Hanlon’s Razor and the Infuriating H-1B Visa System

I.

Charlie Munger has this story about how world champion squash player Victor Niederhoffer managed to get A’s at Harvard. Victor liked playing checkers and high-stakes card games, on top of round-the-clock champion-level squash and tennis. Not surprisingly, this left little time for the exacting standards of Harvard classwork. But Victor’s father was a stern police lieutenant who demanded A’s of his son, so Victor set about outsmarting the Harvard system.

II.

Let’s consider the H-1B visa program, that much maligned initiative that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump mention in the same breath as ISIS or “the Wall.” The H-1B visa was designed to bring foreign professionals with college degrees and specialized skills to fill jobs for which qualified Americans cannot be found. This is the U.S. visa, mentioned in a recent WSJ piece, behind (most of the) 44 immigrant co-founders that have helped create over $168 billion in startup value and over 33,000 U.S. jobs (roughly 760 jobs per co-founder; note that the total number jumps to ~200,000 when you consider the jobs created by Uber, whose co-founder Garrett Camp is a Canadian immigrant).

YYYHUUUGGEEE-ly amusing Gif…

III.

So who is to blame for this perversion of judicial intention? Well, it’s easy to point a finger at Infosys and Wipro and other outsourcing firms. Or claim a vast government conspiracy to steal jobs from law-abiding American citizens. Or find any number of people or companies that are profiting from this broken system. But I think that misses the point. These villainous folks are abusing the system but they aren’t breaking the poorly designed rules. And it is a red herring focus on obvious villains that causes us to lose our shit over Martin Shkreli hiking the price of Daraprim by 5,556% rather than critiquing the totally broken legislative system that allowed Shkreli to exist in the first place. This distinction is important. It’s easier to change a man-made system than to change a man’s nature.

IV.

It all seems rather macabre but maybe it does not have to be. We can design better systems and improve existing ones. The H-1B system could probably be improved by accepting applicants in order from higher to lower salaries, segmented by profession, instead of based on a lottery (since the outsourcing firms pay their H-1B holders around the required salary floor of $60,000, far lower than an American citizen would be paid in an equivalent role) or by limiting the number of employees that can be attached to an individual Labor Certification Application. But there need to be incentives to improve systems.

V.

All human systems will be gamed and designing easily game-able systems is a moral betrayal. Munger says, “the people who design easily–gameable systems belong in the lowest circle of hell.Dante calls the lowest circle of hell Tradimento, or treachery. Hanlon’s Razor (the excuse of stupidity) does not morally exonerate.

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These are my views, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.

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Ryan Shmeizer

Ryan Shmeizer

815 Followers

These are my views, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.