The global ascendance of India as an economic power, technology hub and a source of professional talent will create major opportunities for Indian and multinational businesses alike. But this development has also injected a not-insignificant measure of zero-sum thinking into US-India economic affairs, especially in the area of human capital. These contradictory themes are a growing source of irritation, but if managed smartly could also be a good opportunity for advancing the bilateral relationship.
These contradictions have been in full view in recent months. Last year saw the rise of a populist anti-India backlash as Americans increasingly blamed the country for their economic hardships. Election campaigns trafficked in the outsourcing issue, Congress enacted heavy India-specific fee hikes on the H-1B temporary visa program for skilled foreign workers, and President Obama called for tightening tax penalties on corporate outsourcing in language that pitted U.S. prosperity against that of India’s.
Yet when Mr. Obama arrived in India for a state visit last November, his rhetoric markedly shifted. The country was now portrayed as an economic opportunity too golden to pass up; indeed, the main purpose of his visit seemed to be securing as many commercial deals for American companies as possible. In an address to Indian corporate leaders in Mumbai, he emphasized that “in our interconnected world, increased commerce between the United States and India can be and will be a win-win proposition for both nations. I realize that for some, this truth may not be readily apparent.” For good measure, he added that “there still exists a caricature of India as a land of call centers and back offices that cost American jobs. But these old stereotypes, these old concerns ignore today’s reality.”
The antinomies of the bilateral economic relationship similarly were on display in Obama’s State of the Union address in January. He cited the growth of science and technology capacity in China and India as a threat to America’s competitive edge, while also acknowledging that continued U.S. prosperity requires greater access to the human capital originating from both countries. The success of U.S. enterprises engaged in the advanced technology sectors Mr. Obama identified in his address as key to “winning the future” will increasingly depend on access to the global reservoir of skilled professionals, of which India is a major contributor. The president admitted as much when he criticized the self-defeating nature of U.S. immigration policy: “[Students] come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.”
The President has regularly sounded off on this latter theme, most recently in a series of events over the last month aimed at reviving the issue of immigration reform. In a speech in El Paso earlier this month, for example, he noted that:
[W]e provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States. So instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs in America, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can get – not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contributions will benefit all Americans.
The President added that “We don’t want the next Intel or Google to be created in China or India. We want those companies and jobs to take root in America.”*
Obama’s remarks picks up a proposal he made during the last presidential campaign to create a “fast track” mechanism allowing foreign students with advanced technical degrees from U.S. institutions to receive an employment-based visa. At present, 20,000 H-1B visas are reserved for such graduates – many of whom are Indian – though demand greatly eclipses this number.
Although immigration policy remains a hotly-contested issue, the adverse consequences of limiting U.S. access to foreign-born skilled labor are widely acknowledged. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, is at the head of a broad group of civic and business leaders calling for a job-creation strategy based on visa reform.
The United States has been able to maintain its global preeminence in no small part due to the influx of foreign science and engineering professionals and graduate students. Immigrants comprise nearly half of the science and engineering workforce holding PhD degrees. High-skilled immigrants are a significant driving force of American prosperity and innovation, most famously in building the information technology industry. Research indicates, for instance, that Indian immigrant entrepreneurs play a leading role in founding some of the most dynamic high-tech companies. Studies also point to the valuable entrepreneurial streak immigrants possess: They are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than native-born Americans, and foreign-born university graduates are some three-times more likely to file patent applications than US-born citizens.
Foreign-born scientific and engineering talent – particularly Indian – is an important pillar of the faculties in America’s top universities. And foreign students earn the majority of engineering doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities, and of this number a large percentage opt to remain in the country for some period of time. Their presence, along with other high-skilled immigrants, has helped the U.S. technology workforce expand at a faster rate than the United States is graduating native-born scientists and engineers.
America’s dependence on foreign-born technology professionals will shortly become all the greater. Since younger native-born workers tend to lack the skill levels of their baby boomer parents now nearing retirement age, the United States could face broad and substantial skill shortages in the coming decade. Thus, the United States should be promoting greater access to the global talent pool, and India is a good place to start.
With India a major source of high-skill professionals and the U.S. needing to draw on foreign talent to fortify its own science and engineering workforce, both countries have a keen mutual interest in cooperating in the area of human capital, the most critical resource in the dawning global innovation economy. To this end, Washington and New Delhi should conclude a bilateral agreement guaranteeing a set number of temporary work visas for high-skill Indian professionals. The United States has crafted bilateral agreements with a select number of other countries that could serve as a template, including the TN temporary visa program (created via the North American Free Trade Agreement) that exempts qualified Canadian and Mexican professionals from the annual quota on H-1B work permits.
Admittedly, important constituencies in both countries regard the global talent pool as a zero-sum equation. In the United States, some argue that increased mobility of foreign high-skill workers will displace or depress wages of native professionals. The empirical evidence, however, suggests that greater numbers of talented immigrants actually supports job creation in the United States and that immigrant entrepreneurs complement rather than crowd out native-born counterparts.
India likewise would stand to benefit from the increased mobility of its technology professionals. Instead of causing “brain drain,” the global innovation economy is actually generating “brain circulation” or a “brain chain,” in which expatriate talent returns home with acquired capital, skills and knowledge, as well as personal links to transnational entrepreneurial and technological networks. Obviously, some of the high-skill Indians who benefit from the bilateral immigration accord will choose to remain permanently in the United States, though they would in time contribute a significant stream of remittance income and serve an important bridging function between Indian innovators and entrepreneurs and those in other countries. But others, empowered by new ideas and experiences, will return in time and play a direct role in the nation’s development; indeed, this process is already underway (see here and here).
The United States and India are prime constituents in the brain circulation process. Far from seeing access to the global talent pool as a competitive proposition, the interdependency of their skills base requires them to act in a cooperative, synergistic way. Doing so not only makes sound economic sense for both countries, but would also strengthen the foundation of US-India relations.
* Ironically, as Mr. Obama was uttering these words, the Indian science minister was lamenting that the country’s lack of innovation infrastructure keeps India from producing companies like Google and Blackberry.