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.

Venezuelan Consul General Ejected from Miami

One of the interesting aspects of the coming age of cyberwarfare is the non-cyber components, or what may be more graciously considered the crossover or spillover effects of cyber-conflict.

The recent declaration of Venezuelan Consul General Livia Acosta Noguera is a good example.

The conjecture of now is that Acosta was declared persona non grata by the US State Department and ordered to leave because, according to a Univision documentary, she was accused of talking to Mexican officials about the likelihood of sponsoring an Iran-based cyber-attack on the US. Of course there’s no public evidence of this talk, nor that this is what the State Department is concerned with. In fact, the way I’ve worded it here is a step further than most news reports which merely say

“she, while stationed in Mexico in 2007, spoke with computer experts about an Iranian cyber-plot against the U.S.”

Of course, talking about Iranian plots are not enough to make such a bold diplomatic move.

Rather this seems to be the result of the decades long resentment between the U.S. and Iran that spiked after Iran (claimed to have) knocked a US intelligence drone from the sky and waved it around for the whole world to see. I’m probably missing a few things, but the notable incidents were the drone going down, followed by a brief controversy over whether or not the Iranians were faking it. Then it was proven to be our drone and the US asked for it back. Obviously the Iranians refused. Then there was EU/US talk of increasing sanctions on Iran because of their nuclear program, followed by the Iranians threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz which would drive oil prices sky high. Then Ahmedinejad began his tour of Latin America by visiting known US gadfly Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The State Department has seemed to ejected Acosta as a direct reply to Iran’s outreach attempts in South America.

And right at the center of all this is an alleged cyber-attack.

Is this cyberwar?

 

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A Little on [Regular] Technocracy and Why Liberal Arts Major Rule

I got my first BA in English Literature (with minors in Creative Writing, Japanese, and Philosophy); and while I was pursuing my second round of BAs several years later, I had the pleasure of working on a communications strategy and program design for a state humanities council. It’s an understatement to say I’m partial to humanities and liberal arts-based education.

As a political scientist and as someone who values clear thinking in what I read and in what I write, I have nothing against STEM education either. I mean, this is a blog about technology as much as it is Things Political. With those things alone I have the S and the T from STEM. And if we can count one semester of Methodology and and one semester of Statistics as Mathematics, I’m rocking 3 of 4. But enough about me. I’m here to direct you to this article by Virginia Postrel which is as good a defense of liberal arts and humanities education as I’ve seen, even given a few months of looking for just such a thing when I worked at the humanities council.

What struck me though was this line (emphasis added):

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise.

It is true that all the famous figures who have had the “technocrat” placard hung on their neck have been die-hard central planners–many of them economists from Harvard, Oxford, or the London School of Economics, but I think there’s a way to think about technocracy that doesn’t only include the Porfirio Diazes of the world.

I like to think of “technocracy” as a positivist enterprise in that it claims there are things we can know about the world through observation. The universe of observation is the political world, specifically policy-making. I think the tendency is to over-emphasize the strength of the facts that are found and derive from their discovery that a single “correct” policy can be written and effectively executed, thus the move toward centralization.

But America’s first technocrat, James Madison, did not believe this at all. Or, at least he believed it, but implemented his vision in a way very different from the technocrats of the mid- to late 19th century. Madison’s two big contributions to the world of self-governance as federalism and elite competition. In both he recognizes that, although “correct answers” are discoverable, “correct answers” may differ between different groups and that the best way to find them is to pit them against one another, both in the realm of public discourse and in the realm of side-by-side implementation. That is to say that his conclusion was that there was a “right way” and that way was to try lots of things and see what sticks. It isn’t fool-proof or full-proof but it is a technocratic solution that discourages centralization in its base form. It’s a recommendation very similar to the one Postrel promotes in the essay linked above.

Although this blog won’t spend a lot of time dwelling on abstract concepts like “federalism” as technology, the fact is, for a constructivist like me, ideas are things and are just as worthy of the title as “technology” as is a shovel or an iPad. I recognize the desire to move away from the technocrats that touted eugenics and Prohibition and who currently advocate for centrally planned education policy, but I think there’s something to be said for recognizing that there are things we can know about the world and that we can use those facts to design policies that effectively achieve what they set out to achieve. And I think the term technocrat needs to be rescued from what it has become by focusing on the social value created by new technologies, ideal and material, and the way those technologies can improve the way we govern ourselves.

South Korea at Night

The contrast here is stark. It makes me think it’s a fake. Hell! It makes me wish, on behalf of the citizens of North Korea, that it was a fake. Nevertheless, if you want to know what kind of difference leadership can make, then compare this satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night. The bottom is the Miracle on the Han River, South Korea. Above it, the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea.

Or compare their GDPs:

Here’s WaPo’s Brad Plumer [whom the chart is via]

Back in 1970, the two countries were roughly comparable — in fact, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt argues that, at the time of Mao Zedong’s death, North Korea’s workers were more productive and better educated than China’s. But, as you can see from the graph below (culled from this exhaustive dataset of historical statistics), North and South Korea’s economies diverged wildly around 1976.

In the early 1970s, North Korea’s economy ground to a halt, barely growing at all until Kim Il Sung’s death. Then, after Kim Jong Il took over in 1994, the economy worsened noticeably, per capita incomes fell, and the country became dependent on emergency U.N. food aid to stave off further famines. North Korea became, as Eberstadt puts it, “the world’s first and only industrialized economy to lose the capacity to feed itself.” (That said, there’s evidence that North Korea was growing weakly in the last few years of Kim Jong Il’s rule).

 

Blog Generics

I hadn’t actually planned on launching Hightechnocracy as soon as I did, but when the need for a blog that combined two disparate blogging worlds I followed presented itself, I felt I couldn’t wait. But that has led to what can only be called an ironic cluster of failures. For a blog that wants to showcase exactly what changes technology is wreaking in the political science world, the theme I’ve chose has a series of horrible shortcoming that I don’t know how to address….yet. I’ll either figure it out when I have some free time (*snicker) or I will have to change themes (likely).

I also haven’t had time to explain exactly what the goal of this blog is and I haven’t posted anything like what I expect the meat of the blog will consist of. So at this early stage, it’s probably hard to tell just yet what my “point” is. That will come, implicitly over time, and explicitly in an About page in the next few days.

I should also quickly note, until I can find time to write about it, that the banner is from the excellent work of Daniel Maliniak at the University of California, San Diego and Ryan M. Powers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison visualizing the International Relations academic universe. You can go to their website to see it for yourself and read about what they’ve done.