Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) has apparently been getting into a war of words with technology entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen. Andreessen’s tone in the exchange is an excellent example of why I have remained blessedly absent from all Twitter debates, but I am nonetheless convinced that he is broadly correct about the role of immigration in the technology economy.
I’ll first note that Sessions has made several important points on immigration. First, in his recent speech, he highlighted the need to respect the supremacy of law and correct process for lawmaking, which is surely wise. Second, he also highlighted that entrepreneurs don’t operate in a vacuum, but require a functioning society. This is a point, as a technology entrepreneur, that I have made repeatedly. Third, in a speech last year, Sessions posed a very good question:
Two young people are living in Honduras, and each has a strong desire to emigrate to the United States. One has learned English, was valedictorian at his high school and is in his second year of college. The other dropped out of high school, has minimal skills but has a brother already living in the U.S. Considering what’s in the best interest of this country, which of the two should be allowed in?
This gets to the heart of an important issue. The goals of any U.S. government policy should be to serve the interests of the citizens of the United States. This seemingly bland statement is often forgotten or strategically ignored in immigration debates. An implication of this is that the interests of prospective immigrants should have zero inherent weight in determining our policy. Of course, this does not mean that we therefore must have a policy devoid of any consideration of the interests of prospective immigrants. After all, most American citizens place weight on strictly humanitarian help to many residents of foreign countries; most Americans also care about the expected state of American society long after their personal deaths; there may be prudential reasons to believe that assistance to foreign residents may rebound to the material advantage of current U.S. citizens; and so on. But it does mean that any justification for such humanitarian actions must proceed from the desires of current citizens.
But in his more recent immigration speech, Sessions posed a question that gets to the heart of another issue, though this time inadvertently:
Facebook has 7,000 workers. Microsoft just laid off 18,000. Why doesn’t Mr. Zuckerberg call his friend Mr. Gates and say: Look, I have to hire a few hundred people; do you have any résumés you can send over here? Maybe I will not have to take somebody from a foreign country for a job an unemployed U.S. citizen might take.
One reason that Zuckerberg doesn’t just call Gates to get some employee résumés is that they are direct competitors for talent. Gates (back when he actually running Microsoft, and it was the hot tech company) was explicit about this when he identified his key competitor:
It’s Goldman Sachs. . . . I mean the competition for talent. It’s all about IQ. You win with IQ. Our only competition for IQ is the top investment banks.
This is what’s wrong with Sessions’ whole framework for thinking about immigration. There are not a number of job slots open for which each potential employee is either “qualified” or “unqualified.” There are endless types and degrees of ability. This is true for all jobs in all fields, but is highly exaggerated in the case of technology entrepreneurship. For example, a truly great software engineer can create vastly more value than a very good engineer. At the entrepreneurial frontier of the economy, even the idea of a job as being something offered to you by a corporation in some reasonably fixed form no longer describes the situation very well.
This is why the whole argument about a shortage or surplus of STEM workers is besides the point. “Person with a STEM degree and five years of work experience” is not an interchangeable good. There is always a shortage of smart, creative hardworking people, because on average they create vastly more value than they consume. They help themselves, but also make the society around them richer. The higher you climb this ladder of ability (broadly defined), the more value that will be created in and for America.
Interestingly, this links back to Sessions’s initial question about which of two potential Honduran immigrants would be better for Americans. What about a third potential Honduran immigrant who has won a software coding competition and has started a small software-services firm while supporting his family? Why not extend this to ask an even better question: If we set an allowed number of X legal immigrants in a given year, why are we not searching the world to find the most productive X people that we can convince to move to America?
This might even allow us to find some common ground between Sessions and Andreessen.