Can Incremental Reform Hurt Your Chances at Comprehensive Reform?

I am excited to see entrepreneurs and venture capitalists lead the Start-Up Visa movement, which seeks to “help raise awareness and change policy around the EB-5 visa, which enables investors from other countries to get a visa in exchange for starting a business in the US with $1M in investment capital and creating 10 US jobs.”

Immigrants are an essential part of the Silicon Valley story; they have founded some of our most cherished companies like Google and Intel. And yet, every year the United States turns away educated and talented entrepreneurs who want to start companies in our country; or worse, forces already-in-progress start-up CEOs to leave. The Start-Up Visa aims to make that less common.

Kirk Wylie has posted some criticisms of the Start-Up Visa movement. Among other things, he says:

Because when I hear about things like a Founder Visa program, what I really hear is a general denunciation of US immigration policies and procedures. What I really hear is “We can’t hire the people that are necessary for the industries that are important to the country, and we’re picking the edge case that we understand the most.” That’s not good enough. The edge case isn’t the problem, the system is the problem.

Kirk argues that we need larger-scale immigration reform and that the proposed Start-Up Visa doesn’t solve the bigger problem. VCs Fred Wilson and Dave McClure both comment on the post saying, in essence, “baby steps.”

Dave comments:

i’m in support of long-term change to broad-reaching immigration policy in favor of more open borders. HOWEVER, that issue will take time & energy to achieve. OTOH, there is EXISTING legislation that addresses the “edge case” for investor visas that we can quickly modify with a very simple change to make an incremental step forward.

thus, while i’m not AGAINST making the world safe & wonderful for rainbows & unicorns & everyone else, i’m also not a patient person… and i sure as hell don’t feel like making this step forward is AGAINST the larger goal — in fact, it’s probably helpful in making incremental change happen sooner, and paving the way for more to come.

Fred comments:

the US immigration system is wrong on so many levels. the startup visa idea is about addressing something we can fix quickly because there isn’t much political opposition. i agree that what we should really be fighting for is wholesale overhaul. but perfect is not the enemy of the good. we should do this because we can.

Both Dave and Fred hold the assumption that an improvement on the margins is better than no improvement at all. Dave specifically says that taking a small step does not hurt the chances of taking a large step later on.

This is a logical intuition. But I wonder. In my post titled Symbolic Lip Service in the Form of Small, Ineffective Actions, I argue that sometimes taking a small step in pursuit of large goals — subscribing to a personal finance blog as a first step toward saving more and spending less — can actually lower the likelihood of you ever doing the big thing as you can more easily delude yourself into thinking you’ve taken care of it.

Political strategists grapple with this all the time. Should we settle for incremental health care reform as better than no reform at all? Or if we do that, political capital expended and the attention of the people exhausted for the short and medium term, do we miss our opportunity to pass more comprehensive reform? Health care cannot and will not command the nation’s attention every year. “Now or never” is too extreme; but “now or in 7 years, maybe” is probably accurate.

If you obtain a minor victory, your critics will exaggerate the victory and exaggerate their concessions that made it happen. This makes it difficult to return to the well the following year without being branded greedy and unaware.

I don’t know where I come down on immigration reform and and I don’t know whether the Start-Up Visa represents a strategically smart marginal improvement or whether, if it hits the big stage in Washington, its success will lower the likelihood or at least significantly delay the necessary large scale reform.

Bottom Line: Implementing tough, large-scale changes — whether in a political system or in an individual life — usually requires incremental change. But in situations where status quo inertia is most intense and where quid-pro-quo obsessed interest groups are most entrenched, can incremental reform actually hurt your chances at achieving a big win?


Immigration policy is complicated not least because it awakens people’s nationalism. The H-1B visa debate, which has been raging for several years, is in part about whether American companies cannot meet their personnel needs with American workers and therefore need to tap an international pool. Here is my long-ish analysis of the situation. In short, I protest the premise that a worker already in America deserves first dibs on a job offered by an American company and find nothing wrong with a company which would rather hirer an equally qualified worker who will do the job for less pay. By challenging the premise I don’t care about all the arguments over whether there is in fact a domestic labor shortage in certain computer science professions, why salaries for engineers hasn’t increased at a rate commensurate with a shortage, etc.

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