»  Taki's Magazine

February 2nd, 2012

  Over the Hill At 35

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Along with wellnigh every other blogger on the internet, I posted to NRO's The Corner about the lady who asked Barack Obama, in a TV-link to-and-fro, why the government is issuing and extending H-1B visas — that is, guest worker visas for any occupation "which requires the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge," to quote the State Department website.

The lady's husband, a semiconductor engineer, has been unemployed for three years; yet people in his field are being brought in on H-1Bs. She doesn't think this makes any sense.

To judge from blogs and comment threads, it makes perfect sense to that mighty legion of persons who believe that the laws of the nation should strive to ensure that citizens enjoy no advantage whatsoever over non-citizens; or, to put it another way, that the nation's citizenship should be worthless, and the nation itself a fiction.

Countering them were a few retrograde souls who had been laboring under the juvenile illusion that the interests of U.S. citizens should enjoy primacy in the calculations of U.S. policy-makers. These economic illiterates and romantic naïfs were joined by a disgruntled contingent of persons fired from good, well-paying jobs to make room for foreigners, who in some cases they had had to train before leaving, like this lady in Dan Rather's report on the issue last summer.

Being long familiar with the H-1B issue, for reasons I'll get to shortly, I was waiting to see what Prof. Norm Matloff has to say. Norm — he's a professor of Computer Science at UCLA — is the nation's leading authority on H-1B visas. He's been tracking the issue for at least a decade, to my knowledge. His motives are, from the viewpoint of this small-government, race-realist conservative, unpalatable: he's an old-line What-About-The-Workers? blank-slate lefty. He has the number on the H-1B business, though.

It's fundamentally about age, says Norm. Companies, most especially software firms, want young workers. Young workers are cheaper, they're more flexible, and they think faster. That's what the H-1B does for the firms.

It's like the old General Motors notion of "planned obsolescence," only for people rather than cars. And the H-1B program, made up overwhelming of young workers, is what fuels all this. In pre-H-1B days, it was assumed that engineers and programmers would learn new technological skills on their own, as part of their jobs; now, they often are not given that chance.

Like so many aging matinée idols (or Newt Gingriches), software firms are trading in their 35-year-olds for 25-year-olds. There's considerable overlap here with the classic essay "Why a Career in Computer Programming Sucks" by the blogger who calls himself Half Sigma.

So what advantage does a 60-year-old .NET programmer have over a 27-year-old .NET programmer when they both have, at most, 5 years of experience doing .NET programming? Absolutely none. I'd make the case that it's better to hire the 27-year-old because he is still at the stage of his career where he enjoys the stuff and is therefore more motivated to learn and work harder, while the 60-year-old is surely bitter about the fact that he's getting paid less than the younger programmers.

(It may have occurred to you by this point that laying off your 35-year-old employees so you can bring in lots of 25-year-old foreigners, who in turn you will lay off after ten years, is storing up some nasty social problems for the future. The future, however, beyond the next election cycle, is of zero interest to any important person in any of the three branches of the federal government, so the band plays on.)

I write about this topic with considerably mixed feelings, as I was once an H-1B guest worker myself. This was in 1985, when Wall Street was booming under deregulation. All the investment firms were computerizing their trading and back-room operations like crazy, and computer programmers were being sucked in from all over.

That was my line of work at the time. Being single and carefree, I worked on contract — six months here, a year there — through an agency in London, where I lived. One day my agent called to ask: "You wanna work in New York?" I responded with the important question ("How much?") and then, satisfied with the answer, agreed. "The firm will get you visas and stuff," the agent assured me. "Don't worry about a thing. Oh, there's an interview."

I went to the interview at a London hotel. It was routine, just checking my skills. There was only one off-the-wall question: Was I OK about working for Americans? As it happened, my current contract was with Marathon Oil, a U.S. firm headquartered in Findlay, Ohio. They had an operation in the North Sea, serviced by a London office. All my bosses were American, I told the interviewer smugly.

I asked him an off-the-wall question in return: Did it bother them that I was forty years old? He looked puzzled. No, why should it? So long as I had the skills.

Within a month I was installed in a cube at No. 5, World Trade Center, an H-1B stamp securely in my passport. Nobody had been fired to make room for me. Reagan was in the White House, Maggie Thatcher was in Downing Street, the U.S.S.R. was tottering, India and China were struggling out from under the rotting hulks of, respectively, state socialism and Maoist lunacy, Major Medical was the merest notch on one's paycheck, and young women office workers were wearing sneakers for their commute. There were jobs a-plenty everywhere for 40-year-old software grunts. Ah, those were the days!