Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Government and the STEM Crisis

We will take time out from the Syrian crisis, and the problem President Obama is experiencing in asking for support from people he has spent the last five years excoriating.

Because I recently read a fascinating article in the IEEE's Spectrum by Robert M. Charette "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth" on the political booms and busts of the STEM crisis.  That's the perennial idea that the US isn't producing enough Scientists, Technicians, Engineers, and Mathematicians (STEM): therefore more government spending and regulation.

Let's get the caveat in right here.  IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a professional association.  So it is the modern equivalent of a guild, with all that that implies.

According to Michael S. Teitenbaum, the STEM crisis "dates back to World War II."
Ever since then it has tended to run in cycles that he calls “alarm, boom, and bust.” He says the cycle usually starts when “someone or some group sounds the alarm that there is a critical crisis of insufficient numbers of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians” and as a result the country “is in jeopardy of either a national security risk or of falling behind economically.”
First we were falling behind the Soviets.  Then it was the Japanese.  Now it's the Indians and Chinese.  Therefore we must take action.  Only right now a lot of STEM college graduates can't find jobs and many of them leave STEM jobs for something else.

Really it's no mystery.  If you want government subsidy and/or appropriations you need to gussy up a crisis.  Government is force, so to justify force you need to show that the economy, absent government force, is not doing the job.  Therefore government spending.

Charette blows though an lot of numbers to show that there isn't a shortage of STEM-qualified people, but the bottom line is this:
And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.
Oh really.  And that brings us to the point.  A crisis means that employers can't find qualified people for love or money.  If employers are not bidding up the price of STEM workers then there is no shortage.  Government intervention is not required.  Subsidies are not needed.  Force is not justified.

Of course, the article's IEEE commenters know exactly what this is all about.  H-1B visas.  Employers like cheap labor and are happy to keep STEM wages down by importing STEM graduates from overseas with H-1B visas.   So they lobby for increased immigration, like right now with the comprehensive immigration bill.

Still, as one commenter says: "Let wages perform their signaling function and we [will] all be better off."

If only.  And how far is the average American willing to go?  Because you can make the argument about everything that we do with the government.  Education?  You really think that parents won't get education for their children if the government didn't do it?  Health care?  You really think that women wouldn't find a way to get health care for their families in the alternative universe where the government didn't trowel it on with a bulldozer?

On the one hand, we are all social cooperators who do things for other people every day.  On the other hand we are tribesmen that instinctively respond to the alarm signal to prepare for battle.

It's up to us to figure out when there's a real crisis, and when it's just a boy crying "Wolf!" -- as usual.

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