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Geniuses from Abroad


The current immigration debate founders on ignorance of one huge fact: Without immigration, the U.S. would not exist as a world power. Without immigration, the U.S. could not have produced the computerized weapons that induced the Soviet Union to surrender in the arms race. Without immigration, the U.S. could not have built the atomic bomb during World War II, or the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s, or intercontinental missiles in the 1960s, or MIRVs in the 1970s, or cruise missiles for the Gulf War in the 1990s.

Today, immigrants are vital not only for targeted military projects but also for the wide range of leading-edge ventures in an information age economy. No less than military superiority in previous eras, U.S. industrial dominance and high standards of living today depend on outsiders.

Every high-technology company, big or small, is like a Manhattan Project. All must mobilize the personnel best trained and most able to perform a specific function, and deliver a product within a window of opportunity as fateful and remorseless as a war deadline. This requires access to the small elite of human beings in the world capable of pioneering these new scientific and engineering frontiers. For many specialized high-technology tasks, the pool of potential talent around the world numbers around 10 people, or even fewer.

If you are running such a technology company, you will quickly discover that the majority of this cognitive elite are not citizens of your country. Unless you can find the right people wherever they may be, you will not be able to launch the exotic innovation that changes the world. Unless you can fill the key technology jobs, you will not create any other jobs at all, and your country will forgo the cycle of new products, skills, and businesses that sustain a world-leading standard of living.

Discussing the impact of immigration, economists and their followers are beady-eyed gnatcatchers, expert on the movements of cabbage pickers and au pair girls and the possible impact of Cubans on Miami wage levels. But like hunters in a cartoon, they ignore the tyrannosaurus rex crouching behind them. Thus sophisticated analysts, such as George Borjas of the University of California, San Diego, and artful writers, such as Peter Brimelow, conclude that the impact of immigration on the U.S. economy is slight or negligible.

In fact, the evidence is overwhelming and undeniable; it is all around us, in a spate of inventions and technical advances, from microwaves and air bags to digital cable and satellite television, from home computers and air conditioners to cellular phones and lifesaving pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Without immigration over the last 50 years, I would estimate that U.S. real living standards would be at least 40% lower.

The underplaying of immigration as an economic force stems from a basic flaw in macroeconomic analysis. Economists fail to account for the indispensable qualitative effects of genius. Almost by definition, genius is the ability to generate unique products and concepts and bring them to fruition. Geniuses are literally thousands of times more productive than the rest of us. We all depend on them for our livelihoods and opportunities.

The feats of genius are necessarily difficult to identify or predict, except in retrospect. But judging from the very rough metric of awards of mathematical doctorates and other rigorous scientific and engineering degrees, prizes, patents, and publications, about a third of the geniuses in the U.S. are foreign born, and another 20% are the offspring of immigrants. A third of all American Nobel Prize winners, for example, were born overseas.

A stellar example of these elites in action is Silicon Valley in California. Silicon Valley companies have reduced the price of computer MIPs and memory bits by a factor of some 10,000 in 2 1/2 decades. Although mainstream economists neglect to measure the qualitative impact of these innovations, most of the new value in the world economy over the last decade has stemmed, directly or indirectly, from the semiconductor and computer industries, both hardware and software.

Consider Intel Corp. Together with its parent, Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel developed the basic processes of microchip manufacture and created dynamic and static random access memory, the micro-processor, and the electrically programmable read-only memory. In other words, Intel laid the foundations for the personal computer revolution and scores of other chip-based industries that employ the vast bulk of U.S. engineers today.

Two American-born geniuses, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, were key founders of Fairchild and Intel. But their achievements would have been impossible without the help of Jean Hourni, inventor of planar processing; Dov Frohmann-Benchkowski, inventor of electrically erasable programmable ROMs; Federico Faggin, inventor of silicon gate technology and builder of the first microprocessor; Mayatoshi Shima, layout designer of key 8086 family devices; and of course Andrew Grove, the company’s now revered CEO who solved several intractable problems of the metal oxide silicon technology at the heart of Intel’s growth. All these Intel engineers — and hundreds of other key contributors — were immigrants.

The pattern at Intel was repeated throughout Silicon Valley, from National Semiconductor and Advanced Micro Devices to Applied Materials, LSI Logic, Actel, Atmel, Integrated Device Technologies, Xicor, Cypress, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, all of which from the outset heavily depended on immigrants in the laboratories and on engineering workbenches. LSI, IDT, Actel, Atmel, Xicor, and Sun were all founded or led by immigrants. Today, fully one-third of all the engineers in Silicon Valley are foreign born.

Now, with Silicon Valleys proliferating throughout the U.S. economy, with Silicon Deserts, Prairies, Mountains, and even Alleys being hopefully launched from Manhattan to Oregon, immigration becomes ever more vital to the future of the U.S. economy. And microchips are just the beginning. On the foundation of silicon have arisen world-leading software and medical equipment industries almost equally dependent on immigrants. As spearhead of the fastest growing U.S. industry, software, Microsoft offers some of the most coveted jobs in the U.S. economy. But for vital functions, it still must turn to immigrants for 5% of its domestic work force, despite the difficult and expensive legal procedures required to import an alien.

In recent congressional testimony, Ira Rubenstein, a Microsoft attorney, declared that immigration bars could jeopardize the 58% of its revenue generated overseas, threaten American dominance of advanced “client-server” business applications, and render “stillborn” the information superhighway. In particular, Corning and other producers of fiber-optic technology have faced a severe shortage of native engineers equipped to pursue this specialty crucial to both telecommunications and medical instruments.

With U.S. high school students increasingly shunning mathematics and the hard sciences, America is the global technology and economic leader in spite of, not because of, any properties of the American gene pool or dominant culture. America prevails only because it offers the freedom of enterprise and innovation to people from around the world.

A decision to cut back legal immigration today, as Congress is contemplating, is a decision to wreck the key element of the American technological miracle. After botching the issues of telecom deregulation and tax rate reduction, and wasting a year on Hooverian myths about the magic of a balanced budget, the Republican Congress now proposes to issue a deadly body blow to the intellectual heart of U.S. growth. Congress must not cripple the new Manhattan Projects of the U.S. economy in order to pursue some xenophobic and archaic dream of ethnic purity and autarky.

This article appeared in the December 18, 1995, issue of The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted by permission. © Dow Jones & Co., Inc., 1995.

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    Mr. Gilder is a fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute.