Hangin’ with the Prez (on Google+)

In late January, President Obama participated in a Google+ Hangout with five US citizens who grilled him on various issues of personal and national concern.

Let’s hit this from a variety of HighTechnocracy angles.

Hot on the heels of a question Obama successfully turned toward his moderately popular tax and student loan policies, President Obama’s second question came from Jennifer Waddell from Ft. Worth, Texas (5:53) who asked him why the US government would insist on continuing the popular H-1B visa program despite the fact that engineers like her husband can’t find a job.

The President avoided responding to the implicit protectionism in Waddell’s question. I don’t want to undermine her concern by caging it in illiberal terms like “protectionism,” “nationalism,” “xenophobia” or other anti-immigrant sentiments. Such concerns are valid. The Waddells are real people living through very real hard times. However, I don’t think Waddell sees the causes of her problem the same way I do, which I will explain here.

Obama focused his answer narrowly on the national demand for engineers of various kinds (Waddell’s husband is a semi-conductor engineer).Without being direct, Obama made it clear that, basically, there’s no reason that Mr. Waddell should be without a job right now. Rather what he tried to emphasize is that the dearth of engineers is a national problem. Maybe Ft. Worth just doesn’t need semi-conductor engineers. As President Obama tried to make clear, H-1B visas are only (supposed to be) issued when the employer can’t find a US national who meets the required skill set.

And he’s right.

Jennifer and her husband have two daughters. I’m sure they love them very much. And maybe they love Ft. Worth too. I haven’t been there but I’m sure it’s a lovable town, and if nothing else, it’s home. The Waddells are a great example of one of the most critical factors in the immigration debate: the fluidity of labor, or it’s lack of fluidity relative to other factors. My best guess, and since I’m not the president I can be more direct, is that the Waddells don’t want to move where the jobs are. Do you know what immigrants will do tautologically? Move where the jobs are. That’s what makes them immigrants! This willingness to move is not just an essential–nay! defining–characteristic of immigrants, it’s also highly marketable. The Waddells have every right (and many incentives) not to move. But their failure to move to another state is not the fault of H-1B applicants who are ambitious enough to move to another country. I’m not saying, btw, that these immigrants are somehow more noble than the Waddells. it’s all self-interest here and everyone has the right to prioritize their desires in the manner appropriate for themselves.

So there are two questions here: (1)Would Mr. Waddell be unemployed if he were willing to uproot his family and move to where the jobs are and (2)are there really immigrants employed in Ft. Worth doing jobs that Mr. Waddell is qualified for? The first is on the Waddells. The corporations requesting and the government extending H-1B visas when they haven’t exhausted domestic pools share the blame for the latter. Specifically, we should keep our eyes on Texas Instruments where some other commenters allege that Mr. Waddell used to work before he was laid off. TI is also, apparently, a lead employer of H-1B immigrants. If that’s the case, a study into their legal rationale may help policy makers fix a problem in the status quo.

Immigration is a key component to the continued improvement of the US economy and the sustaining of US dominance in global industry. And central to the US immigration policy has to be encouraging highly educated, highly skilled people from around the world to move here–and stay here. There are bound to be stories like Mr. Waddell’s, but such stories have to be kept to an absoulte minimum. Obviously the best number of engineers out of work due to H-1B competition is zero, realistically that will never happen.

Actually quite a bit of the 50 minute, intimate discussion with the president centered or touched on technology. Ramon, one of those in attendance, was a technology consultant for small businesses; one of the questions (from Mr. Patel) was on the Obama administration’s extensive use of drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (and I would like to add Somalia, Yemen and Mexico); and two questions were on IP, one on SOPA and one–the most popular question–was on the extradition of Richard O’Dwyer.

And even when the President wasn’t fielding questions on technology specifically he wasn’t afraid to wax technocratic. Why does the US spend so much money on foreign aid when there are homeless vets in the US? Simple accounting, my friend. The recipients of that aid are often allies in the Global War on Terrorism and they spend more helping the US meet its security goals than the US would spend if it had to do those jobs on its own. (Doesn’t really explain why those countries would do that, but this isn’t my international relations blog so I’ll put a pin in that line of commentary). Why should high school students risk college knowing that a job is uncertain and college debt is so high? Simple probabality, friend. A job is uncertain after college, sure, but getting a job is far more unlikely without college. Work hard, plan ahead, and remember that you have to pay off those debts one day, so stay away from the keggers.

But of course the larger technological story here is the Google+ Hangout interview format itself. Obviously Google/YouTube has a commercial incentive to promote such an event.

After a solid start, Google+ hasn’t been able to significantly change the social media landscape. Facebook is benefitting (strangely?) from social media inertia: objects at rest on Facebook tend to stay on Facebook. But to cement the digitial lethargy, FB successfully launched several new features that made their site look and act like Google+. On top of that Google policies regarding anonymity and commercial identities crippled the site from really taking off teh way they’d hoped.

The pre-Hangout buzz generated over 1.6 million questions and votes, but the video linked above only has 600,000 views. I say only 600,000 views because on YouTube it is not uncommon for homemade videos of cats on subscription painkillers to top 2 or 3 million. Only 10% of those viewers felt compelled to Like or Dislike the video. That’s just over 1% of all Google+ users (as of October 2011) and an even tinier fraction of YouTube users. So did the gambit work? Was Google able to showcase the democratizing nature of the internet with a specific focus on tools it owns? Well, let me ask you, did you even know this event took place? And if so, were you there? Did you “hangout” with the president, did you sit through the 50 minute live netcast?

Did you even click the link now that I’ve linked it here?

And even if the event had worked, even if millions had tuned in, would we then consider the Google+ hangout to be a social media game changer?

I have my doubts.

The internet’s real addition to the economy (without calculating the money suck that are cat videos, Farmville, and “How the World Sees Me” macros) is that it makes communication between groups and individuals faster. (For some industries it eliminates shipping costs, e.g., music and software downloads)

Since I can't find it online, I put it right here in the post.

We can say that President Obama was able to reach ~600k voters all over the country (world?) without stepping foot in a plane, train, or automobile. That’s a strategic use of the internet, especially in an election year.

On the other hand, the president can only talk so fast and he would have reached far more people if he’d just been on TV. In fact, this hangout took place at the end of January (I know, I’m a slacker) and just a week before he had given the State of the Union Address. Even with a 20% drop in viewers from last year’s SOTUS Obama was able to reach ~38 million viewers not counting all the Congressmen, Senators, Secrataries, Supreme Court justices, and other government officials that were in attendance live.

The television was game changing technology, politically-speaking.

Those of us in communications, as I am, tend to argue that venues like SOTUS are one-way: from the president, unilaterally, to the viewers, while the internet is interactive. Certainly, Jennifer had no opportunity to raise her hand and ask the president a question on January 24th. But I didn’t get my questions answered during the hangout either. Neither did 599,995 of the YouTube viewers (minimum).

So what is the internet really, seen in this light? Really nothing more than the illusion of interaction. Interaction for some, one-way spectating for the rest. A public affairs windfall, but more democracy? Not in my opinion.

I don’t want to underplay the internet more broadly and I remain a technological idealist. But I do think that events of this kind can be overstated in their effects. I’m glad the president continues to take part in them. Sometimes the idea matters most. And certainly even marginal increases in political participation is better than the alternative. But if I had to choose between a congress that didn’t propose legislation like SOPA and a president who uses YouTube, I would prefer the former by a large margin.

Moonbase/Marsbase: Denied…Again

President Obama and Senator Bill Nelson arrive...

President Obama Waves Good-bye to Awesome Space Plans.

My deep hope that I will live in the time of a moonbase or a Mars base keeps getting lifted up and then dashed to the ground. Bush promised me a moonbase. Obama promised me Mars missions. But in his latest budget proposal NASA is getting stiffed.

Actually, I think it’s worse than that. Manned missions are getting a $200 million bump while Mars exploration and outer-planets missions are getting a $309 million decrease. But seriously, we’ve all but learned all we can learn with the kinds of manned missions we’ve been running. I mean, I’m not completely sure what NASA has up its sleeve … or what it hopes the European Space Agency has up their sleeve, but in my opinion the only reason to continue running manned missions is to keep our ever-increasing pool of astronauts Mars-ready.

But if you’re cutting Mars-mission funding…

These are dark times. We have to make cuts, we have to make hard decisions. Honestly, the manned space program is more like a giant statue of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and T. Roosevelt than it is a serious public service (right now). I understand that. With the Space Race and the Arms Race behind us and the American economy only predicted to recover this year if such a prediction is followed by a list of caveats a forearm long, NASA was sure to take a hit. I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m just saying, as I’ve said every year since I was about five: I want my moonbase.

You know, I can’t help but think that massive research funding going into the aeronautic, zero-gravity, and general purpose engineering that space travel requires, might spur some starry-eyed teenagers into pursuing one of those STEM degrees that everyone is saying is the future of American prosperity.

You know. I wanted this to be a nice technocratic post, but I just can’t keep my emotions out. Technocratically, this is probably a good choice. A flat budget for NASA decreases their real allotment at the rate of inflation–that is to say slowly and predictably. It’s a good way to rein in their ambition and encourage them to make wise use of the money they do get. And hopefully it won’t be a horrible shock to the general space industry the way the entirely planned shutdown of the shuttle program was to the town of Cape Canaveral.

But even if more math, science, technology, space savvy folks get the axe, the amount of jobless engineers roaming about the countryside will hopefully open up new technological frontiers in unforeseeable fields we could take advantage of right now, rather than in two or three generations when we do finally get around to figuring out what good a moonbase is for.