Six Americans won Nobel Prizes in the sciences this year—and all of them are immigrants. The Huffington Post reports:
The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to F. Duncan M. Haldane, J. Michael Kosterlitz and David J. Thouless for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” All three were born in the U.K. and went on to work at universities in the U.S. (Dr. Thouless retired in 2003.)
Only one American made the list for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (along with two Europeans): Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, also originally from the U.K, “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”
And in the field of economic sciences, once again immigrants reign. Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström, originally from the U.K and Finland, respectively, both won the Nobel Prize “for their contributions to contract theory.” Holmström holds a position at MIT; Hart is a professor at Harvard.
This is great news, and a credit to both the scientists and the nation. But in a year when immigration fights have been at the center of the presidential race the political implications have been impossible to resist. A tweet by Princeton economist Atif Mian noting the news garnered 28,000 retweets and 35,000 likes. The Wall Street Journal, sarcastically echoing Donald Trump, editorialized, “You might even say these Nobel winners are pouring across the border. We’re glad they came.” And several of the prizewinners themselves have spoken to the media on the importance of immigration and the desirability of loosening up the system or even of “open borders.”
Insofar as this news is being used to push back on sweeping characterization of immigrants and immigration per se as a negative force, good. Donald Trump has changed his policy position on immigration more often than his underwear this summer, but he’s spent a lot of time on the far side of the line that separates respectable if controversial anti-illegal immigration policy stances from anti-immigrant bigotry. And news out of Britain recently, where foreign academics are being told not to submit advice on Brexit and where companies will be forced to list the number of foreign workers they employ, shows just how quickly nativist populism can become destructive and self-defeating: The Brexiteers could strangle the knowledge economy on which Britain will now depend. Conversely, America’s scientific history, like much of the rest of our history, is rich with the stories of immigrants, from Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi to the 31 American Nobel winners in chemistry, medicine, or physics since 2000 who, per the WSJ, were immigrants.
But when you try to draw broader political or policy lessons out of the Nobel Prize story, things become trickier. To start with the obvious, most immigrants do not resemble Nobel Prize winners, and America’s contemporary immigration fights by and large do not concern holders of advanced degrees at the top of their fields. Most of the current friction comes over the continued mass immigration of low-skilled workers. Trying to insist too strongly on an identification of all types of immigration can lead to all-or-nothing fights that are starting to sweep in legal immigration and could eventually lead to a 1924-style immigration shutdown.
Instead, the Nobel story can be better read as a lesson about what a 21st-century immigration system should look like. America attracts talented, skilled, and qualified immigrants from every nation, race, and gender on earth. How many of them face more barriers than they should? Why do universities, or Silicon Valley companies, or Wall Street firms, all of whom depend on the free flow of high-end talent in a globalized world, have to jump through so many bureaucratic hoops to connect willing employees with willing employers? In large part because we’re stuck with an antiquated, Blue Model system that manages to be too small and too big at the same time: It’s geared to let in mass low-skilled labor for a market that no longer needs it, while the checks that it does impose are too constrictive on the hyper-dynamic, highly-productive upper reaches of a knowledge economy.
Fixing this will be vital, as a mounting pile of evidence attests. Take a look, for instance, at this news from the Harvard Business Review:
Immigrants constitute 15% of the general U.S. workforce, but they account for around a quarter of U.S. entrepreneurs (which we define as the top three initial earners in a new business). This is comparable to what we see in innovation and patent filings, where immigrants also account for about a quarter of U.S. inventors.
The figure below shows that this immigrant share of entrepreneurship has been increasing dramatically since the mid-1990s, when the immigrant share of founders was closer to 17%. This rise in immigrant contributions to entrepreneurship is sharper than the rise in the immigrant share of all employees in new firms. You can also see that, in total, 35%-40% of new firms have at least one immigrant entrepreneur connected to the firm’s creation.
Immigrants also comprise 31 percent of venture capital-backed firms’ founders—the set from which the Googles and Facebooks of the future are most likely to arise. It seems reasonable to conclude that not only do we need high-skill immigrants, but that easing their path in would be one of the better ways to boost our economy. But the days of doing this simply by increasing overall flow are, from a political point of view, at an end.
And yet, there’s reason for hope. One way to break out of our current immigration stalemate is to redefine what we’re all arguing about: trade reductions in mass unskilled immigration (which would protect Americans most vulnerable to the shifts in our economy) for the reforms our modern economy needs much more (greater flow and more efficiency at the top). This in turn could be balanced with much-needed reforms that would assist in nuclear family reunification at all levels of the economic ladder, as well as attention to refugee needs.
This can’t be done with half-thought-out virtue signaling, as was on display in the Journal’s editorial. It is important in any policy debate to grab the public’s imagination, of course, and the Nobel story does just that. But the point at which that is sufficient as well as necessary—the days of policy-making by meme, by feeling—must end. We need more.