Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator and online essayist, continues to hoist himself on his own petard and generally embarrass himself, Silicon Valley, the state of California,i and pretty much the entire United States as a whole. Sure, the guy’s made a few bucks along the way, but a billion doesn’t buy respect, y’know? Certainly not when he so fundamentally misunderstands a pretty element of what makes humanity so successful: the movement of people from one place to another.ii That is, immigration and emigration.
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. 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.
As with the lab-modified foods construction, the “ship ‘em in” vs. “train ‘em here” debate, is entirely besides the point. The point is that no one of value particularly wants to live in the United States. It’s why the good ones want desperately to leave if they haven’t already. It’s not that cheap,iv the food is spotty,v and it’s waaay over-policed.vi
Not only does Graham completely miss this, he also misses that the “anti-immigration people” understand the differences between competence and exceptionalism just fine. What the pro-immigrationers miss is that barriers to entry in fact quite necessary to keep out the sub-competent, which is what they really mean by “only competent.” Exceptional people of exceptional talent will always find ways to work together and will always find a way to get where they need to go.vii Lowering the barriers to entry will only increase the ratio of incompetent noise to competent signal. As such, the barriers to entry, whether it’s for a school a stock exchange or a country, should be as high as humanly possible, that is, as high as the market will bear.
Exceptional programmers have an aptitude for and interest in programming that is not merely the product of training.
This is quite right. Genetics are a thing. Wow, breaking news: your mother isn’t my mother. Seriously.
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.
Holy mother of Christ if the “everyone in the world is equally talented at everything all the time always and forever” misunderstanding of statistics, human nature, and the shittiness of sub-Saharan Africa is the root of Graham’s argument, fallacious lulz can only ensue. He cannot honestly believe that the entire world is riding on the same coattails of historically unprecedented wealth that the US is, can he?
The anti-immigration people have to invent some explanation to account for all the effort technology companies have expended trying to make immigration easier. 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.
Lolk. As if the “only explanation” for the pro-immigration stance of tech companies is the lack of “great programmers.” I mean, of course tech companies don’t want to drive down salaries. What, and be globally competitive and anti-fair and shit? What kind of business model is that when they could be rent-seeking scumsuckers instead?
So yes, Afsheen, being the son of a diplomat that he is, will work harder for half the salary, one quarter the living expenses and with less backtalk? Great! Let’s hire him instead of mouthy Ms. Pin(trest)head! Makes total sense to me.
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.
While I’m having a blast here, it’s time to tag in a few assettes from this related (and lightly edited) shish-kabobing on IRC:
asciilifeform: ^ what definition of ‘great programmer’ portrays a creature you can even think of ‘hire 30 tomorrow morning’ of ? Imagine wanting to hire 30 ‘great mathematicians’ tomorrow morning.
Apocalyptic: To quote “A great programmer will invent things an ordinary programmer would never even think of.” Note the dubious claim that a programmer nowadays will invent stuff.
asciilifeform: Anyone wanting to hire 30 inventors needs his head checked. Hire for what. And why would they want to work for you
undata: laying brick in some marketing related startup.
Apocalyptic: Do you define inventor as someone who has invented something before ?
asciilifeform: Presumably. Or otherwise ‘can you play violin? don’t know, i’ve never tried yet’. Unless Mr. ‘I want to hire 30 great programmers tomorrow morning’ wasn’t writing from a psychiatric hospital, the parsimonious hypothesis is that he meant something other than inventors when said ‘great programmers.’ I don’t think it is a mystery, to anyone even remotely connected with the sordid business, what it was that he meant. What he meant was human compilers. Obedient, diligent coolies.
Apocalyptic: He meant people that will presumably invent something worthy for the company.
asciilifeform: You don’t need 30 of those. no existing company is equipped to fully utilize the output of 3, much less 30.viii Actual inventors, that is.
Apocalyptic: Should have been “invent” by the way. No argument on that.
decimation: All the ‘CEO’ will accomplish hiring 30 ‘actual inventors’ will be to produce 30 disgrunted ex-employees.
Now back to Graham:
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.
Paul is almost right here. It will always be true that most people who are great at anything except for whining are born outside the US. The Reddit generation pretty much takes the historical cake here. On other accounts, the point is granted, but still fails to persuade vis-a-vis lower barriers to entry.
But this whole discussion has taken something for granted: that if we let more great programmers into the US, they’ll want to come.
Right. Because the only reason I applied to the private athletic club was because they let me. Not because it’s quite a fine place to spend time and if only they’d made a better website and updated their Facebook page more frequently I would’ve applied sooner. Mkay.
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.
Technology doesn’t give the best programmers huge leverage so much as it gives the best people huge leverage. Yes, the best people. Period. Full stop. The Internet isn’t just some programmer’s wet dream, but it is the reason that I hear Michael Bublé’s latest hit the day after it’s released even when I’m half-way across the world.
If you thought fossil fuels leveraged human potential, the Internet is another order of magnitude more powerful.
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.
Maybe the exceptional programmers will congregate somewhere that doesn’t need to be physical to be the world’s foremost business hub? Like, I dunno, #bitcoin-assets or something.
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.
Lowering barriers to entry is in no conceivable way a “cost nothing” solution, and yet this sort of “fix” is so typical of the naïve interventionism characteristic of top-down progressives. And it never fucking works because it ultimately tries to protect the passive from the active, which is, quite simply, thermodynamically impossible.
Inventiveness isn’t what tech companies want in abundance, it’s low-priced competency they want. They want lower barriers to entry for the competent workerbees, not the exceptionalism of would-be ex-employees.
Exceptional people of all stripes – be they programmers, businesswomen, or what have you – want the same things: clean air, clean water, healthy food, a strong Internet connection, and the freedom to work whenever, wherever, and however the fuck they want.
If a city or country can offer that, then they’re on to something.
But not before that. And certainly not after that.
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- California is renowned for its penal system. Mostly for being plain shit and criminal in its own right, but renowned nonetheless. Cali would do well to read up on that olde exile thing, the buncha terrorists. [↩]
- It could well be argued that the failure of Africans to leave the African continent, where we all originated from all those hundreds of thousands of years ago, speaks volumes towards explaining their continued cultural failings.
Oh, you don’t think African culture has failed? Then where are their literary works or their operatic scores? Why do they hack each other to death with such vigour? Why can’t they quarantine disease? If you put aside the fact that Mediterranean culture spread to the northern reaches of the continent, sub-Saharan Africa hasn’t fared very well these last few hundred generations. Not that they’ve been helped much by interventionist derps like Jeffrey Sachs. [↩]
- MP penned his roasting of Graham and Airbnb almost exactly 2 years ago.
Today is December the 20th , I guess not a very good time for vacation arrangements, and the start-up which together with some other accounts for two thirds of ten billion or something counts exactly one visitor : me. I’m not there to rent from them, I’m there to investigate what the fuck is wrong with Graham.
Given that 24 months is about 1.5 generations in Bitcoin, I figure I’m due. [↩]
- Particularly in Silicon Valley and New York. So, y’know, where the high-grossing jobs are. Note that high-grossing != high-netting. The difference between the two is the amount of fiat you have to vacation and buy Bitcoin. [↩]
- It’s hard to argue that the US ever “invented” a type of cuisine that wasn’t already a pre-iron age way of life. See: BBQ. [↩]
- Ferguson anyone? [↩]
- History’s rather tragic misunderstanding of exceptionalism has resulted in countries closing their borders to entire ethnic groups – be it Jews, Armenians, or otherwise – at the cost of untold productive capacity and intellectual output.
Refusing refuge based on such broad brushstrokes as length of hair, skin colour, etc. is nothing short of a crime and is materially different from discerning competence from incompetence.
The conflation of anti-immigration policies in general and desiring to keep out riff-raff in particular is the cause of many a misunderstanding. I think it’s reasonable to say that every country wants more “good people,” that is, talented, hard-working, and intellectually inclined. This desire, however, at least in modern (and therefore fundamentally broken) nation states, must be balanced with the imprisoning ideal that all people are “equal” and deserve a “fair” chance. As if lotteries alone were how mother nature decided what should live and what should die. [↩]
- Apple could only handle one Steve Jobs, Amazon can only handle one Jezz Befos, etc. [↩]