Immigration and Jobs

A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.

Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.

I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.

Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.

Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.

Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.

I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.

This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.

Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)

There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.

A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?

I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.

In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s  what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?

I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)

Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.

PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.

* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.

The California Solar Energy Property-Tax Exemption

California exempts solar energy equipment from its property tax. The exemption will last until 2025. The California Wind Energy Association has complained that this exemption puts solar energy at an artificial advantage relative to other renewables such as windmills. Biomass, the use of biological materials such as wood and leftover crops, is also at a relative disadvantage.

Rather than eliminate the solar tax exemption, the other energy industries should seek to eliminate the property tax on all energy capital goods. With this exemption, the government of California is recognizing that property taxes on capital goods – buildings, machines, equipment, inventory – impose costs that reduce production and innovation. Since this tax is toxic, the property tax should be removed from all improvements.

The best revenue neutral tax shift would be to increase the property-tax revenue from land value by the same amount as the reduction in the taxation of capital goods.

The other energy industry chiefs call the solar property-tax exemption a subsidy. We need to distinguish between absolute and relative subsidies. An absolute subsidy occurs when government provides grants to firms, or limits competition. A relative subsidy occurs when one firm or industry receives a greater subsidy than its competitors. All absolute subsidies are also relative subsidies, because they exist relative to the rest of the economy. But if the subsidy is not in funds or protection, but from lower rates on industry-destructive taxes, this is a relative but not an absolute subsidy.

Suppose that there are patients in a hospital suffering from continuous poisoning. The doctor stops poisoning one patient, and he recovers. But the other patients are still being poisoned. The other patients complain that it is not fair for one patient to be singled out for favored treatment. But the just remedy is not to resume poisoning the recovered patient, but to stop poisoning the others. The taxation of capital goods is economic poison, which the state recognizes would poison the solar energy industry they seek to promote. But why poison the other industries? The property tax should exempt all capital goods, all improvements.

A broader issue is the subsidies to energy. All forms of energy, except human muscles, are subsidized by the state and federal governments. Energy from oil and coal are implicitly subsidized by exempting them from the social costs of their environmental destruction. There is no economic need for any subsidies. But to obtain the true costs of energy, governments should also eliminate taxes not only on their capital goods but also on their incomes and sales. We cannot know whether renewable energy can stand on its own until we eliminate all the government interventions, including taxes, subsidies, and excessive regulations.

Since a radical restructuring of public finances is politically impossible today, a politically feasible reform would be to exempt all capital goods investments from the property tax. If this needs to be revenue-neutral, California could replace its cap-and-trade policy with levies on emissions. The relative subsidy to solar power is unfair to the other energy industries, but the real unfairness is the property tax on their investments.
This article first appeared at

Hayekian Environmental Policy

Just as decentralized knowledge implies economic non-intervention, so too it implies environmental non-intervention.

One of the contributions to economics made by the Austrian-school economist Friedrich Hayek is the theory of scattered knowledge. In his famous article, “The use of knowledge in society,” Hayek analyzed how the knowledge needed for economic activity by consumers, producers, legislators, and bureaucrats is dispersed, tacit, and ever-changing. Sellers of goods can conduct surveys to find out what people want, but such data collection reveals only a small fraction of the subjective desires of buyers. The knowledge of how to produce goods is decentralized among the firms, each of which has its own local knowledge of the costs and the demand for its goods.

Much of the knowledge about goods is tacit, not written down. A label can list the ingredients, but it will not tell the buyer about how good it will taste, and does not reveal the full story about the nutritional benefits and harmful effects. A government bureaucrat cannot know all the details about the way a company handles its goods. The biggest and fastest computers cannot be programmed to know everything the economy is doing. The supplies and demands for goods are dynamic, always changing, like the weather, so that even when knowledge is gathered and analyzed, it soon becomes obsolete.

The Hayekian knowledge problem is one reason the Austrian school of economic thought concludes that only a truly free market can effectively apply the relevant knowledge. Government officials who try industrial policy, the promotion of some goods at the expense of others, often fail. For examples, subsidies to energy from the wind end up wasting resources, as a uniform policy cannot be applied to suit local conditions, and the full effects (such as windmills killing birds) are not known in advance, resulting in bad unintended consequences.

The natural environment, everything apart from human action, is too complex for human beings to fully understand it. As with economic knowledge, the data needed to understand human effects on the environment is both global and local. The knowledge of environmental conditions is tacit, and changing. The ecologies of the earth, like the economies, have interconnected elements with feedback loops. Kill the mountain lions, and the deer multiply, eat up the vegetation, and then the rains wash away the soils.

The Hayekian perspective on global climate change as well as local impacts is to admit that we don’t know the full effects of human activity, but we do know that interference with long-established interconnections can be deadly. The policy implication is that we should minimize unnecessary human interference with the natural environment. Any human presence displaces the natural presence, as a farm replaces meadows and forests. But it is excessive to burn down large areas of rain forests in order to have a few years of crops until the soil nutrients are depleted.

The optimal application of the knowledge issue is to understand that we can apply some general knowledge but not specific knowledge. For example, we know that emissions from power plants, factories, and vehicles have bad effects. Costs are ultimately subjective, but some costs, such as lost income and resources, can be quantified. We cannot precisely measure the social cost of pollution, but by comparing places with various amounts of pollution, and the various rates of diseases in those places, we can obtain some estimates of the ill effects. Policy can therefore require a payment for emissions that invade others’ property. To do nothing is to declare a price of zero, which is less accurate than the positive price obtained by statistical means.

The Hayekian policy for emissions is therefore a payment for the estimated damage. A pollution charge requires less knowledge than detailed regulations such as engine requirements, gasoline additives, and smog tests. The emissions charge would not be based on uncertain climate changes, but on the proposition that human interventions into the atmosphere and oceans could be catastrophic. The probabilities are uncertain, but what we do know is that a small probability times a huge cost equals a substantial present value. Because the earth’s environment is a balance of water and air temperatures, cycles of carbon emissions and absorptions, feedback loops, and substances such as the ozone layer, the probability that human interventions are harmful is much greater than the chance that they are beneficial. The mutual relationship of wolves, deer, and vegetation imply that killing off either the wolves or the deer will have bad effects.

The knowledge problem implies that policy has to confront the environmental issue rather than ignore it, because human activity is inherently environmentally interventionist. In some cases, intervention can help the environment, such as with artificial coral reefs. But large interventions such as deliberately dumping iron compounds into the ocean should be avoided.

The Austrian school of economic thought is critical of central planning due to its absence of economic calculation via market prices, and due to the knowledge problem. But the absence of pollution charges itself implies mispricing and the presumption that we know nothing about the effects of emissions. Given today’s highly regulated economy, the implication of Hayek’s thought on knowledge is to replace regulations and emissions trading schemes with the requirement to pay the estimated social costs. Firms (and their customers) can then either pay that cost or else avoid that cost by polluting less. To be most effective, pollution charges would need to be applied globally.

Some free-market economists respond to the pollution issue by stating that property rights are sufficient to solve the problem. But any negotiation or lawsuit to compensate others for negative external effects necessarily requires an objective estimate of the damages. A complete prohibition of an external effect, whether of emissions or noise or visual effects, imposes a cost on the emitter. Tort law, with transferable lawsuits, as well as arbitration and mediation, could replace governmentally enacted pollution levies when the victims can be identified, but there is no avoiding some objective estimate of costs. And where torts are not effective, an international agreement on pollution charges would be warranted.

New Mexico’s Police Breaking Badly

by Fred Foldvary

The AMC television channel recently concluded the drama “Breaking Bad.” The series was about a high-school chemistry teacher who has terminal cancer and “breaks bad” by making methamphetamine to get money for his treatments and for his family. The episodes take place in New Mexico, and some of the scenes occur in the desert.

Now the state government of New Mexico is breaking into real-life evil. Its police are stopping drivers and forcing them to submit to intrusive body searches and medical tests for drugs, including X-rays and colonoscopies. The hospitals then bill the victims for the involuntary procedures.

The State of New Mexico is establishing the principle that the state may force people to undergo medical procedures that they then must pay for. The worst aspect of governmental medical provision is that the health of individuals becomes a governmental matter, and therefore the state takes control over medical decisions. The federal and state governments may, in the future, force people to adopt preventive measures and periodic tests. The government will not only force citizens to have medical insurance, but also force people to submit to procedures such as anti-smoking treatments and colonoscopies.

One of the victims of medical coercion is suing the City of Deming in a U.S. District Court for being forced to submit to X-rays, enemas, and a colonoscopy. The police and doctors did not find any drugs in his body. As justification, the police claim that the driver was clenching his buttocks after being stopped for a traffic violation and ordered out of his car.

After that lawsuit was registered, it was reported that another man was probed for drugs in a New Mexico hospital after his car was stopped by police for failure to signal. The news media are now reporting that other drivers in New Mexico are being searched after getting stopped for alleged traffic violations. The police suspect the drivers of drug violations due to their appearance or due to dog sniffing, often with untrained dogs, and obtain warrants for the intrusive drug tests and body searches. In the case of the driver suing the state, the warrant was not even valid for the county and the time in which the colonoscopy took place.

The police in other states have been doing similar things. In Tennessee, the police took a man cited for an expired car licence to a hospital for drug tests, after a sniffing by a drug dog. A woman in Texas was strip-searched and double-probed by the police and by doctors.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Unfortunately it is easy for the police to evade the Fourth Amendment because they can claim that their searches and seizures are reasonable. and some judges will routinely issue warrants if a dog, even if untrained, growls or points at the victim, or perhaps if the victim seems nervous.

Long ago, and still in some countries, highways were dangerous because robbers would halt a carriage or train and steal from the riders. Now, in the USA, the highwaymen are the police who are not content to merely issue citations, but use traffic violations as an excuse to enforce the drug laws. Driving in New Mexico is now dangerous because of the police predators.

Ecology is the relationship of living beings to one another and the environment. Evolution seems to generate predator-prey ecologies. Now that large predators such as lions and wolves have been eradicated from human habitat, ecology has generated human predators such as hijackers. Government is supposed to protect the public from such predators, but the drug laws have turned the police into yet another set of predators.

The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote that the “will to power” is the strongest human motivator. Individuals who seek the thrill of exerting power now become traffic officers, because they can stop any driver and have power over and into his body. This police predation is legalized rape.

Baby’s a Tuna, and It’s Feeling Blue

Bluefin tuna are being hunted to extinction. They have already been reduced to a small fraction of the global numbers of a hundred ago. They may disappear from the Atlantic Ocean by 2012. The average weight of those caught has already been dropping. Other kinds of tuna and related fish are also being slaughtered, but the bluefish will be the first to go under.

Bluefin tuna are the genus Thunnus in the family Scombridae, with several species, among them Thunnus atlanticus (blackfin tuna), Thunnus orientalis (Pacific bluefin), and Thunnus thynnus (Northern bluefin).

The bluefin have a big problem: they taste very good. Tuna have been eaten for centuries. Indeed, the word “tuna” comes from ancient Greek. Canned tuna greatly increased the consumption, but what is finally terminating the bluefin is sushi. Four fifths of the bluefin tuna consumption is for sushi and sashimi. Sushi is seaweed-coated vinegar rice wrapped around a morsel of food such as raw fish, and sashimi is the raw fish by itself.

Bluefin tunas taste good because unlike most fish, they are homeothermic (warm blooded); they metabolize their temperature, like mammals and birds. With a higher body temperature than the surrounding cold water, tuna have a large ocean range. The warmth also enables tuna to swim fast (“tuna” in Greek means “to rush”), which enables them to catch more prey. So bluefin tuna grow up to a size of up to four meters. Continue reading