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One of the most compelling – and most often made – arguments in favor of higher U.S. legal immigration levels has to do with innovation. Supposedly, without encouraging ever more foreign workers to move to America, the nation will never be able to maintain its global technology leadership, and ultimately an acceptable, much less improved, degree of prosperity. (See, e.g., here and here.)

Part of the rationale for a welcoming posture, as indicated above, has to do with policies toward highly skilled and educated immigrants in particular (like those admitted under the H-1B program), and the special visa quotas allotted to them. But as the Washington Post editorial board recently made clear, there’s a more general view that immigration is especially good at providing America with “a steady supply of working-age strivers” and that “This nation’s prosperity, pluck, ambition and effervescent character are the products of more than 100 million immigrants who have sought better lives in the United States since its founding.” In other words, immigrants are far more likely than the native-born population to possess the risk-taking and general entrepreneurial traits that lead to so much technological progress.

I’ve already debunked one aspect of these claims here, but because they keep popping up, I keep thinking more about them, and have come across more data that not only casts further doubt on the technology-related need for more immigrants, but that indicate that the immigration cheerleaders are putting the cart before the horse.

For instance, it’s widely agreed that the U.S. tech sector is considerably healthier than Germany’s. In this vein, a widely followed global innovation index issued each year by a United Nations agency ranks the former third in the world and the latter ninth. Ninth isn’t so bad, but it’s at the least curious in this regard that for decades at least, Germany has admitted many more immigrants as a share of total population than has the United States.

Indeed, in 1990 (a good starting point, since current Germany came into being with the reunification that year of the former Federal Republic that comprised the nation’s western part and the former Communist run east), Germany’s immigrant inflow of 1.256 million represented 1.59 percent of the new country’s 79.054 million inhabitants. The 1.536 million green cards awarded by the United States that year accounted for only 0.60 percent of its 252.120 million people. (My official sources for German and U.S. annual immigration totals are here and here, respectively. For population, I used the reliable Worldometers.info website.)

But maybe Germany has made up some ground on the United States during this nearly three-decade period? Not according to this study last year from the Cato Institute – one of America’s foremost supporters of much more lenient U.S. immigration policies. If you look at Figure 2, you see that in 2018, Germany was lagging the United States just about as badly in the number of patents it received in the United States (still the world’s most important market for technology) as it was in 1990.

There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that its relatively large immigration inflows have given Germany much of an edge in entrepreneurship, either. As of 2019, according to this source, Germany’s business start-up rate was less than half that of the United States.

This chart, moreover, makes clear that it’s not just the U.S.-Germany comparison that mucks up the ostensible relationship between tech prowess and entrepreneurship on the one hand, and immigration levels on the other. After all, in 2019, India’s start-up rate was also much higher than Germany’s – even though India is much better known for sending folks abroad than for attracting them. Foreigners aren’t exactly flocking to live in China, either, yet its start-up rate matches Germany’s.

That Cato Institute study provides more complicating international comparisons. That Figure 2 shows that as of 2018, Israel has forged into the lead as the country receiving the largest number of U.S. patents. And its performance started taking off in the mid-1990s. Yet in 1995, when Germany and Israel were roughly on a par in their ability to receive American patents, the 76,361 immigrants Israel admitted in 1995 equalled 1.36 percent of its population of 5.619 million – not far from relatively un-innovative Germany’s figures. By the time it became the international leader, Israel’s immigration rate had fallen to 0.32 percent of its 8.972 million population – much lower than that of Germany, which had become a clear als-ran on the U.S. patent scene – and roughly the same as the recent U.S. rate which has been decried as so woefully inadequate.

And look at the other top performers in Figure 2 other than the United States and Israel. Taiwan hasn’t been anything close to an immigration magnet, either, and ditto for South Korea. As for Japan, it’s long been known as one of the most xenophobic countries in the world (as noted in that Washington Post editorial).

What do the non-U.S. “patent tigers” identified by Cato have in common? As author Jonathan M. Barnett puts it:

Short on consumers, resources, and labor (and saddled with geographic separation from key consumer markets), the patent tigers (especially Israel and Taiwan) were compelled to specialize in innovation-intensive segments of the global supply chain in which ingenuity, rather than labor or natural resources, conferred a competitive advantage.”

As a result, as widely agreed, they’ve worked hard to create top-notch educational systems for their own populations. German education is highly regarded, too, but it’s often observed that its history and culture in particular have discouraged self-starters.

The lessons for the United States seem pretty clear here.  On the one hand, it’s got lots of the overall population, raw materials and domestic markets that the patent tigers lack.  On the other, unlike Germany, it still enjoys an entrepreneur- and innovation-friendly culture.  If Americans did a much better job of educating their own people, especially in the math, science, and technology fields, they should be able to keep its global technology edge even while controlling immigration more tightly. 

If, however, the nation continues to coddle underperforming school systems, especially at the primary and secondary levels, the argument for relying on immigration to fill the tech gap will look all the stronger.  And in a supreme irony, the ready availability of highly skilled and educated immigrants will keep reducing national incentives to get the national education act together.