The potential arc of this economic downturn should be sobering for Americans.  We are increasing viewed as akin to a third-world country, or at least a developing country.  To wit:

[W]ould-be immigrants from India and China are finding new career opportunities at home as those economies grow relatively quickly while the U.S. economy sags and its political climate appears less welcoming.

Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied H-1B visas, said that trend has been compounded by what he sees as rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. "The best and the brightest who would normally come here are saying, ‘Why do we need to go to a country where we are not welcome, where our quality of life would be less [emphasis added], and we would be at the bottom of the social ladder?’" Mr. Wadhwa said.

The gist of this story is that the H-1B visas that are required for highly skilled people to be hired by American companies are down sharply.  Historically, all the allotted visas were snapped up, sometimes in a matter of hours after they are offered by the U.S. government.  The reason, for the most part, is that the tanking economy  has simply lessened the number of jobs for which these potential employees are needed, mainly in the high-tech industry.

But within the story, there are other dynamics that offer a glimpse of where we’re headed as a country.  We like to think of ourselves as the birthplace of great ideas and especially technological innovation.  Maybe not.

While the number of visa holders is small compared with the U.S. work force, their contribution is huge, employers say. For example, last year 35% of Microsoft’s patent applications in the U.S. came from new inventions by visa and green-card holders [emphasis added], according to company general counsel Brad Smith.

Google Inc. also says that the H-1B program allowed it to tap top talent that was crucial to its development. India native Krishna Bharat, for example, joined the firm in 1999 through the H-1B program, and went on to earn several patents while at Google. He was credited by the company as being the key developer of its Google News service. Today, he holds the title of distinguished research scientist.

Many politicians like to make the argument that the U.S. has the best and brightest and our systems are the envy of the world.  Lately, you hear especially Republicans making the claim (which is patently false) that we have the greatest medical system in the world.  Maybe if you want to get a tummy-tuck, but our health outcomes are mediocre compared to other countries.  Granted much of that may be due to our poor diet.  But we aren’t the best at everything.

The falloff in H-1B visa applications is also attributed to the anti-immigrant prejudice we are perceived as embracing.  Moreover, American companies, who must prove they can’t find Americans workers with the skills they need before being granted an H-1B visa, don’t cotton to having their motives questioned.

[I]mmigration lawyers say some would-be employers are put off by a crackdown on fraud. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the H-1B program, has been dispatching inspectors on surprise company visits to verify that H-1B employees are performing the jobs on the terms specified. The fraud-detection unit in coming months is expected to inspect up to 20,000 companies with H-1Bs and other temporary worker visas.

"It’s an invasive procedure that is both stressful for the employer and the foreign national employee," said Milwaukee lawyer Jerome Grzeca, whose employment-visa business is down 40% since last year.

Politicians, of course, like to claim that these foreigners are taking jobs away from Americans.  Well, be careful what you wish for.  Soon, they may be taking the best jobs, keeping them for themselves in country, and exporting other jobs to Americans, whose crashing economy has forced them to work for less.

If people, especially those who are driving invention and tech progress, don’t want to come here, in part because they feel their “quality of life would be less,” what does that say about our future?

Will the dynamic that we’ve had for the past decades, indeed centuries, change?  Will India and China begin to outsource their work to Americans who are adjusting to lower wages and investments?  Will we become the new Indians and Chinese – skilled but more cost-efficient because of our lowered standard of living?