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Without H-1B visas, America will be losing its STEM hegemony

Donald Trump's protectionist tendencies are mostly myopic

By now, most people must have learned that it's totally plausible that Donald Trump will become the next president. The probability is almost certainly higher than 20 percent. I agree with many attitudes and views of Trump's. However, in the latest GOP debate, Trump vowed to abolish the H-1B visas.

They're non-immigration visas for skilled foreign workers. At every moment, at most 85,000 people may be present in the U.S. 98% of this cap is depleted at almost all times. About 50% of these foreigners on visas work in some kind of computer industry. The temporary status means that they're granted for 3 years and may be renewed for additional 3 years but 6 years is the maximum.

I was in the U.S. on the H-1B visas as the Harvard junior faculty between 2004 and 2007. At the end of June 2007, the visa expired and my resignation was formally justified by the expiration of the visa. In reality, I am confident that I could renew the visa easily and my job was guaranteed up to 2009 or so. But honestly, I've never quite realized that after 6 years, the visas would have been impossible, anyway. Even independently of the problems with feminists etc., I've never had the slightest plans to work on a green card or a citizenship.

Just to be sure, I've tested a large number of U.S. visas. I had a tourist B1 visa in Spring 1997, (graduate) student F1 visas between 1997 and 2001, J1 visas as the junior fellow between 2001 and 2004, and the H-1B visas afterwards. Most of those required repeated visits to the U.S. embassy in Prague, hours of waiting in a line, embarrassing interviews with the workers at the embassy, and additional stamps given at various places in the U.S. The exercises needed to be in good shape often resembled orienteering.

OK, some sources say that consulting companies are the primary users of the H-1B visas. Supermodels are listed as skilled workers, too. Melania Trump, an ex-wife, had a work visa when she came in the U.S. in 1996. I don't know whether they were H-1B but they would probably be H-1B if she were in the same situation today. It may be complicated, politically controversial. But at the end, I think that the IT industry in the U.S. is the most important user of the visa program.

It seems obvious to me that the U.S. is by far the leader in the information technologies and electronic devices, especially when it comes to the true cutting-edge things and new paradigms in software. In most disciplines, the rest of the world are just followers or cheap assembly plants. Why is it so? What allowed the U.S. to be cradle of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and many others?

Americans are smart and the free market works. The freedom to do business is high in the U.S. And when you create something useful, it may quickly spread all over the U.S. which is a large, somewhat uniform country, so you can get really big really quickly. European and other countries are inferior in these free market respects. But I still believe that it isn't the most important advantage.

I think that the most important advantage is the ability of the U.S. to quickly attract and often "overpay" the skilled workers, mainly the brains that are relevant for certain activities. This is how America guarantees that the most important, game-changing activities in most of science and technology are taking place on the American territory.

It is obvious that the Americans may dislike H-1B visas – this program encourages immigration. However, one must distinguish the "general immigration" from the "H-1B-style immigration". The former may be a desire of the immigrants only and the current American citizens may be losing because of that. However, the H-1B visas are a matter of a consensual contract. The foreigners go to the U.S. because they like the offer; and an American company wants to make the offer, too. The company (or university) is ready to pay the expenses and perhaps guarantee several other things. For this reason, the H-1B visa holders are in no way analogous to immigrants who just want to get in, collect welfare, rape a few blonde women, threaten or harm a couple of people who eat pork or listen to music, and rob a supermarket or two (I hope that that SJWs will appreciate how accurately the life of the immigrants has been described LOL).

The skilled workers are good for the companies. So the companies want them and they want the cap of 85,000 visa holders to be increased. On the other hand, the U.S. citizens who want to be employed in the STEM and other jobs don't want the competition too much. It's easier to be employed if you don't face competition. So many of these people are natural enemies of the H-1B visa program.

By abolishing the H-1B program, one may protect these particular people and their convenience. However, that doesn't mean that one protects the interests of America as a whole. It's rather important that at least when it comes to the extensive power, America is the technologically and scientifically dominant country in the world. Most of the U.S. citizens benefit from that fact in one way or another. Even the skilled workers who are U.S. citizens may benefit from it. In fact, the help by the H-1B workers may have increased the total size of these industries in the U.S., and it may have added, and not subtracted, the number of available slots, even for the U.S. citizens.

It's natural for me to try to quantify the relative importance of foreigners through the optics of my experience in the U.S. Academia. I believe that the computer industry is a little bit less dependent on the foreigners – but the dependence is still substantial.

Well, there are lots of amazing people in the field who are U.S. citizens. And I believe that most of the top theoretical physics professors since the war have been U.S. citizens. But if I think about graduate students and postdocs, I believe that the importance of foreigners – even at the U.S. universities – exceeds 50 percent. Many of them help the American professors to be the greatest professors; some of these foreign students and postdocs become U.S. citizens later; some of them end up leaving the U.S. and the "concentration of mental power" that America represents.

Like the computer industry, theoretical physics has gone through some amazing periods of developments in which some subfields have witnessed incredible progress. Like in the computer industry, most of this progress took place in the U.S. But was it done mostly by Americans? The answer is much less clear here, especially at the level of the "graduate students' and postdocs' research".

At the Nobel prize and D-brane level, Americans still dominate. But you find exceptions, of course. Maldacena is Argentinian, Salam was Pakistani, and so on. But if I have looked at the body of all physics postdocs I have ever met and subtracted all the foreigners, the rest would look somewhat similar to the body of the European researchers. Without the added foreign spices, the American postdocs would look like the second league, much like the European postdocs often do.

It's hard to universally yet accurately describe what I feel. But the nationalities are correlated with the topics, too. There exist some "slow enough subfields" such as those in "mathematical physics" where no full-fledged breakthroughs (and the associated frantic activity and insane competition) have taken place for decades. And those are exactly the fields that are rather strong in European countries – but these "not too exciting" subfields would also be very strong if America banned foreign postdocs. There would be much more integrability (if I pick a legitimate and interesting yet slow field) or even loop quantum gravity (if I have to choose a less legitimate one) and perhaps even worse garbage, I think.

It's my impression that the "truly hot" subfields and activities are done by brilliant people who have de facto gone through some very intense international selection. So you feel that for these people, the expertise stands above their "national cultures" and they're doing something global in importance. And at least since the Second World War, we've been used to the setup in which most of these "truly international, globally competitive" activities took place on the U.S. soil.

Why has been America attracting these things? One reason is that people got used to the fact that the American companies and universities are the best ones – at least in the "hottest fields". The second reason is that these American companies and universities are much better in finding the financial resources and making offers that the best people usually don't refuse. A necessary condition for all of that is that the U.S. laws allow the skillful foreigners to temporarily work in the U.S.

I believe that if the last condition ceases to hold, America will unavoidably become just another "national job market" and "national research community" which will resemble some European ones or the Japanese one etc. and the claim that "it is the clear leader of the world" will gradually become disputable or invalid.

Obviously, I am not a true American patriot so this loss of America's exceptional position wouldn't be too big a loss for me personally for its own sake. What I am much more afraid of is that the world will lose some of the truly globally competitive activities in research and technological progress.

While many Americans like to believe that America is exceptional just because it's called America (named after an Italian financier Vespucci who just dared to demonstrate that Florida or Brazil wasn't Japan; I am sure that most Americans don't know that the name of the continent was coined by Martin Waldseemüller), the true reason is that it is the country that is most effective in "conquering and building upon" the best things in the world, especially in science and technology. The world is largely globalized and there are e.g. many famous multi-national corporations. But like the less important United Nations, a big majority of these global corporations have headquarters in the U.S. America has become the home of many companies and research center of global importance, those demanding a global meritocracy. America has succeeded in turning the adjectives "American" and "international" into approximate synonyms. The U.S. is where the people compete for the "best slots" while the institutions in the rest of the world have gotten used to hiring among "the applicants who are left".

Within America, to abolish the H-1B visas – or to introduce similar protectionist policies – could be convenient for second-class skilled workers among the U.S. citizens. But it would be bad for the status of America as a whole. And it would probably be bad for the progress of the whole mankind as well – because it could be very difficult for the most skillful people of the world to find a new melting pot where the progress can be done as naturally and as effectively as we have known it in the U.S. companies and U.S. universities in the recent 70 or 80 years.

So, Mr Trump and his supporters (and also Marco Rubio etc.), think twice whether your protectionist policies will turn out to be good for America of the future, or whether they're a recipe to build another Mexico. It's great that you want to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – but once America loses its edge, will the wall be needed at all?

Something about the elite production here in Pilsen, Czechia. Škoda Works, once the largest factory in Austria-Hungary, has produced lots of things, including 434+1,414 light tanks LT-35 and LT-38 between 1936 and 1942 – yes, they were primarily used by Wehrmacht during the war. That's why it's not surprising that the Škoda factory in Pilsen was added as a map, and Czechoslovak tanks as a nation, to the World of Tanks, an online game. As the video above shows, Škoda is enabling the best flying tanks in the world. ;-) The buildings shown in the scene include the currently renovated buildings of the Techmania Science Museum. They should surely add the flying tanks exhibition for the kids.

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reader Anonymous said...

If not for the massive abuses of the H1B program, I might agree with you.

If we gain more than we lose, I'm for doing away with it, at least until it can be fixed, if that's p0ossible.