Responses to “How to Lose the Brain Race”


The New York Times has run three letters today in response to Michael Lind’s and my recent op-ed, “How to Lose the Brain Race.”
My friend Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a new blogger at “Beat the Press“, sent one of the three published responses.
Senator Dianne Feinstein had one of the others.
The Senator’s response is fascinating because while she asserts that she is suggesting a “balanced” approach to immigration policy — she simply reasserts what her two provisions do: first allows a large stream of agricultural workers and secondly, doubles the fee for foreign students applying to American universities.
Here is the bulk of Senator Feinstein’s response:

Steven Clemons and Michael Lind argue that my additions to the immigration reform package “sent a message to the rest of the world: send us your brawn, not your brains.”
In truth, I support a balanced policy — including an agriculture workers program and increasing numbers of high-tech visas.
The agriculture industry cannot today hire the American workers it needs. That’s why I sponsored a bipartisan amendment providing undocumented agriculture workers with an opportunity to earn a green card if they continue working in agriculture. This program would provide them an opportunity to come out of the shadows.
I also support a program to allow foreign students to work in science, technology, engineering and math. But I believe we should ensure that American students get the training they need to compete in these fields.
So I proposed increasing the cost of the visas, with the funds going for scholarships for American students.
Mr. Clemons and Mr. Lind suggest a choice must be made between agriculture workers and foreign students. They are wrong. This is not an either-or issue.

The fact is that foreign student applications to American universities are far below pre-9/11 levels. The fees involved are not the only deterrents — but the complicated and intimidating student visa interview process for students from non-visa waivered nations is unpredictable and frequently demeaning.
Doubling these fees, which the Senator argues will help fund American scholarships, only aggravates America’s image problem in the world.
I’m sure that Senator Feinstein does believe that her approach is balanced — but it’s not.
A balanced policy would involve doing much more to remove the speed bumps to smart, balanced people coming to this country and either eventually legally immigrating or going back to their own countries with some of America’s DNA.
If the Senator would like to discuss what that sort of policy might entail, I would be happy to work with her — as I think that sort of vision is far more consistent with the Senator’s work in the past than this fee-doubling scheme which helps tell foreign students we don’t want them.
— Steve Clemons


12 comments on “Responses to “How to Lose the Brain Race”

  1. seemereal says:

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  2. Ellen Weber says:

    Great indeas to think about here. I’d like to challenge you to write an addition piece, HOW TO WIN THE BRAIN RACE. You opened so many good questions and I find myself wondering with their solutions would look like and how they’d benefit more. We are also discussing how to get more from your brain to improve your situation at


  3. Nell says:

    Alan Lewis deserves an answer to his question about a source for the claim that applications for student visas and visas issued have fallen since 2001. I have no idea what Steve’s source is, but a quick google made clear that it’s a fact.
    A November 2004 Washington Post article quotes a report saying that overall student visa applications dipped 15% from 2001-2 to 2003-4. Graduate student applications dropped more sharply. The article also notes that Sen. Feinstein cosponsored legislation that tightened visa requirements for foreign students and quotes her self-approval for that.
    A 2006 report on science and engineering indicators of all kinds says that Foreign student visas are recovering but remain down by one-fifth since 2001. (This is all categories, not just science and engineering students.)
    A chart of student visas issued since 1984 can be found in this SW economics journal article from 2003.
    Applications and issuances fell steeply 2001-2003, recovered somewhat, but are significantly below 2001 and not on track to get back to that level for a few more years. If ever; a U.S. military attack on Iran will probably put a dent in applications…


  4. sona says:

    DF’s proposal to raise visa prices is essentially a revenue gathering exercise that absolves the Government in adequately funding its stated policy objectives. It is also administratively expensive, in that systemic provisions need to be instituted to sequester the funds raised from the higher visa prices for this category of overseas visitors for domestic scholarships in HE. A more honest approach would be to raise course fees for overseas students. US forever argues for ‘small’ government, yet DF’s proposal is anything but. It will indeed expand employment opportunites at Federal civil service level. So much for State rights. Higher course fees would allow individual HE institutions to shoulder the administrative burden of such chanelling.
    I wouldn’t worry too much about the PR aspect – US hasn’t got much traction left in the world re that.
    I would also like to raise the other side of this issue – the reliance of US corporate capitalism on slave labour whether at home or abroad. At home its Latino immigrants and abroad its outsourced jobs, increasingly professional and extending beyond information technology to embrace legal research and of course at the lower end of the skill level where the real workers produce the bargain buys on Walmart shelves that they cannot dream to consume themselves.
    In all this, there is an interesting phenomenon. Finance capital commands the same price the world over but labour does not. Labour prices are arbitraged across local, not global, market conditions of supply vs demand.
    Adoption of enforceable minimum wage may provide some answers but will not end economic migration, nor will it be welcomed by US entrepreneurs or consumers faced with higher prices for that matter. Whether or not it will lead to a reversal of the downward trend over the last decade in returns to labour is arguable given the proclivity to outsource production based on arbitraged labour costs.
    It also occurs to me that the effect of NAFTA has been to impoverish poorer neighbours. Perhaps reigning in exports of GM corn to Mexico might disposses fewer farm labourers in Mexico.
    EU is a vastly more sophisticated entity than NAFTA does or can ever aspire to be. Nevertheless, its member countries can offer genuine health coverage and free labour movement without smart passports to peoples in 25 countries and none have lost a city as yet although they have lost many wars.


  5. Dons Blog says:

    I disagreed with you Steve when I first read this, but wasn’t certain why. I think i can put it into words now.
    First, another point on what Dave says above is that California Universities derive higher income from foreign students so their preference is to have a higher percentage of foriegn students.
    The other issue is defining what benefit we derive from these foreign students. We’re losing manufacturing and engineering jobs as they go overseas. There will be a decrease of over 300,000 software and computer programming jobs over the next seven years as Microsoft, IBM, and Cisco lay off educated workers by the tens of thousands in the US and hire half again as many workers at new campuses in India, Taiwan, and China.
    You’d be amazed at how many prior engineers I meet working at Home Depot. They’re not even being offered a choice of lower salaries, their US positions and the offices in which they work are being completely eliminated.
    And the ‘DNA’ that you talk about foreign students taking home with them is too often intellectual property that companies here in the US paid to develop. They take that overseas and use it as an advantage to compete with the few remaining US companies.
    The careers that show growth here in the US are teachers, civil servants (and probably think tankers), nurses, and truck drivers. And of course burger flippers.
    So rather than looking at the older model of the US university as a skill draw, maybe we should look at US schools as a marketable export.
    If we’re training future off shore competition , then maybe we should look at our schools as profit centers and charge whatever the market will bear.
    In this the senator would be correct. I rarely agree with her, as anyone viewing my California politics blog would see, but I think from a west coast view point she is correct. My hope would be that the extra fees would be used for deserving students here in the US.
    I was in a high school today where there are 12 older model computers for a class of 24 – 30 students. There are no webcams, blackberries, scanners, digital cameras, projectors, VoIP nodes or any of the other digital devices found in an upper income home. We’re falling behind and giving away one of the last valuable resources we still have, our education system.


  6. Dave Matthews says:

    I’d like to submit another angle on this discussion.
    In California, where I live and went to college, the practice has been for many years for the University of California to offer college education to foreign students over qualified California natives. This is always touted by UC as going after “the most qualified.” UC,in it’s rush to remain the top (or one of the top) university systems in the world, is
    screwing us Californians.


  7. Alex Steffler says:

    Quick addition: Feinstein is correct to say that we should be encouraging more native-borns to enter fields in which we are now competing with countries like India, China, and Israel through scholarship programs, but I agree with you, Steve, that the way to do it isn’t by simultaneously making it more difficult for US companies to hire the skilled workers until the US is able to catch up. That’s a separate issue from immigration.


  8. Alex Steffler says:

    I read your and Lind’s op-ed last week, and though I hesitate to say it, I was a little more than disturbed by it. On one hand, I agree that the US should be doing more to encourage skilled workers in areas like science/math and whatnot. It absolutely makes sense not to throw up barriers to these immigrants if the US wants to stay competitive. On the other, your piece sounded rather elitist — as though the choice here is between “a third of a million new” unskilled workers over the supposedly more desirable skilled ones and that the choice seems clear to you.
    What we need is a system that encourages people to come to the US when there are jobs to fill — on both ends of the education continuum — in a legal, relatively easy way. I’m uncomfortable with policy that makes a judgement on which of those two is “better.”
    I’d offer “Cost of Illegal Immigration May Be Less Than Meets the Eye”
    to point out that those unskilled workers tend to stimulate capital development and new managerial jobs in many cases.
    Point: it’s not as black-and-white as your piece suggests. We need the brains *and* the brawn.


  9. Alan Lewis says:

    (1) What is your source for the assertion that foreign student visas are down since 9/11?
    (2) It is true that American agricultural employers (as well as those in the construction trades and others) cannot find ample enough employees, as Feinstein and employers argue, but they (and Feinstein) always forget to complete the rest of the sentence: “. . . at the wage rates which these employers are willing to pay these workers.” We must all understand that the prices of many essential goods and services that are purchased daily by the American consumer are being subsidized by artificially low wages that these undocumented workers are willing to take. And, the sad thing is, these artificially low labor costs are like manna from heaven for Latin American workers. I don’t have the answer, but let’s at least be honest about the nature of the problem. If these people could support themselves and their families in Latin America, they would stay there.


  10. Other concerns says:

    See this London Times article, “British campus link to Iranian nuclear center”:,,2087-2025389,00.html
    ..which isn’t about the brain race or about fees, both of which I might agree w/Mr Clemons about. My point is only that there are legitimate security concerns, not just “frequently demeaning” interviews. The article is about the UK, but can anyone swear that there’s no cause for concern in the US? There’s no reason why a visa interview should be demeaning in order to successfully determine whether someone poses a risk. But security _is_ an important concern.


  11. Thugmeister Intifada says:

    California’s queen of war profiteering is easily taken to the profound oratory when it comes to defending any position she may have taken on any issue currently at debate. With the obvious proviso that she may and will change her mind at any unannounced time in the future. Senator Feinstein does not now nor will she in future do more than uphold the status quo on immigration reform. Congress will do no more than uphold the status quo on immigration reform. Where in the world would they obtain fresh slaves. Slaves are not paid to think, they are paid (very little) to pick the veggies, clean the rooms, tend to the kiddies, and cut the grass. The only thing that America has to fear is…immigration reform.


  12. Concerned American says:

    No surprise that an insulated millionaire senator sees no harm to our national interest in preventing the destitute, sheepherding, visionary genius living near Kandahar from being able to afford a visa to study at Stanford. Such a genius, if given the chance, might offer salvation for that wretched country. The same holds true for so many other nations. Al Gore frequently reminds us these days of Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish;… ”


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