Are You Listening?…Plastics

After two pages of jeremiad on the state of the American economy, Mort Zuckerman produces the advice promised by the title of his op-ed, “How to Get Americans Working Again”:

We must have programs that create some degree of confidence America can be rebuilt, and jobs with it. I have written before of the benefits that would flow from a national infrastructure bank. The unemployed have to be supported, but it would be better if the financial support employed labor in rational, long-term, major infrastructure projects. These wouldn’t be entitlement programs but regeneration programs. Infrastructure projects—broadband Internet access across the nation, restoring decaying bridges and canals, building high-speed railways, modern airports, sewage plants, ports—have the highest multiplier for employment.


The second proposal would be to enhance technology, the area of our greatest strength. We are depriving ourselves of productive talent by a fearful attitude toward immigration. We make it hard for bright people to come and we make it hard for them to stay, so once they have graduated from our universities they go home to work for our competitors. This is not the way to run a railway. Foreign students are a significant proportion of those with graduate degrees in the hard sciences in American universities. We should restore the quotas for H-1B visas to 195,000 annually. This has been blocked by shortsighted special-interest groups that fear jobs will be taken from Americans.

His first proposal has a problem that I’ve pointed out before here: this isn’t the 1930’s. We don’t do civil construction projects like bridges, high-speed rail, airports, and so on by rounding up a bunch of guys with shovels. There are feasibility studies, environmental impact statements, RFP’s, proposals, bids. A relative handful of people using heavy equipment who work for a remarkably small number of (well-connected) companies do the real construction work. Very few jobs would actually be created by these projects although it’s possible they would be worth doing for the residual benefits they provide.

And as for broadband Internet connectivity most of the jobs created by a mass program to provide it across the country would be provided in China to the folks who build the telecommunications and networking equipment that would be required. Although the idea might conjure up images of running telegraph lines across the country or laying the first trans-Atlantic cable, that’s not how it would work. It wouldn’t employ 1% of the people who are out of work and those it would employ it wouldn’t employ for long.

Increasing the number of H-1B visas is even less direct. If doing so drove down the wages of engineers and scientists in the fields in which we were importing the workers, the increased economic efficiency might produce a few more jobs. It would also discourage American students from studying science or engineering. American students aren’t choosing finance and life sciences over chemical and mechanical engineering because they’re lazy but because that’s where the jobs are. For most of the 2000’s the number of electrical engineering jobs being produced was roughly equal to the number of H-1B visas for electrical engineers being issued (check the IEEE’s web site—they’re my source for this). During that period the unemployment rate for electrical engineers was the highest it had been since they started keeping track of such things. There were plenty of unemployed EE’s.

So, Mr. Zuckerman, I’m still waiting for the answer to the question. I need more than just the one word.

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment