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.

7 comments on “Can Incremental Reform Hurt Your Chances at Comprehensive Reform?
  • Someone close to me is being forced out of the country this week due to the US’s jacked immigration policies. She’s not the first and, I fear, won’t be the last immensely gifted, value-creating individual we send away.

    At its core, I think an immigration policy based on the idea that the lottery of geography at birth should determine an individual’s opportunities in life is deeply immoral. I wish there was a mightier movement to spread this meme, rather than what we have now: Two camps arguing over which people to keep out and which to subject to ridiculous amounts of bureaucracy and hoop-jumping.

  • Health care reform may not be the best analogy to use here since it is, in this as in so many other respects, something of a special case. Our government is arguing over incremental versus comprehensive reform, which leads people to think that that is a legitimate choice, but the reality is that incremental reform is the same as no reform at all, for the simple fact that the system is completely unsustainable without comprehensive reform. This isn’t a matter of opinion: demographics are inexorably shrinking the pool of healthy (that is, younger) people, who finance the health care of unhealthy (that is, older) people. In the case of the immigration issue you raise, a lack of reform would appear to merely put us at a competitive disadvantage. Incremental health care reform simply postpones and exacerbates an inevitable disaster, something that can only be avoided with comprehensive reform. Incremental reform solves short-term re-election problems for individual politicians; it doesn’t address health care problems in any meaningful way. But it is also the case that a “big win” is inevitable, because there is no choice: demographics make the present course completely unsustainable. It’s a mistake in this context to think of incremental change as being part of a “process of change.” It is simply a mis-step on the path of an inevitable sea change.

  • What’s the analogy this has brought to my mind? – something about not being able to cross a chasm in 2 steps, but in one flying leap… Can’t think of the correct phrasing or who is attributed to it, but I know you collect quotes and I probably found the initial one through you anyway!

  • You’ll notice that the comments from the VCs indicate that they “support” broader immigration reform, but that isn’t actually their goal in this effort. They don’t view it as a foot in the door for bigger changes. They simply want to solve a problem that they have in their businesses. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t confuse the broader goals of others with theirs. After the Startup Visa passes, you will not see them as figures in the broader immigration reform issue.

  • Ben

    I am one of those immigrant entrepreneurs struggling to cope with the erratic immigration system.

    I have a day job, not by choice but by requirement to hold a full time job till I get my green card. Same job with little or no pay increase till I get my green card. I have waited in line for 6 years and looks like I have to wait for another 3 years, all this after spending thousands of dollars in fees. (BTW I hold masters in engineering and a one in business from 2 top US schools)

    I could not hold off on my entrepreneurial ambitions and I partnered in a start up 2 years back. Now with a growing business (30 employees) my work week of 80 hours with little or no family time, just makes me think, is it all worth it? Will I ever get time to spend with my infant kid? Will I ever get back to healthy myself? Do I need to stick to a 9-5 job with decent pay? Do I need to stay here to build a business provide employement, while going thru pain even to get my drivers license renewed?

    BTW: Founders visa, requires a million in investment, what about the people who want to use their personal savings for few thousand dollars?

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