Should we embrace the free movement of labor?

“If we value a free market in goods and free movement of capital, should we embrace the free movement of labor? Reciprocal treaties would allow citizens of the U.S. and other countries to work legally across borders. Would the elimination of barriers in the labor market depress wages and flood the marketplace with workers? Or would the benefits of a flexible labor supply be a boon to our economy, all while raising the standard of living for anyone willing to work?” (via IQ2)

Vivek Wadhwa, Vice President of Innovations and Research, Singularity University, writes that we should embrace the free movement of labor on a greater scale. The U.S. brain drain:

The U.S. is still the biggest talent magnet, however, with two-thirds of the world’s foreign graduate students at American universities. But what is there for the U.S. to worry about?

  • Our market share is falling as other countries step up their recruiting efforts. Among OECD nations, the U.S. share of foreign students dropped from 32 percent to 23 percent from 1998 to 2007. Many Asian countries that have traditionally been “sender” nations have set ambitious targets to recruit more foreign students, usually from their own region.
  • There is a battle for faculty talent. Half the top physicists in the world no longer work in their home countries. Three-quarters of young economists in top U.S. universities earned their undergraduate degrees in another nation.
  • Foreign students are returning home. As I have documented with my research, Indian and Chinese students don’t feel welcome or see enough opportunity in the U.S. any more. So, the U.S. is experiencing the first brain drain in its history.
  • Tsinghua and Peking Universities combined recently surpassed UC-Berkeley as the leading source of students earning U.S. PhDs.

Despite the new realities, U.S. leaders have been enacting misguided legislation to close the doors, as I wrote about in this piece. This is hastening the brain drain and scaring away the world’s best and brightest who might otherwise come here to study or work.

Protectionism in education is actually a global ill. India has, for years, kept out foreign universities, despite a huge hunger for education. Only now is it debating legislation to open up the market, but even this will come with many restrictions—so it is unclear if it will make a dent. Indian protectionism of education has been so bad, and has weakened its education system so much, that a few years ago the president of IIT-Bombay barred students from taking overseas internships in an effort to keep Indian brainpower at home. Malaysia limits the proportion of foreign students in its public universities to 5 percent. In the U.S., the University of Tennessee, until a decade or so ago, limited foreign graduate students to 20 percent of each department.

More research on this topic.

You can hear four people debate this question today on MPR News at noon.

Today’s Question: Should we embrace the free movement of labor?