When historians look back, the early 21st century will go down as the era of the antihero. Antiheros have dominated television since Tony Soprano made his debut 20 years ago. Other antiheros on the small screen include Walter White (Breaking Bad), Frank Underwood (House of Cards), Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (The Americans), Nurse Jackie, and Donald Trump. It’s hard to love them, but – like a car crash – equally hard to avert your eyes.
Our obsession with antiheroes has progressed to the point that we crave to comprehend how they became so bad. An antihero origin story is the biggest movie of the season; Joker has sold over $750M in worldwide ticket sales and is on track to become the highest-grossing R-rated film in history. Its success inspired a Saturday Night Live parody: “from the studio that brought you Joker and the twisted minds at Sesame Workshop,” the gritty antihero origin story of Oscar the Grouch. “The once friendly neighborhood of Sesame Street has now become a haven of crime and corruption,” reports Guy Smiley of “ABCDEFG News.” Oscar is justifiably grouchy and surmises “if everyone calls you trash, and everyone treats you like trash, why don’t you just become trash?” Come to think of it, I can’t wait for the origin story of our current President, just as soon as he’s kicked out of office.
With all this interest, let me suggest the next blockbuster antihero origin story: the story of the tech skills gap denier. The skills gap denier is now a multi-headed hydra. There are journalists like Matt Yglesias: “The skills gap was a lie… a consequence of high unemployment rather than its cause. With workers plentiful, employers got choosier. Rather than investing in training workers, they demanded lots of experience and educational credentials.” There are academics like Andrew Weaver of UIUC and Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute: “no matter how you cut the data, there is no evidence of skills shortages.” And there are academics turned journalists like Paul Krugman: “By blaming workers for their own plight, the skills myth shifts attention away from the spectacle of soaring profits and bonuses.”
There are two common denominators of skills gap deniers. The first is that their politics veer left of center – often far left. The second is that they fail to come to the terms with the stubborn fact of unfilled jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 7.1 million open jobs posted by millions of employers who can’t all be wrong in failing to fill these positions. While some positions are lower skill, most aren’t. Millions are high-skill professional services positions in healthcare or technology and most demand specific digital skills. According to the IT trade group CompTIA, nearly a million are formal IT functions. Not coincidentally, the job site Indeed.com lists about a million open positions with salaries at or above $75,000. Last month, in an article titled “America’s Got Talent, Just Not Enough in IT,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a tech analyst who said “nearly a third of the most critical roles… are left unfilled after five months.” The Journal also cited a survey by staffing company Robert Half where more than 80% of large U.S. employers identified the tech skills gap as a top business challenge.
In denying millions of unfilled jobs, skills gap deniers are another example of the “up is down, black is white” thinking (or rather lack thereof) that is becoming numbingly commonplace on social media and in national life. And while refusal to accept facts, data, and science is increasingly associated with the Republican Party and especially President Trump who wants to cancel all federal government subscriptions to the country’s two great newspapers, the gritty origin story of the skills gap denier reveals this isn’t a coincidence.
Back in 2008, as the Great Recession raged and long before Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman took up the skills gap denier mantle, the Bush Administration promulgated a rule that extended the student visa policy known as Optional Practical Training (OPT) by an additional two years. As a result, foreign-born graduates could pretty much count on working for at least three years after completing a STEM degree at a U.S. college or university.
The rule change promised to attract millions of additional immigrants to the U.S. It would be good for American higher education and employers in need of STEM talent. But for over a decade now, OPT extension has been challenged in DC federal courts by the original skills gap denier: a group claiming an oversupply of STEM workers in the U.S. economy. Its argument boiled down to a U.S. Census study purporting to show that millions of U.S. STEM graduates are not working in STEM fields, and therefore presumably pushed out by a surplus of technical workers. But it was all willful misrepresentation because the Census study bizarrely included all social science graduates as STEM and excluded the following occupations from the category of STEM workers: academics, physicians, and managers.
The identity of this group is the gritty origin story of the antihero known as the skills gap denier. The plaintiff’s name is the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers and its muscle and funding come from lawyers who have a lengthy track record of arguing that up is down and black is white. The Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) describes itself as “defend[ing] the rights of individual Americans and their local communities from the harms and challenges posed by mass migration to the United States, both lawful and unlawful… Our vision is a nation where our borders are secure, the American people are no longer disadvantaged and harmed by the deleterious effects of unlawful immigration, and legal immigration levels are set at a rate consistent with the national interest.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that in the guise of an organization called Save Jobs USA, IRLI is also attacking the H-4 visa program, which permits spouses of H-1B visa recipients to work. And with success, as the Trump Administration has repeatedly confirmed its intent to rescind H-4 visas.
Who are the brilliant legal minds behind IRLI? Its Executive Director and General Counsel is Dale Wilcox who worked for a decade at Judicial Watch, the right wing advocacy organization where “he was involved in several seminal Judicial Watch investigations… including Filegate, Chinagate, Commercegate, and Pardongate.” Judicial Watch helped originate the conspiracy theory that Vince Foster was murdered by Bill and Hillary Clinton and filed 20 FOIA lawsuits involving Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Christopher Hajec, IRLI’s Director of Litigation, worked at the Center for Individual Rights and defended “videographer James O’Keefe in suits brought by former ACORN employees.” IRLI is a who’s who of right wing conspiracy theorists. And John Miano, a lawyer at IRLI, is co-author of a book that should be on every skills gap denier’s reading list: Sold Out: How High-Tech Billionaires & Bipartisan Beltway Crapweasels Are Screwing America’s Best & Brightest Workers.
Speaking of crapweasels, the origin of the skills gap denier is nativist, and probably racist – not far from where Donald J. Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator to attack Mexican immigrants. It’s a sad protectionist, isolationist place where the extreme right shakes hands with the extreme left, on the crazy side of the political spectrum.
One of last week’s higher education tempests in a teapot was the controversy at Harvard about the student newspaper – the Crimson – quoting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a story about an anti-ICE rally. Activist students were aghast because ICE “perpetuates violence and security threats against the people in this community.” In response, the Crimson came out with a statement citing the commonly accepted practice that “every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them.”
While I agree with the Crimson that ICE deserves an opportunity to respond, there’s a world of difference between a single quote and framing an issue as a legitimate debate. Climate change deniers are welcome to respond to reports on climate change, but reporters have a solemn duty to tell the truth and not give them equal airplay. (By the way, Judicial Watch describes climate science as “fraud science”.)
In the education and workforce arena, giving equal airplay to skills gap deniers is tantamount to giving equal airplay to climate change deniers or ICE. Conveniently, turns out it’s actually the same people!
And now that we’ve figured out the origin story of the skills gap denier, what’s up with the word “antihero” anyway? The Joker’s no hero. He’s a villain. And so is the skills gap denier.