress to expand the H-1B program, which it did in 1998, and then again in 2000 and 2004. To support this, the lobbyists launched a concerted, multipronged, widespread PR campaign, and though their interest was narrow — mainly computer programmers — they realized that it would be much more effective to use the far broader umbrella term STEM. (Indeed, I believe they were the ones who coined the term.)
This was a brilliant move, as not only did it dovetail with the old rallying cries of “Johnny Can’t Do Math,” but it had benefits for many special-interest groups — K-12 school districts who wanted more money for science classes, universities that wanted expanded STEM research funding, politiicians looking for an issue that would leverage comprehensive immigration reform, and of course, the American Immigration Lawyers Association. By the way, at the time, even former Intel CEO Andy Grove characterized all that commotion about a STEM shortage as “hyperventilated,” but no one listened.
One point Hacker does address especially well is question whether the “holy” international school tests, notably PISA, are meaningful measures and relate to desirable social/economic outcomes, a point on which I have also written in one of my Bloomberg op-eds. I find this summary of some material in the Ripley book to be particularly striking:
But as Ripley makes clear with South Korea, equally important is mastering the test formats and becoming familiar with the kinds of calculations demanded. She shows how cramming academies aimed at preparing for tests, which run to 10:00 PM every night and enroll 70 percent of all students, end up being more important than the regular schools. In a daytime class she visited, a third of the pupils were asleep. (Girls strap tiny pillows to their wrists for quick naps at their desks.)
Hacker ends his piece by rightly asking if this is what the U.S. should aspire to. His answer is clearly no, as is mine.