Universities go through a lot of hand wringing in setting “general education requirements,” designed to produce well-rounded graduates who are capable of rigorous intellectual reasoning, and thus able to be productive in society and the economy beyond their areas of technical specialization. Well, easier said than done. In my experience, there are many college graduates — good grades at “good” schools — who are innumerate (quantitative analog of the term illiterate), and who either fall victim to fallacious quantitative arguments or, worse, make such arguments themselves.
This is seen again and again in discussions of immigration policy. In July I described an example of this involving the tragic murder of a young woman in San Francisco — a so-called “sanctuary city” — by an unauthorized immigrant. The innumeracy issue of course paled in comparison to the tragedy itself, but I felt compelled to point out the pathetic situation in which the community activist defending SF’s policy could not tell the difference between rates and absolute numbers. The issue of sanctuary cities, not to mention illegal/alegal immigration in general, is complicated enough without the discussion being ruined by the quantitative incompetence of its advocates.
Another example is the pitch frequently made by advocates of expansive immigration policies that, rather than displacing U.S. citizen/permanent resident workers, immigrants take jobs that are complementary to those held by Americans. Such is the theme of this new Urban Institute study., by Maria Enchautegui, whose findings are summarized in this National Journal headline:
Immigrants Aren’t Stealing American Jobs
More evidence surfaces that low-skilled native workers pursue different jobs than their immigrant counterparts.
Of course, they’ve got it backwards. A typical pattern is that immigrants flood a certain sector of the job market, then either suppressing wages and thus making this job category unattractive to natives or downright blocking the Americans from entering the sector. Yes, in that scenario the Americans and immigrants wind up doing complementary jobs, but to say that no displacement occurred is sheer folly.
I’ve mentioned examples before. For instance, there is my “Hamburger Theory”: In California, the workers at McDonald’s stores are mainly immigrants, whereas they used to largely consist of native teenagers in their first jobs. (And in the In ‘N Out chain, which pays more, that is still the case today.) Native teenagers used to deliver newspapers, but now it’s the job of adult immigrants.
An especially sad example occurred after Hurricane Katrina (emphasis added):
The August 29 press conference included a video presentation of the story of some 70 American workers from Mobile, Alabama, who had traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to take reconstruction jobs. After about ten days on the job these mainly black workers were told by their employer that their services were no longer required, because “The Mexicans are here.” The panel of CBA representatives, headlined by nationally syndicated radio talk show host Armstrong Williams, discussed how many American citizens who desperately need those jobs to restore not only their homes, but their livelihoods, are being systematically discriminated against with the approval of the government.
So those Mexicans did do work that is technically complementary to the Americans, but not in the happy setting the Urban Institute people would have you envision.
At the high-skilled level, I often cite a 1989 NSF internal report that stated (and advocated) that bringing in a large number of STEM graduate students would have the effect of holding down PhD wages, and would thus dissuade American students from studying for a doctoral degree. That is of course is what happened, and now more than 50% of U.S. PhDs in computer science are earned by foreign students. The congressionally-commissioned NRC study found that pursuing a PhD results in a lifetime loss in earnings for domestic students. So again, there is complementarity — the immigrants earn graduate degrees while the Americans don’t — but it did indeed come from displacement, contrary to what the Urban Institute’s Enchautegui implies.
Some analysts admit the displacement but say the presence of the immigrants “frees” the Americans to do better jobs. General Wesley Clark, a presidential candidate in 2004 (who was supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton), called computer programming “mind numbing,” and said, apparently because H-1B is used to facilitate offshoring, “Let them do the software in India. We’ll do other things in this country.”
So don’t worry about the fact that that 1989 NSF forecast about STEM PhDs came true. It freed Americans from doing mind-numbing work — such as being professors.