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November 24, 2012 2:37 PM Fascinating new study on immigration reveals the policy preferences of voters and elites differ sharply — but not the way you think

By Kathleen Geier

One of my favorite economists, Dean Baker, frequently makes the point that we don’t really have free markets in the country. What we actually have is crony capitalism, which is quite a different animal. We have a nominally capitalist system in which the government in fact works overtime to protect the interests of corporations and wealthy elites. Sometimes the result looks like a relatively unconstrained market; other times, not so much. A case in point is immigration. As Baker likes to point out, when it comes to immigration policy, the protectionists rule.

For example, we have a doctor shortage in this country, a shortage that is likely to loom even large as the ACA kicks in, but discussions of the issue almost never bring up changing our immigration policies as one way to address the problem. American immigration and labor policies as a whole tend to be liberal when it comes to allowing low-skill, low-wage workers to cross our borders and work in our country, but much more stringent when it comes to allowing medical, legal, and other highly educated professionals to do the same. This is in spite of the fact that many professionals from other countries would undoubtedly be willing to work here for far less pay than native-born Americans (because it would be far more than they would receive in their countries of origin, like Mexico, India, or China).

If we actually reversed our immigration policies, making it easier for high-skill workers to work here, and harder for low-skill workers to do so, we’d probably see a reduction in income inequality. The reduction in the supply of low-skill workers would force employers to raise those workers’ wages, and the increase in the supply of high-skill workers would cause employers to decrease the wages of that group. (For the record, I don’t favor decreasing the immigration of low-skill workers, but I do think that would be one of the likely consequences).

At the very least, enabling more highly educated professionals from abroad to work in this country would be good for the all-important consumers that neoliberal pundits and policymakers claim to care so deeply about. So why, then, don’t we see more of this type of immigration here? A simple application of the principle of cui bono gives you your answer. Highly educated elites after all, are the people making these policies. You are not likely to see, for example, many economics professors running around arguing themselves out of a job — even though I am sure virtually all of them are highly replaceable.

Related to these points, a new study by political scientists Dan Hopkins and Jens Hainmueller came to a surprising conclusion: that in spite of the deep disagreements about immigration that characterize our politics, there’s one very important piece about immigration policy that Americans actually agree on. It’s this: among American voters, there is a markedly strong preference for “high-skilled immigrants with high-status professions.” To take one example from the study, “having a college degree makes an immigrant about 20 percentage points more likely to be admitted, and that being a doctor has a positive effect of about the same magnitude.”

What’s remarkable is that the preference for highly skilled, highly educated immigrants cuts across the usual demographic and ideological divides. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, college-educated and not: all prefer educated professionals as immigrants. It would appear that it’s long past time that the U.S. start revising its immigration policy along a model suggested by Canada’s skilled-worker-friendly programs. But given the propensities of our self-dealing elites to look out for their own interests at the expense of everyone else’s, I’m not betting on that any time soon.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • MuddyLee on November 24, 2012 3:51 PM:

    I'm all for bringing in more immigrant doctors, just as long as they are not opposed to Obamacare like too many doctors in the Carolinas. If they'll take Medicare patients and go along with Obamacare, bring them on and give them some loans to set up practices in underserved areas.

  • c u n d gulag on November 24, 2012 4:34 PM:

    Many corporations are already doing something like this - often in the IT and computer fields.

    They arrange for visa's, and insource temporary workers at much lower wages than American citizens are paid - for the workers, it's a boondoggle! And, sadly, for the companies, too.
    And then, when the visa's end, they can either renew them, or bring in a new crop.

    The thinking should be, not to bring in workers to take the place of low-to-middle-upper-middle class American workers to replace our own, but to go after skilled professionals who are going to be here for the rest of their lives.

    I'm all for bringing in more Doctors, Dentists, and other medical professionals, where there's a shortage of Americans to do those jobs. I draw the line at jobs that Americans could, and should, fill.

  • Abijah L. on November 24, 2012 4:54 PM:

    About 25% of newly licensed physicians are oreign graduates currently.

  • Doug on November 24, 2012 5:11 PM:

    How much of any doctor shortage is due to the AMA? How much is due income inequality; ie, low-income with the abilities required, but not developed because of our schools? Or, if these students HAVE made it through the school system, the financial backing to provide for eight more years of schooling?
    If more of the people already here were moving up from lower incomes, regardless of the field into which they moved, certainly that would reduce the number of lower paid workers and put pressure on increasing THEIR wages? And what about cross-training individuals displaced by the Great Recession rather than increase immigration?
    Before we start allowing more immigrants in to fill in any "gaps" in professional numbers, let's work with what we have already here first.

  • gvahut on November 24, 2012 5:12 PM:

    There is a shortage of organized provision of primary care. There is an excess of specialty and sub-specialty physicians who are driving up the cost of care. Much of primary care doesn't require a physician - nurse practitioners can do a lot of this work. The answer isn't immigration alone. I have nothing against bringing more foreign medical graduates into the country, but highly skilled technicians who lack cultural competence won't necessarily address the needed skills for primary care.

  • seriously on November 24, 2012 7:08 PM:

    So your position is that it's a good idea to lower the supply of physicians in countries like Mexico, India, and China in order to provide Americans with better care. I hadn't heard that Mexicans, Indians, and Chinese were luxuriating in the bountiful, concierge-care-like situation to the point where they can spare some of their evident abundance of doctors, but I haven't really been following the issue, so I guess I'm simply not well-informed.

  • Col Bat Guano on November 24, 2012 7:31 PM:

    Biomedical PhD's and IT engineers are the elite that are running this country? Really? I'm sure the corporate CEO's would love to be able to cut the wages of those folks, but I don't think that is going to make a huge dent in income inequality.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on November 24, 2012 8:00 PM:

    I mostly agree with Kathleen's thesis: immigration policy with regard to skilled workers is pretty much designed with the interest of elites in mind. But these elites are not all corporate elites. The corporate elites want unrestricted immigration of technical people. Remember, MIT grads work for Harvard grads, and Harvard grads would be just as happy to employ IIT grades, and happier if they could pay them less. (That's Indian Institute of Technology, a good school in Kanpur.)
    However, corporate elites have no strong preferences with respect to the medical profession. Medical professionals want restrictions. So what do we get? A fair number of H1B visas for techies (mitigated by populist fears) and much tighter medical restrictions.

  • Robert Waldmann on November 24, 2012 8:38 PM:

    I'm going to start seriously and get silly. Seriously when you write "income inequality" you mean "income inequality in the USA". Allowing high skilled immigration to the USA would cause increased inequality within their countries of emigration and increased inequality across nations, since the USA is still the richest large country.

    Notably higher education in most countries is even more highly subsidized than it is in the USA (I'm not saying too highly subsidized -- I think the USA should subsidize more to equalize opportunity and to increase the supply of highly educated people which would reduce inequality in the USA and world wide). The popular proposal is to take advantage of education provided at the expense of foreign taxpayers. This is entirely in keeping with US public opinion generally -- the one program US adults most want to cut is foreign aid. But that doesn't make it morally right.

    I support free immigration which means I support free immigration of MDs too (as a matter of respecting the human right of people to live where they please and out of opposition for hereditary privilege including exclusive US citizenship). But I am disturbed by complete indifference to the interests of anyone outside of the USA.


    "You are not likely to see, for example, many economics professors running around arguing themselves out of a job —" but one is typing this comment. To be exact, I argue that it is a mistake to employ me, not argue in a way which puts my hold on my tenured job at risk.

    I teach labor economics in Rome. I just gave a lecture on migration and wages (I didn't have anything non obvious to say). I note that Italy is very very open to immigration by economics professors. So, for that matter, is the USA (ever heard the phrase "brain drain"). Visas and such are a minor issue. The faculties of elite Universities in the USA include many immigrants.

    Baker is talking about professional licencing which is different, but US economists are perfectly willing to compete with people born overseas.

    Consider this list of top young US economists -- recpients of the John Bates Clark medal "The John Bates Clark Medal is awarded by the American Economic Association to "that American economist under the age of forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge"" Note the word "American" in the title. Of the past 11 recipients, 5 were born outside of the USA (4 outside of the Americas): David Card (Canada), Andrei Shleifer (then USSR -- in particular Russia), Daron Acemoglu (Turkey), Emanuel Saez (France) and Esther Duflo (France). Shleifer was not a highly educated immigrant -- he didn't have a high school diploma when he immigrated at age 16. This is not a field which exclude immigrants. Your observation that US economists do not argue that they should have to compete with immigrants is valid for the simple reason that it goes without saying being the current and unquestioned policy.

  • Anonymous on November 24, 2012 9:40 PM:

    This is in spite of the fact that many professionals from other countries would undoubtedly be willing to work here for far less pay than native-born Americans (because it would be far more than they would receive in their countries of origin, like Mexico, India, or China)
    I'd imagine it's because, not in spite: the progressive side of labor progressivism, when the AMA fights against lowering the prevailing wage.
  • cwolf on November 25, 2012 1:40 AM:

    For example, we have a doctor shortage in this country,...
    Mmm, based on the crap americans eat, their dangerous jobs, & their mostly slovenly lifestyles, I'd be inclined to disagree that "we have a doctor shortage".
    Rather, we seem to have a surplus of patients.

  • cmdicely on November 25, 2012 3:42 AM:

    For example, we have a doctor shortage in this country

    At least, that's the line teaching hospitals are selling in asking for more federal funding of residencies, but it's less than clear that there is a real shortage of doctors so much as a health care financing system that gives big rewards for going into specialty medicine and pulls practitioners out of primary care.

    (A product largely of income inequality.)

    The reduction in the supply of low-skill workers would force employers to raise those workers’ wages

    Or eliminate the jobs entirely.

    and the increase in the supply of high-skill workers would cause employers to decrease the wages of that group.

    So, after making America a non-viable place to employ low-skill workers, you'd also reduce the rewards for gaining skills. Basically, making things worse for everyone who has to work for a living.

    If you want to address income inequality deal with the tax favoritism shown for capital income compared to labor income.

  • POed Lib on November 25, 2012 7:14 AM:

    What a truly disgusting idea. What we need to do is train more physicians ourselves, not strip-mine the intellectual capital of the world. OUR OWN CHILDREN want to become doctors, but there are not enough training programs. NO, NO, NO, NOT more immigrant scab doctors. We need US kids to become doctors.

    We do NOT need scab physicians. We need more training programs for our own students.

  • Fritz Strand on November 25, 2012 8:55 AM:

    Dean Baker who comes across as some sort of liberal, when you scratch the surface, is a complete neo-liberal. He has for years complained that we have been willingly to off shore, and bring in blue collar labor but have (until recently) protected white collar jobs. His solution is to open the American market to the entire world.

    Where he complains here and there about our lopsided economy he is completely, absolutely for a race to the bottom. Until you understand this, his 'analysis' always comes across as incongruous. But once you get the fact that he is just nuts, everything falls into place.

  • Keith M Ellis on November 25, 2012 10:08 AM:

    I find this post fascinating because it is surprisingly clueless. Wherever and whenever progressives find that their jobs are threatened by skilled immigrants, they protest loudly. This is most visibly true in IT, where there is, as it happens, the highest concentration of skilled professional immigrant recruiting.

    Indeed, what I've noticed is that progressives more typically make the exact same argument that Kathleen makes — you don't see economics professors advocating that they compete against immigrants — as demonstration that this would be bad, not good.

    While I agree with the posters above that there's problems with skilled labor emigrated to the US from countries where they are sorely needed, the fact of the matter is that the free movement of labor is just as important and beneficial as is the free movement of goods and capital. And yet, it is generally quite restricted. That in general it is beneficial, and not harmful, is demonstrated in the US by its unusual labor mobility across regions, which most agree has helped the US economy be both more productive and more resilient than it otherwise would be. So Kathleen is quite right to support more labor mobility and not less, and that this is just as important with high-skilled labor as it is with low-skilled labor.

    But, politically, she is being very naive. The resistance to low-skill immigration in the US is more cultural than economic — which is why it actually hasn't been curtailed. Almost no influential group in the US feels economically threatened by the influx of low-skilled immigrants. Not Democrats and not Republicans. But both groups will feel threatened, and do feel threatened, by high-skilled immigration. You see this on college campuses with resentment against foreign grad students and faculty. You see it in information technology and other high-tech fields with resentment against H1-B visas. It already does exist to some degree in medicine, and it would be much stronger were Kathleen's recommendations be realized.

  • Keith M Ellis on November 25, 2012 10:25 AM:

    Oh, I'll also add that the progressive response to this will most typically be that of Fritz Strand, above: that this necessarily would be a race to the bottom and it is not at all progressive. (Just to clarify my own position, I'm very progressive, but support both trade and labor mobility precisely because I believe that, in the longer term, it benefits the poorest — and I'm more concerned about the poor of the developing world than I am with the poor of the developed world.)

    What I find interesting and, well, both odd and revealing is that Kathleen habitually uses the term "neoliberal" to describe contemporary consensus centrist economic policy in both the US and Europe. That is, market-oriented policy that is much less informed by marxist criticism than was true in the past. In this view, correctly, the economic consensus has turned sharply rightward. But that very, very strongly applies to the policies that Kathleen is arguing for here.

    Paleoliberal, what many would call truly progressive, economic policy is quite protectionist, quite strongly oriented toward protecting the extant labor class — this more typically includes trade protection against foreign competition that threatens jobs; but it much more unambiguously requires protection against direct competition for those jobs by the importation of foreign labor. No labor union that has ever existed, or is likely to exist in the foreseeable future, will endorse the suggestions that Kathleen is advocating. Almost by definition, they are not progressive in exactly the sense that progressivism is deeply tied to the labor movement.

    This being the case, I urge Kathleen to more carefully consider what this inconsistency implies about her belief systems. Something needs adjustment.

  • Abijah L. on November 25, 2012 10:40 AM:

    We already have a high percentage of physician immigrants. 25% is probably bigger than any other field. We still don't fill the lower paying (aka "primary care") residency slots every year. For some reason, the people that want to leave their native countries to make more money also want to come to this country and earn, weirdly, more money. There is by-country data available. We attract physicians from India, the Philippines, and other less developed countries. We do not attract physicians from Europe and Canada, because as much as Dean Baker denies it, incomes are roughly in line with the US (by specialty and average household income for a given country). In fact, with the rising middle class in India, Indian born physicians are starting to leave the US and UK and return to India because relative incomes are higher in India ($30K goes further in India than $300K does in the US)

    As others have mentioned medical education is expensive to provide and we are stealing resources from less industrialized countries ( what else is new?) .

    Dean Baker has a screw loose on the subject of physician incomes. He exagerates them by an order of magnitude by comparing them to CEO pay.

  • POed Lib on November 25, 2012 11:33 AM:

    What we have in India and China is roughly 4-5x the number of available persons. That means, for OUR CHILDREN, that they would have a huge problem of competition. We run universities, especially land-grant universities (and this includes almost every important university that is public in this country) to educate, first, the people of that state. The universities OWE the people of their own state an education. They need to be held to account that the persons inside the states are to be given first admission. This used to be the case. When I went to U of I-UC in 1970, 1/4 of my class also went there. When my kids were admitted, 1/40 of their class was admitted. Who fills the other slots? Chinese. It is wrong to admit chinese over IL residents. Why do they do it? Chinese pay full fare, IL residents pay instate tuition.

  • Ashbee on November 25, 2012 3:38 PM:

    Y'all are missing a HUGE piece to this puzzle. Faith based groups in this country of all denominations have championed for our current joke of a system, i.e family reunification immigration. Consider this-

    The current system, privileges immigrants who benefit from genetic relationships, while discriminating against potential immigrants from every region in the world who would contribute a great deal to American society but lack relatives in the U.S. It allows a small number of countries like Mexico and the Philippines to provide a disproportionate share of U.S. immigration, at the expense of much more populous countries like China and India. The family preference system even discriminates against individuals in the over-represented countries who are not fortunate enough to have American relatives. In addition to being unfair, nepotism-based immigration harms the U.S. economy. Family-based immigration is dominated by less-skilled immigrants. They enter a labor market in which there was a glut of less-skilled labor even before the recession created the highest levels of mass unemployment since the Great Depression.

    http://growth.newamerica.net/publications/policy/the_primary_focus_of_us_immigration_policy_should_shift_from_nepotism_to_skills

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