Have you ever heard of Paul Graham? Prior to a few hours ago, I had not. Though he is apparently a venture capitalist of some vague renown, specializing in the subsidized gestation of technology concerns. Certainly a worthy endeavor, and one of obviously greater priority than the mere future of a nation. Though that was an assertion, which we will extend as inviolable and simply move forward with a presumption of acceptance. Because this is how such matters are settled in Silicon Valley. But first, here is Paul Graham.
And this is Lee Majors.
But that’s not important right now.
What is important is that Mr. Graham is (apparently) a very smart man who says very dumb things in very dumb ways. And do you know why that dichotomy has evolved into such a frequently observed phenomenon? Because manipulating the obtuse is a goldmine. In this instance the attempt is so plodding and risible, that any reader of esteemed pedigree can’t avoid acknowledging the intended insult. They really aren’t much even trying anymore and articles as those that follow aren’t compiled for discerning consumption. But are instead simply fig leaves over the exercise of naked power. Your dispossession is a fait accompli. But if it offers any feeble succor, perhaps this will help you believe it is all for the good. Or not. We’re indifferent to your anxiety regardless. And with that preamble dispensed, here is Mr. Graham’s index finger in the nose and middle finger in the air brief on why America requires more.
American technology companies want the government to make immigration easier because they say they can’t find enough programmers in the US. Anti-immigration people say that instead of letting foreigners take these jobs, we should train more Americans to be programmers. Who’s right?
The technology companies are right.
Would you be surprised to learn that this represents the extent of Mr. Graham’s rebuttal to the opposing position?
You think we should be training more American programmers if they are so desperately needed? Wrong.
Actually, he does continue in helpfully advising what we don’t comprehend. Though “WRONG” would have been a less egregious parry.
What the anti-immigration people don’t understand is that there is a huge variation in ability between competent programmers and exceptional ones, and while you can train people to be competent, you can’t train them to be exceptional. Exceptional programmers have an aptitude for and interest in programming that is not merely the product of training.
The US has less than 5% of the world’s population. Which means if the qualities that make someone a great programmer are evenly distributed, 95% of great programmers are born outside the US.
If plutocrat tech moguls are wise and just, we should heed their advice. Actually that would be another false premise. Though if liberal blank-slate dogma were filtered from the debate, would evidence and observation lead us to conclude that the “qualities that make someone a great programmer” are evenly or not evenly distributed? Are the qualities that make someone a great sprinter also evenly distributed? A great basketball player? A chess grandmaster? A StarCraft champion? Ping pong players?
The answer so manifest as to be unmentionable is that talent in any field of endeavor is not evenly distributed. And how Western society has evolved to address this slight to The Narrative is quite simple. Where whites dominate, anyone could succeed and only racism weighs the scales. Where non-whites dominate, we see only the results of innate skill, individual determination, and artifacts of their culture’s superiority.
The anti-immigration people have to invent some explanation to account for all the effort technology companies have expended trying to make immigration easier.
Yes, and that invention took many long seconds to conceive. Technology companies want to increase the size of both their labor and consumer pools in order to suppress wages and pump revenues.
So they claim it’s because they want to drive down salaries. But if you talk to startups, you find practically every one over a certain size has gone through legal contortions to get programmers into the US, where they then paid them the same as they’d have paid an American. Why would they go to extra trouble to get programmers for the same price? The only explanation is that they’re telling the truth: there are just not enough great programmers to go around.
No that is not the only explanation. And I deeply detest such blithe sophistry from a man who presumably understands the fundamentals of supply and demand. How many times I have heard this ridiculous position advanced in the agriculture and food industry. We pay them all the same (however many peanuts an hour) but only the Mexicans will do the work. Of course! And with no Mexicans available you would be forced to pay a wage that would attract native workers. But since that might dampen bonuses, you simply cheat. That is to say you go through legal contortions to get programmers into the US. And in technology this cycle is particularly un-virtuous. Suppressed coding compensation (not to mention an increasingly alien workplace) drives the right flank of the native bell curve away from pursuing careers in the field. Thus the would-be exceptional programmers become instead exceptional investment bankers, doctors, or patent attorneys. And this contrived and now lamented dearth of exception causes men like Mr. Graham to dab his cheeks, toss up his hands, and say “the great programmers just aren’t here, what can we do?”
Though as an obvious aside, history is replete with examples of what those unexceptional 5%ers have been able to accomplish.
I asked the CEO of a startup with about 70 programmers how many more he’d hire if he could get all the great programmers he wanted. He said “We’d hire 30 tomorrow morning.” And this is one of the hot startups that always win recruiting battles. It’s the same all over Silicon Valley. Startups are that constrained for talent.
More idiotic sophistry. Does a “great programmer” mean one who is elite, and thus by definition rare? If so, let’s ask a few NBA owners how many of Lebron James they would hire if they could acquire their fill at the median league salary.
We’d hire 30 by tomorrow morning!
It would be great if more Americans were trained as programmers, but no amount of training can flip a ratio as overwhelming as 95 to 5. Especially since programmers are being trained in other countries too. Barring some cataclysm, it will always be true that most great programmers are born outside the US. It will always be true that most people who are great at anything are born outside the US.
According to a quick search there are 196 countries in the world, less than a third of which could be considered Western. So barring some cataclysm it will always be true that the majority of desirable places to live are not in Western countries. Thus most immigrants, such as say Indian programmers, will seek to alight elsewhere, such as say Sierra Leone. Similarly, approximately 16% of the world’s population resides in Africa. And so it will always be true that a sixth of mankind’s forays into space will originate from that continent. Nothing can flip these ratios.
Beyond the grueling disingenuousness of his ratio-based logic, there is also the utter solipsism. Whatever is best for silicon valley shareholders is best. Not even the vaguest acknowledgement of other civic responsibilities or interests of non-tech founders who have a stake in the composition of their country. There are such people?
Exceptional performance implies immigration. A country with only a few percent of the world’s population will be exceptional in some field only if there are a lot of immigrants working in it.
So starving Zimbabweans migrating to South Africa implies exceptional performance. Ahh, the magical transformative powers of border crossings. Though with this advice in mind, I very much doubt Japan’s high tech robotics industry will long endure the burden of its Japanese work force. Which could leave the field open entirely to the South Koreans, who obtained their exceptional performance by employing…well…Koreans. We’ll move on to something else.
But this whole discussion has taken something for granted: that if we let more great programmers into the US, they’ll want to come. That’s true now, and we don’t realize how lucky we are that it is. If we want to keep this option open, the best way to do it is to take advantage of it: the more of the world’s great programmers are here, the more the rest will want to come here.
And if we don’t, the US could be seriously fucked. I realize that’s strong language, but the people dithering about this don’t seem to realize the power of the forces at work here. Technology gives the best programmers huge leverage. The world market in programmers seems to be becoming dramatically more liquid. And since good people like good colleagues, that means the best programmers could collect in just a few hubs. Maybe mostly in one hub.
The US could be seriously fucked. Well, I’m in agreement with that perspective. Though to what does Graham refer when he says “the US?” That would be the tech CEOs and venture capitalists who face a dystopian future of 40 rather than 100ft yachts. That’s how much is at stake here. What he plainly does not mean by “the US” is the Kentucky coal miner, the Maine Lobsterman, the accountant in Topeka, or the American STEM student soon to graduate with a sizeable debt tumor. All of these people are encouraged to care very deeply about the plight of Mr. Graham’s executive Silicon Valley peers. While he, of course, is morally untrammeled by reciprocal obligations.
We have the potential to ensure that the US remains a technology superpower just by letting in a few thousand great programmers a year. What a colossal mistake it would be to let that opportunity slip. It could easily be the defining mistake this generation of American politicians later become famous for. And unlike other potential mistakes on that scale, it costs nothing to fix.
So please, get on with it.
Alright, let’s. America casts its doors open to some million immigrants/year of which we know. One would think this figure alone would secure exceptional performance. But it obviously does not. And this is why I presume Messrs. Graham, Zuckerburg, et al seek to scrap our program of mass immigration and replace it with a system of elite migration “by letting in (only) a few thousand great programmers a year.” But they do not. I know nothing of Graham’s positions other than this article, but I have not read of Silicon Valley suggesting a grand compromise in exchanging quantity for quality. Instead the answer to every question is always the same.
How many immigrants do you want?
How many more after those come?
How many programmers?
How many lettuce pickers?
How many reunified families?
How many public charges?
How rich do you need to be?
And that word alone is all one needs to pen a paean to immigration.