Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Innovation - where is it occurring?

When I watch the Science channel, I am simply amazed by the variety of new ideas that are being considered, developed, tested and refined. A few months ago there was a show about the development of intelligent robots in Japan. Another time there was a show, also based in Japan, about the painstaking, meticulous research that is being done to make the trains run on time - shaving a single second off the schedule is considered worth the effort. There have also been several shows about the cutting edge research taking place at places like MIT, in the areas of energy conservation/generation, new kinds of vehicles, new kinds of navigation systems and so on.

Although the dictionary definition of innovation says that it is merely about introducing something new, I don't consider what passes for innovation (hotmail, priceline, or even facebook) as particularly innovative. Having little revenue and few paying customers is bad enough. But, when one considers that many of these innovations don't enhance the quality of life of their users, they pale in comparison to the examples of real innovation that I described in the first paragraph. Pretty much anyone can come up with ideas like hotmail and priceline and facebook if freed from the normal business requirements of having paying customers.

The reason for this lengthy preamble is: while everyone is focused on such "straw man" innovations, what are we not innovating? What is the opportunity cost of that?

Put another way, do Japanese and German companies - well-known for decades for their engineering excellence - need to import workers from India and China in order to innovate?

Given that the answer is "No", let us stop elevating what the so-called "high skill" imported workers in America do to the level of Innovation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The kid gloves are off

I came across an excerpt of the video of Alan Greenspan's video on C-Span. The excerpt is only 2.5 minutes long, so I urge you to watch it before reading my comments about it.

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Although I watched this video about a week ago, it has taken me some time to gather my thoughts about it. Here are my observations:
  1. All that talk about the need for skilled foreign labor to keep America competitive? Just a smokescreen.
  2. All that talk about the need for skilled foreign labor to keep America at the leading edge of innovation? Just a smokescreen too.
  3. All that talk about how U.S. education is inadequate? Just a smokescreen as well!
It was ALWAYS ONLY about lowering the wages.

Th real irony is that Greenspan suggests lowering middle class wages as a way to REDUCE the class divide in America. This, from someone who received a reported $8.5M advance for his book. He is in his mid-to-late seventies: does he think he is going to take his millions WITH him to the afterlife?!

How about arguing for a living wage for those on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder and reducing the class divide THAT WAY? I want to ask Mr. Greenspan.

What Mr. Greenspan and his fans (among them, unfortunately, the Democratic party and most of the presidential candidates) are working to attain is a society where they and their ilk live in gated communities while the serfs toil outside.

Whose American dream is this? Not mine for sure.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society

A few months ago I came across the book, "The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society " by Arthur Schlesinger. It was fascinating to find someone like him (an old school liberal and a thinker/historian) express concerns about the direction in which the emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism is taking America. It felt good, too, to find that my ambivalence about rampant multiculturalism is *not* a knee-jerk reaction or worse. I highly recommend this book.

Having grown up in India surrounded by have-nots, I am a strong believer in not only a minimum wage, but a living wage. I feel that illegal immigration is being used to subvert wage protections for American workers. Although the tide seems to have turned over the last few months, we are still a long way from any real action taking place, because even high profile Democrats are too afraid to stand up for what is right.

This issue needs to be re-framed and the focus needs to be removed from illegal immigrants. After all they would not be here if a) there were no jobs and b) if the laws that already exist were being enforced. It is fine to agitate against unjust laws. But, nobody has so far advanced the position that the existing laws re immigration are unjust!

Also, although Mexican illegal immigrants get the most attention, they are not by any means the only bloc. For instance, the next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, observe your server. I have noticed that each time I go to the local Chinese restaurant, there are some new servers and their familiarity with English is so low that I wonder if they have been here more than 2-3 months. Where do they live? How do they get here? Where do they go from here? I wonder. The same goes for nail salons. I used to wait outside the place where my son took piano lessons. Each night at 7 PM, a man would come up in a large van and the workers from the nail salon that was next door would come out and troop into the van and then he would drive off. Not a word was ever spoken. One time I had to go into the salon to ask a question, and the women could speak NO English at all.

So, I would like to challenge my fellow Americans to answer these questions:

1. Do you want your lettuce picked by people who live 10 or more to a room?
2. Do you want your house to be built by someone who barely has a roof over his head?
3. Do you want your kids to be raised by women who are separated from their own children?
4.What are you willing to give up to ensure that your lifestyle is not the result of people being exploited and abused?
5. Do you want to welcome people who think they are reclaiming their long lost territory?
6. Are we a nation of citizens -- humane and principled -- or are we just consumers looking for the cheapest deal?

Speaking of multiculturalism, another area that worries me is the influx of people who have no desire to become part of this society. Did you read about an African immigrant in the Bronx who had two wives (one of them an illegal immigrant, if I recall correctly) - because the religion and culture he came from allowed it? What about local laws and norms of acceptable behavior, I wanted to ask. This family was in the news because their house had caught fire.

Finally, speaking of the down side of diversity, check out this article:

The above may be politically incorrect, but I like to think that my positions are primarily about being fair, humane, and law-abiding.

When will we develop the courage of our convictions and stand up for what we believe we believe?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Skilled immigrants protest in DC

This is a news story that I heard on NPR this morning, but found a link only on an Indian news portal: link
About 1,000 highly skilled legal immigrants, including many Indians, rallied at Capitol Hill to protest long delays and vast bureaucratic backlogs in the US immigration system, and called for more permanent visas.

On Tuesday, the immigrants, including doctors, medical technicians and computer engineers from India and China, came to Washington from as far as California to participate in the protest rally. They carried placards and wore T-shirts emblazoned with American flags to call on Congress to provide more permanent visas for highly educated immigrants and more resources for the overburdened immigration system.

As an immigrant myself, I feel for their plight and the limbo in which they find themselves.

The immigration system needs to be reformed so that the false hope and the uncertainty are eliminated. With the understanding that an overwhelming proportion of people who come on temporary visas will end up wanting to stay, there needs to be a link between the number of people admitted on temporary visas and the number of permanent visas available.

I believe that an evolved society is one in which exploitation, fraud and even plain misleading - even if it is by proxy - is not allowed to take place. In that sense, we are not being a particularly evolved society right now.

The current system hurts those who are on temporary visas (including those who are illegal), and it hurts ordinary Americans because they are displaced from their jobs. The only constituency that is sitting cozy - like the cat who swallowed the canary - is the employers.


Some might say, if the waits are so long, why don't they leave? Many times what awaits them at home is far worse than even the limbo here. In many cases, and this may be hard for non-immigrants to understand - America changes people in ways small and large. For women in particular, being away from tradition-bound societies cane be unimaginably liberating. Also children come along and they know no other home except the one here in America. All in all, moving back is sometimes a more challenging paradigm shift than moving here.

Also, it is a strength of America that the agitators like the ones in this story feel that their pleas and protests here have the potential to change their circumstances whereas similar efforts in their home countries do not. And, don't forget, by and large, most of the skilled immigrants are from the relatively upper/elite class in their respective countries. In other words whatever perks/access their class is likely to confer on them in their home countries, which by rights should be more attractive, in reality pales in comparison to being on the margins/in limbo here.


Many readers will find this blog post at variance with the tone and content of most of my other
posts. I guess my point is that being against globalization and outsourcing does not have to mean we cannot be sympathetic to the plight of the people caught in the trap of the broken immigration system.

What we need is law and order:
  • A transparent process
  • Enforcement of the rules
  • Rules that are truly representative of all constituencies - not just the ones with money/clout - that is, American workers
  • In the spirit that "justice delayed is justice denied", reasonable decision times - in the one year range
Let us not be like the proverbial bridegroom who leaves the bride waiting at the altar and then decides not to show up.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Facile and Facetious

SAJA is the South Asian Journalists Association. Their forum has a post about the "strange juxtaposition" of a lack of visas here in the U.S. and a lack of qualified applicants in India. The forum moderator Sree Srinavasan, has this ironic closing quip: "Perhaps India can attract the America-trained students - Indian and non-Indian?" (blog post)

I found his smug and detached response quite offensive and posted a comment to that effect. I am cross-posting it here:

I find Sree's closing comment facile and offensively facetious. To suggest that non-Indian workers move to India because that's where the jobs are is to ignore stark realities. Basically, he sees nothing wrong with the idea that American citizens should be reduced to having to leave for "greener" pastures elsewhere, just like citizens of other third-world countries -- the Chinese, the Mexicans and the Indians. Sree, would you be as facetious if it was journalists whose jobs were on the line? and the suggestion was made that journalists -- yes, even academic ones like you -- move to India?

In his suggestion, there is, too, no awareness that Indian society is far from conducive for newcomers to settle in. Water and power shortages, poor public infrastructure, shortage of decent affordable accomodation are but a few challenges that come to mind. After all, if Americans move to India because that's where the jobs are, they would not make expat wages, but simply "prevailing" Indian wages, right?

Outsourcing, per se, is not the problem. Everytime we order pizza and every time we buy online instead of from a brick and mortar store, we outsource a function. But along the way we don't tell the replaced service provider that it is because they are not good enough. And if we outsource, it is sometimes for convenience and sometimes because it is less expensive.

In contrast the entire IT outsourcing debate is marked by conflation of facts and a total lack of integrity by corporations (American and Indian) and their media shills.

- Workers are being brought here or work is being sent to India because they are less expensive. Along the way 30 years of workplace safeguards like equal pay, non-discrimination in terms of gender and age, family-friendly policies are being thrown out the window

- Not all imported workers are the "best and brightest".

- America was able to innovate and compete without massive injections of foreign workers quite nicely. The Internet, telephony, and many innovations do not have the stamp of H-1Bs on them.

- Would you want your kids to have to attend Indian schools? I would not! So let's stop parroting the line that Indian schools are better than American ones. There are certainly problems with American education. But, that is NOT the reason why jobs are going to Indians.

Being pro-outsourcing has nothing to do with being pro or anti India. Being anti-outsourcing has nothing to do with being protectionist or racist.

It is about satya -- that old forgotten Hindu spiritual concept -- Truth!

Indian journalists working in the US have a unique perspective and they even have the platform to shed the light of Truth on this debate. The question is: are they up to the task?

Yes, the Indian journos are no different than the rest of their brethren, even though they have first-hand knowledge of the Indian educational system, living and workplace conditions. It is so much easier to be rah-rah India and thereby earn brownie points among Indians as well as American outsourcing-pushers... which is pretty much everybody.

Friday, April 6, 2007

H-1B cap reached lickety-split

This week's big news was that over 85,000 new H-1B visas got used up in 2 days. Here are my thoughts about why that might have happened and why any new bill needs to have provisions to keep this from happening:

I know two programmers who came here on H-1B visas. One came back in January and the other one came in the first week of March. Both are still in the process of doing phone or in-person interviews. So, there never was a job for which they were hired, nor is there such a job shortage -- even at the cheap rates at which they will eventually be hired -- that they could find jobs quickly.

Allowing middlemen to secure blocks of visas (note that this happens with H-1B as well -- not just L-1) thus creates an artificial shortage. For instance, if a legitimate US employer wants to now apply for an H-1B visa, they will find that there are no visas available for a whole year. So, the intent of the H-1B visa has been circumvented in legitimate cases. And it contributes to the general feeling that the number of available visas is insufficient.

Also, this practice places the middlemen in the driver's seat as a) they get to dictate the terms of how the visa holders in their stable will be farmed out and b) employers must deal with them if they want to hire cheap. Especially when combined with the fact that, at least in some cases, the middlemen don't even bear the cost of paying for the H-1B visas, the current H-1B program is a sort of entitlement program for the middlemen. I have known instances where a programmer was sub-contracted 3 levels deep and each middleman took a cut of the hourly wage. The programmer who does the actual work gets very little money. Thus the system facilitates the exploitation of the hapless H-1B visa holder.

Another scenario is where I met a man who is here on an L-1 visa through an Indian outsourcer (P) and is working at a large local multi-national (MNC). This visa / job should rightly appear in the LCA database and elsewhere as used up by the MNC, not the outsourcer P. This has two detrimental effects:

a) So long as outfits like P are allowed to engage in this practice, American programmers do not have even a shot at those jobs.

b) The MNC is shielded from the negative PR that would result if the extent of their H-1B visa usage were to become widely known.

I understand the new Durbin-Grassley bill has provisions that address many of the abuses of the H-1B program. I am not familiar enough with the anti-outplacement ones to know whether the above types of practices would be curtailed by the bill.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Competitiveness argument

Another favorite justification for needing more H-1B visas is "competitiveness".

Unlike the "innovation" argument, I do see some validity in this one. I have read articles where companies with new products in development were able to, as they claim "stretch their dollars further" because the product was developed overseas or by using H-1B workers. But, as a percentage of the entire workforce, the number of people engaged in such pursuits is miniscule. So, this particular competitiveness argument does not cause the type of widespread job displacement that is of primary concern. Large IT employers like insurance companies, banks, large manufacturers are not in this camp.

I think what the companies that advance this reason are really talking about is their distrust of each other and the need to one-up each other. I liken it to Google, Yahoo and MSN all agreeing to go along with the Chinese government's injunctions about privacy and blocking of certain key terms such as "freedom" because of their desire to remain as players in the large and largely untapped Chinese market. Clearly, companies that (rightly) push back here in the U.S. when asked by the FBI (and other agencies) to divulge private information, bend over backwards to indulge the Chinese government. I think the CEOs of these companies could just as easily -- jointly -- take a principled stand and tell the Chinese govt to go take a hike.

Similarly, companies that need to remain competitive could just as easily jointly decide that their desire to remain competitive with each other would not trump principles of fairness and integrity.

What do I mean by "fairness and integrity"? For starters, not blaming American workers' lack of education for the companies' desire to hire CHEAP labor anywhere and everywhere that they can find it. For another, establishing and encouraging K-12 programs and scholarships that help those Americans who are lagging behind catch up. I am thinking of inner city schools and disadvantaged youth who don't even consider college because of the high cost of education. Last week I heard a heartbreaking show on NPR about the twin demons of the high rates of high school dropouts among African-Americans and the high level of unemployment among them. Surely, the corporations can find a way to help their fellow citizens even as they seek greener pastures elsewhere?