Beat the Press

Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting


Confusion on “Free Trade”

Several comments and e-mails on my last post on trade expressed confusion about restrictions on highly educated foreign workers in the United States. (There was one complaint about repetition – as long as the press repeats the error, I will repeat the complaint.)

These restrictions take two forms. The first is formal licensing restrictions. The highest paid professionals, like medicine, law, dentistry, and accounting all have licensing requirements. These requirements present a confusing patchwork (in most areas, each state has its own requirements) that makes it extremely difficult for foreign professionals to get licensed to practice their profession in the United States.

If we applied the same rules to these professions as “free traders” did to manufacturing, we would set a single national standard in each profession that would be based exclusively on legitimate health and safety considerations, just as the W.T.O. and other trade pacts require in the case of safety standards for manufactured goods. These standards would be fully transparent and the tests would be administered throughout the world (by U.S. certified officials) so that smart kids in India, China, or Mexico could as easily become certified to practice medicine or law in the U.S. as kids raised in New York. People who do not support this standardization of licensing requirements are protectionists, not free traders.

The second point relates to rules for hiring foreign workers (including those on H1B visas) more generally. If a university or newspaper wants to hire a foreign professor or journalist, it must claim that there were no qualified U.S. citizens (or green card holders) for the job. It cannot just say that it wanted to hire a foreign worker for a lower wage than U.S. workers demand, in the same way that Wal-Mart buys foreign-made clothes because they are cheaper than U.S. made clothes.

As a practical matter, this restriction is not tightly enforced. However, no one has tried to establish Wal-Mart universities or newspapers where they completely staff the institutions with foreign workers, who might be every bit as qualified as their U.S. born counterparts, but willing to work for half the wage.

I will pre-empt one silly response. The number of foreign reporters, university professors etc. who are trained to U.S. standards (including fluency in English) might be relatively limited today, but that is because they do not have an open door to work here. No one built textile factories in China to export to the U.S. until they knew that they had an open door for their exports. Similarly, you will not see millions of Chinese/Indians/Mexicans etc. train to work as reporters and university professors in the United States until they know the door is open to them. Again, real free traders support opening this door. Those who oppose opening the door (a group that includes the top trade negotiators in both the Clinton and Bush administrations) are protectionist. Let’s see how long it takes the reporters (who benefit from protectionism) to get the story straight.

I have a fuller discussion of this issue in the "Doctors and Dishwashers" chapter of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, which is available as a free e-book.


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