He's back! Dr Meatloaf on those H-1B Visa quotas

'Indentured servitude' meets NIMBY greed

The British government may be having problems explaining the distinction between 'legitimate' economic migrants (they want them to stay) and 'illegal' immigrants (they want to lock them up, then send them back). But that's nothing compared to the sinew-splitting ideological contortions taking place in Silicon Valley right now.

With US technology graduates pricing themselves out of jobs, employers have been turning to cheaper immigrant labour to help fill technical positions. The mode of entry is the limited-period H-1B Visa, which grants the recipient few rights, but has eased what tech CEOs describe as an acute labour shortage. And the tech industry is successfully lobbying for the regional quotas to be eased, much to the dismay of groups such as the American Programmers Guild, who want the quotas to stay, so more American born graduates can be employed.

This week the media stormtrooper of this NIMBY lobby, Norman Matloff hit back with an op-ed piece for The Washington Post.

The Register has written about Matloff before - he's a comp sci tutor at the University of California, Davis - and digging a little deeper last time, we discovered that behind Matloff's lower-wages-for-honest-Americans pitch lay a series of ugly, crude and racist accusations patched together in a series of non-sequiturs that blamed everyone except materialistic programmers and um, ... graduate comp sci professors such as Meatloaf himself.

But just as a stopped clock still manages to tell the right time, Matloff does score a few points. "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs," he notes. "This is a very important issue for the high-tech executives who give the money." And he again points out rampant agism that discriminates against experienced programmers and in favour of workaholic cheaper developers.

"Though some employers do not cheat their H-1Bs relative to American programmers of the same age and background, they still save on salaries by hiring H-1Bs, whose median age is 28, instead of hiring more expensive Americans over age 40," he writes. Then again, that could possibly be because the youngsters work harder, and since when has working harder been un-American?

"These firms of the New Economy seem to be awfully fond of the Old Economy of 200 years ago, when indentured servitude was in vogue," he blasts.
Ooh, er.

Now coming from the heart of Ayn Rand-reading, free-wheeling California, Matloff's drizzling polemic really looks like the height of hypocrisy.

As every good capitalist knows, for the market to work properly labor should be as mobile as capital. Any restrictions placed by the state on the flow of either will lead to a warped market. Leaving the "invisible hand" to remain firmly in the "invisible trousers" ... presumably to play "invisible pocket billiards".

So if you follow that logic to any natural conclusion, wages for programmers are inflated, and the influx of H-1B labor is simply harmonising that disparity. But that isn't an argument many free marketeers in Silicon Valley want to buy just now. In fact, that's the trouble with free market libertarians in general: show them a bit of the free market that they don't like, and at the drop of a hat, they're running to the despised Government complaining that the invisible hand has just given them a nasty whack around the ear.

As our Tom Greene pointed out in a piece discussing dot.com's view of government intervention in e-commerce that you can read here, it's the sound of folk trying to have their cake and eat it, and it's worth quoting at length:-

"Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (Republican, Virginia) summed up the US Government's Pollyannaish view of e-commerce when he called it "the goose that lays the golden eggs" during a recent Internet conference at George Mason University. But the golden goose is already shaping up as an irresponsible little honking dictator. It will only get worse if e-commerce is allowed to continue developing without accountability. E-commerce demands tax exemptions; it demands a suspension of the normal rules of customer privacy protection; it demands self-regulation and market-driven solutions to all its various follies. Then it has its under-protected servers whacked by some fifteen-year-old script kiddie, and goes whingeing to the Secret Service or the FBI. It's not merely an ethical issue; it's practical as well. The outrages will continue -- and largely in secret -- until the dot.coms are forced, like the rest of us, to pay for their mistakes."

Now this author may be biased - being the offspring of immigrants - but we can't help noticing that America's prosperity has benefited from immigration and done very well out of this liberal approach.

And the Internet too is moving far faster than Meatloaf seems to appreciate.

A recruiter for an influential US software company told us recently that the Net had allowed them to employ oversees programmers who he didn't have to physically move to the United States. These staff he said, were at least as resourceful and creative as American programmers, more highly motivated, more loyal and cheaper too.

The fact may well be that outside Eric Raymond's "gift culture", which has its own dynamics, software developers are simply overpaid, and Stormin Norman's NIMBY diatribes may crash and burn against this horrible truth. Just in case, our Adam Smith coloring book is on its way to UCD as we write. ®

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