U.S. should import more skilled workers

Commentator Will Wilkinson

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Scott Jagow: A new report says that within seven years, the U.S. needs hundreds of thousands of new graduates in math and science fields. That's to keep up with the rest of the world.

But commentator Will Wilkinson says an advanced degree in science won't necessarily protect Americans from cut-throat competition.


Will Wilkinson: If you're a highly-skilled worker, America needs you. But if you've got a foreign passport, we probably won't let you in.

The U.S. issues only 65,000 H-1B visas for skilled workers each year and that's not very many. Senators McCain and Obama have both said they would support raising the cap. They acknowledge we need more skilled workers, and they're right. Yes, it would be good for innovation and growth and it would bring down the prices of goods created by skilled workers, but here's another reason you might not have thought of: Wage inequality.

Increases in wage inequality over the past few decades is primarily a story of the supply and demand of skilled labor together with the effects of technological innovation. Wage increases tend to track improvements in the productivity of labor and gains in productivity tend to be driven by innovations that help workers do more in less time. But in recent decades, technical innovation has increased the productivity of more highly-educated workers faster than it has for less-educated workers. These growing inequalities in productivity have helped create growing inequalities in wages.

But that's not the whole story. The American system of higher education produces skilled workers too slowly to keep up with the demand. This scarcity in the supply bids up the wages of the well-educated even more, further widening the wage gap. If we raised visa quotas on skilled labor, that would help bring supply in line with demand and reduce the wage gap between more and less skilled workers.

These days, almost everybody but their beneficiaries think agricultural subsidies are a lousy idea. They benefit a few already relatively wealthy American farmers and agribusiness firms to the detriment of poor farmers around the world. But H-1B visa restrictions are subsidies that benefit relatively rich domestic workers over their poorer foreign peers, and so it turns out many of us liberal-minded college grads are enjoying our own protectionist boost.

In this case, it seems the moral outrage is... well, we seem to be keeping it to ourselves.


Jagow: Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.

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