ZenPundit
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
 
THE ECONOMICS OF BRAINS

A lively discussion followed my last, brief post in the comment section between Dan and Curtis on one side, more or less, and Col on the other. Collounsbury understood my point quite well but since the subject is quite important it is incumbent on me to answer the objections and questions raised by the former gents.

( We will leave aside 4GW/5GW theory and counterintelligence for another day, restricting my observation here to the fact that James Jesus Angleton never recovered from Kim Philby's betrayal and U.S. counterintelligence has yet to recover from Angleton).

As Col explained, visas for these foreign PhDs and prospective ones is indeed a question of economic efficiency. Longitudinally speaking, a vital one and it should not be confused with general immigration policy. The United States does not produce enough hard science and mathematics PhD's of its own to run our economy, R&D labs ( including defense tech) and universities. That is simply a fact. Nor one that is likely to change because our demand for such people, along with the global demand, will only rise in the future. Already, half of all the people who have ever graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology ( India's MIT/Caltech) reside in the U.S. but fewer of them are coming here and this represents a strategic problem but one that we can easily fix by changing ill-conceived policies.

I have no problem with the suggestion Curtis made to invest in training our own talent. I'm all for it, 100 %, let's spend a fortune doing so, call me sold. It just won't solve the problem as absolute demand for talent is escalating as countries like India, China, Singapore, Japan and the EU are starting to ramp up their universities, think tanks and government labs. We need more of our people graduating with PhD's plus the immigrants as well.

Secondly, for cutting edge research in certain applied sciences and definitely theoretical pure science and math fields the concept of marginality is strongly in play. At this level of cognitive ability there are no substitute goods for this type of brilliance. You either have them, or you don't. Period. Bioinformatics, superstring theory, nanotech engineering, genomic engineering, complexity theory and like fields require approximately genius level intelligence and many years of training to achieve mere competency. To push the parameters and yield breakthrough insights is at yet a still higher and rarer level of mental ability. America's compatrative advantage is that most of these people want ( in some specialized subfields, must) to come to America at least some point in their career. Quite a few remain, perhaps most, permanently.

These are the people our current visa policies are encouraging to go elsewhere. What the frick does a mandarin speaking mathematician from Shanghai or a Brahmin genetic engineer from Calcutta have to do with al Qaida ????

Doctors, lawyers, engineers and such are pretty much interchangeable. If graduate schools did not artificially limit numbers we'd be drowning in lawyers and CPAs. Not so for the above immigrants. At a certain level of say, theoretical physics, the number of people on the planet who can extend the frontiers of a su field would fit comfortably in a greyhound bus. They could all stand around Steven Hawking and you'd still be able to see his wheelchair.

Secondly, an indirect benefit of having foreign, superbright, immigrants in the U.S. working on benign research is that they are not at home working on something more dangerous.

Weapons development has followed well-trodden pathways since WWII because governments with limited resources prefer to invest them chasing the already possible, free-riding to the extent that they can on our previous efforts. The Manhattan Project was a gamble for the U.S into the unknown. Kim Jong Il by contrast, was pretty sure that if his scientists did everything right then North Korea was in the nuclear club. Things that we have not yet tried or thought of to invent are not therefore impossible to accomplish.

I'd rather a 185 I.Q. Chinese scientist be at Harvard trying to cure cancer than be at a PLA facility designing bioweapons. The brain drain that helps our economy also curtails on the margin the ability of other states to find new ways to wreck utter ruin.
 
Comments:
Hi Mark,

Perhaps more important than the here and now is the next generation of scientists in the U.S., when the current batch of technical experts begin to retire and the shortage becomes a reality. We need immigrant children to stay here, as they are disproportionately dominant in our top high school math and science competitions (Science Talent Search and Olympiads). I emailed an article to you on this so-called 'multiplier effect.'
 
Leaving aside vulgar and simple faux "sons of the soil" patriotism, it is a rational decision to import workers of whatever skill level to meet current and future needs - whether permanently or temporarily. I had some thoughts on this here actually, ironically: http://www.aqoul.com/archives/2005/10/migration.php

Of course, in the European case there is the issue of coming to terms with a need for unskilled as well as skilled (graver perhaps than North America although with employment market rigidities in Europe....).

The faily simple minded concept that one can somehow "screen out" risk by screening out Muslims based on nationality is utter clap trap and a horrendously inefficient response.

It also ends up being insulting and irritating to skilled and moderate persons who might otherwise be "ambassadors" for one's own interests (never mind as comments in the other post indicated, the screening is likely to be based on grossly simplistic national level stereotypes based on the politics of the moment).
 
Mark,

Top-notch post. Thank you.

Dan tdaxp
 
Hi Dan,

Without the questions and objections that you and Curtis posed, there'd have been no post. ( at least not a substantive one, yesterday was a rant & a link, not an argument)

Hi Von,

Much thanks but it did not arrive in my email box. Did you send it to Zenpundit@hotmail or my personal account ?

Hi Col.

What are your thoughts on labor elasticity at lower skill levels - how much labor in a developed economy is replaceable by productivity gains ?
 
Mark:

Well, that is an empirical question, to use an annoying economics dodge.

A lot depends on what kind of activity it is (as well as what kinds of rules are in place). As well as market taste, as some types of activity are not readily replaceable at all (e.g. in highly relationship based services such as teaching).

Indeed, as I think about it, my dodge is actually a substantive response as it's well nigh impossible to generalise.

Certainly in non-services, such as say construction, there is a labor that can be replaced by "pre-fabricating" - although here the taste question comes in: does pre-fabricating remove a touch that hand work gives that may be desired? Taste, versus ability to pay.

Where I am, for example, the concept of a middle class house or apartment forgoing zellij tiling and intricate arabesque ceiling work would horrify, and that is highly individual. While automation might be possible, would local tastes support the automated, standardised version? Hard to predict. Somethings these things go over, sometimes not.

However, returning to my comment above, I would generalise that my business sense (which is to say my gut, although informed gut) tells me that the greater the human relationship component, the less susceptible the human input is to replacement.

Now, of course, I realise in looking at this that I am taking a too narrow view of productivity gains. Certainly new methods of organising and collecting data, etc.; tools for research, tools to transmit may be able to boost and even significantly boost even service relationship productivity.

Let me take an example running through my head. Teaching. I am a firm believer that the human animal requires relatively intimate contact for real teaching to work (as opposed to mere 'reading') and am thus utterly sceptical that any distance learning etc. schemes will be any more successful than the old correspondence course environment. Not that such may not have its niches, but as an overall boost to teaching in general - no. Ideal Professor/Teacher ratios will not change, ceteris paribus, the 10 person class will be more learning productive than the 100 person or 1000 person class.

For the same reason that in reality, when real money is on the line, the people doing the deal like to get together. We remain social animals, and the relationships don't occur in the abstract (again, ceteris paribus).

However, the tools for collecting, conveying and summarising that information may indeed boost (and actually be boosting) productivity.

Of course, now I have no idea if I have in any way addressed your actual question.
 
I enjoyed your post. I think technology (mainly IT) will fix the shortage of scientist in U.S.
Why should an Indian or chinese scientist leave the continent, when he/she can work and transmit his/her work online. This is already happening. The only thing slowing it down is lack of physical and/or social infrastructure.
 
"Why should an Indian or chinese scientist leave the continent, when he/she can work and transmit his/her work online."?

More communications channels. The more, the better. You only have one or two over the net.

Ever wonder how many advances were made over beer and pizza (or the equiv)?

Phillep
 
Mark,

I've had the day to think about this post and the last, have only just read the comments. Your dismal visitor posed one of the questions I've had in mind today. And the Col continues to obscure the debate (if it can be called debate) through the use of inanities like "sons of the soil" patriotism: I mean, really, the Col's the only one to introduce the idea; and, it has a strikingly Lit-Crittishness to it.

But if we are going to discuss efficiency, then the fact that

countries like India, China, Singapore, Japan and the EU are starting to ramp up their universities, think tanks and government labs

then a continuing reliance on -- an intelligence infrastructure of -- foreign talent is a dooming proposition. The essay at one of your links concludes with this:

Clearly, the H-1B route provides a temporary solution to shortages in the national and domestic biotechnology labor pools, shortages that mirror the inadequate production of appropriately trained US nationals by US institutions of higher learning. The reality is that universities have inadequate resources for expanding their training pipelines, especially in specialized areas that follow the basic-research phase of company product development. Efforts should be directed toward influencing greater congressional and federal agency attention to these important topics.

As stated in the other post, I believe that the importation of talent is a temporary fix. Other nations (such as those you've mentioned in this post) are speedily advancing their own projects, and the economies of a China, a Japan, and a Singapore are going to allow and even inspire work that stays at home. For the geniuses and the merely gifted, efficiency will motivate them to stay at home. (And, perhaps nationalism as well. The "beer and pizza" comment is prescient. The Col's own thoughts on the fundamentals of cultural identity also could be brought into this present discussion.)

Your question here:

What the frick does a mandarin speaking mathematician from Shanghai or a Brahmin genetic engineer from Calcutta have to do with al Qaida ????

Which you answer with:

Secondly, an indirect benefit of having foreign, superbright, immigrants in the U.S. working on benign research is that they are not at home working on something more dangerous.

and with:

I'd rather a 185 I.Q. Chinese scientist be at Harvard trying to cure cancer than be at a PLA facility designing bioweapons. The brain drain that helps our economy also curtails on the margin the ability of other states to find new ways to wreck utter ruin.

Also tie in with your idea here:

...governments with limited resources prefer to invest them chasing the already possible, free-riding to the extent that they can on our previous efforts.

The super-brilliant brain is probably not going to invest his lifetime in finding new super-killing methods for al Qaida unless he's already a firm adherent of the jihadist philosophy; and al Qaida has no problems finding mediocre talent to build strap-on bombs or fly our aging commercial jets. al Qaida and Saudi Arabia and Iran (etc.) do not have to reinvent chemical agents and bioagents, but only acquire them; and, the people who will handle them for those regimes probably already have no intention of immigrating to the U.S. except to wreck utter ruin here.

A nation like China, on the other hand, is going to have few problems recruiting talent from its own populace even if we skim a few off the top; the generally growing affluence in other parts of the world are going to curb our ability to recruit or invite talent, anyway; so I think our long-term focus should be on improving our education & offering motivations to those living in the U.S. already (whether 1st gen immigrants, 2nd gen immigrants, or longtime residents.)

Of the supra-genius level that you mention, only one or a handful are required to make any significant innovation or breakthrough. We can entice a hundred brilliant immigrants, but the one or two with nationalist feelings (or cultural solidarity, or family that wants to stay home) we do not entice may be the one that makes the breakthrough. In S.Korea, for instance, scientists
have already made a breakthrough in cloning methods (tailoring stem cells for individuals)--I wonder if those scientists were refused entrance to the U.S. or merely wanted to work within S. Korea? Perhaps they were taught here. This kind of competition will automatically cut off the flow of "brains" into the U.S. While I certainly understand that a comprehensive program for developing talent here while soliciting the best minds from overseas would be beneficial, I think that an undue dependence on foreign talent will prove to be less efficient than a proactive development of our own talent.
 
Thank you Col, yes you did ! The enduring social aspect of human behavior is something that frequently showing up when rational choice model predictions in certain scenarios fail to come off. Of course, Thorstein Veblen pegged that a long time ago but I'm not sure he's read much these days anymore.
 
Hi Curtis,

A number of points:

Other countries are ramping up but they are far, far behind for the time being ( except Singapore which is waging a *real* biotech challenge by outbidding us in a niche field). They are trying to become *marginally more attractive to their top talent - and we seem to be helping them. The Chinese I think will someday become a genuine competitor due to their pragmatism compared to the social/political rigidities of the Europeans,Japanese and Indians

We agree on improving our own education system is a key response. However, the need for foreign help here is being driven by escalating demand as well as inadequate supply. Dismal's crutch of virtual talent is going to be used more often as you scale down the hierarchy from pure to applied science to commercial R&D.

At the top tier you will still want to gather the best of the field in clusters for the same reasons that Heisenberg's lone genius was less productive than Oppenheimer's team of geniuses. The lone Chinese star will not have the mass of an international cluster of stars ( who will go wherever the best minds gather - which I'd like to keep as America)

The South Koreans and cloning are much like the Russians with Sputnik - our inane and deliberate inhibition of research eroded our lead.

Hmmm...we seem to have lost Dan to the Blogspirit gremlins...tdaxp is down !! ( A 5GW attack ???!? ) :o)
 
I'm a little uncertain of the Col's thoughts on teaching:

1. Internet connections, for instance, provide more of a one-on-one relationship possibility than even a small physical classroom of 10 students.

2. Personal relationships are enhanced by physical proximity. However, personal relationships are also impeded by physical proximity, particularly in the classroom environment where every question and answer has an immediate set of critics (which in and of itself can be good, depending.) Various social norms, prejudices, etc., can impede the formation of a working relationship: which the "anonymity" of the Internet erases.

3. The physical environment introduces limitations: on materials on hand, time limits which break up discussions that are subsequently lost or at least degraded, etc.

In fact, I wonder if the support for physical classrooms is a bit of a holdover for teachers who want to protect their positions, salaries, tenures, etc. Some classes absolutely require a physical setting, such as labs (although I suppose remote labs might someday be as good -- I'm thinking of the remote surgery which is developing in that industry.) Various psychology courses (especially clinical psychology) require similar "labs". But an increase in student populations combined with a stagnant or slowly growing teacher population -- and economic inhibitions -- is forcing larger classrooms anyway, at least in the public education institutions. Plus, the best teachers can potentially have more effect via the Internet, thus reducing the need for large numbers of mediocre or poorly trained educators.

Mark,

I think it is quite unfortunate that our own inanities hold us back. The stem-cell issue is only the most politically visible. I also wonder if our energy policy is hurting us, in the R&D department -- but, being no scientist, I don't know the real potential for alternative sources of energy. (China's work on safer nuclear reactors -- a result of their geography and internal unrest over environmental issues -- may put them ahead of the game there.)
 
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