I’m a life-long Democrat, but one aspect of the Democratic party message that has at times bothered me in recent years is the tendency towards protectionism. It was one of the things (among many) that annoyed me about John Kerry’s campaign, and I was somewhat relieved that Obama wielded this axe a bit more lightly during his campaign, at least after Iowa (notice how most of that talk about NAFTA disappeared too?).
During a bad recession with spiralling unemployment, of course, any earlier caution we might have seen from politicians regarding protectionism is going to be in danger. Congressional politicians from both parties are increasingly turning to populist language to ensure their own political survival. And the easiest group to pick on politically in recent years, by both Republicans and Democrats, has been immigrants, since they can’t vote anyway.
As many readers may already be aware, the recent American economic stimulus bill contained explicit language concerning foreign workers in the U.S.:
The stimulus bill contained the Employ American Workers Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). They say that they are worried that laid-off Americans struggling to find work are being displaced by foreign junior investment analysts, computer programmers and corporate lawyers who accept a fraction of the pay commanded by Americans.
“This H-1B program is a sweetheart deal for employers, in many instances, to be able to gain cheap labor from abroad,” Sanders, the son of a Polish immigrant, said in a telephone interview. “Immigration made this country great. But ask those American laid-off workers if they want $40,000-a-year engineers from Russia or India taking the place of an American engineer who would earn $80,000 a year. I don’t think anyone is going to tell me with a straight face that they can’t find some of that American talent right here on the unemployment lines.” (link)
Actually, Senator Sanders, I’m perfectly happy to tell you, with a straight face, that American IT companies are deeply dependent on foreign workers, whose positions could not easily be filled by American counterparts. Also, I can assure you that are not thousands of unemployed American software engineers on unemployment because Indian and Russian engineers in the U.S. are getting paid $40,000. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that H-1B engineers from India are getting paid considerably more than $40,000 a year on average.
The clampdown on foreign workers is also occurring in financial institutions, especially those that are getting federal bailout money:
During the past several months, the largest banks in the United States have announced 100,000 job cuts, Sanders said. Those same banks, which are receiving $150 billion in a taxpayer-funded bailout package, requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers over the past six years for positions such as senior vice presidents, corporate lawyers and human resources specialists, Sanders said, citing an Associated Press review of visa applications that the banks filed with the Labor Department.
As the economy worsened last year and employees were laid off, the number of visas sought by the dozen banks in the AP analysis increased by nearly a third, from 3,258 in fiscal 2007 to 4,163 in fiscal 2008.
What do readers make of the growing drift towards protectionism in American political discourse? How do you feel about the “Employ American Workers Act”? Are there effective ways to counter protectionist thinking during a recession? And: have any of these changes affected you or someone you know personally?
As a side note, I have heard some talking heads on TV–I forget who–arguing that in fact one possibly effective way to counter the housing slump might actually be an increase in high-skilled immigration: highly skilled immigrants in well-paying jobs might eventually start buying up all those empty condos everywhere. But that seems like kind of a strange argument to make right now, since, really, it seems like no one is hiring.
Also see: this Forum thread on the Employ American Workers Act at Immigration Voice. And here is an earlier SM post of mine related to the plight of Indian H-1B workers.