A Start-Up Visa?

by Reihan Salam

Paul Kedrosky and Brad Feld published a WSJ op-ed calling for a “start-up visa” earlier this week, echoing a call that’s gained considerable traction in Silicon Valley. Tim Lee explained why the idea is more than a little problematic, and I actually think Tim isn’t cynical enough about creating an enormous new profit center for so-called “diploma mills.”

I’d much rather focus on promoting Brad Feld’s proposal to grant permanent resident status to anyone who graduates from an accredited college with a bachelor’s degree or better. (He wants to limit it to computer science, while I’d like to see it applied more broadly) This would affect vastly more people, would be harder to game (creating a sham four-year college in the US is a lot more work than creating a sham startup), and I think it would still be a relatively easy sell politically, since I think voters have an intuitive sense that it’s stupid to educate a bunch of foreign students here and then force them to go be productive, tax-paying citizens in their home countries.

Note, however, that college administrators and professors will then be in a very powerful position to decide the fate of foreign students, e.g., “If I fail this course, I won’t receive my bachelor’s degree and thus I will be expelled from the United States and doomed to a life of senseless drudgery.” That is a pretty compelling story, leaving aside scenarios involving deep-pocketed students engaging in outright bribery.

Granted, this won’t happen in most cases, but it could very well corrupt the process at the edges. Like Tim, I think the basic idea is extremely appealing. Economic agglomerations are vitally important to fostering innovation and entrepreneurial growth, and the idea of concentrating talent in American regions and cities should hold an obvious appeal for American policymakers. And perhaps decentralizing this decision-making authority among college administrators and professors rather than just bureaucrats in Washington is a good idea. But it does create risks. Tim’s gut instinct is that a sharp increase in the number of immigrants is far from a bad thing. I’m more concerned about seeing to it that the laws on the books are laws that we can realistically enforce. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.