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Monday, December 19, 2011

U.S. Visa Fast-Track For Rich Investors

The New York Times reported in December 2011 that affluent foreigners had been rushing to take advantage of a U.S. immigration program. The foreign applicants must invest at least $500,000 in construction projects within the United States. The number of applicants had nearly doubled since the end of 2008 to more than 3,800 in the 2011 fiscal year. The intent of the program is to spur economic development at a time of high unemployment. Yet the program has also been characterized as a cash-for-visas scheme. Besides the question of whether the program’s rules have been stretched in New York City to qualify projects in prosperous areas for special concessions, an ethical question can be raised concerning who should get a visa.

Obviously, the program’s designers must have known that only wealthy people could qualify. A public-interest ethical argument could be made that they deserve a green card because they contribute to economic development out of which jobs for Americans can ensue. Indeed, to the extent that the additional investment results in more economic activity, the visitors making the investment in 2011 could have been helping to forestall a double-dip recession. This was a distinct possibility at the time, given the E.U. debt crisis.

The ethical issue is in the exclusion of people who are not wealthy. The principle of fairness would seem to mandate that just as many non-rich foreigners be granted green cards above the ordinary limit. However, this would seem to be rather artificial—a sort of tit for tat—as in “we’ll accept your tax cut if you accept ours.” Moreover, in the context of high unemployment, any such increase in visas should not add to the supply of labor.

John Rawls suggested that in designing such a system as applying for a green card, a veil of ignorance as to whether one will be rich or poor should be utilized. Rawls’ thinking was that if the designers cannot know whether they or their friends will be rich or poor, then the proposed system design will be fair (i.e., there would be the chance that one’s friends are poor foreigners unable to get a green card). While fair in itself, this ethical device may not adequately take into account the public interest that could be satisfied by only one segment (e.g., the rich). Should the U.S. renounce the possibility of more economic development, particularly at a time of high unemployment, just because poor and middle-class foreigners cannot participate?

Related to the matter of income and wealth, it can be asked from both the public interest and ethical standpoints whether capital investment is more valuable economically than highly skilled and educated foreigners. To be sure, the latter ought not crowd out citizens and existing residents who have comparable skills and knowledge, and it is presumably possible to further train and educate existing citizens and residents.

For example, the very same issue of the New York Times containing the story of the green cards for foreign investors reported that M.I.T. was announcing an expanded program that would still allow anyone anywhere to take M.I.T. courses online free of charge, but would add online labs, self-assessments and student-to-student discussion. Also, for a small charge, a certificate can be obtained. At the time, the university’s free OpenCourseWare included nearly 2,100 courses and had been used by more than 100 million people. Rafael Reif, the provost, gave the following as the operating assumption: “There are many people who would love to augment their education by having access to M.I.T. content, people who are very capable to earn a certificate from M.I.T.” To be sure, a certificate would not be a degree, but in terms of non-professional jobs the former may be sufficient. “The most important thing is that it’ll be a certificate that will clearly state that a body sanctioned by M.I.T. says you have gained mastery,” Reif added. The notion that cost (and debt) ought not be an obstacle to a natural drive to learn more, whether in terms of skills or knowledge, is foreign in the United States (and increasingly in Europe as well).


Yet from the standpoint of economic development as well as jobs, viewing education as an investment rather than as a purchased product would likely pay substantial dividends. Where such an approach to vocational training and higher education falls short for citizens and residents, welcoming the best and the brightest from abroad—even training and educating them at online programs such as M.I.T’s—may be an investment policy even more beneficial than that of attracting additional capital investment in construction projects.



Sources:
Tamar Lewin, “M.I.T. Plans to Expand Its Free Online Courses,” The New York Times, December 19, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/education/mit-expands-free-online-courses-offering-certificates.html

Patrick McGeehan and Kirk Semple, “Rules Stretched as Green Cards Go to Investors,” The New York Times, December 19, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/nyregion/new-york-developers-take-advantage-of-financing-for-visas-program.html