Changing the Tune on American Competitiveness

January 23rd, 2007

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America’s economy is, without dispute, the largest and strongest in the world.

Yet in talking about issues related to America’s ability to compete in the global economy, too many progressives resort to a pessimistic message that implies we are on the brink of decline. We’re falling behind in math and science. We don’t produce enough engineers. South Korea has better cell phone coverage, and fill-in-the-blank-developing-country spends more than we do on research.

Proponents of this type of message might think that by creating an atmosphere of crisis, the American public will become more willing to make American competitiveness a public policy priority. Instead, this approach is more likely to backfire. If anything, a negative message may spur Americans to become less willing to support important initiatives that will advance America’s competitive lead.

Take, for example, the on-again, off-again debate over the expansion of the H-1B visa program for foreign high-skilled workers who want to work in the United States. This program allows a small number of high-skilled temporary workers (mostly in computer science and other technical fields) into the US for up to six years, and growing this program has been a top priority for both businesses and for policymakers who see the advantage of attracting high-skilled workers to America.

Proponents of program expansion say that more H-1B workers are necessary because America has a shortage of engineers and that without these foreign workers, American companies will be forced to offshore. Opponents of program expansion, however, argue that the presence of H-1B workers depresses wages and contributes to unemployment.

Both arguments send a highly negative message about the capacity of American workers to compete and to fill the needs of the American economy. But in times like ours when many Americans are feeling anxious about the impacts of globalization, the message of H-1B opponents is much more likely to resonate.

Progressives who want to marshal greater support for initiatives to bolster American competitiveness should instead adopt a new message that builds off America’s strengths instead of dwelling on our weaknesses. In the context of the H-1B program, for example, proponents of program expansion should use a positive message of reform: “We need more H-1B workers not because America is falling behind but because America is doing well. Our economy is strong enough to absorb all of the available talent we have at home as well as from abroad. However, the H-1B program needs to be reformed so that it is better for the American economy and better for American workers.”

You can read more about our ideas on this topic in our memo laying out the details about our strategy on H-1B expansion.
We hope this memo will provide a useful example of how progressives can recast their overall message on American competitiveness. With a positive message about America’s ability to lead the global economy, we think the public will be more willing to accept greater investments in creating innovation, including by attracting talented workers to the US from around the world.