What do Terrorists Read and Are Tech Companies Suppressing Wages?

First, an interesting article claiming that tech companies are using artificial labor shortages to claim they need to import more H1-Bs in order to keep wages low:

That study was a key link in a chain of evidence leading to an entirely different view of the real origins of the Immigration Act of 1990s and the H1-B visa classification. … Their aims instead were to keep American scientific employers from having to pay the full US market price of high skilled labor. They hoped to keep the US research system staffed with employees classified as “trainees,” “students,” and “post-docs” for the benefit of employers. The result would be to render the US scientific workforce more docile and pliable to authority and senior researchers by attempting to ensure this labor market sector is always flooded largely by employer-friendly visa holders who lack full rights to respond to wage signals in the US labor market.

I rate this credible.

Second, an article by Donald Holbrook, “What Types of Media do Terrorists Collect?” [PDF] Unfortunately, the article only looks at religious/historical/political media, and so does not answer the eternal question of whether terrorists prefer Asuka or Rei, or whether their media consumption differs in other ways from other people’s.

The author looked at media collected by ten Islamic terrorists in, I believe, Britain. It would be interesting to compare these collections to those of NRA terrorists and people of similar backgrounds who didn’t commit terrorism–maybe someone can do a follow-up study on the matter.

So what media do they consume?

Holbrook found, first of all, that most of their media is pretty innocuous–things like 17-part audiobook series on some historical topic. (Audio–rather than written or video–media predominated, but that may not hold in the future with YouTube videos now quite easy to produce.) Only a small percent of the media was coded as “extreme” (that is, advocating violence)–even terrorists don’t spend all of their time reading about how to build bombs.

A few items were consumed by multiple people (this was generally more extreme media, which probably just exists in much lower quantities,) but most of the media was of sufficient variety that different people read different things.

Most of it was in English, since the terrorists speak English. The author expressed some concern that translations of much older religious material were not entirely accurate, but also noted that the terrorists possessed a fair amount of religious/historical commentaries that expressed counter-extremist messages.

So what can we conclude from this?

  1. It seems unlikely to me that radicalization is simply due to exposure to extreme material, since most of what they consumed was mild. It seems more likely that people who are prone to radicalization seek out more extreme material.
  2. However, it is possible that a strong sense of historical or religious identity is an important part of radicalization–most people don’t listen to 17 part serieses on obscure religious history topics.
  3. People who live in Britain but have a strong identity as something other than British are probably more likely to engage in anti-British terrorism
  4. The internet/modern technology have increased the availability of historical/foreign documents, especially in translation, allowing for people to communicate across nations and through time in ways that were much more difficult and limited before.

#4 is, I think, quite important–across a range of different human activities, not just radicalization. I think the increased availability of printed material in the early modern period allowed for the spread of the European witchcraft hysteria, for example, as the gullible public eagerly consumed pamphlets purporting to report on heinous crimes of witchcraft occurring in neighboring towns.

Increased literacy probably also went hand-in-hand with the Protestant Revolution, which emphasized the importance of people reading the Bible for themselves in order to have a personal relationship with God–something that was impossible before the era of relatively cheap Bibles.

This, of course, launched years of religious warfare that scourged the European continent and led to a lot of people being burned at the stake, at least until people mellowed and decided religious differences weren’t that big a deal.

Today, changes in media availability/ease of communication is changing how Westerners think about morality. It may also be changing how non-Westerners approach the world too–but not necessarily in the same ways.

Unsurprisingly, this study contradicts the common claim that terrorists aren’t religiously motivated or aren’t practicing “true Islam.” Of course, I have yet to see anyone, ever, admit to practicing a false version of a religion. Everyone believes that they are practicing the true version (or the true lack of a version, in the case of atheists,) and that everyone else is practicing a false version. Of course I also think terrorists have got religion wrong, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t practicing it to the best of their abilities–and of course, they think I’m doing it wrong.

But the fact that these folks are religiously motivated is undeniable–they definitely consume far more religious media than the average person.

 

 

 

Book Club: The Industrial Revolution and its Discontents, Code Economy, ch. 5

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries. –Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future

The quest to find and keep a “job for life”–stable, predictable work that pays enough to live on, is reachable by available transportation, and lends a sense of meaning to their daily lives–runs though every interview transcript, from those who are unemployed to those who have “made it” to steady jobs like firefighting or nursing. Traditional blue-collar work–whether as a factory worker or a police officer–has become increasingly scarce and competitive, destroyed by a technologically advanced and global capitalism that prioritizes labor market “flexibility”… Consequently, the post-industrial generation is forced to continuously grapple with flux and contingency, bending and adapting to the demands of they labor market until they feel that they are about to break. –Silva, Coming up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty

The historical record confirms that the realities of the ongoing processes of mechanization and industrialization, as noted early on by Lord Byron, were very different from the picture adherents to the wage fund theory held in their heads. While the long-term impact of the Industrial revolution had on the health and well-being of the English population was strongly positive, the first half of the nineteenth century was indeed a time of exceptional hardship for English workers. In a study covering the years 1770-1815, Stephen Nicholas and Richard Steckel report “falling heights of urban-and rural-born males after 1780 and a delayed growth spurt for 13- to 23-year old boys,” as well as a fall in the English workers’ height relative to that of Irish convicts. By the 1830s, the life expectancy of anyone born in Liverpool and Manchester was less than 30 years–as low as had been experienced in England since the Black Death of 1348. –Auerswald, The Code Economy

On the other hand:

Chapter 5 of The Code Economy, Substitution, explores the development of economic theories about the effects of industrialization and general attempts at improving the lives of the working poor.

… John Barton, a Quaker, published a pamphlet in 1817 titled, Observations on the Circumstances Which Influence the Condition of the Laboring Classes of Society. … Barton began by targeting the Malthusian assumption that population grows in response to increasing wages. … He began by noting that there was no a priori reason to believe that labor and capital were perfect complements, as classical economists implicitly assumed. The more sensible assumption was that, as wages increased, manufacturers and farmers alike would tend to substitute animals or machines for human labor. Rather than increasing the birth rate, the higher wages brought on by the introduction of new machinery would increase intergenerational differences in income and thus delay child-bearing. Contrary to the Malthusian line of argument, this is exactly what happened.

There’s an end note that expands on this (you do read the end notes, right?) Quoting Barton, 1817:

A rise of wages then does not always increase population… For every rise of wages tends to decrease the effectual demand for labor… Suppose that by a general agreement among farmers the rate of agricultural wage were raised from 12 shillings to 24 shillings per week–I cannot imagine any circumstance calculated more effectually to discourage marriage. For it would immediately become a a most important object to cultivate with as few hands as possible; wherever the use of machinery, or employment of horses could be substituted for manual labor, it would be done; and a considerable portion of existing laborers would be out of work.

This is the “raising the minimum wage will put people out of work” theory. Barton also points out that when people do manage to get these higher-paid jobs, they will tend to be older, more experienced laborers rather than young folks looking to marry and start a family.

A quick perusal of minimum wage vs. unemployment rate graphs reveals some that are good evidence against minimum wages, and some that are good evidence in favor of them. Here’s a link to a study that found no effects of minimum wage differences on employment. The American minimum wage data is confounded by things like “DC is a shithole.” DC has the highest minimum wage in the country and the highest unemployment rate, but Hawaii also has a very high minimum wage and the lowest unemployment rate. In general, local minimum wages probably reflect local cost of living/cost of living reflects wages. If we adjust for inflation, minimum wage in the US peaked around 1968 and was generally high throughout the 60s and 70s, but has fallen since then. Based on conversations with my parents, I gather the 60s and 70s were a good time to be a worker, when unskilled labor could pretty easily get a job and support a family; unemployment rates do not seem to have fallen markedly since then, despite lower real wages. A quick glance at a map of minimum wages by country reveals that countries with higher minimum wage tend to be nicer countries that people actually want to live in, but the relationship is not absolute.

We might say that this contradicts Barton, but why have American wages stagnated or gone down since the 60s?

1. Automation

2. Emergence of other economic competitors as Europe and Japan recovered from WWII

3. Related: Outsourcing to cheaper workers in China

4. Labor market growth due to entry of women, immigrants, and Boomers generally

Except for 2, that sounds a lot like what Barton said would happen. Wages go up => people move where the good jobs are => labor market expands => wages go down. If labor cannot move, then capitalists can either move the businesses to the labor or invest in machines to replace the labor.

On the other hand, the standard of living is clearly higher today than it was in 1900, even if wages, like molecules diffusing through the air, tend to even out over time. Why?

First, obviously, we learned to extract more energy from sources like oil, coal, and nuclei. A loom hooked up (via the electrical grid) to an electric turbine can make a lot more cloth per hour than a mere human working with shuttles and thread.

Second, we have gotten better at using the energy we extract–Auerswald would call this “code.”

Standards of living may thus have more to do with available resources (including energy) and our ability to use those resources (both the ‘code” we have developed and our own inherent ability to interact with and use that code,) than with the head-scratching entropy of minimum wages.

Auerswald discusses the evolution of David Ricardo’s economic ideas:

By incorporating the potential for substitution between capital and labor, Ricardo led the field of economics in rejecting the wage fund theory, along with its Dickensian implications for policy. He accepted the notion the introduction of new machinery would result in the displacement of workers. The upshot was that the workers were still assumed to be doomed, but the reason was now substitution of machines for labor, not scarcity of a Malthusian variety.

Enter Henry George, with a radically different perspective:

“Like a flash it came over me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.” …

George asserted that increasing population density, (not, as Malthus claimed, population decline) was the source of increased prosperity in human societies: “Wealth is greatest where population is densest… the production of wealth to a given amount of labor increases as population increases.”  The frequent interactions among people in densely populated cities accelerates the emergence and evolution of code. However, while population growth and increased density naturally bring increased prosperity, they also, just as naturally, bring increasing inequality and poverty. Why? Because the fruits of labor are inevitably gathered by the owners of land.

In other words, increasing wages => increasing rents and the workers are right back where they started while the landlords are sitting pretty.

In sharp contrast with Karl Marx, … George stated that “the antagonism of interest is not between labor and capital… but is in reality between labor and capital on the one side and the land ownership on the other.” The implication of his analysis was as simple as it was powerful: to avoid concentrating wealth in the hands of the few, it was the government’s responsibility to eliminate all taxes on capital and laborers, the productive elements of the economy, and to replace those taxes with a single tax on land.

Note: not a flat tax on land, but a tax relative to the land’s sale value.

I was glad to see Henry George in the book because I enjoy George’s theories and they are under-discussed, especially relative to Marxism. You will find massive online communities of Marxists despite the absolute evidence that Marxism is a death machine, but relatively few enthusiastic Georgists. One of the things I rather appreciate about Georgism is its simplicity; the complication of the tax code is its own, additional burden on capitalists and workers alike. Almost any simplified tax code, no matter how “unfair,” would probably improve maters a great deal.

But there’s more, because this is a dense chapter. Auerswald notes that the increasing complexity of code (ie, productivity) has lead to steadily increasing standards of living over the past two centuries, at least after the Industrial Revolution’s initial cataclysm.

Quoting economist Paul Douglas, some years later:

“The increased use of mechanical appliances in offices has tended to lower the skill required. An old-fashioned bookkeeper, for instance, had to write a good hand, he had to be able to multiply and divide with absolute accuracy. Today his place is taken by a girl who  operates a book-keeping machine, and it has taken her a few weeks at mot to become a skilled bookkeeper.” In other words, the introduction of machinery displaced skilled workers for the very same reason it enhanced human capabilities: it allowed a worker with relatively rudimentary training to perform tasks that previously required a skilled worker.

…”Another way of looking at it, is this: Where formerly the skill used in bookkeeping was exercised by the bookkeeper, today that skill is exercised by the factory employees who utilize it to manufacture a machine which can do the job of keeping books, when operated by someone of skill far below that of the former bookkeeper. And because of this transfer of skill form the office to the factory, the rewards of skill are likewise transferred to the wage-earner at the plant.”

This is a vitally important pint… The essence of this insight is that introducing more powerful machines into the workplace does more than simply encode  into the machine the skills or capabilities that previously resided only in humans; it also shifts the burden of skill from one domain of work to another. … A comparable shift in recent decades has been from the skill of manufacturing computing machines (think IBM or Dell in their heydays) to that of creating improved instructions for computing machines’ the result has been a relative growth in programmers’ wages. The underlying process is the same. Improvements in technology will predictably reduce demand for the skills held by some workers, but they also will enhance the capabilities of other workers and shift the requirements of skill from one domain of work to the other.”

The problem with this is that the average person puts in 15-20 years of schooling (plus $$$) in order to become skilled at a job, only to suddenly have that job disappear due to accelerating technological change/improvement, and then some asshole one comes and tells them they should just “learn to code” spend another two to four years unemployed and paying for the privilege of learning another job and don’t see how fucking dispiriting this is to the already struggling.

The struggle for society is recognizing that even as standards of living may be generally rising, some people may absolutely be struggling with an economic system that offers much less certainty and stability than our ancestors enjoyed.

A final word from Auerswald:

… work divides or “bifurcates” as code advances in a predictable and repeatable way. The bifurcation of work in a critical mechanism by which the advance of code yields improvements in human well-being at the same time as it increases human reliance on code.

Useful, scarce, and ownable

To have value, a thing must be:

  1. Useful
  2. Scarce
  3. Ownable

Number one needs no elaboration.

Number two ought to be obvious, but for some reason people fail miserably at it. If the supply of something is infinite–or you operate as though it were–then you have no incentive to preserve it. You may simply keep using and using it. Obviously sunlight is “valuable” in the sense that you cannot live without it, but how much would you pay for it? Nothing, for it is infinitely available. Would you conserve sunlight? Of course not. But a scuba diver pays for air and conserves it carefully, for air beneath the waves is dear indeed.

That which people own, they care for. That which they do not own, they frequently destroy. Compare the state of an owned house to a rental to a squat. These are different kinds of ownership–a renter owns a right to live in a house for a while, though not forever; a squatter may be evicted at any time. A patent lets you develop an idea by guaranteeing you the profits from its sales; an employment contract entitle you to another person’s labor or the products of it.

Without ownership, people cannot invest resources. Would you plant crops on a piece of land that might get bulldozed tomorrow to put up an office building? Would you put up an office building if squatters might be allowed to turn it into apartments tomorrow?

I started thinking about all of this in the context of the Taino, Caribbean Indians who were wiped out by the Spaniards about 500 years ago.

(Hey, did you know that we are temporally closer to the American Revolution than the American Revolution was to Columbus?)

The Spaniards basically treated the Indians like an infinite resource: they’d send them into the fields without food or water and beat them if they stopped working until they dropped dead about 36 hours later. Then they’d send out the next batch of Indians, to work until they fell dead.

When they ran out of Indians, they started importing Africans.

The treatment of slaves in Africa look a lot like the treatment of the Taino, except that no one ran out of Africans. At the funeral of King Gezo, King of Dahomey, Africa, “his loving subjects manifested their sorrow by sacrificing eight hundred negroes to his memory.” Efunsetan Aniwura, a Nigerian chieftess, was praised in song:

“The woman, who instils fear in others,
the fearsome one, who slaughters slaves to celebrate Id-el-Kabir.
Efunsetan is one force, Ibadan is another.
The valiant that challenges the Almighty God,
if the most high does not answer her on time,
Efunsetan leaves the earth to go and meet him in Heaven…”

It cost money to bring African slaves to the Caribbean, so they were slightly scarcer than in Africa and treated, correspondingly, slightly better. Not a lot better, but better than the Taino.

Getting worked to death in the fields (or, if you got captured by the Aztecs, getting butchered for dinner), is obviously labor’s worst-case-scenario. This happens when you have:

  1. No state to protect you, and
  2. Skills that are in near infinite supply.

(Thus also the buffalo and the passenger pigeon.)

There is an extremely large supply of humans, whose lives are of infinitely greater value to themselves than to anyone else.

A functional state protects its people from harm; in return, the people owe the state their allegiance. A state that is not owned is worthless–the German people do not “own” their state any more, because they do not have the right to bar others from it–a people that is not protected by their state will soon be dead. (edited) Skilled workers demand better wages than unskilled ones, because fewer people can do their job. Work a skilled employee to death and you might not find a replacement.

Perhaps labor’s best-case-scenario is to have one’s educational expenses covered by a corporation (or society itself) in exchange for a number of years of service to that corporation (or society), in order to produce a small number of highly-skilled people who will be able to command high salaries and good living conditions. An exam or other qualification standards to ensure that inferior workers don’t dilute the profession also helps.

A company cannot afford to invest in training employees if it cannot guarantee a return on its investment–that is, some right of ownership on the employees future labor. Unskilled laborers have little of value to offer on their own in return for education, except the promise of their future labor.

Once the debt is paid, the laborer owns his labor, though he may continue his contract with his company if he so desires.

In the US, doctors and lawyers have it pretty good–well paid and hardly ever worked to death. Entrance to these professions is tightly restricted–only people who have received legal or medical degrees from accredited colleges and passed an exam on the subject are legally allowed to practice. Individuals bear the cost of their initial educations (usually funded based on the promise of future wages paid back to the banks,) but lawyers and doctors then endure many years of on-the-job training–fellowships and residency for doctors, “associate” status for lawyers. At the end of this apprenticeship, lawyers hope to become owners of the company–partners–and doctors, attending physicians.

Wages have stagnated in America since the 60s while owners’ share of profits has increased, most likely because the labor market itself has massively increased due to mass immigration and the entry of women into the workforce. One of the great ironies of our modern age is unions advocating for increased immigration.