Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recession Special Series: Three Ways to Fix the US on the Cheap (Pt. 1 of 6)

NEW YORK, New York -- With President Obama on the verge of signing his stimulus bill into law, he'll be throwing the US into ever-greater amounts of debt at a time when, after 8 years of Bush disaster, there is much to be done in this land, from new electrical grids to costly helath-care reform to better schools. That's not a good place to be in. 

Luckily, there are a few low- or no-cost things the country could do to help itself, most of which are neither left- nor right-wing policies but common-sense ideas Congressmen from either party should support. And in a rash of arrogance and pretentiousness, the Walter Duranty Report feels like it knows better than the government what it can do to make the nation a better place on a shoestring budget. In the tradition of a fast-food joint or big-box retailer looking to market its cheap-o wares, we are pleased to roll out a series of catchy "three-fers" for ya. We start with "Three for Home," three things that can be done cheaply to help that most despicable of words, the "homeland."

1. Remove H-1B visa limits and allow in educated immigrants. This is the most important thing the United States can do for itself -- though sadly few of us want to recognize this. Despite the presence of 13 million undocumented illegal immigrants in the US, Congress still limits the number of skilled foreign workers to 60,000 per year, and recently banned any banks getting a bailout from hiring skilled foreign workers. And although the US attracts the world's brightest students, after educating them, it kicks them out of the country, even if they want to stay. Everyone knows US immigration policies are somewhere between a laughingstock and a tragedy, but taking out nativist wrath on the world's most skilled and ambitious workers by ignoring reality is a bad, bad move (what realist would limit skilled immigrants to a number that fits inside Giants Stadium when there's a Pennsylvania-worth of illegal immigrants already here?).

The idea of eliminating the anachronistic H-1B visa (for skilled foreign workers) quotas came up recently in a column by Mr. Mustache, Thomas Friedman. He's right in arguing for dramatically expanding, or abolishing, the quotas. America's byzantine, counterproductive immigration policies are only hurting us, as the Economist noted last spring. Any foreign student who earns a Master's or Doctorate degree in the US should be given a green card. And foreign recipients of US undergraduate degrees with successful records at accreditated colleges should be given a work visa, even if the work they undertake isn't "directly related" to their major, as current policy dictates. 

And as an added bonus, a chunk of the global economic vortex stems from the fact that there are nearly 1.5 million too many houses for sale in America today -- a fact all the Congressional house-buyer tax incentives won't solve. The historic inventory of new houses is 1 million; today there are 2.5 million unsold new homes. Home prices will fall until there's demand to fill them. Two million high-skilled immigrants could potentially clean things up faster. Mr. Obama, tear down this nativist wall by removing all H-1B quotas. Cost to the federal gov't: $0.

2. Gasoline tax for mass transit. The second-most important thing we can do at home. Unlike the rest of the civilized world, the US has almost no federal gasoline tax (it's a measly 4 cents per gallon, compared to $4 per gallon in the UK). That means we drive. Everywhere. And we do it in any tank we like. It also means we lose a huge opportunity to have a dedicated revenue stream for transportation funding to build roads and mass transit. For the environment, the economy, and our own waistlines, we need to introduce a gas tax with teeth. Go ahead and bail out Detroit and force it to make the best hybrid or electric cars in the world, but nobody will buy them until driving them is cheaper than buying gas. Cost to the federal gov't: $0.

3. Hire teachers from the top of the class. We all know the problems in the US public schools system. We're at the bottom of the OECD. Furore about education is an op-ed standby. Schools (and many students and their families) are failing us. We can't buy our way out of this problem; using big salaries to attract teachers is fiscally imprudent and will attract the high-rollers who can't get a job at a bank -- not the kind of teachers we want. Instead, make teaching prestigious by hiring from the top ranks of the best colleges, as Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland do. Thousands of confused college students would be happy to teach if only it had a little more prestige and opened doors to potential career changes, rather than close them. By actively hiring top students into the teaching profession, even if temporarily, we can provide a better education for millions of students. Cost to the federal gov't: $0.


  1. Give me a convincing argument to teach Mathematics at a (middle income) public school in the United States and I swear that I'll do it.

    I have a desirable degree from a top college. I could easily get a job at any choice (read: high-status, new england prep) school.

    I agree that it shouldn't be about the money or the prestige. But the only arguments that seem to be effective for this demographic are Teach for America-style martyrdom, which surely doesn't effectively churn out excellent teachers.

    Why shouldn't I just go to Finland?

  2. Yeah, I, uh, can't do that. Although it stands to note that in a recession teaching jobs are a definite bright spot, and teacher salaries in many public schools can be pretty generous. Public schools also generally pay higher than private schools, as well as have better job stability.

    Still, I wouldn't want to be a public school teacher today. But if you can make a profession more prestigious, people will be drawn toward it. Would this mean bringing in teachers with shady motives? I don't know. As it is, though -- although few doubt that there are many, many talented, dedicated, intelligent teachers out there -- the bar isn't set too high for public school teachers. So if I'm a teacher, there's a chance I'm a well-meaning but not particularly smart or ambitious graduate of Mungenburger State College. If I teach for two years and try to apply for a graduate degree in Math or Physics, my teaching years aren't going to help. Ditto if I decide I want to go into industry.

    But if I did, say, the PeaceCorps or taught English in Oslo, I'd get more respect. You make teaching more prestigious by making it a more competitive field, and more college students looking for a job they may not want forever but that can bolster their resume and provide future flexibility will be attracted to it. (Of course, that may give you lots of Teach for America-style temporary teachers, which isn't ideal -- but to have higher teacher turnover and more fresh ideas coming into the system can't be much worse than the status quo.)

    Finally, there can be structural changes that would be interesting to look at as well -- let teachers have more advanced electives that actually give them a chance to pursue their own research interests with high-schoolers. That's not unprecedented or impossible, but it's rare. Or let teachers have a sabbatical year every 5 years. In short, allow them to be more ambitious and have a chance to do more than teach pre-calc for 40 years and you'll get higher-achieving students teaching and showing students that doing well in school does lead to something worthwhile (which my constantly drunken high school history teachers couldn't really pull off). There's still huge demand for university jobs with short supply. Let high-school teachers do something a bit more akin to what college professors do and you'll probably see more academically interested public school teachers...