David R. Henderson  

Fantasy Granted (Sorta)

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One of my fantasies is of a classroom in which a tenured economics professor at an accredited institution of higher learning says, "We must have free trade," and a few students leap out of their chairs and shout, "You first!"
This is from Arnold Kling, "Similar Lines."

I don't know of any student who has stood up and said it. But a few years ago, when I, a tenured professor, was laying out the benefits of free trade, a question a student asked led me to think that he was asking something like that but wasn't quite willing to come out and say it, on the mistaken impression that I would be offended. So I introduced the thought immediately. I was teaching a distance learning class and I pointed out that that could just as easily be done from, say, Singapore and at probably half the price. So that's not quite immigration. But I also pointed out that I wanted the U.S. government to allow in people from other countries who would compete with me. I still do.

Moreover, I used to think, like Arnold, that it is hard for a professor to immigrate to America. I based that too much on my own tough experience with the INS in the 1970s when I immigrated from Canada. Arnold is right that there is not free immigration of professors. My impression from a previous post by Bryan Caplan, though, that I can't find offhand, is that immigration of academics to the United States is much freer than of people in most other kinds of jobs.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Mike Hammock writes:

I think it is also relevant (in our particular case) that the market in economists is freer than in many other professions in that there are no occupational licensing requirements. That is, anyone from anywhere with any background can call themselves an economist. In general I think this is a good thing, though there are exceptions (Robert Reich, Ben Stein).

Stephen Karlson writes:

How complicated do you want to make the answer?

For instance, the U.S. comparative advantage has been in knowledge-intensive, advanced technology goods that use a lot of human capital. Thus aspiring professors must consider their options in those parts of the private sector.

Further, free migration of people will provide incentives for people with that sort of human capital to migrate to the U.S., which includes pursuing advanced degrees and taking tenure track jobs.

Thus, the discipline of free trade already applies to economics professors.

There's a snarky comeback about overseas graduate assistants, but in 35 years in the classroom, I never figured out a tactful way of using it.

Charlie writes:

Aren't tenure track research positions exempt from the H1-B lottery? My impression is a school, at least a large research university can hire any international they want and have a guaranteed visa. In my department, the last four hires were internationals.

Many job market stars (in finance) are international, I don't think there is any U.S. bias. Booth hired from Tillburg last year. Stanford hired from LSE the year before.

Phil writes:

David - Do you think academic tenure is an economically sound employment practice? How does it jive with your recent posts on limiting bargaining power?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Stephen Karlson,
There's a snarky comeback about overseas graduate assistants, but in 35 years in the classroom, I never figured out a tactful way of using it.
The snark wouldn’t apply in my situation anyway. We have no graduate assistants of any kind. Military officers making over $100K in regular military compensation don’t have a strong incentive to take part-time jobs at $20 an hour.
Do you think academic tenure is an economically sound employment practice?
“Economically sound” is too vague for me to answer. However, if you meant whether it’s efficient, I am pretty confident that it’s not. If you meant to ask whether I favor tenure, the answer is that I don’t.
How does it jive with your recent posts on limiting bargaining power?
I think it jives well. Tenure likely results in lower pay for younger academics. There are probably many potential academics who would like to be paid more and do without tenure and have, say, 3- to 5-year renewable contracts. If we ask current academics how they feel about this, probably most won’t like it, but remember that we have selection bias. The hard chargers who would be in academia but below the star level might not be in academia.

jc writes:

Yeah, what @Charlie said. I could be completely wrong, but I've never even heard of someone getting denied a work visa if a U.S. school wants to hire them.

Now it could clearly be a sample selection issue, i.e., perhaps I only speak to people who have already been granted visas. That's sure not my impression, though (e.g., I've been on a million hiring committees and not once has the issue even come up when considering non-U.S. applicants, i.e., rightly or wrongly, we assume they either have a visa or that their approval for one will be automatic if we offer them a job).

(And, fwiw, immigration restrictions don't seem to even remotely be a barrier for me going in the other direction, i.e., schools all around the world seem quite eager to hire U.S. citizens. Could be a sample selection issue in reverse, I suppose, w/ schools not recruiting unless they've been allocated visas to hand out?)

Don Boudreaux writes:

Arnold (whose smarts, learning, and opinions I respect enormously) has made this argument before. I don't like it. Obviously I don't, as I'm a tenured professor, at an institution of higher learning, who champions free trade. (Heck, the vanity license tag on my foreign-assembled automobile reads FRE TRDE.) The suggestion that tenured econ professors who support free trade do so largely because they are tenured strikes me as mistaken.

A simpler explanation for the prevalence of support for free trade among economics professors is that they are economics professors. From 1776 forward, economics has offered powerful reasons for believing that free trade is beneficial. Arnold himself accepts these reasons. And while the credibility of economists' calls for free trade might be enhanced in the public's eye were economists more obviously subject to direct competition from imports, why must the fact that economics professors are not obviously subject to the direct competition from imports supply reason to question the sincerity with which economists argue for free trade? The theoretical and empirical case for free trade is, after all, quite strong.

Further, what are a free-trade-endorsing American econ professor's options? Forgive me here being autobiographical: True, I could give up tenure. (Actually, I did that once, when I resigned my tenured post at Clemson University to take over the presidency in 1997 at FEE.) But to teach full-time and for a long time in the modern U.S. groves of post-secondary academe effectively requires that the teacher have tenure. I don't support the tenure system, but I don't make the rules.

Moreover, I've spoken out in favor of free trade since I was an undergraduate at Nicholls State University in the 1970s, and one whose father, brother, grandfather, and many other family members and friends were employed in a shipyard that enjoyed the protections of the protectionist Jones Act.

I spoke out for free trade as a grad student. And as an untenured professor. I continued to speak out for free trade as an untenured employee of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Today, while the majority of my income is my GMU salary, a sizable minority of that income is from other sources - mostly public speaking and writing for popular outlets. I've not once called for or otherwise endorsed restrictions on foreign speakers or on op-eds from foreign writers. And were anyone to propose that a tariff be levied on op-eds or articles submitted by foreigners to U.S. publications, I would strenuously object even if I were convinced that the market for my services on those fronts would collapse. (I couldn't live with myself if I refused to speak out against such cronyism.)

I'm pretty sure that I'm not alone among free-trade supporters.

Sure, talk is cheap - and it's cheap not only for tenured econ professors but for nearly everyone else in many circumstances. And, also, Arnold is right to suggest that those of us who propose (or object to) specific policies should do our best to empathize with the many flesh-and-blood people who are affected by those policy moves.

Yet here's the most important thing about economics: we economists, at our best, are champions for "the forgotten man" as against the man who commands today's attention - for the unseen against the seen - for the unknown-in-details future against the known-in-details present. Pointing out that forgotten, unseen, and as-yet-unknown people will benefit from policies whose costs loom in the foreground - and will suffer from policies whose benefits loom in the foreground - necessarily is to champion the interests of abstract, not-easily-related-to, people against the interests of concrete, easily-related-to people.

Jeff writes:

To respond to Charlie and others re: H1-B for professors:

I've been through this, and it's true that while we still need an H1-B visa to work for a university, we are also exempt from the lottery. This is due to the odd hiring times for universities, since the bulk of hires start in the fall, and the H1-B visas for the lottery are usually all taken very quickly at the start of the year.

Canada has the alternative of NAFTA - professors are one of the designated professions that can come in under a Trade NAFTA (TN) visa, although that has to be renewed every year, whereas the H1-B is good for three years.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Don Boudreaux,
Thanks. Well said. I took Arnold at his word that it was about free trade (free immigration in this context) and not tenure, but you have handled the tenure point well also.
I have my views on free trade for reasons very close to yours. Once I learned why it was so good, I became a fan and it never occurred to me to say that I should not face competition from others, whatever side of the border they were on.

Todd Kreider writes:

How does it jive with your recent posts on limiting bargaining power?

I think it jives well.

(The word is "jibe"....)

John Thacker writes:

I agree that I have never really heard of someone being denied an academic job in the US due to visa issues. I have heard of NSF grants being preferentially made available to US persons (particularly at the undergraduate and graduate student level), but I suppose that does come from tax money.

Still, the level of the response to Brexit is a bit striking, which I think partially must come to status quo bias, or at least belief in the possible. (And status quo bias makes a certain amount of sense if monetary shocks happen.) After all, I'm don't think that people find it equally intolerable that the US and Canada don't have an EU style political union in the way that the UK leaving the EU strikes them. (Similarly, they aren't that upset about Norway and Switzerland not being in the EU.)

Weir writes:

The idea isn't that economists, lawyers and bankers are insincere. They're just hypocrites. As in, they don't see themselves, as a class, as bigoted and racist. They call other people bigoted and racist for supporting policies that, in their own case, they just feel to be somehow different and no longer wrong. We all "make up reasons" for why other people are ignorant and we're not.

Another analogy is gentrification. Or with an influx of tourists to what was once an exclusive, expensive resort. Or when poor people can afford air travel, and the cachet of "the jet set" disappears and suddenly you're just a commuter on a really big bus in the air.

David R. Henderson writes:

Wow! Those are some real generalizations.

Weir writes:

Call it double standards. Call it asymmetrical insight. Call it hypocrisy. We say that other people are bigoted and racist because we can't think up any analogy that puts "us" in the same position as "them."

Take my uncle. He buys an apartment in a part of the city that used to have a lot more factories and a lot fewer apartment buildings. Standing in his new apartment, he complains about other people buying into the new apartments going up on the same street as him, one year after he moved into his.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Without tenure, life will be (even?) more difficult for teachers with unpopular opinions (it's the point of tenure, I think).

Arnold Kling writes:

A lot of people seem to have missed my point. I was not speaking about the international academic market. I was referring to tenure and accreditation as protectionist measures.

Thomas B writes:

"people in most other kinds of jobs"

You are correct. The only practical way - and often the only way - for people in most other kinds of jobs to get a visa to work in the US is to marry a US citizen.

There are explicit exceptions for sports and entertainment stars, academics, business executives, and people with rare skills. But if you're just an ordinary middle-class person, or even upper-middle-class person in an ordinary blue- or white-collar profession (construction foreman, plumber, accountant, civil engineer, teacher), then in any practical sense, you can forget it.

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