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All posts by Ben Miller

Immigrant STEM Workers Increase Everyone’s Wages

We’ve posted recently about how our current immigration policy is hurting Silicon Valley. But when the United States lets in more immigrants, what happens? Often it’s not what you would expect.

A new NBER paper by economists at the University of California Davis and Colgate University studies the effect of skilled H1-B immigrants in STEM occupations on more than 200 cities across the country. In cities with more STEM immigrants, wages for college-educated workers went up 7-8 percentage points, wages for non-college-educated workers went up about half as much, and there was no significant effect on employment.

Why this counterintuitive result? Economics 101 says that when the supply of something grows, the price should decrease, not increase. As is too often true, however, Economics 101 in this case tells us very little about the real world. Figuring out cause and effect in many types of markets, particularly labor markets, is tough because economies are not as simple as the textbook models might have you believe.

What actually happens is that when immigrants enter an economy, they do more than just offer their labor at a (potentially) lower price. They increase

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New Government Report Confirms Benefits of Digital Trade

The digital economy has been a major boon to U.S. domestic and international trade, as is documented by a new report by the United States International Trade Commission entitled Digital Trade in the U.S. and Global Economies (summary here). And even though the report shows important benefits from digital trade, those benefits are likely understated. This is because the report limited its analysis to “digitally intensive” sectors, which means that its numbers exclude contributions from firms that only use digital trade as a smaller part of their business.

Still, digital trade has made quite an impact: the report estimates that digital trade has raised real U.S. GDP by $517.1-$710.7 billion (3.4−4.8 percent) by increasing productivity and lowering the costs of trade. By raising GDP, digital trade increased average wages, and the increased wages likely contributed to increased employment by as much as 2.4 million jobs.

Within digitally intensive industries (and likely within many non-digitally intensive industries, although the report focused on the former), the internet has come to play a major role in everyday commerce. Firms in these industries sell nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of goods and services

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Worry About Slow Productivity Growth, Not Fast Productivity Growth

U.S. productivity growth is stagnating, and if the trend continues it could have a drastic impact on the U.S. economy. Without increasing productivity, the only way for a country to get richer is by working more or borrowing more. Furthermore, productivity is a crucial part of international competitiveness, because it is only by increasing our productivity that we can compete with other countries on cost.

A recent BLS news release does a good job of showing the worrying trends. Productivity growth has been abnormally low since approximately 2006, plummeting through the Great Recession, recovering slightly immediately afterward, and slowing considerably since 2010.

The first graph below (Chart 1) provides historical context back to 2000. There is a clear decline in labor productivity (the dark blue line) and also multifactor productivity (light blue). These are the two most common ways of understanding output growth: labor productivity estimates how much each worker produces and multifactor productivity tells us how much each worker and unit of capital can together invest.

Looking back a bit further in time, the next graph (Chart 2) estimates the amount that different factors contributed to total productivity growth.

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No, Immigrants are Not Stealing Our Jobs

It doesn’t take long to get the drift of a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan, anti-immigration think tank. The title basically sums it up: “All Employment Growth Since 2000 Went to Immigrants.” The only question left to the reader is, why they didn’t simply title it “Immigrants stole all of our jobs”?

Perhaps it’s because immigrants didn’t steal our jobs, and the authors have no evidence that they did, but they’re doing their best to insinuate that they do.

Their main findings certainly look surprising at first blush: immigrant employment has increased significantly since 2000, but native employment has not increased at all, despite the fact that native population has increased twice as much as immigrant employment. It seems like a closed case: all the new jobs went to immigrants, therefore we should decrease immigration.

If only it were that simple. As intuitive as it might seem to argue that a job is a job and an unemployed person is an unemployed person, this is not how economies work. The Center makes a mistake common to many casual observers of the labor market: what economists

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Where Do New Products Come From? Insights from a new study of innovation in manufacturing

A recent NBER working paper offers up some interesting new survey data on innovation in U.S. manufacturing industries. Authors Ashish Arora, Wesley M. Cohen, and John P. Walsh surveyed more than 5000 U.S. manufacturing firms in 2010, asking whether or not they brought new products to market in the previous three years.

Most notably, the data shows that the number of truly innovative manufacturing firms is relatively small. In the aggregate, it finds that 43 percent of firms introduced new products in the past three years, but only 18 percent of firms introduced new products that were wholly new to their market. In other words, one quarter of firms, and more than half of firms introducing new products, introduced “imitation” products following the lead of other companies. The percent of firms introducing totally new products ranged significantly between industries, from just 10 percent of firms in the “Wood” and the “Metals” industries, to 44 percent in the “Instruments” industry.

The survey also breaks down the results in a number of interesting ways, including where the innovations originated. It finds that the most common source of innovation is customers. This is

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New Paper Confirms Growth Benefits of R&D

Productivity is one of the most fundamental determinants of our income and overall wellbeing, so the question of where productivity growth comes from is extremely important. There are many different ways to increase productivity, but increases that have a continued impact over time are the most important because accumulated productivity increases end up having a much larger impact than one-off changes.

Economists have understood for years that R&D is an important source of productivity growth. However, it hasn’t been entirely clear whether R&D affects productivity growth in short, one-time boosts, or whether it raises growth rates for longer periods.

A new paper by Italian economists Antonio Minniti and Francesco Venturini looks at data from the U.S. manufacturing sector and concludes that R&D policies have indeed created “persistent, if not permanent” changes in the rate of productivity growth. It also drills down into the type of R&D spending, finding that only R&D tax credits have a long-term impact on the growth rate while R&D subsidies provide just a temporary boost.

These results are good news for both the economy and for policymakers because they show the powerful impact that innovation policies

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STEM Immigrants Help Raise Local Wages

The H-1B visa program, which allows a limited number of high-skilled workers to work in the United States temporarily, is controversial because some claim that it lowers wages for high-skilled workers. However, a new paper by Peri, Shih, and Sparber of UC Davis and Colgate University shows just the opposite—that additional H-1B visa recipients raise wages in cities where they come to work.

The authors’ interest in immigration is a side effect of their interest in a more general labor market question: they use fluctuations in high-skill immigration due to the H-1B visa program as an instrument to examine whether the supply of STEM workers affects productivity growth. In essence the question is, what happens when you increase the amount of high-skill STEM workers: do wages fall as one would assume in a standard supply/demand framework? Or do they increase because of the effect that the high-skill workers have on productivity, demand for innovative workers, and economic growth?

To answer this question you can’t simply look at the amount of STEM workers in a city and average wages for those workers, because you can’t tell which way causality is going.

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If Manufacturing Employment is Dead Then Take a Look at China’s Zombie Apocalypse

Policy-making relies on narratives, and narratives often come from data. Or claim that they do. One story often told by economists—by everyone from Dani Rodrik to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee to James Kynge to Laurence Summers—is that China’s manufacturing sector has been shedding workers since the mid-1990s. This story leads us to believe that something like this is happening:


This argument ends up as a morality tale with serious policy implications: if even China, manufacturing powerhouse with wages developed countries cannot hope to compete with, is losing manufacturing jobs, then surely manufacturing jobs are obsolete and the U.S. is foolish to try to maintain them—let alone get them back.

Unfortunately, this story is based on a gross misreading of inaccurate evidence. There are three major problems. First, even based on a simplistic look at the data, it’s flat out wrong. Take a look at this chart that shows the actual manufacturing employment in China. (You may note that this chart only goes back to 1998, and that the peak of employment  underlying most claims was in 1996—more on that in a bit.)


Strangely enough this graph looks nothing

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Robert Gordon’s Cassandra World

The Federal Trade Commission has rules about unfair and deceptive advertising.   Too bad they don’t apply to academic papers, because if they did Robert Gordon would be facing an FTC inquiry.   His new Cassandra-like paper, “The Demise of U.S. Economic Growth”, has little to do with U.S. economic growth.   Rather it is focused on other factors like transfer payments, taxes, and income inequality.  He should have titled his missive “The Demise of Robust After-Tax Income Growth for Low and Moderate Income U.S. Workers.”   But that’s nowhere near as catchy as his chosen title.

Gordon’s new NBER paper restates his slow-growth forecasts from two years ago, which come in turn from his long tradition of dismissing the potential of technology to drive productivity. This time he is careful to label his more controversial “growth headwinds” (slower innovation and continued globalization) as “speculative”.  Still, he fails to make a more convincing argument for an overall growth slowdown. This is partly due to his reliance on assumptions about education, inequality, and globalization, coupled with a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of 21st century innovation. But it also

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ITIF hosts Dr. William Janeway

Economist, venture capitalist, and co-founder of the Institute for New Economic Thinking Dr. William Janeway stopped by ITIF this week for a discussion about his new book, Doing Capitalism in an Innovation Economy. Dr. Janeway presented a compelling view of the economy and touched on a number of important issues along the way.

Janeway explained that the government plays a critical role in innovation by providing research funding through institutions such as DARPA and the NIH, by leveraging the buying power of the federal coffers, and by creating policies that encourage business investment in R&D. Economists have long understood that private markets fail to allocate adequate resources to innovation and research: the benefits are too hard for individual corporations to capture. For this reason, policies like the R&D tax credit and public investment in basic research have long been uncontroversial.

Contrary to what recent high-profile failures like Solyndra might lead people to believe, government policies to spur innovation in the United States have had great success. This is apparent in the vast amount of money the private sector has poured into IT and Biotech businesses based on initial

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