My posting yesterday had a major error on immigrant prisoner count, fixed now. Very sorry for the confusion.


Immigration, Crime and Terrorism

A few months ago, a journalist from a left-wing (not merely liberal) publication was interviewing me about the H-1B work visa. He had quoted me before, and was generally sympathetic to my views. At one point, the conversation turned to Pres. Trump’s views on immigration. I mentioned that though I hadn’t voted for Trump and had been critical of him in this blog and elsewhere, I feel he is often treated unfairly by the press, e.g. on the issue of immigration and crime — contrary to press claims, Trump never said that most immigrants, or even most Mexican immigrants, are criminals. His choice of words was, as always, completely blunt and unrefined, and without the obligatory disclaimers, but all he really said was that immigration brings some crime.

The reporter was mystified by this. He replied, in a “this is the fundamental truth and it’s a settled issue” kind of tone, “It’s well established that the crime rate among immigrants is lower than in the society at large.” This statement has been questioned by some, but my point is that it is not relevant; if safety is the concern, then what matters is the absolute number, not the rate.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, as of 2013 there were over 70,000 noncitizens in state and federal prisons. In addition, there is a certain number who haven’t been caught, or are awaiting trial, some naturalized citizens etc. Some are white collar criminals, of course, but even if the number of immigrants in prison for violence, drugs, prostitution/trafficking, burglary and so on is “only,” say, 50,000, that should worry almost anyone. This is 50,000 criminals who would not be in the U.S. if we had zero immigration. In terms of concern for our person and our property, this 50,000 figure is what counts, not the rate, i.e. not the percentage of immigrants who commit crimes. Even the left-wing reporter seemed taken aback when I pointed this out.

Clearly, I am not advocating a zero-immigration policy. No government policy is without drawbacks, and those of us who value immigration (who, I claim, comprise the vast majority of Americans) know that there will be some downsides. The questions, though, are: How many? Who? With what responsibilities? And so on. More simply: Where do we draw the line?

Whether deliberately or unconsciously, by simplistically dismissing the crime issue by saying, “The immigrant rate is lower,” the politicians and the press are not allowing the American people to develop informed opinions on this vital issue. This is criminal. (Pun intended; originally I planned  to title this post, “Criminal Statistics.”)

Keep this in mind in the coming weeks especially, as the trial of the accused killer of Kate Steinle in San Francisco is now starting. You will hear repeatedly from the pundits and immigration advocates that “The immigrant crime rate is lower,” when in fact that really is not the issue for public safety.

The issue of Pres. Trump’s temporary immigration ban from certain majority-Muslim countries is quite similar. Neither Trump, AG Sessions, White House Adviser Steve Bannon nor any other policymaker has claimed that most Muslims are possible terrorists. Obviously the rate is quite minuscule. And I personally opposed the ban even when it was just in the talking stage.

Nevertheless, it is a legitimate issue, not something for the Trump bashers. Remember, the Trump policy, still in litigation, took an Obama policy as its foundation, even listing the same seven Middle Eastern countries. And as with the crime case, the absolute number of terrorist incidents is what matters, not the rate.

Yet it is the rate, not the absolute number, that is the focus of an article in Scientific American, reprinted in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, titled, “Why Data Science Argues against a Muslim Ban.” This one is especially insidious, as it is cloaked in one of the hottest areas in today’s tech industry, Data Science. (Also known as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Predictive Analytics and so on.) The author is Eric Siegel, founder of the Predictive Analytics World conference series.

As you read the article, watch for the tell-tale signs, e.g. phrases like “more likely” and “less likely” — in other words, rates. That, after all, is what Data Science (DS) is all about. For instance, one of the big applications of DS is marketing, i.e. identifying customers who are more likely to purchase a certain product if shown an ad for it. So, let’s take a closer look at that, putting aside the absolute numbers vs. rate question, and focus on rates. They will be quite relevant to the Trump policy, in ways that Siegel isn’t telling you.

A good data scientist is really interested not just in direct rates, but also expected utility. If say in real estate even the most likely customers have low individual rates of responding to an ad for a $20 million estate, it still makes economic sense to target those most likely customers, since the payoff is so great.

In the case of potential terrorism, the expected utility is negative. But for the very same reasons, it pays to target the most likely candidates, even if their individual probabilities of terrorist activity are quite low. As Siegel points out, it would be ideal to use personal behavior to try to compute such probabilities. Yet look at the outrage from the immigrant advocates when the U.S. government has recently been attempting to do exactly that, by requiring that travelers from the specified countries provide their social media passwords.

Highly intrusive? Of course. But when weighed against the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil, we must strike a balance, and it again becomes a question of, Where do we draw the line? Siegel is hypocritically obfuscating that issue.

And there is more: As we all know, the Obama people constructed the list of seven countries for travel restrictions (though not outright bans) specifically because those countries were identified as harboring terrorists. Any data scientist worth her logistic regression coefficients would use this information in her prediction model. Yet this is precisely what the article here is objecting to, Pres. Trump’s singling out those seven countries, because Siegel doesn’t like the fact that they are majority-Muslim.

Returning to the issue of absolute numbers, so far we have had just a few per year in the U.S., say 5-6 including foiled plots. Is that tolerable? What if it were to rise to 25-26?

So, one more time: The question is, Where do we draw the line? Do we want Trump’s line, Obama’s line, or Siegel’s line? These are ordered from safest to most dangerous, while also being ordered from least- to most-protective of civil liberties. You be the judge. Just don’t let people like Siegel fool you in the name of Data Science.


How Many Foreign Tech Workers Is “a Lot”?

Many years ago, in response to a colleague saying a certain appropriation was “only” a billion dollars, Senator Everitt Dirksen famously replied, “A billion here, a billion there, it adds up!” Such common sense (not to mention such dry wit by a politician) is rare in this era in which the slick industry PR people prey on widespread innumeracy in the press and Congress.

Advocates for more liberal immigration policies like to dismiss concerns about the H-1B work visa program by pointing out that the yearly H-1B cap is minuscule compared to the total labor force of the U.S. Of course, a 10-year-old could see through that argument; the visa is usable only for certain kinds of jobs, so it is absurd to compare to the total labor force.

Tech companies like to make statements like, “Only 5% of our workers are H-1Bs.”  A 10-year-old might partly see through this one — again, a tech company has lots of NON-tech jobs, so the 5% is not a fair figure — but he/she would not see the subtleties, nor would most adults. There are various other visa types — O-1 is very common, and even Silicon Valley now uses L-1 a lot — and much more significantly, there are tons of former H-1Bs, now with green cards or naturalized citizenship. They are now Americans, at least in the latter case, but they are in the workforce due originally to the H-1B program.

Most H-1Bs, especially among the Indians, are software developers. According to the BLS, there are about a million people in the U.S. in that line of work. It’s somewhat higher than that, due to job title issues, so don’t treat it as an exact number, but take it as ballpark. Now compare that to a figure cited by Republican Representative Kevin Yoder, that 700,000 Indian nationals are currently waiting in line for employer-sponsored green cards. Again, take this as a rough figure, as some of them are not software developers, while some ARE software developers but without such a title, and so on.

My point, of course, is then that 700,000 is a large number when compared to that base of 1 million. Indeed, this jibes with various analyses finding that large fractions, if not most new software development jobs are going to foreign nationals. Anyone should find that alarming.

The industry spin on this is that the foreign workers are remedying a tech labor shortage, and the “alarming” thing is that this indicates severe problems with our educational system. But no numerical study, at least to my knowledge, has shown such a shortage, during all these years of such a claim by the industry. The big institutional ones, such as by the NRC and DOC back around 2000, failed to find a shortage, and more recent ones, e.g. by Daniel Costa and Hal Salzman, also find no shortage. Wages for software developers, including for new graduates, have been rising only slightly, clearly counterindicating shortage claims. (And if that is due only to H-1Bs filling in the shortage, so that we have “just enough,” why does the industry want more?)

And, as to the notion that employment in the tech area is only a small portion of the U.S. labor force, keep in mind that all sides agree that it is a CRUCIAL part, vital to the nation’s future.

So 700,000 seems like a huge number to me.


Advice Offered As Is, No Warranties

A reader called my attention to a wonderful essay by Dean Baker titled, “How about a Little Accountability for Economists When They Mess Up?” Indeed.

Keynes famously quipped, “You could lay all the economists of the world end to end, and they would never reach a conclusion.” Given that, it is amazing that they are given so much credence.

But why so much variation in viewpoints? I think Baker’s explanation,

The problem is not that modern economics lacks the tools needed to understand the economy. Just as with firefighting, the basics have been well known for a long time. The problem is with the behavior and the incentive structure of the practitioners. There is overwhelming pressure to produce work that supports the status quo (for example, redistributing to the rich), that doesn’t question authority, and that is needlessly complex…

misses some key points.

First, there is the problem of insufficiently detailed data. Though we live in the age of Big Data, the information needed to analyze the present and past (let alone the future) often lacks key quantities for a given problem.

Second, there is the related problem of Ptolemy’s Epicycles, in which ancient astronomers, lacking basic understanding of the fact that the planets orbit around the sun, developed elaborate but completely false models of the orbits. As I have mentioned many times, too many economists think that they can number-crunch their way out of any problem, without actually understanding the numbers they are crunching.

But the most severe problem is just plain bias. I’ve pointed out before, for instance, that most economists writing on the pro- side of the H-1B work visa controversy, do have funding from the industry and its allies. And many economists writing about controversial issues are driven by personal ideology, and for the academic ones, there may be career gains to be made simply by getting one’s name in the newspapers often enough.

And it MATTERS. It’s interesting that Baker mentions the failings of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). In the recent commotion on the Hill concerning health care reform, the CBO’s scoring of the number of people who would not have health care coverage was cited as scientific fact, with little or no questioning by Congress or the press. (On top of that, neither Congress nor the press actually read the CBO report, and widely misquoted the 23 million figure on “losing” coverage.)

Baker writes,

Back at the time of the debate over President George W Bush’s social security privatization plan, I pointed out that his administration’s assumed rates of return in the stock market were impossible given the current price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios in the market and the economic growth rates assumed by the social security trustees. This was an argument based on simple algebra.

Brad DeLong wanted to make this into a Brookings paper and enlisted Paul Krugman in the effort. Together they produced a paper (generously leaving me as lead author) that had an intertemporal optimization model with declining labor force growth as its key feature…

This model had nothing to do with the underlying point (the stock market would yield the assumed returns if its price-to-earnings ratio was near its historic average of 15, rather than the P/E level near 25 that we were seeing at the time), but it was necessary to have something more complex than simple algebra to be taken seriously at Brookings.

Right, making an argument based on common sense won’t score any points with intellectual bigots like those at Brookings. But MONEY scores a ton of points there, leading back to my point above. And if I don’t mention here that DeLong and Krugman have their own biases, my readers will, so consider it mentioned.

Anyway, thank you Mr. Baker, for saying something that has been needed pointing out for a long, long time.


Fooling Enough of the People Enough of the Time

You know the famous Abraham Lincoln quotation,

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

But our modern AI-equipped, cognitive science-savvy PR experts seem to operate on an updated version, in which it is sufficient to just fool enough people.

For the last 20+ years, the tech industry PR experts have inundated the press and Congress with propaganda of a tech labor shortage, creating such a “Yes, of course the emperor is wearing clothes” mentality in the targeted populations that the most transparently fallacious arguments work just fine, no questions asked.

Each year, for instance, the allotment of new H-1B work visas is exhausted within a few days of the opening of the application filing period. The industry PR people cite this as showing that there is a labor shortage, when even a 10-year-old might ask whether the situation is more like crowds rushing to stores on Black Friday for the cut-rate prices.

The latest is a report by the American Immigration Council, finding that

As of 2015, the foreign-born comprised one-fifth to one-quarter of the STEM workforce, depending on what occupations are included within the definition of STEM. Notably, the total number of foreign-born STEM workers in the U.S. workforce has increased dramatically since 1990, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the total workforce.

The message, of course, is that the H-1B work visa, the F-1 student visa and related programs need to be retained and expanded in scope, to remedy STEM labor shortages.

Lisa Krieger. a longtime writer for the San Jose Mercury News, has an article about the report, in which she makes no mention of the possible “Black Friday” interpretation of the findings. Nor does she mention that the American Immigration Council is an arm of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Either she is one of the “enough” people who can easily be fooled, or if not, she knows there are “enough” such people among her readers.

So much for the obvious. Here is something a bit more subtle — that 1990 date for the report’s baseline. For the non-cognoscenti, let me explain: 1990 is the year that the H-1B program was enacted (and in which employer-sponsored green card caps were expanded). So to say that immigrant numbers increased sharply after 1990 is like saying that liquor sales skyrocketed after Prohibition was repealed. And for a study on increased numbers of STEM immigrants to be conducted by an organization with a keen vested interest in immigration is akin to a study on increased liquor sales being conducted by booze companies.

Here is another subtlety — the focus on “foreign-born.” The industry PR people and their allies use of the term foreign-born in a very calculated way. As I wrote in a blog post titled, “When Did Foreign Students Become ‘International’?,

Look for instance at the paper by two academics, sponsored by an industry lobbying group, titled Talent, Immigration and U.S. Competitiveness. The term foreign-born is used 27 times, often in such close proximity that it reads quite awkwardly. All this effort, just to avoid using the word foreign at all costs! And it’s also inaccurate; lots of my American students are foreign-born but became U.S. citizens or permanent residents long before entering college. To lump these students in with the foreign students is very misleading (as is much else in that lobbyist-funded study cited above).

In other words, the PR people use the term as a two-fer. They avoid the negative term foreign (related to the dreaded word alien), and even better, it allows them to greatly inflate their numbers by including family immigrants who have nothing to do with H-1B, F-1 and so on.

Needless to say, this report then goes on to cite a number of other industry-sponsored studies as supporting its findings, while of course presenting them as independent work. That level of indirection makes it all the more difficult for journalists like Ms. Krieger to evaluate the quality of the research, even were the journalists to have the interest to do so.

The report also is quite selective in its citing of studies not sponsored by the industry. Take for instance the work by Bound et al, Reference 18. AIC writes,

…since the mid-2000s, immigrants have accounted for the majority of workers in STEM with doctoral degrees. Many of these foreign-born advanced degree holders obtained their degrees in the United States.18

AIC fails to mention that the Bound team found that those foreign grad students tend to be of lower quality, concentrated in lower-ranking U.S. schools. Bound et al write,

In physics, biochemistry, and chemistry much of the expansion [from the mid-1980s to mid-90s] in doctorate receipt to foreign students occurs at unranked programs or those ranked outside the top 50; the growth in foreign students in engineering is distributed more evenly among programs. Among students from China, Taiwan, and South Korea growth has been particularly concentrated outside the most highly ranked institutions.

My EPI study shows similar results for later years, again showing that the Americans with grad degrees attended more selective institutions than did their foreign peers.

And most important, an NSF internal memo written in 1989, at a time the NSF was lobbying Congress to establish the H-1B program, called for bringing in large numbers of foreign students to suppress PhD salaries, and noted that that would drive away Americans from pursuing grad study:

A growing influx of foreign Ph.D.s into U.S. labor markets will hold down the level of Ph.D. salaries. …[The Americans] will select alternative career paths…by choosing to acquire a “professional” degree in business or law, or by switching into management as rapidly as possible after gaining employment in private industry…[as] the effective premium for acquiring a Ph.D. may actually be negative.

This is quite a contrast to the AIC spin, which claims that we need H-1Bs because not enough Americans go to grad school. In actuality, H-1B is the cause of that situation, not the remedy.

In other words, speaking of studies, this AIC report could be used as a case study on how to deceive the press, Congress and the American people. It’s sad that a major newspaper such as the Mercury can be duped in the process, or worse, be complicit in it.

Flight Risks

Many Americans, including me, applauded Pres. Trump’s decision to override a State Dept. ruling to deny an all-girl team from Afghanistan visas to compete in an international robotics competition in the U.S. Sadly, though, the press typically blamed Trump for the visa denials in the first place. As the above-linked article said,

Their case began attracting global attention – and sparked a heated debate over the president’s immigration policies – when their visa applications were rejected. Though Afghanistan is not among the countries included in Trump’s travel ban, critics of the president said the case was demonstrative of the administration’s attempt to restrict Muslims from entering the US.

But the visa denials were apparently due to a long-standing U.S. of not granting entry to those who might choose not to return to their home countries, often going into hiding, sometimes resurfacing to apply for political asylum. When I say “long-standing,” I mean many decades; it’s been one of the core principles under many presidents of both parties. Much as the press loves to blame Trump (often fairly, sometimes not), this was not a Trump policy problem, and as noted, he acted to override the rule.

Well, lo and behold, the rule seems to have some merit, because now the robotics team from Burundi did exactly what the framers of the long-standing visa rule feared — they’ve fled the scene of the competition, apparently with the intention of staying in the U.S. or Canada rather than returning home.

I must confess to admiring the Burundi kids’ daring, but there is the brain drain issue. A lot of effort and funds went into their training, in the hope of improving life in their Third World country. It’s a shame they didn’t feel a responsibility to return. Well, they are kids, though from past history of such things, it’s likely that there were adults egging them on, and assisting them.

Anyway, somewhere in the State Dept. there are people who now feel vindicated on the initial denial of visas to the Afghani girls.

Market Demand for CS Graduates — and for CS Students

Many of you will remember the excellent coverage in Computerworld of the H-1B work visa, principally by writer Pat Thibodeau. He now has an article in the house magazine of IEEE-USA. (Over the years, I have, and continue to be, quite critical of the organization, but the article is very good and IEEE-USA is not the subject of my post here.)

As Thibodeau points out, the yearly production of new computer science (CS) graduates has waxed and waned over the years, in response to the perceived industry demand. Of course, there is a lag, and the freshman who eagerly started CS majors in 1998 encountered one of the worse markets when they graduated in 2002, but the elasticity of supply has been strong, both up and down.

Thibodeau cites several examples of universities in which CS enrollment is up sharply. However, there is more to the story than what meets his reporter’s eye.

Among other things, it is important to keep in mind that “numbers are power” in academia. The larger a department is, the more faculty it is allowed to hire; the more faculty it hires, the more external research funding is brought in, the more visible the department is in the research world, and so on.

In addition to such cynical reasons for expansion of enrollment, there are more altruistic ones. At Stanford, for instance, the CS Dept. embarked on a highly aggressive campaign to raise the enrollment numbers, yes, but they especially focused on drawing in more women. In any event, it was not the case that students suddenly, spontaneously started flocking to CS.

In my own department, CS at UC Davis, our numbers are up even more sharply, but for a different reason. Our campus administration decided a few years ago to greatly expand the size of the student body, both because “numbers are power” in academia and because the administration hopes that the school will qualify as a Hispanic Serving Institution. Whereas an upper-division course in my department would typically have an enrollment of 50 or so in the past, it is now common to see sizes of 150 or more.

So in addition to the obvious question of the level of demand for new CS grads in industry, there is the less obvious point that the CS departments themselves have a demand for CS students, and enrollment trends are multifaceted rather than strictly a function of industry demand for graduates.

Now, what about that industry demand? Thibodeau writes

Salaries for new grads are rising, too, which suggests that demand is real. The Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, an executive search firm, reported in May that salaries for new grads seeking jobs as software developers were $63,036, a 1.5% increase from last year.

Another survey by The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that the average starting salary for computer science graduates this year was expected to reach $65,540, a nearly 7 percent increase.

A key word here is expected, i.e. that 7% number was a projection. The actual number turned out to be 3.9%. And note that the Korn Ferry number, only 1%, is specifically for software developers, which is the main type of job for foreign CS grads.

In other words, once again the data put the lie to industry claims of a tech labor “shortage” and a corresponding “need” for H-1Bs. And as longtime readers of this blog know, I have always held that the main adverse impact of H-1B on U.S. citizens and permanent residents has been on the older workers, age 35 and up.

On an unrelated side note, I was glad to see Thibodeau quote Dartmouth CS professor Hani Farid, whose research involves determining whether images are forged or not. Fascinating stuff, and I urge any Dartmouth CS students to learn from the real master here. But keep in mind that, unlike most real world CS applications, for this one you’ll really need to know some math!