Bryan Caplan  

Drain Our Brains: It's the Law!

PRINT
Credentialism Trap Rejoinder... Health Savings Accounts...

If you want to get a U.S. student visa, you're supposed to demonstrate "nonimmigrant intent." As one immigration lawyer puts it: "the student must have 'nonimmigrant intent' – that is, an intention to return to their home county and not remain in the U.S." In other words, our laws try to make people go away after they finish their studies.

The old Soviet Union had a very different perspective. I still remember watching Gorbachev share it on U.S. television. Why can't people leave the U.S.S.R.? If they could, Gorbachev explained, there would be a "brain drain." People would gobble up free Soviet education, then run off to the West to get rich.

How do the two policies compare?

The Soviet policy was brutal, but not stupid. It's what any shrewd slave-driver would do. If you're going to invest in people, make sure they stick around to pay you back with lots of interest.

U.S. policy, in contrast, is moderately less brutal, but stupid beyond belief. It says, in effect: "We'll invest in you - as long as you agree to contribute as little as possible to our economy once you're done."

Admittedly, U.S. policy is a lot better in practice than it is in theory. Every professor knows that foreign students often figure out a way to stay despite their initial affirmation of "nonimmigrant intent." Loopholes abound - which is why I've had the privilege of interacting with so much foreign talent. As the saying goes, "It's a good thing we don't get as much government as we pay for." Or if you prefer a more eloquent version, try Ludwig von Mises:

Let us be grateful for the fact that there are still such things as those the honorable gentleman calls loopholes. Thanks to these loopholes this country is still a free country and its workers are not yet reduced to the status and the distress of their Russian colleagues.

Which makes me wonder: Now that Russian policy has become so much less brutal, is there any chance that American policy could become a little less stupid?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (22 to date)
David Thomson writes:

A number of our policies are based on the ridiculous fear that immigrants somehow take jobs away from American citizens. The reality is that they make the economic pie bigger for everyone. We should be doing everything to encourage these people to remain in the United States.

Silas Barta writes:

David Thomson: that's a bit oversimplified. Immigrants (at least the kind who get educated and stay) do make the economic pie bigger for everyone, but that doesn't mean we should encourage it. All that glitters is not material wealth. Some people would gladly accept lower material wealth if it meant greater cultural homogeneity. I'm not one of them of course, but you have to consider the multiple conflicting desires people have.

T.R. Elliott writes:

My experience is particularly appropriate here, since as I mentioned my former employer grew from about 500 to maybe 13,000 employees over a period of maybe six years. That was a lot of interviewing. Including a lot of foreign students, people trying to get green cards, etc etc.

I cannot speak to the commenter who says that hiring foreign brains will increase the pie and make all good for everyone. I suspect hiring foreign brains makes the pie bigger but does result in some who might be doing engineering, for example, instead doing something for less pay. I've seen many many people end up taking fairly large pay cuts after losing a job at one place and struggling to find a job somewhere else.

That said, many Americans seemed unwilling to study engineering, many Americans in the workforce in the engineering area were unable or unwilling to keep their skills up, and the success of a company on the edge requires the best and the brightest, wherever they come from.

I believe many of this country's successes come from imported brains (the jews around WWII, Russian during the cold war--when we could get them, and now Indians and Chinese). The more the merrier.

Andrew Lasey writes:

Pretty good points and I really enjoyed the quote from Mises.

That said, you'd do better if the whole thing sounds a little less shrill.

Keep up the good work! Really enjoy the blog.

John S Bolton writes:

Using aggression to invest in foreigners, is the bad part. Public universities, and science and engineering programs in a great many private ones, are heavily subsidized by funds taken through aggression on the net taxpayer. It might not be stupid for power-seeking officials to do this for foreigners, though, if their objective is to try every means of generating inter-group conflict that can be gotten away with.

Vorn writes:

Bolton:

Justified aggression. When you enjoy the benefits of society and social cooperation, you have to pay the costs. If you don't like how your tax dollars are allocated, just go out and vote or run for office. Worried you won't succeed? Well, who said success in life was guaranteed?

There are much worse things in life than taxes. Like, being born to a crack-addicted single mother. Count yourself lucky that this is one of the main problems you worry about.

Vorn writes:

One thing that this post by Byran assumes is that the most productive use of foreign-born students is in the United States. That may not be true. If highly educated foreign-born students go to other countries (such as their home country) where there are less educated people and increase the human capital base in those countries by transferring some of their knowledge, that may in fact increase global efficiency. Educated people can train others who also become educated.

An increases in global efficiency could benefit the United States when it drives down the price of goods and services.

Think about it. From which society does the United States benefit more from on a per person basis, a less educated China or a more highly educated Japan?? Japan has a population of about 130 million compared to over a billion for China and yet provides an extremely high number of quality products at great prices and high levels of innovation leading to high benefits to the United States. Trade with China also benefits the United States, but probably not as much as trade with Japan if the benefits of trade are divided on a per person basis.

A greater level of education in China resulting from "reverse brain drain" might actually be more beneficial to the United States than having such individuals located here domestically. First, much of the benefit of highly educated people in China may be enjoyed via the use of international trade. Second, if as a result of greater proximity to highly educated individuals, more Chinese people became educated within China, this would be of great potential benefit.

Which is not to say that I support United States immigration policy. (I don't.) However, I think it is very difficult to say what the economic effects of our policies will be in the long term. It seems very difficult to weigh the costs and benefits here. Does anyone have good reasons for suggesting that we do know more than I am suggesting here?

Rick Stewart writes:

[Vorn repeats the old 'crack addicted mother' myth that has been sufficiently discredited to make its continued reference offensive (babies whose mothers use cocaine - a non-addictive drug - suffer no negative physical consequences related to cocaine).]

Worse yet he thinks 'it is very difficult to say what the economic effects of our policies will be in the long term. It seems very difficult to weigh the costs and benefits here. Does anyone have good reasons for suggesting that we do know more than I am suggesting here?'

Well, yes, there is a good reason. It's called letting the market decide the allocation of foreign students between 1) staying in the United States, 2) returning to their home countries, or 3) moving somewhere else.

The results of letting ex-students decide for themselves will always be better for us than letting Mr. Bush, or Vorn, make the decision for them.

Vorn writes:

Rick:

Interesting, if slightly sarcastic, response.

First of all, of course children who are born to crack-addicted single mothers are probabilistically worse off. This is true even if they don't develop a physical drug problem. Why? Well, crack-addicted mothers tend not to be as good of parents. Its kind of hard to take care of kids if all you can think about is where to get your next high. I think that is a fairly obvious point, I am kind of suprised that you bothered to dispute it.

Next, what you write fails to really answer the question:

"Well, yes, there is a good reason. It's called letting the market decide the allocation of foreign students between 1) staying in the United States, 2) returning to their home countries, or 3) moving somewhere else.

The results of letting ex-students decide for themselves will always be better for us"

Well, in this case, the abstraction of the market really refers to the individual foreign students, who will presumable weigh the pros and cons of staying or not, and will likely include non-economic pros and cons in that calculus.

So, your suggestion fails for two reasons.

First, foreign students are considering what is best for them, which may or may not be what is best for us. Non-economic factors, like the existence of greater freedom in the United States, may be decisive in their calculus.

Second, there are externalities involved here. In this case, the notion that when foreign students return to their home countries, this increases educational opportunities for individuals in those countries. Very few foreign students are likely to take this factor into account when deciding where to locate.

The theme of these two points is the same. There is no reason to think that the individual decisions of students here will necessarily transform into maximum aggregate economic efficiency for the United States.

If you really want to say that you can predict what the economic effects will be, your going to have to do much better than what you have.

Again, I want to repeat that I do not support current immigration policies. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether we can determine the economic effects of one policy versus another.

David Thomson writes:

"The results of letting ex-students decide for themselves will always be better for us than letting Mr. Bush, or Vorn, make the decision for them."

Agreed. It is impossible to absolutely predict the future. A student returning to their homeland may indeed do much good. However, I am all for allowing them the free choice of remaining in the United States if they so choose. Our current laws are not premised upon any concern about the development of economies outside of the United States. No, the unions and their political allies are only worried about “protecting” American jobs.

aaron writes:

Mitt Romney highlighted this in a speech in West Bloomfield, MI on Feb. 3rd. The speech was good except for his anti-gay marriage talk.

rakehell writes:

OK, good points. But aren't many of these foreign students merely cheap labor, particularly in the sciences? Graduate students don't make much money after all.

daveg writes:

Does anyone actually have any evidence that providing foreign students with a US funded education is good for the economy?

Don't most other countries do quite well without educating foreign students?

Vorn writes:

daveg:

Don't you think in principle, that this might be a very difficult thing to produce evidence for.

Basically, to really answer this questions we would have to compare to worlds. A United States as it is today with significant numbers of foreign-born graduate students. And a United States without such an arrangement. Obviously, such a comparison is not possible.

Your suggestion that we compare other economies to the United States is definitely unsatisfactory. There is no country situated exactly as the United States is, but that has a different approach to higher education.

I don't think any empirical approach is going to provide satisfactory answers to this question, though I am open to suggestions to the contrary concerning how a study could be designed to provide the sort of evidence you are looking for.

I think that is why most people resort to arguments that appeal to logic, economic or otherwise.

daveg writes:

There are a lot of very strong declarations on this post about how much education of foreign students is helpful, considering that there is little evidence to support those contentions.

And to say we can't compare different countries is far to dismissive for me.

Vorn writes:

daveg:

Well, I am not trying to be dismissive. I am trying to shift the burden to you to explain how such a study would be designed. Clearly, the United States is in a different position compared to other countries and has a different growth rate. But I am open to any suggestions you have with respect to study design that would be able to isolate the factor of the economic effects of foreign graduate students. I doubt it can be done, but why don't your propose the study design and we can think about it.

The burden should be on you. You ask if there is any evidence to support the views expressed. I am asking you the question of why you have a reasonable expectation of such evidence. In other words, is it possible to design a study to extract the information you seek in a reliable manner. I am no expert on econometrics nor statistics so I definitely would be interested in how such a study would be designed such that the appropriate factors are isolated when so much else is different simultaneously.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I'm going to take advantage of a rare opportunity to agree wholeheartedly with Caplan.

It is absolutely idiotic to require productive individuals to leave the country.

liberty writes:

>Your suggestion that we compare other economies to the United States is definitely unsatisfactory. There is no country situated exactly as the United States is, but that has a different approach to higher education.

No, but thats why the science of econometrics was invented.

You could, for example (and it isn't ever going to be perfect but can still be enlightening):

1. Find 15+ countries of relatively similar "advanced stage" and "culture", eg european countries, japan, australia and canada etc.

2. Compare (using basic regression) the variables that you think might change (eg economic growth, growth in certain industries, unemployment).

3. Regress against the foreign students and percent return of foreign students to see how these variables affect your Y variable. You can use percent return or a series (eg 1-5) describing strictness of return-policy, etc.

4. Control for GDP/capita and other variables that you expect would make a big difference (eg welfare, minimum wage, etc).

5. You can use change in growth instead of absolute growth in order to prevent variables in #4 from having too great an impact - eg. growth may always be lower in France but the change in growth due to a change in foreign student policy was positive/negative indicating that for france this was a good/bad change. This still requires a change in policy but a few years of small change will be more significant if such changes (in either direction) are seen in 10 countries.

liberty writes:

BTW:

#5 wouldn't require a change in policy, just a change in percent of students returning, so this could be easily done.

Also, of course you need to decide on an appropriate lag time to see the results.

Vorn writes:

liberty:

"No, but thats why the science of econometrics was invented."

Economics is not a real science. Neither is econometrics.

Physics is a real science. So is chemistry.

Neal Phenes writes:

On the loop-holes in our immigration policy as a whole:

"It is a good thing lawmakers are incompetent at enforcement."

Or maybe:

"Thank God for bribes".

rakehell writes:

On the subject of loopholes, have you seen Irma La Douce? The beginning of the pic strikes many libertarian themes. I'd love to see you write about it.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top