The Corner

Science & Tech

Trump, SOTU, and Technology Policy

President Donald Trump during the State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., February 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/Reuters)

Writing in Wired, Klint Finley and Tom Simonite offer a useful critique, occasioned by the State of the Union address, of the Trump administration’s technology agenda. They begin with trade policy:

Ironically, the Trump administration’s trade war with China may be hampering the US’s progress on 5G, says FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “There are new tariffs on Chinese imports on key network inputs like modems, routers, and antennas,” she tells WIRED in statement. “They raise the price of deployment of 5G domestically and make it harder for the United States to lead.”

But during Tuesday’s address, Trump doubled down on tariffs.

This is an utterly predictable case of consequences that are unintended but not unforeseeable.

Finley and Simonite take an unfortunately unimaginative view of the policy possibilities: more regulation here, more subsidy there, etc. And, like much of the commentary on such issues, they engage in oversimplification that is difficult to defend intellectually.

Trump, they complain, remains insistent about his wall, but technological fields such as artificial intelligence rely on highly specialized workers from around the world. True enough and, by the authors’ own estimate (they cite Chris Meserole of the Brookings Institution) these AI specialists number between 10,000 and 20,000 worldwide. I won’t presume to speak for Mark Krikorian et al., but most of the energetic immigration restrictionists I am aware of are focused mainly on millions of low-skilled illegal immigrants and millions of comparably low-skilled legal immigrants; in the context of current U.S. immigration levels, taking in the world’s entire population of 20,000 AI gurus at once would hardly be noticeable. President Trump has voiced hostility to some high-tech visa programs, but the bitterest opposition to those programs comes from workaday programmers and engineers in California, not ideologues in Washington. Like everything else, it’s complicated once you start to really get into the part that matters.

Of course it matters what government does vis-à-vis technology and a thousand other issues. But given what I know about them, I am not inclined to trust too very much about the particulars of any of it to Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi — and Congress is where the laws get written, whatever impression the annual State of the Union pageant may give.

The immigration fight focused on the Rio Grande need not necessarily be linked to the question of how easy it is for Alphabet to keep a researcher with a Stanford doctorate and an Indian passport on staff. (That should be pretty easy; easier than it is.) But we’re probably better off adopting more categorically liberal trade policies than trying to micromanage the imports of this doohickey and that thingamabob.

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