ethical lines

There’s a good discussion about H1B visas
going on in the comments of my last post, with some interesting
perspective provided by Jen, who actually hires programmers.  But I
wanted to pick up on a different aspect of the discussion.

GoriGirl commented that I was
missing the point by focusing on inequality within the US — she
suggested that by employing workers from poorer countries, it would
reduce worldwide inequality.  I’m not convinced that’s
necessarily true about the H1B visa program as currently implemented,
but I’m willing to concede the claim that I’m more concerned about the
displaced American workers than I am about the upwardly mobile workers
from other countries.  And I’m not sure how there’s a moral basis for
that.  I certainly can’t come up with one based on either utilitarianism or Rawls’ "Veil of Ignorance.

We’ve recently been having some mice in the kitchen, so I bought some
traps.  The kind that bash their little mousie brains out.  And within
the first 24 hours, we caught two mice.  And I feel badly about it, and
sorry for the little pathetic things.  On the other hand, I don’t feel
the least bit guilty or sorry about squashing mosquitoes.  And, while I
could try to find an ethical basis for the distinction (the mosquitoes
I kill are generally in the act of biting me, while the mice are just
taking food), the truth is that I think I feel badly about killing the
mice because they’re cute and furry. Aesthetics, not ethics.

Last night I was reading a collection of short stories by Orson Scott
Card, and a few of them are set in Mormon communities, and so he
explains in a background essay a bit about the system of "wards" that
are an organizing structure of Mormon communal life.   It made me think
about whether it’s an inherent part of human nature to value your
fellow citizens over citizens of another country.  I think it’s natural
to value your family members, and your neighbors, but I’m not sure
about anything much larger than that.  I do think that it’s part of American ideology to say that people have a claim on us because of fellow citizenship, rather than ethnic origin, or race, or religious.

9 Responses to “ethical lines”

  1. Kendra Says:

    Two things:
    The mice – I agree with you….they’re so cute! Then I rememeber the diseases they could be carrying. Aesthetics win.
    Secondly – charity begins at home (our US home). Again, I agree with you….let our displaced American workers fill the jobs first. But then I wonder if they would be willing to do some of the jobs those from other countries would do for the pay they would receive.

  2. Amy P Says:

    When we had a mouse problem, I felt sorry for them and the first one we caught was humanely released outdoors. However, at some point, it became clear that there was a large family of them, and we moved on to poison, sticky traps, and an electric “Rat Zapper.” By the end of the episode, we had variously dealt with seven different individual mice.

  3. Christine Says:

    Inequality in the US is something I question in regard to visas. I often wonder where displaced workers go when replacement workers are coming through visas. Are these visas widening the income gap particularly if these are high paying jobs. Something has to be done in terms of education to start producing these high tech workers. But seeing that alot of the country is still in need of math and science teachers in K-12 grades I worry.

  4. jen Says:

    Well, when it comes to the pure reasoning behind making things fair here vs. making things fair everywhere, I can see both sides.
    But setting aside the various logical arguments, when I look at how much of this plays out in the real world, I have my doubts about this idea of tolerating unfairness at home in the name of reducing unfairness abroad. Many people I’ve known who talk in this way really aren’t that concerned about unfairness at all. I wonder if the real goal is to make the problem so large that no one can never really bring about change. So they broaden scope until it’s an impossibly huge problem, and they get to stick with their cozy status quo.
    If you look at the current H1-B situation, I believe the “fairness” of bringing people from overseas is massively masking the inherent unfairnesses and problems with the US educational system. Many, many people are invested in maintaining status quo for our ed system. And another large contingent of people are hugely enriched by the high-quality work product they get at a bargain using H1-Bs. And so the fairness thing becomes a convenient screen for anyone.
    At the end of the day, when I see someone who is truly committed to economic fairness, they are usually working at the community level. The people I know who tithe (or more) focus locally. I’m more willing to believe they are sincere.

  5. Jackie Says:

    My anecdotal evidence: I know that here in Baltimore, we have relied heavily on teachers from the Phillippines to fill spots in our public schools for the past few years. I don’t think they are displacing American workers, and I don’t see any inequality caused for Americans as a result– these are some of the most difficult teaching jobs around, and there simply aren’t enough American teachers who are willing to take them (myself included).
    Is there hard evidence that American workers are getting displaced, or is this a strawman?

  6. Christine Says:

    I think nursing is one area, or healthcare in general, that can be used as a good example about displacement. There is alot of hiring of nurses and other medical staff from outside the U.S., but yet it is one of the biggest growing fields. Colleges are graduating nurses in great numbers. The one bright thing is that some of the nurses brought via visas are starting to fight back in terms of their contract violations – the recent legal case of nurses from the Philipines. That case brings up one serious issue that hires within the U.S. would not have been allowed to walk off the job without a major penalty. Another good example is how the medical insurance and legal industry puts some medical specialites at risk – doctor flight. So hiring foreign doctors might make up for this lack of health care providers or the use of nurse practitioners. With medicine one could make the case that the system is encouraging outside hire in some situations.

  7. Gori Girl Says:

    There is a surprising lack of research available on the effects of the H1-B visa program – which is why I chose the topic to do for my Economics Senior Thesis a few years back.
    I was looking specifically at the computer industry (my whole family, excluding my little economic self, works there). So the results might not hold for things like health care, as Christine discusses above. Anyways on the demand side of things, I found that the number of computer related majors graduating from US colleges had no effect on the applications for H1-B workers by US companies. ]
    For domestic (computer industry) workers, there was basically no effect on unemployment numbers, except for one year – either 2001 or 2002 – where the recession & dotcom bust had just fully played out in the industry. That year, H1-B workers pushed domestic unemployment (in the computer industry) up about half a percentage point, I believe. There was a statistically significant, but small, negative effect on wage for domestic workers from H1-Bs. Basically, the difference was that of a few months’ wage inflation. So, for example, if you were a domestic worker hired in March with H1-B competitors, you’d get paid the wage that a worker hired in January with no H1-B competitors would get paid. Not a large enough difference for me to worry too much about it, really.

  8. Gori Girl Says:

    Oh, and I may be unduly influenced by Peter Singer’s work on the topic of worldwide inequality (altho I think his basic argument is generally flawed), but I do believe it is wrong for the average person to focus on small marginal benefits in the US & Western world through charitable works when that money & time can be spent on charitable works in developing nations.
    For instance, you can spend $27 and give a child in India medical care and schooling for a year, or spend $300 for a village health care worker for a year (both through CRY America). Or you can setup your money in a micro finance organization like Kiva where it’ll keep on giving.
    There’s just no way an average person can have as large an effect with so little here in the US compared to what you can do internationally. Do note, however, that I conditioned my statement by “average person”. If you have unique talents – perhaps you’re a fantastic tutor in math – it may make more sense to channel your efforts towards the areas where your talents will have the largest effect.
    Also, we should all be aware that many people (including myself) partially choose our charities by the personal enjoyment we’ll get out of our work. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – it’s nice to see the kid you were Big Brother or Big Sister to blossom, for instance. But if you’re interested in helping the most people out as you can, you are almost certainly not going to be able to do it by focusing your efforts domestically.

  9. Amy P Says:

    “But if you’re interested in helping the most people out as you can, you are almost certainly not going to be able to do it by focusing your efforts domestically.”
    Gori Girl makes a very strong argument–as a former Peace Corps volunteer, I’ve seen how much more you can do with the same money in a poorer country. There’s also the countervailing issue that I think we have a duty to help those close to ourselves: children, parents, relatives, neighbors, friends, fellow citizens, etc. There needs to be some kind of balance, but there’s no clear formula for how to achieve it. I’d also point out (putting on my evil conservative hat for a moment) that if we choose to channel our giving through the tax structure, it is inevitable that our money will be spent disproportionately on those who’ve already got quite a lot (speaking globally) and are politically influential. Over to you, bj!

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