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Silicon Valley techs play the race card

California ber alles

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Pat Neal of CNN News today cited polls showing that "anti-immigrant feeling at its lowest point in decades" -- but that doesn't stop some from trying their worst.

The Programmer's Guild called on American hi-tech workers today to mobilise against immigration changes tacked on to Congress' E-sign legislation.

The Guild says Congress is "slipping [Visa relaxation] into other legislation through the back door is totally undemocratic and short-circuits the legislative progress." It objects to an increase in H-1Bs arguing that "will depress wages for American workers."

H-1B visas allow workers with specialist skills to work in the US for up to six years. The visas are granted on a regional basis, and half of all H-1Bs are reckoned to go to computer professionals. According to the Guild, lobbying by hi tech firms to increase the number is not backed up by objective evidence.

However there seems to be a deficit of objective evidence in much of the Guild's own arguments. We've been examining the voluminous arguments of its most quoted heavyweight Professor Norman Matloff from the University of California, Davis' Computer Science Department, and it doesn't make pretty reading.

Immigrants, particularly Chinese immigrants, aren't technical innovators, argues Matloff. He attributes this to "the Confucian ethic" that "actually tends to make those employees' techncal abilities weaker than those of other ethnicities."

To arrive at this conclusion, Matloff has to ignore or discount some pretty strong evidence, including evidence from within his own department. He admits that Chinese have higher examination scores, but here he claims the credit should go to the professors. "The student will be an author even if the research professor, not the student, was the main creative source for the project." He dismisses consistently excellent performance by Chinese students in the high-school Westinghouse Science Talent Search, suggesting "the contest is not a measure of the best and brightest....instead [work is done] under the direction of well-chosen university researchers."

Ah, but presumably not those Chinese university researchers Matloff has just dissed.

Elsewhere Matloff is equally selective. He repeats the hackneyed swipe at Japanese software -- while ignoring Japan's innovation in manufacturing and consumer electronics.

As for immigrants' entrepreneurial prowess - that's over-rated. And to "support" this he uses the example of none other than Eastern European immigrant Andy Grove. Matloff asks us to ignore Intel's financial turnover, and its long history of semiconductor and manufacturing patents. That's right, Intel has added nothing to the economy, or to technical progress Matloff reckons because the segmented architecture of the x86 caused millions of lost hours of productivity. And for that you can blame the Hungarian.

Now it's easy enough to conclude that this specious nonsense is the ramblings of a Usenet troll, if it wasn't for the fact that Dr Meatloaf is an op-ed regular in the US broadsheets, and frequently cited by anti tech-immigration lobby including the Guild itself.

It's amusing to see two of California's proudest boasts -- its liberal tolerance and its libertarianism -- exposed in one swipe. Aren't free markets supposed to need a free flow of capital and labour, and not restrictions of labour mobility? Not so, says the good Doctor: "Current skilled immigration policy amounts to a major financial subsidy to the self-described free-marketeer Silicon Valley employers," he says.

Wages may indeed go down as a result of massive immigration, if the disparity between labour demand and supply balances out: hardly a thing the H-1B in itself is likely to do. And in Silicon Valley terms, even for graduates, they might drop from the astronomical to the merely stratospheric. ®

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