For some reason, Silicon Valley's titans are encouraging Mark Zuckerberg to lead the charge on immigration visas. It's an odd choice.
Zuckerberg's creation, Facebook, contributes nothing to America's bottom line, and it has no hope of doing so.
What does Facebook make, exactly? It's a social network. If Facebook disappeared tomorrow, the world will quickly move on to something else. It will not be missed.
Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, wrote a provocative paper last year about genuine innovations, and Facebook did not get a good mention.
Gordon is interested in the types of innovations that change the world by extending life, raising productivity, and allowing for many other new things.
In history, these innovations range from the steam engine to indoor plumbing, the combustion engine, computers and the Internet.
Of Facebook, Gordon offers this exercise where people are asked to choose between two options: You can keep everything invented in the past decade, and that includes Facebook, Twitter and the iPad, or as the second option, "you have to give up running water and indoor toilets." Which option will you choose? The usual reaction, Gordon notes in his paper, is laughter because the choice is so obvious.
If Zuckerberg testifies in Congress and shows up at a press conference to talk about immigration, he may quickly become one of tech's most visible and recognized faces on immigration issues. The previous voice, Bill Gates, remains active but today is more behind the scenes. Lawmakers like star power on their panels, and Zuckerberg clearly has that.
But to borrow from the TV show Seinfeld, Facebook is "a show about nothing," and that is why Zuckerberg may be the perfect choice to lead the charge on immigration on Capitol Hill.
Here are three reasons why.
One: Facebook is about reducing ideas to their lowest common denominator
Even though most H-1B workers brought into the U.S. are starting at entry level, and work for IT services companies that offshore jobs, they are continually called "the best and the brightest." That is how professional messaging works. The messaging must be clear, easily digestible, and seemingly self-evident even when it is not. This is perfect for Facebook.
Zuckerberg's new group, FWD.us, keeps the high-tech immigration messaging consistent. It wants immigration reform that "allows us to hire the best of the best." This is probably no different than the messaging around hiring "best and the brightest."
What FWD.us plans to do is to reduce this message from a few words to a small mountain of Facebook "likes," and set them next to a pile of money. The idea is to put fear into wavering lawmakers with as much brute force as possible.
Two: Zuckerberg faces no opposition
There is no group representing IT workers. The people who raise concerns about unrestricted highly skilled immigration workers are mostly academics, the Programmer's Guild, and the IEEE-USA, a few other groups and a handful of lawmakers.
Among the outside groups, the IEEE-USA has the most impact. This engineering group wants restrictions on H-1B use and a more liberal permanent immigration policy aimed at advanced -egree holders. It knows how to knock on doors, and is influential with lawmakers of similar mind.
But the IEEE-USA is just one group. The technology industry spent $133 million in lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the sixth-largest industry by spending. The health industry and pharmaceuticals is in first place at $233 million.
Zuckerberg brings more money to the table and a fresh face. Lawmakers, who have Facebook links on their congressional homepages, will be interested in a meeting. Doors will open for him.
Three: Facebook will succeed because lawmakers are losing interest in R&D
FWD.us lists three initial goals, support for immigration reform, education reform and support for R&D.
If Zuckerberg is called to testify and is asked what the U.S. should be doing to encourage innovation, what will he say?
Will FWD.us encourage Congress to increase U.S. investments in the types of technologies that may help increase productivity, extend life, increase exports and expand the economy? Will it help lawmakers understand that long-term, multi-year investments will be needed to achieve quantum computing, robotics, superconducting supercomputing, exascale system development, and many other technologies?
The U.S. investment in R&D is slowing. The latest budget proposal increases R&D spending but at a pace that's less than inflation, but that's what President Barack Obama is aiming for. Congress will aim lower.
A cynical view is that in the area of hard science, the people behind FWC.us are lightweights. This makes them perfect for offering testimony to a Congress interested in gradually draining away science funding. This is why FWC.us may eventually fade away into semi-anonymity once the immigration battle ends.
Gordon isn't the only who says much of what's touted for innovation nowadays is closet clutter. Andre Geim, who won the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics, offered some thoughts about innovation in a piece he wrote recently for the Financial Times.
Geim is worried for the future in a world with an obsession for quick fixes and not on long-term investments. He wrote ... "in my dream, humans realize social media can make some people very rich but cannot save the planet. The latter requires new fundamental discoveries."