Easton probes an interesting proposal for recruiting foreign labor

Nina Easton‘s latest Fortune column highlights a proposed change in federal immigration policy trumpeted by former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.

Those looking to assign blame for income inequality in the U.S. have no shortage of institutions to cast as villains. The left’s perennial bad guy is Wal-Mart, most recently targeted by union leaders demanding that its new Washington, D.C., box stores pay 50% above the minimum wage (labor lost that battle). On the political right the culprit is often the Latino illegal immigrant, who stands accused of taking Americans’ jobs and keeping wages low by working off the books. And just about everyone cringes at CEO salaries that average 273 times that of their employees.

The policy prescriptions are just as familiar as the villains’ names: Raise wages at the bottom. Raise taxes at the top. To those old debates, Alan Greenspan offers up a provocative new idea: Let firms recruit as many brainy foreign employees to American soil as they want. In other words, instead of raising the cap on specialty green cards and H-1B visas, as the Senate-passed immigration bill does, drop the limits altogether.

The result? The former Fed chair argues that the subsequent crush of high-skilled foreign talent would squeeze salaries at the top. (That’s probably you, Fortune reader.) “They’d be competing for jobs against us — the well educated and high skilled,” he says. “Including me. I don’t know how many economists, but there would be some [foreign hires].” And there would be a bonus for lower-income workers: This infusion of talent would boost economic growth — and more jobs.

The demand for H-1B visas is huge and growing. Within days visas for 65,000, plus 20,000 advanced-degree holders, are filled each year, even with a regulatory stipulation that they can be granted only for jobs “so specialized and complex that the knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree.” (Companies have to attest that none of their U.S. employees will be displaced, but they don’t have to prove that no other Americans are available.)

Loads of those visa applications come on behalf of foreign graduates and postgraduates from U.S. universities who otherwise will take their degrees home to compete against American firms. Last year a record 800,000 foreign students attended U.S. universities, and many study science or business. If the gates were open to more of those students, “they’d force prices and income down in the upper-income groups,” Greenspan tells me. “Not by a large amount, but it would be measurable.”

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