Alex Tabarrok

George Mason University


This conversation is closed.

Can immigration increase innovation? If so, how?

The US economy is currently stagnating. To what extent could immigration improve (or not) the economy in the short run and what about increasing innovation in the long run? I offer some arguments in my TED e-book, Launching the Innovation Renaissance. I am interested, however, in what TEDsters have to say and in particular on their experiences as both employers, immigrants and competitors!

Jan. 30, 2012, 2:00pm EST/ 11:00am PST

Closing Statement from Alex Tabarrok

Lots of good ideas came up. What struck me most was the importance of maintaining flexible institutions such as a free and open economy and schooling open to all so that immigrants are able to rise and spread throughout society and do not become confined to particular places or professions.

  • Jan 30 2012: How much human Capital do we throw away by turning away graduates of our Higher Education system each year? How much do we lose by not realizing the potential on the educational investment we have made in them?
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      Jan 30 2012: In Launching I call this a no-brainer! What sense does it make to educate foreign students in our best universities and then tell them to "go home!"

      We used to be able to throw opportunities like this away and not notice but today we must compete to obtain the best people!
  • Jan 30 2012: Immigrants have a tendency to realize that nothing comes easy in life. Unlike many of our children who are shocked to realize that they wasted their chance in their teen years. I don't know the numbers, but I imagine that,immigrant children with the same chance of education as North American children, have a higher success rate.
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    Jan 30 2012: Pedram notes "It is therefore important for societies who want to adopt or continue merit-based immigration scheme to ensure that there are inherent social and cultural mechanism for ideas that enter from the margins (where newcomers usually find themselves)."

    to which I responded:

    Having lots of immigration with a hierarchical and closed school system and workforce is a recipe for disaster. I see France as having some of these problems - they have immigration but the immigrants have difficulty integrating and joining the elite/elitist society.

    One advantage of the US is actually that we "revere" money so much - rather than family background!

    Any other ideas on how we can remain open to ideas and upward mobility?
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    Jan 30 2012: If anything that I've seen in a recent study, immigration not only increases innovation but also creates more opportunities in the economy. The U.S is wrestling with illegal immigrants but whatever action it takes against them harms those who come lawfully to the country.

    It's no longer just about granting H1-B visas (I know those are already snapped up for Indians and other Asian citizens), but it's also allowing those who have stayed a set number of years more freedom and lessing of restrictions for them to thrive and innovate across any discipline of their passion.
  • Jan 30 2012: In my perspective innovation increases with freedom and that would not be accomplished by just increasing the number of work visas. The entire immigration system needs an overhaul. It could take a professional working on H1B visa close to 7-10 years to get a Green Card, and only then a person has flexibility to change jobs, start a business of its own. But while he is waiting for the Green Card, the system acts as an obstacle for skilled and talented professionals to break free and innovate.
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    Jan 30 2012: Thanks everyone - it has been fun. More in my TED book Launching the Innovation Renaissance!
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    Jan 30 2012: And you think that most Americans can? Trees have brown trunks and green leaves. I understand that there is political repression, and there are places on the globe without labs and... My point is not that political repression is not real, but rather that there are so many forces conniving to keep us from expressing our wholeness, and that they take a change of mindset and a bigness of spirit to unleash, not bureacratic documents. Yes, people need to mingle freely to share ideas expansively to love whole heartedly and to find solutions to what seems are intractable dilemnas. But is the best way to achieve this to increase immigration? maybe. I support you in taking that tract. I will take another. All's good.
  • Jan 30 2012: Everyone is an immigrant to the place he/she was born. Everyone who travels is an innovator of a new life.
  • Jan 30 2012: Is it safe to say that the fear that immigrants will displace domestic workers is based on lump of labour fallacy?
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      Jan 30 2012: Mostly - the evidence is quite strong that the US labor market can absorb lots of immigrants without displacing jobs and without lowering wages by much if at all. In a recession the argument is better for potential problems but in a recession we also want to increase demand, e.g. demand for housing, so recessions cut both ways.
  • Jan 30 2012: Hi Alex ,
    What do you mean with "advanced degrees "?

  • Jan 30 2012: Interesting points made here. Michio Kaku would go so far to say that the US study permit is the only thing preventing the US from an innovation meltdown. - I think the same goes for Canada except in the form of the PR Card and post graduation work permit. Still much more needs to be done while Canada and the US is still attractive to foreign students and professionals. The number one destination for Korean and Japanese graduate students today - is not the US, UK or Canada - It is China....
  • Jan 30 2012: I once read a book called "the millionaire next door", in which the authors, mentioning some researches, claim that immigrants are more likely to be rich (by hard work) than native Americans.
  • Jan 30 2012: Alex Said:
    "One advantage of the US is actually that we "revere" money so much - rather than family background!
    Any other ideas on how we can remain open to ideas and upward mobility?"

    Reduce the paper-wall that de Soto talks about. Its a pretty strong barrier against those at the bottom rising. This means starting a business, complying with taxes, etc should be really really simple.
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      Jan 30 2012: Yes, we are actually pretty good compared to the rest of the world on starting a small business but I agree that it is getting worse and we could do without so many licensing and entry restrictions on entering jobs.
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    Jan 30 2012: I don't know if the US is as bad as Canada for this habit, but if we invite the "best and the brightest" from other nations into the country (and actively pursue them at that) then we should bloody well let them work in their area of expertise.

    Otherwise there is no point in attempting to compensate for any 'brain drain' through immigration.

    Also, culturally, US/Canada are more open to new ideas, but if there are barrier to actually enacting/physically realizing those ideas, then it's just lip service and will hasten the decline.
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    Jan 30 2012: Well said Mr. Alex, as now a day’s world is focusing on generating a jobs and opportunities for the people. To talk about PAKISTAN my country, now there is more stress in universities level on Entrepreneurs and most of university students rather to worry about jobs in the situation of economies up and down, they are working different projects that create jobs and most of them are doing well in it...
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      Jan 30 2012: Does India's example help or hurt Pakistan? Do you see any positive signs in Pakistan towards more openness and innovation?
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        Jan 30 2012: Mr Alex , No not a tall as India is also moving up in the field of innovation and we have learn good things from where ever it comes from to get inspired and one thing i mentioned you that student of university comprising of three groups going to India NEW Delhi to defend their Business Plan as they are winner of ALL TIE Asian Business Competition and to talk about positive change Prime Minister of Pakistan also appreciate their efforts and announced a programs of Business Plan competition will going to be happen in Pakistan and to motivate and complete assistance will be provided for the winner to launch their idea.
  • Jan 30 2012: I agree with Alex.

    As an immigration attorney who handles mostly corporate immigration, and has helped many scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers and researchers come to the U.S., I have seen first hand how they have innovated in the past and in the U.S. once they get here. Our corporate immigration policies limiting these people from coming to the country puts us at a severe disadvantage.

    This example has been frequently used, but Steve Jobs dad was an immigrant. If he had been discouraged from coming to the U.S. as a foreign student, one of the greatest innovators of our time might have been born in Syria.

    Murali Bashyam, Esq.
  • Jan 30 2012: Although I have no academic insight into the subject, I have some personal experience as a child of immigrants (and an immigrant on several occasions). To have innovation through immigration relies on the immigrants skills and capabilities combined with the host society's willingness to accommodate new outlooks and ways of doing things (I don't merely refer to cultural accommodation, even though cultural perception precedes any other form of engagement) I don't think it is possible to look at one aspect while ignoring the other. It is therefore important for societies who want to adopt or continue merit-based immigration scheme to ensure that there are inherent social and cultural mechanism for ideas that enter from the margins (where newcomers usually find themselves).
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      Jan 30 2012: this is an excellent point. Lots of immigration with a hierarchical and closed school system and workforce is a recipe for disaster. I see France as having some of these problems - they have immigration but the immigrants have difficulty integrating and joining the elite/elitist society.

      One advantage of the US is actually that we "revere" money so much - rather than family background!

      Any other ideas on how we can remain open to ideas?
  • Jan 30 2012: What to you think about Thomas Sowell's concern that large influxes of people with different attitudes could be disruptive. For example, something can be a crime in American law but not a crime in the country from where the immigrant is coming from. Some people think US should accommodate those discrepancies...
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      Jan 30 2012: I do think culture is important so I don't rule out problems of this kind. In particular, it's vital the US continue to have a culture of liberty, free markets, and individualism. Immigrants often have these values in spades!

      People also worry about immigrants using welfare. I would be happy to have more immigrants but say they can't use welfare for five years even after becoming a citizen. This would be better all around if it allowed more people to enter.
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    Jan 30 2012: I don't live in the US but where I live (Finland), because of different factors, happens something similar. There's two types of "immigrants". The highly skilled workforce that either moved here because of a job in the Tech, Science or Engineering areas or for marrying a Finn (my case). Or the refugees that come from missions in Africa where Finland aid is very active.

    In my case I believe that I bring a different perspective of life and working experience and for these facts alone I create innovation.
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      Jan 30 2012: How does Finland integrate the lower-skilled workers? Is the school system becoming strained?
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        Jan 30 2012: Finland as a system of integration for immigrants without skills that will depend on government help, and the base of this is trough teaching the language and a professional skill, during an introductory year, where they are payed.
  • Jan 30 2012: Preaching to the choir in my case, and probably in the case of much of the TED audience.

    Have you ever found that one particular way of framing the issue makes more converts?
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      Jan 30 2012: The case is easy to make for high-skill immigrants but more difficult to make for low-skill immigrants but here is something that I say in Launching the Innovation Renaissance (my TED book) that I must admit I am quite proud of:

      "Low-skill immigration can even increase innovation because it helps highly skilled workers to better use their time and skills. A low-skilled worker who mows a physicist's lawn is indirectly helping to unlock the mysteries of the universe."
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    Jan 30 2012: I think it is simplistic to believe that any one thing such as allowing more legal immigration will tip the balance toward more effective innovation. Innovation is brought about by brilliancy -- the full embodiment of an individual's capabilities, including their acknowledgement of their talents and eagerness to share these with others. Some who immigrate will bring all their talents and their abilities to engage with others to find fruitful expression of their abilities with others and within society. Some won't. I believe what is needed is to find ways to support people in connecting with the luminous qualities within themselves and sharing these qualities with others, be they immigrants, folks standing in welfare lines, CEOs jetting around the world, or cubicle dwellers answering yet another call-line ring tone.
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      Jan 30 2012: Right but most immigrants are coming from countries where they cannot fully express their talents and abilities so when they come to the United States they can do much more than if they stayed in their original country.
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    Jan 30 2012: I think immigration can lead to an increase in innovation. Not automagically, but diversity is very important to innovation and finding innovating solutions.

    We (the world) need different people from different walks of life to provide completely different perspectives to a problem. Innovative solutions needed will vary from culture to culture and immigrants inform us of those differences. However, without decent education and a government willing to listen, let alone access for immigrants to be able to provide feedback for innovation, immigration cannot increase innovation.
  • Jan 30 2012: Immigration may be viewed negatively by some countries but truth be told most immigrants bring new challenges to their host communities. I refer to challenges in a positive way. Most immigrants naturally have to work very hard to survive in their new communities, often times even harder than the original citizens and this creates a sense of insecurity in the minds of the citizens and as a challenge they put in extra effort which is a good thing. Governments also feel insecure when immigrants obviously work harder than their citizens and this leads to many bizarre laws in countries around the world to protect citizens, which in way ends up making them lazier. Looking at immigration through my eyes, its a positive thing that should be encouraged. And in the process, we will be making the world a better place through cross cultural exchanges and increasing tolerance to one another irrespective of race, religion or what ever affiliations we may have.
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      Jan 30 2012: Right! One of the interesting things about the response to immigrants in the U.S. is that people are much more concerned and even anti-immigrant in places where there aren't many immigrants! In places where there are lots of immigrants the concern is actually less, so in this case familiarity breeds contentment.
  • Jan 30 2012: Economic growth and increased U.S. innovation depends on increased immigration. More available labor increases the number of jobs available and, thus, economic growth. The U.S. should be making it easier for immigrants to legally join workforce. Immigrants bring with them different skills than are available in the native worker pool, and with a variety of skills, employers are able to create a variety of jobs and place native workers in jobs that are more suited to them. Furthermore, by making legal immigration easier, the quality of work, quality of conditions, and quality of wages go up, as immigrants are more likely to contest poor conditions or wages if they have legal recourse to do so.

    As per innovation, we should be giving immigrants a path through higher education in the U.S., and handing out green cards with every degree earned, as immigrants are more inclined to start a business or apply for a patent than their native counterparts, which would directly contribute to economic and innovative growth. If we gave non-natives an easier way to legally immigrate, attend college and stay in the U.S. with that earned college education, innovation would directly increase, as well.
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      Jan 30 2012: Exactly right! I would also say that there is also a short-term benefit now in that we have lots of houses that could use more people to live in them!
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    Jan 30 2012: Well Mr.Alex Tabarrok i think innovation has no boundaries. If someone migrate from one place to another it helps him/her to learn some new thing, as people always learn from travelling and generate some new ideas which can be either short or long run project.
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      Jan 30 2012: Yes, traveling is a great way not only to see how things are done in other ways but also to stimulate oneself and get out of a rut.

      On immigration, the United States is in a lucky position that innovative people in other countries do not have the same opportunities as they would have in the United States to exercise their talents so immigration is a win for the immigrants and for us.

      We are fast loosing that advantage, however, as other countries are becoming better places to innovate. US must now compete for immigrants but we don't seem to know this yet!
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    Jan 30 2012: Every year, we allow approximately 140,000 employment visas, which cover people of extraordinary ability, professionals with advanced degrees, and other skilled workers. The number is absurdly low for a country with a workforce of 150 million. As a result, it can be years, even decades, before a high-skilled individual is granted a U.S. visa. Moreover, these 140,000 visas must also cover the spouse and unmarried children of the high-skilled worker, so the actual number of high-skilled workers admitted under these programs is less than half of the total.

    I recently wrote that "Increasing high-skill immigration is such a win-win policy for increasing innovation that it's tempting to call it a no-brainer. Instead, "no-brainer" turns out to be a better description of our current policy."