Gaming the Zero-Sum Game

I am in China currently, and the other day I gave a talk at a Chinese university. The hospitality was wonderful, and we had a great exchange on the topic of my talk (neural networks, and why I believe these modern things are actually equivalent to some very old-fashioned ones).

We were joined at a delicious lunch by a pleasant young professor who is the local Party Secretary. Though that may sound ominous to some in the U.S., it is basically analogous to the role of a shop steward in a unionized U.S. company. But yes, she is representing the government, and when the topic of politics came up, she politely expressed concern about Trump administration policies. Were they worried about tariffs? Of course not. No, their fear was that Trump would reduce the number of foreign students from China allowed to come to the U.S. for study.

Knowing from past experience not to get into politics in these situations, I replied, “Well, this is a highly complex issue,” and left it at that. I could have stated (as they may have already known) that I have my own concerns about the foreign student program. Policy really should be tightened up, though of course not specific to China and possibly not directly involving the F-1 student visa. Reducing the H-1B and employer-based green card programs would reduce the number of foreign students, though not necessarily surgically.

One of the problems to be fixed is the “two fer” regulation set by the Obama administration that granted work rights to certain H-1B spouses, which the Trump administration is now considering reversing. A former H-1B spouse, who became a U.S. citizen years ago, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed in which she describes the Trump people as being misinformed if not downright xenophobic demagogues.

The author of course brings in the obligatory “It’s not a zero-sum game” argument.

Restrictionists assume a zero-sum math for workers: A job gain for a foreigner  is a job loss for an American. By that logic every college graduate who enters the job market would be cause for mourning. But that’s backward, given that skilled individuals create, not take away, jobs, and no economy succeeds by shackling qualified people.      

The fact is that if a profession has a labor surplus, producing lots of new graduates in that profession IS a problem. In fact, occasionally a responsible university will indeed reduce the size of such a program.

And if that profession suffers from rampant age discrimination, as in the computer fields, it is especially not a zero-sum game situation, Young new graduates are hired in lieu of older (35+) professionals. In fact, the author’s statement,

[The H-1B spouses] also happen to be between the ages of 26 and 35 — peak productive years

actually is the root of the PROBLEM, rather than the virtue she views it as. Sadly, the REASON those are now viewed as “peak productive years” — which wasn’t the case in pre-H-1B times — is in fact the overproduction of new graduates. That excess is largely due to the foreign student program. And granting work permission to some H-1B spouses makes that even worse.

My stance is yes, one can sympathize with the forced unemployment of those spouses, so they SHOULD be allowed to work. But, for the reasons given above, they should count toward the H-1B cap. Otherwise it is indeed gaming the system.

Note carefully that China really does have a “Best and Brightest only” technical immigration policy. They welcome (only) those who are prominent in their field to come work in China, and pay them a pretty penny, quite a contrast to America’s discount-rate policy.

10 thoughts on “Gaming the Zero-Sum Game

  1. The idea that “every new college graduate adds to job creation” is proven wrong by the number of U.S. recent college grads living at home in Mom’s basement.

    The new college graduate adds to job creation *IF* there is a demand for that person’s recently acquired skills, *AND* that person is hired at a high enough salary that he/she is able to live comfortably and spend money without fear. Increasing the number of college graduates with degrees in Puppetry (yes, there actually are degrees in Puppetry) or Advanced Origami is not going to increase jobs, except maybe for loan sharks or collection agents. Simply flooding the market with RCG’s in Programming or Engineering is not a guarantee of job growth.


  2. The sense of entitlement evidenced in the column by Ms Dalmia is amusing. Bloomberg also has another flack column on how Indian engineers are fleeing to Canada. Seems like a fresh PR push has been launched by the H-1B cheap labour lobby.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Everyone has the right to work. Its a basic human right.

      The EAD is only available to H4 beneficiaries of an approved Immigrant Petition. This means, more often than not, he / she is a future American citizen. It is in the interest of the US to ensure that a future immigrant can pursue gainful employment.

      And no, everything you disagree with is not corporate propaganda.


      • As far as I know, the corporate propaganda on H-1B and related issues does not include much on the H-4 issue. My own stance on the issue, by the way, is to grant work privileges to the H-1B spouses (all of them) but count them toward the H-1B cap.


  3. There has never been anything preventing H4 visa holders from obtaining their own cap-subject H1Bs or from enrolling in courses of study. In fact, being in the US already gives them significant advantages at doing so. They have always had a better than fair chance to avoid “staying at home”.

    The H4 EAD needs to be terminated and the concept of work authorization for spouses permanently buried. Another similar program that is not attracting attention but that neverless needs to bite the dust is the J2 EAD.

    The fact that most H4 EAD holders are women from India is not America’s problem; it is a problem with Indian culture that Indians must fix for themselves. Pointing out that killing the H4 EAD will unfairly affect a specific section of society is just the usual tactic of Democrats to divide the country on the basis of race, culture and gender.

    As for H4’s not being able to open bank accounts without EAD, that is just privileged whining: They managed fine without bank accounts in India. 99% of Indians do not use bank accounts even if they have them, instead choosing to illegally keep cash in their closets in order to avoid paying taxes, which is why the sudden and unannounced cancellation of 86% of banknotes there had such hilarious consequences.


  4. “The fact is that if a profession has a labor surplus, producing lots of new graduates in that profession IS a problem. In fact, occasionally a responsible university will indeed reduce the size of such a program.”
    Isn’t a college’s placement rate usually something reflects glut, that results in auto-reduction via students’ dropping interest?


    • This happens, but only if there is a drastic drop in employment in the field. If there is just a modest drop, the students won’t know it, and if they don’t find a good job, will blame themselves. They have that much faith in the hoopla of CS labor shortage.

      There is also the issue of time lag. The students who believed the hoopla in the mid- to late-1990s then graduated 4 laters later right into the tech recession.


  5. If NCG in STEM was such a great indicator of economic success shouldn’t India who graduates nearly 5x that of the US every year be a bastion of innovation and entrepreneurial success?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The industry lobbyists’ standard reply to this is, “Yes, for the long term, we need to train more women and minorities to do this work, and we sponsor programs for that. But we are working in the short run, and we need people who can hit the ground running.” Of course, that sidesteps the fact that the industry ignores older Americans who are already trained…


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