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The Growing Divide Between Silicon Valley And Unemployed America (techcrunch.com)
176 points by jdp23 on July 16, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 170 comments

Maybe something is missing in the Valley and surrounding tech communities and that’s a stronger sense of responsibility to make sure that the vast majority of the country isn’t left behind by all this cool technology that we’re building.

And just how does one build a startup with all that such an effort normally entails while factoring in the need to make sure others aren't "left behind" as that startup pushes on toward a hoped-for success? This issue can't even be discussed in meaningful terms. We all, of course, share in the problems of society and we all do our bit in trying to help with such problems - and who can help but feel for those who are suffering. That is a given for most people. But what then? Do I operate my business so that it doesn't eliminate any competitor in hopes of saving that competitor's jobs for its employees? Do I refrain from introducing disruptive technologies because they might actually disrupt the lives of others? Do I ask my representatives to enact laws granting permanent subsidies to companies such as Border's, Blockbuster, Tower Records, and so many others so that they can continue in business offering products or services that people more and more don't want? Or how about passing an innovation tax to capture the all the profits of the successful tech companies so as to level the playing field? Or how about a law banning all disruptive technologies so that we can all enjoy a world that resembles the one we knew a few decades ago?

The point, I think, is that startups exist on their own terms in a free enterprise system. The goal of a business venture is to succeed in a marketplace, not to ensure that others aren't affected by one's activities. Nor is the goal of a venture to give away what it earns to salvage the prospects of others who are failing. Individuals can do that if they like, and that is an issue of private conscience on what one does with private wealth. But it is not meaningful, in my view, to tell entrepreneurs to run their ventures with the aim of solving social problems as opposed to that of succeeding in a marketplace. When you try to do that, you wind up mixing up the goals of private venturing with those of broader social institutions such as government or those of private charitable impulse. That is why even to pose the question first stated above is to expose this as flawed thinking about the legitimate business concerns of a tech company.

This piece is a variation on the lament expressed in the piece from a few days ago about how Silicon Valley founders and entrepreneurs are (in effect) shallow, self-absorbed types who can't think beyond the next trivial innovation in hopes of gaining a quick-kill exit even as they neglect a slew of problems that beset humanity and are crying out for solutions if only these narrow types just had a larger vision and greater sense of social responsibility (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2760540 - of course, the piece had not put it in those exact terms but I hope I captured its flavor even as I used license in recasting its claims).

I hate to come across as narrow-minded but it really crosses a line to lecture the tech startup world about its moral responsibility as if "it" were a monolithic entity that had responsibilities beyond those that define what a given business venture is supposed to do. At best, this amounts to discussing the important issues in confused terms; at worst, it amounts to an author smugly claiming more refined sensibilities than the mere grubbers upon whom the author is passing a misdirected moral judgment.

Thanks for this commentary. My thinking when writing the article was certainly not that startups should, to use your words, give away what they earn the salvage the prospects of those who are failing. My personal feeling is that tech entrepreneurs should be less encumbered and more free to innovate and anything that remotely approaches turning the tech sector into something that resembles a welfare state is anathema to me.

What we do in the Valley (using that as code for tech hubs) though does reverberate around the country and world. The types of startups we create affect people we'll never meet in places we'll never go (one of the potentially wonderful things about technology). The conversation that I'd love to see more of then is should we in the Valley care about what's happening elsewhere in the country.

But I deliberately wanted to stop short in the article of making any judgments. I think it's a perfectly rational approach to say as a tech entrepreneur that as long as I'm not breaking any laws in the process, any negative externalities (or lack of positive externalities) associated with the product I'm building shouldn't be my concern. I don't believe that personally but feel everyone has the right to their opinion on that matter.

Thanks for the gracious reply. In looking at my original comment in light of your reply, I do think it was a bit harshly worded and for that I apologize. Entrepreneurs, as a matter of conscience, ought to be more socially aware about what effect their activities are having and your piece does a good job of reminding them of that. Didn't mean to engage in a "legalistic" mugging, as we appear to be of the same view on all fundamentals. Harshness aside, I can only hope that my comments nonetheless help to bring added clarity to the discussion.

I'm certain they did, and any serious discussion must proceed from the points you mentioned. At the end of the day, the problem is one of better education or tool-making, because those are what will allow the unskilled to do something worth paying for.

Startups excel at tool-making. Building better mousetraps is often seen as purely destructive to jobs, but it also creates jobs like crazy when a formerly-unavailable tool suddenly becomes available and lower-priced demand can be satisfied. The availability bias works against us here because although it's easy to see that robotic factories destroy textile-worker jobs, it's hard to realize that cheaper computer costs will mean companies won't mind hiring for data entry, as now they only have to pay $400 a box as opposed to $1 million for a mainframe.

In terms of creating jobs, the most saintly of tech people are probably the UX designers who can take something a layman normally couldn't grasp, and put it within their reach. Solar panels don't create jobs for the uneducated. Solar panels so easy to install that you can hire minimum wage workers to install them DO create jobs for the uneducated.

For whatever reasons, startups have not had similar success with education. But this will undoubtedly be a hot space for the next few years, because though the growing divide isn't the Valley's "fault," modern education is a real problem and needs addressing.

Startups, you want to create jobs while still making a killing? Take something hard and make it easy, or take clueless people and make them smart.

I am a yc alum who actually started a manufacturing business in san francisco. My business is unusual in that it is part of our mission to help protect a dying industry (bookbinding). In one year we have created jobs for 40 people in a low tech sector of the economy. If you want to find other business like this in the bay area check out http://www.sfmade.org/.

Jon, I detect an evolution in your views on the subject. I commend you for that.

What is legal is not always ethical. America was built on the slaves, the extermination of the native nations. A lot of "entrepreneurship" involved in the process. It's your prerogative to absolve yourself and the industry. You have done nothing "wrong". It is also the right of other people to question the ethical ramification of this structural shift. The citizens of the country are affected negatively, not even foreign subjects.

The one thing people never lack is rationalizations, even after the worst crimes possible. In the end it is not just that some people become poor and other rich, it's the wealth transfer from one side to the other. As the middle class goes so does the democracy as the concentrated money class takes over the government. This is the worst development that was going on in America even before the Great Recession.

However, I think it's fair to discriminate between true productivity gains in technologies that eliminate the need for certain types of work to be done in the first place, and simply outsourcing work to more desperate countries.

Making it possible to get the same output with less work is a good thing (as long as external costs are factored in).

Exploiting peasants with a "subsistence" deal is evil. Now some "free market", disaster capitalism patsy is going to jump me...

"And just how does one build a startup with all that such an effort normally entails while factoring in the need to make sure others aren't "left behind" as that startup pushes on toward a hoped-for success?"

One can focus on working on products that will help. For example, instead of building the next photo-sharing app, one can build the next AirBnB or Uber.

Having said that, you're right - it's hard enough to succeed as is, so most first-time entrepreneurs have enough on their plate without more things corrupting their focus (at least that's how I feel as a first-time entrepreneur). I do think that investors and serial-entrepreneurs can chose to focus on ventures that help the country (or even help the world).

The divide isn't between SV and the unemployed, but between the educated and uneducated. From politifact:


For those with less than a high school diploma, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 13.8 percent during July. For those with a high school diploma but no college, the rate was 10.1 percent. For those with some college experience but no college diploma, the rate was 8.3 percent. And for those with an undergraduate degree or better, the rate was 4.5 percent. That's less than one-third of the rate for high-school dropouts -- and it's exactly as Tyson said it was.


These aren't exactly comparable, since BLS does not release seasonally adjusted figures for those with advanced degrees. But we'll provide them anyway. The unadjusted July rate for those with masters' degrees was 4.9 percent. For those with professional degrees, it was 2.0 percent, and for those with doctorates, it was 1.9 percent.

Technology has always disrupted the low end of the workforce. The big difference this time around is just how fast the disruption has occurred. It took years for farm equipment advances to remove the need for farmhands or cars to remove the need for people who do horse shoes. The internet and computers in general have put entire types of work seemingly out of business overnight.

The 'new' economy is one where everyone will need to take control of their careers and constantly be thinking long term. The downside of this sort of economy is that the people who have no ambition will suffer. The upside is that those with ambition have an easier time than ever to try out their ideas and have huge upside potential.

I don't think it's fair to categorize everyone who lacks an education or job as "lacking ambition".

Why are we all not millionaire successful entrepreneurs? On this site, I don't think it's because we lack ambition. I think it's more that there's a path toward success (or technically, several paths), but it's really easy to step off that path, and most of us have never been there before, don't have a guide, and only have the fuzziest of maps.

It's the same with people lower down on the socioeconomic spectrum. Most don't personally know anyone that has successfully jumped classes; they have no idea what this looks like, or what's entailed, or if anything they do is on the right track. And so they make very subtle mistakes.

You can see this a lot with the choice of institutions they go to and the fields they study. Popular articles - like the one posted here - simply say "Go to college and you'll get a job." So what many poor people do is they go to University of Phoenix and study Sports Medicine or something, and take on $200K of debt to do so.

You and I know this is stupid - but that information never filters down to the people who need it. The mainstream articles just say "Go to college and you'll get a job", they never say which college, or what to study, or how to study, or what it feels like when you just don't understand a concept but need to pass the final to graduate. I can give you a list of a couple dozen top colleges off the top of my head - but that's because I've worked in elite institutions, and I know which schools my coworkers went to, and I have lots of friends in that social circle. For the average person, that list is "Harvard. MIT. Stanford", and then if they don't get into one of those, they have no idea what to choose.

It's really easy to forget just how much we know simply by being part of a community that's "made it". Much of this stuff is not obvious at all until you see someone do it, and if everyone you know is in similarly dire straits, you have nobody to teach you.

I think we lack ambition as a civilization more than as individuals.

Being more efficient means that we have to do more. When agriculture was mechanized, we went from a population that was half farmers (or more!) to one where less than 1% of the population farms. The remaining 49% of the population was not unemployed for the next century, nor did they all get work building mechanized farm equipment or drilling oil. They did other stuff, like build internets and go to the Moon.

Being ambitious as individuals is not enough; we need an ambitious civilization which is constantly trying to do more than it was before, and is endlessly hungry for more workers. Or else we are doomed.

It wasn't half farmers, it was like 95% farmers. And despite nearly everyone engaged in food production, people were only one bad year away from mass starvation.

> It wasn't half farmers, it was like 95% farmers.

Yeah... no. The first US Census, in 1790, already recorded an urban population of over 5%.

By the mid-19th century, urban population had climbed over 15%, and by 1910 (last census before the Fordson Tractor, the first really popular tractor in the US) it had already exceeded 45%

In praise of idleness: http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

"You and I know this is stupid - but that information never filters down to the people who need it."

How exactly is it that this works? Do people go around to all the nice neighbourhoods and explain to the kids there that shit schools give shit degrees that nobody wants? It seems like this is just common sense, hardly something that needs to be taught.

No, I don't think being poor initially has very much to do with it. Rich kids can waste their time at party schools just as easily as poor kids can waste their time at degree mills. Similarly smart poor kids will try to get themselves real degrees (or make it on their own), as will smart rich kids. (Of course the rich kids will have an easier time of this, but that's because... they're rich.)

Common sense is nothing more or less than tacit knowledge that you learn implicitly through observing your peers within a culture. If there's nobody in your peer group with that knowledge, that sense won't be very common.

Here's an example from the startup world. Imagine that you have this great idea and you're desperate for funding. You're approached by a key investor, and they ask you "Is anybody else interested in your startup? Have you been talking to other investors?" Nobody else has expressed interest, and you haven't been talking to any other investors. How do you respond?

If you spend any amount of time with successful entrepreneurs, the answer is common sense: you lie and say "Oh yes, we're talking to a bunch of people and everyone's pretty excited." This is the answer the investor expects you to give: it shows that you know how to drum up interest in your product from nothing, and if you can't do that with him, you probably can't do it with anyone and you've just disqualified yourself in his eyes.

But if you grew up with a typical middle-class upbringing, this advice will seem very strange, even evil. Because you're lying. And more than that, you're lying to a powerful person about a business deal that directly concerns him. What would your mother think?

It's even more complicated because there're specific, unwritten rules about what you can lie about, and nobody ever explains this. If a journalist asks you "Are you working on X?" and you are, you're perfectly within your rights to lie and flat out say "No." If you lie about how interested people are in your product, that's fine, and people even expect that. But if you fudge the numbers in a due diligence audit, you're guilty of securities fraud and can go to jail for that. It's an awfully fine tight-rope with no clear guidebook.

Many of the rules for jumping from the working poor to the middle class are like that. Sure, everyone tells people to go to college and you'll get a good job. But which college? How are they supposed to know that University of Phoenix is nowhere near as good as, say, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor? Or that there's a big difference between a UC-Berkeley degree and a UC-Santa Cruz one. Who tells them that they should study software engineering rather than sports medicine? Or maybe they miraculously find Proggit or Hacker News and hear that you should study software engineering, but don't realize that when it comes down to the actual degree program, you're often better off with Computer Science rather than Software Engineering. Or they do all that right, get great grades, but nobody tells them that GPA doesn't matter so much and they really need to have been doing internships and helping their professor with his research to actually be qualified.

If you've studied academic sociology, there's a lot written about this under the general category of "cultural capital", particularly the work of Pierre Bourdieu. It's all the little advantages we have simply by growing up in a peer group that's successful. Usually you can't put your finger on these if you have them, but you very much feel their lack if you don't.

Fantastic writeup on social and cultural capital. So good, in fact, I'm going to link it next time I have to argue with people about the cultural and social advantages being born wealthy privileges them, even if they don't inherit a dime of actual capital.

But which college? How are they supposed to know that University of Phoenix is nowhere near as good as, say, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor?


Who tells them that they should study software engineering rather than sports medicine?


How do they know to look? That advertising works for expensive items is a good clue as to how much research people are inclined to do.

This is a very well thought out and well worded answer. Thank you! I've always had trouble expressing this.

I don't think being poor initially has very much to do with it.

Is that just your hunch? What if you're wrong? Do you care?

Yes, that is my opinion/hunch/suspicion/whatever. If I'm wrong... nothing is going to happen. I'm not a policy maker, nobody really cares what I think and what I do has no real effect. I've certainly been wrong many times in my life before, I don't think I'll get too worked up if I'm wrong this time too.

I'm admittedly rather ignorant on the topic, but before I commit a few days to researching this I thought I'd ask here: do job losses due to technological transformations often happen during economic shocks, or is this just a one-off coincidence?

The 2008 economic shock was triggered by (depending on your perspective, I suppose) lending large amounts of money to people who did not have the means to repay the loans, as well as the collateralization and sale of these debts in tranches of risk that were inaccurately calibrated. Is part of your thesis that this is somehow related to the emergence of the new economy? Is this an orthogonal but necessary trigger of job loss that causes the evaporation of old-economy jobs? Or is this unnecessary and merely coincidental?

It's a coincidence.

In the past decade or so we've witnessed a few industries lost to technology advancement - travel agencies, consumer electronics retail, newspapers. The way things are headed it's a matter of few years before titles such as 'real estate agent' or 'car salesman' are carrier around by significantly fewer people.

Number-wise the real estate bubble provided plenty of jobs to people involved in construction, mortgage financing, mortgage brokerage, mortgage repurchasing, real estate sales, etc. Without the housing bubble we would've seen slow but steady drops in employment, with housing bubble we're just seeing the same effect in a more abrupt manner.

The sad thing is that there is tons of work that the idle resources of the construction industry could be doing, such as fixing America's deteriorating infrastructure. But our elites have decided that it's better for them to stay idle.

Why, I can personally attest that this is true. I went to a meeting of our elites and someone said, "Hey, you want to put the idle resources of the construction industry to work on fixing America's deteriorating infrastructure?" and some other guy was like, "Nah, it's more evil if we just have them stay unemployed" and then there was a lot of chuckling. That's totally how the world works.


who was it that decided that there would be no more spending on infrastructure? It wasn't the common voter.

I don't know whom you mean by "the elites," but I suspect they could care less about the activity or lack thereof of construction guys. I suspect "how do we pay for x" has higher priority.

Lost to technology advancement? Last time I checked, there were shitloads of travel agencies, retail outlets for consumer electronics, and newstands all over the city.

Everybody does not shop on Amazon and use AirBnB.

I realize that 'shitloads' is a imprecise measure but there are significantly fewer travel agencies today than there were 10 years ago (as an example). If you were to break it down into 'single propieter' / 'corporate agency' you would find that single proprietor agencies have been reduced dramatically.

For me the argument is convincing when technology changes the growth rate of a particular industry (in terms of jobs provided) to be negative.

If you recall, Circuit City vanished a few years ago after a several decades as a leading nationwide retailer. Part of this was surely caused by direct retail competition by Best Buy, Target, WalMart, but it would be reasonable to presume that at least a part of this was caused by technological advancement as well (it certainly couldn't have helped circuit city to have to compete with NewEgg and Amazon)

DIVX (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DIVX) was another important catalyst that helped Circuit City to fail. If you're interested read the link but the short of it was that it cost Circuit City over $100 million not to mention that anyone that was into home theater basically refused to shop there after this fiasco.

Employment as a news stand operator != employment in newspaper industry.

On retail - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_defunct_retailers_of_th... do you honestly see more people selling HDTVs and BluRay players today than in 2001?

>>Technology has always disrupted the low end of the workforce.

I'm not sure that's true.

The reason is underemployment[1]. when technology disrupts the jobs of educated people, they have options to find jobs that require lower education , or take a job with lower salary , because of their prestige, education and experience.

People with less skills usually have much less options , so instead of becoming underemployed , they become unemployed.

As an example , see the table at [2].

[1]there are two definition for underemployed. the official is a people with part time job looking for full time job. the other is a person looking for a job below his skills.

[2] http://collegeaffordability.blogspot.com/2010/10/underemploy...

There might also be an effect of continuous education hiding unemployment or rather, to put it bluntly, some people who would otherwise be unemployed, hiding in the education system.

Many of those with high school diploma who are not unemployed are not employed either but are taking part in further education. Similarly, many of those with an undergrad degree are currently in grad school, etc.

It would be interesting to compare the employment rates of the various groups as well.

Education level is more likey to be an effect than a cause. Those from not poor families have better education levels. Education level is influenced by ethnicity, age, gender and host of other factors (mental health, assertiveness, "drive", etc).

I'd believe those other factors have huge influence on employment. It's not so simple as get education -> job & life of ease.

It's not so simple as get education -> job & life of ease.

Of course it's not that simple, but it's definitely important to realize that unemployment numbers are not the same for everyone. Recognizing that a lot of the unemployment falls within groups that have little education means that a tech startup is going to do very little to address unemployment. It's not a bad or good thing with a tech startup, just a fact.

What the numbers show is that we need more jobs that require less education.

That's an odd angle to look at this considering this is an industry which requires no formal education or accreditation.

Yes, by international comparisons, the United States has been doing poorly in education. Chapter 1: "International Student Achievement in Mathematics" from the TIMSS 2007 study of mathematics achievement in many different countries includes, in Exhibit 1.1 (pages 34 and 35)


a chart of mathematics achievement levels in various countries. Although the United States is above the international average score among the countries surveyed, as we would expect from the level of economic development in the United States, the United States is well below the top country listed, which is Singapore. An average United States student is at the bottom quartile level for Singapore, or from another point of view, a top quartile student in the United States is only at the level of an average student in Singapore.

A thoughtful article from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society


identifies some of the problems with United States education that hold back full expression of the learning potential of many Americans. Professor Hung-hsi Wu of Berkeley has devoted much of the last decade to writing important articles about what needs to be reformed in United States mathematics education.






Other mathematicians who have written interesting articles about mathematics education reform in the United States include Richard Askey,



Roger E. Howe,



James Milgram.



All those mathematicians think that the United States could do much better than it does in teaching elementary mathematics in the public school system. I think so too after living in Taiwan twice in my adult life (January 1982 through February 1985, and December 1998 through July 2001). Taiwan is not the only place where elementary mathematics instruction is better than it is in the United States. I'm trying to do my part to fix the problem of United States elementary mathematics education by offering supplementary classes in elementary mathematics on weekends through my start-up, a nonprofit organization. My colleagues and I are gratified to have clients commute in for the classes from eight different counties. The client children have parents who grew up in the United States and also Ghana, Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and other countries. All the families want to make sure that their children have a chance to succeed in the next generation.

I'll just point out to you, yet again, that the gap between the US and Singapore is almost completely explained by ethnicity. Asian Americans have test scores only marginally worse than Asian Singaporians.


In terms of test score ranking, the best test scores come from Asian Americans in CT, closely followed by Asians in NY and TX. (As one might expect, CA underperforms the US and Singapore.)

Similarly, Americans of European descent rank #6 among Europeans of European descent.


I don't know why you refuse to acknowledge this.

The methodology of the blog post you point to repeatedly is laughable. The main objection is that the cross-sectional correlation the author claims is completely incompetent to show causation.

I'm confused - using TIMSS data to compare Asian Americans to Asian Singaporeans (what Sanandaji did) is laughable, but using TIMSS data to compare Americans to Singaporeans (what you did) is not?

I'm also not sure what causation you believe Sanandaji is attempting to show. Could you explain?

The divide isn't between SV and the unemployed, but between the educated and uneducated.

And educational status is strongly predicted by IQ in the U.S. EDIT: And since IQ is strongly influenced by genetics, this latest data suggests the U.S. is creating a genetic underclass. Taken far enough, this is the death of the republic.

Under IQ 90, 40% drop out of high school. Above IQ 110, less than 1% drop out of high school.

  Percent with bachelor's 
  degree by IQ (ignoring
  family wealth)

  IQ     %
  ---    --
  85     2
  100    10
  115    30
  130    75
Family wealth has a modest effect. For IQ 100, coming from a super-wealthy family boosts bachelor's degree attainment to 30%.

Source: NLSY project, early 1980s, as analyzed in The Bell Curve in the mid 1990s.

The NLSY doesn't include a test of IQ. It includes an AFQT test. That stands for Armed Forces Qualification Test. The NLSY tracks young people who are between 14-22 in 1979 through time. Therefore, they take the AFQT test when they are at least 14 and often older. The AFQT test isn't designed to measure intelligence per se. Your argument is pretty much that students who score well on standardized tests in high school and college are much more likely to graduate (or to have graduated) from high school. There are all sorts of correlation/causation problems there.

The AFQT test isn't designed to measure intelligence per se.

Yes, but as the source explains, the AFQT has several sub-tests, and most of them are highly correlated to IQ. (A few, like the automotive knowledge test, are uncorrelated with IQ.) They claim that appropriate analysis of results on the sub-tests allows a reasonably accurate measurement of IQ to be made.

EDIT: Re-checking the source, they mention that in 1989 the armed forces rescored the AFQT to make it more g-loaded and repeatable. The first draft of the book used the 1980 scoring, but they redid it all using the 1989 scoring because it was superior.

And the kind of education that offers real financial benefit is often technical or mathematical in nature.

So there is something I wonder about: is there an IQ "floor" below which very few people will be able to benefit from or even complete this sort of education? What percentage of the population falls under this floor? And what will they be doing in the future as both the "service" and manual labor sectors, the traditional absorbers of people with no degrees or impractical "soft" degrees, dwindle in the number of people employed?

We already have examples of this. What happens to people with Down syndrome? Where do chronically brain-damaged folks work? Where can senior citizens who have fallen prey to dementia get jobs?

One of the local Carl's Jr fast food restaurants has several employees with Down Syndrome. They bring trays to tables and mop the floor. I think it's great that the management gives them the opportunity to do some productive work.

I think that's really really nice of him but it's not economically relevant. If anything it proves the rule.

Indeed. Note that there is a huge chunk of population in the gap between special programs for the severely brain-disabled and those who are just barely low-IQ enough to not finish high school. These people are being squeezed to death between the minimum wage and the export of manual labor to other countries.

And who is doing the political squeezing? A cognitive elite that are being efficiently skimmed off and segregated by IQ in late childhood. This bodes poorly for the stability of the nation.

Of course, this all depends on how much you trust the entire concept of nations... Maybe that era is starting it's final days, and the next force is going to be global companies that hire the elite across the old national boundaries and the the lower classes are stuck for a long time until the world catches up.

I don't trust global corporations much, though. Maybe it's time to get the king to stop favoring the East India Tea Company so much.

And educational status is strongly predicted by IQ in the U.S. EDIT: And since IQ is strongly influenced by genetics, this latest data suggests the U.S. is creating a genetic underclass. Taken far enough, this is the death of the republic.

You're leaping across logical gaps here. IQ can be predicted by a number of factors (parental wealth, IQ, and education are a few), and research on intelligence is fraught with identification problems. It's hard to believe claims of a "genetic underclass."

It's hard to believe claims of a "genetic underclass."

There have been several large studies of identical twins separated at birth. For a given twin, the strongest correlate of IQ is the other twin's IQ. Likewise, the non-identical but biologically-related siblings do have moderately correlated IQs. However, there is barely any correlation between a twin and their adoptive parents or siblings. This suggests that genetics and prenatal environment determine most of IQ.

There is also strong evidence from gene sequencing that genetics directly affects IQ. Genes that affect sphingolipids, chemicals important in the brain, are known to affect IQ. A variation in the SNAP-25 gene has been found to increase intelligence by an average of 3 IQ points.

Identical twins studies are often flawed, because the environment difference between twins is far from random for obvious reasons. For example, in one of the (often used) minesota studies about IQ and twins, the average IQ of the father was 120, whereas the state average was 105 (see http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bul/125/4/392/).

And while it has become a cliche, it is still true that correlation is not causation: coming up with correlation is easy, but solid scientific works need to prove that the correlation is not spurious. Most studies don't (this is sadly not specific to discussions about IQ, and is a plague of many studies in too many areas - good statistics are hard).

There have been several large studies of identical twins separated at birth.

Yes, and I am closely acquainted, through attending their graduate student "journal club,"


with most of the researchers who have conducted the best of those studies. An earlier reply of mine here on HN


corrects (with citations to current research publications) some of the overstatements seen in popular literature about what twin studies show. There is also not any single gene variant that has large effect on IQ, in the view of those researchers about what the most up-to-date gene association studies show.

I believe there are genetic determinants of IQ. But I think IQ measures only one very specific kind of intelligence. Using IQ as a measure for intelligence is like using guitar skills as a measure of musical ability. There are other instruments too.

I don't understand the point of this article (or why so many people are up-voting it).

The article says that unemployment is high and then it says:

"Maybe something is missing in the Valley and surrounding tech communities and that’s a stronger sense of responsibility to make sure that the vast majority of the country isn’t left behind by all this cool technology that we’re building."

I'm curious, what should the technology communities do? As far as I can see, by expanding their firms and hiring additional employees these companies are already doing the responsible thing for the national economy.

I realize that TC is not an economic journal, but I think that it is reasonable to expect a slightly more informed discussion of this issue without so much hyperbole.

The currently high unemployment rate is not due to the technology industries growth, and, as a matter of fact, it is the expansion of the technology industry that will likely provide one of the avenues that will assist in dealing with the high unemployment rate.

Just a few references:

- http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2009/03/how_much...

- http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1928261,00....

I'm curious, what should the technology communities do?

The implication I read into it was that technology companies should be aware of the plight of the poor, and try to help people out (AirBnB, Google, etc) and be careful not just to exploit them (Zynga). But maybe I'm just projecting my own beliefs. :)

How does google help the poor?

By providing everyone with free search to locate information, providing them with free high quality email, adwords to market their wares/services, adsense to monetize their traffic.

Fair enough, but by that logic you can say any business that provides services that the poor can afford is 'helping the poor'. Bing helps the poor the same way google does, Apple helps the poor by selling music by the track, etc. Zynga helps the poor by providing cheap entertainment, etc.

I thought there was the implication that google did something specific.

It's not just that they provide free services, it's that those services are beneficial to society. Obviously this is very subjective and complex. Wikipedia would generally be regarded as good for society - removing the barrier to obtaining knowledge. However, if Wikipedia details how to make a bomb, that's regarded as bad for society.

Google helps society. They provide good search. What separates then from Bing is that they operate with the idea of "do no evil". Bing are seen as copying (an idea - stealing) which is bad in society.

Zynga provides cheap entertainment, but that's not good for society. TV isn't seen as good for society anymore - it's passive. There's an opportunity cost to being entertained - you could be productive - learning on Wikipedia.

The best thing the tech community can do is to encourage Schumpeterian creative destruction in other areas of the economy (such as finance). The tech sector is so successful because it's essentially the wild west, free from a lot of the interference of other areas of the economy.

When it's easier to start Facebook than a coffee shop you should not be surprised that there is more demand for programmers and less demand for baristas.

Asking what the tech sector can do for the rest of America is like asking what America can do for Soviet Russia, the answer to which is wait until they want to change their ways.

I didn't realize the full impact of the financial meltdown until we posted on Craigslist for an office manager last month. I received 110 applications in less than 24 hours. 75 were highly qualified and the 14 I interviewed all had deep experience across the disparate functional areas we needed help in. I was stunned at the difference between that experience and our attempts to find more Java developers, where we've heard crickets.

That's pretty sad to hear, in a societal sense. What kind of work does an office manager at your company do?

One thing this article is missing is that lots of technology innovation is deflationary. As The Great Stagnation points out, lots of people are substituting $1 plus two hours of Farmville for a movie (and dinner out, and gas to get there). As more forms of entertainment and social status are available to the unemployed, the pressure to get a job lessens. You may not be employee of the month or drive a nice car, but if you have lots of free time you can get a pretty good mount without affecting GDP.

There's an assumption that a growing middle class with an increasing standard of living is the norm. From what I can see, it's been the norm for a pretty short period, in a pretty small part of the world. There are plenty of reasons to think that the New Deal plus the GI Bill plus the Great Moderation was just a weird, aberrant part of human history.

Would you consider a growing middle class with an increasing standard of living to be desirable, though? If it's a good thing, then it doesn't matter whether it's been the historical norm, we should work toward it.

Not especially. I prefer one more Zuck or Gates or Jobs to a million more middle-class whoevers.

Interesting. I think that in terms of creating a just society (which I do consider to be "good"), I'd much rather have a million more middle-class whoevers. There's no real way to resolve disagreements on questions of "oughts", though, so I think we just have to agree to disagree.

Fail. The whoevers pay most of the taxes in the US and are the ones who purchase your products. One "killer elite" just isn't making that much $$ for Facebook, Google, ...

Actually the well-off pay most of the taxes. And Zuck would not have what he has without the company he built, and I'd reckon that pretty much every employee at Facebook is at least earning what would be considered comfortable middle-class money.

Middle-class < well-off <<< Gates et al. I can concede the "who pays the taxes" point to a good argument. I think we're in general agreement that the unwashed or partially-washed masses purchase a whole lot more stuff from high-tech companies that the aforementioned luminaries.

Unless there's way more HN companies making carbon-fiber racing yachts that I'm aware of.

As much as i like you vision , there are a few problems with it: 1. The basics: housing , transportation , healthcare ,education haven't become much cheaper. And i think it's mostly a question of regulation and politics(big politics or industry power plays), not technology. 2. You gotta to have some money. part time work could be ok, total unemployment is a problem.

HN & G+ == more entertaining and lots cheaper than cable.

It's certainly true that the job market is going crazy in silicon valley, but the complaints in this article go against some pretty fundamental economic principles - namely that more efficient use of capital results in unemployment.

Disruptive technology often results in unemployment in the short term because it cleans up inefficiencies -- look at the industrial revolution. I think it's fair to say we're richer as a society because we can automate production of goods. Yes, it put a lot of craftsmen out of work, but it was a hugely beneficial change.

And so these days we have itunes putting record stores out of business. And amazon shutting down book stores. There's plenty of nostalgia for these establishments, but the things that have replaced them electronically give us incredibly better selection at less of a cost.

We're nearing a point where we might question whether efficiency as a goal in itself has ceased to be beneficial to us. After all, we begin as dust and end as dust; why not make things more efficient by eliminating all the messy life part in between?

Maybe we should be less concerned about efficiency and more concerned about our quality of life. And not just we the wealthy (and everyone reading HN is much, much wealthier than the average human being), but everyone. Because if there is one thing history demonstrates, it's that when wealth becomes overly concentrated, grief is sure to follow for everyone.

By improving efficiency we are improving the quality of life of those around the world. Due to rapid improvements in technology those in the poorest countries can now easily access information, entertainment, books, knowledge from anywhere in the world at remarkably low cost -> Greatly improving their quality of life (if we agree that life like we have in the west is the goal).

What's the point of completely automating everything if you still have to work 40 hours a week?

Why do you still have to work 40 hours a week once everything is automated?

The problem there though is that those working have little interest in paying say 50% tax to support those who they have put out if work with increased efficiency.

Automating tasks allows us to work on tasks that we don't know how to automate and leads to innovation.

Due to rapid improvements in technology those in the poorest countries can now easily access information, entertainment, books, knowledge from anywhere in the world at remarkably low cost -> Greatly improving their quality of life...

I find it unlikely that someone who is put out of a job by new efficiencies would find much solace in low cost YouTube access. It's precisely this blind faith in efficiency as a measure of progress that I question. I'm not saying it's always bad, but it's clear now that improved efficiency is not always good. We need to find new, more suitable metrics by which to measure progress.

There are fundamental problems that aren't even close to being solved. Health care is the most obvious one. Efficiency in one area should (in theory) allow us to spend more on unsolved problems. Of course, that can only lead to employment to the extent that someone is willing to spend.

Efficiency in one area should (in theory) allow us to spend more on unsolved problems.

It may also create new unsolved problems. Fast food is efficient, but has it represented a net gain in our quality of life or health?

The assumption that unemployment caused by innovation is only short term is based on the assumption that new jobs will be created which require (roughly) the same qualifications.

I think that more and more this proves to be a questionable expectation.

If you don't operate under the assumption that people will work to improve their skills and learn so as to become functional and contributing members of society, you're committing to a static society or complete dependence on the government. People need to start acting like a job isn't a right but something you earn.

If you think the current disruption is meaningful, just wait 10 to 20 years for robots to replace almost all service jobs in a very short time

I think this is pretty accurate, however there is a potential structural problem: entry level, or low level jobs in general don't pay people enough to invest time or resources in improving their skills - certainly not for longer term shifts in the economy.

"Earning" a job, implies that people invest their own resources in preparing themselves for the future. I am vehemently in favor of that as a general way for society to operate.

However, this vision requires that people have sufficient resources to make these investments. Given the increasing disparities of resource allocation that we're seeing, why should we assume that this is possible?

In all of human history, it has never been easier than today to learn something new.

"a job isn't a right but something you earn"

I definitely agree but when you are at a company who has employed you for a long time and have been doing your job well, then who's not to say that now unemployed person hasn't earned that job. The time spent at that job performing well could have been spent learning some new in-demand skill but think of the opportunity cost. Now when these people are unemployed, do we really think society has provided the motivation, resources, and most importantly, direction, to change their view on career and development. It's a very big step and I believe its naive to think that unemployment is an event actionable enough to make someone switch their mentality.

I don't really put blame on individuals. I think they are socialized to make their poor decisions. I mainly blame our educational institutions and government for telling people for decades that they will be taken care of when down. It's a lie, but comes with a bonus of placating people.

> you're committing to a static society

You say that as if it's a given bad thing, it isn't; humans lived in virtually static societies for most of their existence; the current rate of change is simply too fast for most people and is itself not the norm. It's like we're trying to become the Morlocks and the Eloi.

Let me know your opinion on static societies when you or someone you love gets diagnosed with a currently terminal disease. Or, on a grander scale, a static human race is doomed to extinction by the next large asteroid.

Sure, that economic theory doesn't take into account jobs with the same qualifications. But why should it? When assembly line production began being automated by robotics, I'm sure there were stories about how the riveters and welders would never be able to work again. We're still better off because of that automation though - goods can be produced more efficiently and at higher quality.

We can't predict the future, but every previous disruptive technological innovation has resulted in society being richer. It would be quite the shock if the result of the most recent one somehow left us poorer -- something really worth reporting on -- but I don't believe it.

Society as a whole gets richer, but within those confines the rich can get richer and the poor can get poorer. Granted the poor today (I assume) have a higher quality of life than they did 50 years ago, but their expectations for life are also (probably) higher and cheap credit means that they can live beyond their means and a deeper whole for themselves, while temporarily giving themselves the impression that they have money to spend.

Silicon Valley is producing these great billion dollar companies, but the companies themselves are only hiring a small fraction of the employees that similarly sized (market cap) companies have in the past. That is a bit of a problem. It means that incredible wealth is concentrated in one place, but without the filter down value that has occurred in the past.

These companies still have immense value to society, but the value as far as numbers of people employed is decreasing dramatically and that is a major concern.

"Granted the poor today (I assume) have a higher quality of life than they did 50 years ago, but their expectations for life are also (probably) higher"

So... if in the future I own a flying car with 30 cup-holders, but the rich people in society all have 5 hyper-deluxe flying cars with tinted windows, will I be worse off since my expectations are significantly higher than what I can obtain?

Or will I still own a flying car, whereas before I did not?

And no, this isn't some terrible example. "Poor" in America is anything but for the vast number of people below the poverty line. People with no skills of value to society should feel lucky for having so much.

> Society as a whole gets richer, but within those confines the rich can get richer and the poor can get poorer.

But, do they get poorer?

> Granted the poor today (I assume) have a higher quality of life than they did 50 years ago,

Good - they're getting richer.

But, why does the sentence continue.

> but their expectations for life are also (probably) higher and cheap credit means that they can live beyond their means and a deeper whole for themselves, while temporarily giving themselves the impression that they have money to spend.


The fact that US poor can be better off than ever before has no connection to easy credit.

In fact, even with the easy credit and the resulting bankruptcy, they're better off now than past poor.

Note that I'm not arguing for stupid credit policies (pushed mostly by govt). I'm pointing out that they have nothing to do with whether the poor are better off now.

Oh, and most poor people didn't get into the cheap credit problem because they didn't even qualify under the stupid standards.

However, the efforts to prop up folks who bought what they can't afford have kept folks who saved out of those houses. It's unclear why that's a good thing.

For the good of society, banks need to lose money on stupid loans.

> There's plenty of nostalgia for these establishments, but the things that have replaced them electronically give us incredibly better selection at less of a cost.

The question is: who will buy all these things (doesn't matter if it's online or offline) if more and more people don't have a steady paycheck?

The displaced worker at the bookstore/recordstore becomes a Farmville-loving, unpaid-content-producing, at-home-living, virtual-goods-buying, ad-viewing serf, kept alive by a wealthy technical elite merely to keep the system running. Welcome to The Matrix!

I don't know why you've been downvotted. Anyway, I said it before, the question remains: with which money will these unemployed people buy shiny new things? Because Government handouts won't cut it.

To me, that is the real business model innovation of social/web2.0 - college students will just move back home, saddled with debt, and entertain each other on a site you control, generating revenue for you.

Their parents will fund their basic needs, at least until they themselves die or run out of credit, government subsidies, etc.

It was not designed to be sustainable -- it was designed to extract as much wealth as possible for its founders, as quickly as possible, before war/peak oil/or whatever hits.

At one point, I (naively) thought that by starting a company, I would be helping to alleviate unemployment in the US because I would be creating jobs. Now I realize that the programmers and designers I employ are/will be people who could have their choice of jobs, because I'm only hiring the smartest and most skilled. I'm effectively not altering the unemployment rate by adding jobs for the sector of the population that is in the least need of work.

So, I don't think it's possible for us (people who work at companies whose product is technology) to help create jobs for people without tech skills.

You kinda are tho', because those "smartest" people working for you are no longer competing for jobs at Starbucks.

I've been seeing this trend first hand. That's why I am learning how to code. The fact is that the jobs that provide a living wage today are based on knowledge. So you can retrain yourself, or you can be left behind.

I am retraining myself, too. By inclination I am a liberal artsy guy with only a slight interest in technical stuff, but I've seen the writing on the wall and am learning to program. Turns out that it can be quite fun anyway. :-)

Indeed it can.

But don't discount how much people who can do graphical design are needed too -- the projects advertised in the Weekend Hacker newsletter -- need a graphically skilled person over a programmer at a 3 to 1 ratio.

While the overall unemployment number is a good indicator for the economy, it is far from the best indicator. Instead of looking at an overall "jobs count", perhaps we should be looking at how the state of technology (or the job market) is improving the overall efficiency in the economy. After all, our lives improve as technology becomes more efficient.

For example, while Amazon may step on the shoes of the likes of Borders, look at what it is doing for consumers. On a global scale, we should be focusing on improving the lives of people, but at the same time we should continue to promote competition.

The unfortunate consequence of competition is that some people lose out. To rectify this, perhaps we should focus on creating the right types of jobs and promoting constant education. In addition to the unemployment number, I wish we could see some additional metrics.

At a previous job, I was responsible for data management and business intelligence. My team basically looked at the company's numbers and sliced and diced it every way possible. I would love to see some more metrics from the government. I would also love to see some better tools developed by the government to help us visualize the data. (One tool that comes to mind for this sort of stuff is an OLAP cube)

Without going too far away from the point, a simple "unemployment number" isn't enough. Let's look at some more data and see where the problems are. Also, let's make this transparent so that people start talking about the details instead of one number.

I agree that overall efficiency is important, but in terms of a reasonably coherent society, the unemployment number also seems pretty important. In the long-term, either almost everyone needs some sort of job, most of the time, or we need a plan B to accomodate a large portion of the population being long-term unemployed.

If, say, we have long-term 20% unemployment, even if the economy was otherwise booming, this 20% of the population with no real source of income poses a big problem. Either we have to figure how they can participate in the economy somehow (which would mean the unemployment rate would go down, solving the problem), or, if long-term there is going to be a persistent higher unemployment rate, then we have to do something different about it (perhaps a guaranteed-minimum subsistence income along the lines that Friedman and Hayek advocated).

You're right, but we need more transparency. What are the skills of the 9% or so of people that are unemployed now? Do the majority of the unemployed people work at similar types of jobs? What was the reason they lost their jobs?

These are all important questions for reducing that one overall number, but everyone seems to be just focusing on the total number.

>For example, while Amazon may step on the shoes of the likes of Borders, look at what it is doing for consumers. On a global scale, we should be focusing on improving the lives of people, but at the same time we should continue to promote competition.

The same people who love Amazon are the same people who hate walmart and complain walmart is putting local businesses out of business. When in fact, Amazon pretty much grew their business by hiring walmart executives. And also while you look at what amazon is doing for consumers, also look at what it is doing for the enviroment.

Amazon has done two environmentally positive things that I can think of off the top of my head.

1. Pushing for frustration-free packaging. Less waste if the packaging isn't designed to attract eyeballs and deter shoplifters in a retail environment.

2. When scheduling grocery deliveries with Amazon Fresh, you can see when they will already have a truck in your neighborhood. My groceries essentially carpool on their way to my house.

The article's analysis is severely flawed, and I suspect intentionally so. It tries to lay the blame on inventors, innovation and technology workers for the unemployment of unskilled workers.

We don't have enough manufacturing jobs in the country not because technology has made it so that everything is made by robots in gleaming factories.

We don't have enough manufacturing jobs in the country because we have zero import tariffs for countries that use slave labor and have no enforced environmental regulations. This is a situation created by globalist bankers, not inventors.

The long-term structural fix is probably that "industrial" value creation (manufacturing, tech R&D, etc.) will be concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of people (essentially, Silicon Valley plus robotic factories), and that everyone else will have some kind of job which is either a service job or an artisan manufacturing job (i.e. if you can have 1k farmers with agritech produce ~1% of the world's industrial corn, you might still want to support small farmers growing heritage/etc. crops which are more labor intensive). A combination of "personal service" services jobs (while automation can reduce headcount in services too, e.g. recorded video lectures, it's a lot less effective than in manufacturing or pure information goods) and intentionally labor intensive manufacturing is a much better alternative than mass unemployment and welfare, or mass unemployment and death.

The funny thing is this world almost ends up like a computer RPG; you can give away mass-produced n00b gear to everyone for free, but then the specialty stuff becomes even higher priced. It's pretty easy to argue that no one in a rich society should starve to death, but it's a lot harder to argue that the poor have a right to purely luxury versions of basic goods.

I transitioned from a tech company to a traditional media company. I consider myself an avg engineer at best. The shit that I can pound out (self taught) like wireframes, flowcharts, product plans, marketing plans, automating data collections, in house wikis, usability reviews, is orders of magnitude more productive than the PR person sitting next to me. And these are the people who have jobs. In otherwords, being skilled, at least techincally, really deserves to be in demand. We can always make things more efficient. That's always going to be in demand.

My advice is to always think about your career a little strategically. Your skills should transcend your company and your vertical. Never give up looking at ways to be better and always be willing to learn. I see very little of that from coworkers. And after a while, those types of employees build up an impedance to being an autodidact, which imho, is career suicide. That's why I love meeting coworkers who are interested in the stuff I do and want to learn. I show them how easy it is to learn new things, and that there's tools that always make your life easier. Then their eyes light up. love that.

It's funny that this article appeared simultaneously with this german article: http://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/siliconvalley100.html (Well... it's in german)

It says that one in ten people goes to the Second Harvest Food Bank for meals. Living costs are very high and that unemployment is increasing in Silicon Valley.

Can somebody tell me what's true?

What's for sure is that the tech economy is booming. If you can code, people would stop you on the street and offer you a job. I'm only exaggerating a little.

In the last 6 months, "we are hiring" signs have started to pop up in many stores. So the boom is not just for developers, it's also for retail positions. To me, that's the #1 proof that the economy is great (http://blog.foundrs.com/2011/04/26/the-sure-tell-sign-that-s...).

While I understand the 'negatives' the article mentions, it doesn't provide much in the way of helpful insight as the the alternative. Sure people are losing jobs to automation, does that mean we should stop moving forward? This isn't just isolated to silicon valley or even the tech industry though. My wife is a pharmacist and to get jobs in desirable areas is highly competitive at this time. I'm sure there are other areas where this is true as well.

I think this also holds for any other country as well. Say, if you go to India, you will see a vast disparity between Mumbai and some small remote town. In Mumbai/Delhi a mechanical machine would be used to mix the cement material for construction whereas in the remote cities you might see labours manually mix the contents of cement.

Perhaps what we need is a radical shake up of our schooling system, but also a re-evaluation or how we raise our kids. Chew on this:

"Nearly 6.2 million students in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24 in 2007 dropped out of high school..."


Yikes. Something stinks. In this day and age unemployment is going to continue to be really high if there are 6.2 or so million students dropping out of high school / university per year.

America (and other western countries) are not creating labor intensive industries anymore (with the exception of wars -- sad, but true), so these drop-outs are going to have real employment troubles for the rest of their 50+ years of life.

Something's gotta give.

Where did you get dropouts per year from? The article is saying that in the year 2007 of the cohort of individuals ages 16 to 24 6.2 million were dropouts. 16% is far too high of a dropout rate ... but 6.2 million per year is clearly impossible in a nation of ~300 million.

For those interested in an outside view and capable of German, "tagesschau" (flagship news programme on German TV) today aired two stories on this topic:

Die Verlierer im Silicon Valley (The losers in Silicon Valley) http://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/siliconvalley100.html

Erst ist das Haus weg, dann der Job, dann die Kinder... (First they lost their house, then their jobs, then their children...) http://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/weltspiegel382.html

Balderdash. There's no responsibility to go slower so people can catch up.

If there's honestly a cultural divide between Silicon Valley and Unemployed America, then there ought to be some serious money to be made on things that help Unemployed America that people in Silicon Valley aren't going to find (which is good news for me, if I can just figure out what those things are). Expect this to be one of the things that ends this recession/depression - but blaming macroeconomic screwups on the only people around not screwing up is not the answer.

This article I feel simply explains that advancement in technology could be hurting America. Yes, change can cause damage... but change will happen no matter what.

I think that the current divide is simply a educated/uneducated. Or it could be the market simply rewarding certain professions as they do with investment banking. However, it just so happens that the majority of these jobs are in SV as they do on Wall Street.

Yet, I don't understand the issue the author is laying out. Is he suggesting that San Francisco and the bay area is strictly a wealthy area? Is he implying that SV is so different from other cities employment wise? Has he seem the number of homeless in San Francisco?

The comments on this article on TC seem like a pretty strong argument for disabling Yahoo as a way to comment.

The fact is there is 1000x more VC and angel capital in the Bay Area willing to fund "any idea". This does not exist anywhere else and startup money does not travel.

It's all about education. We just got lucky that we picked IT when we were young.

My wife always laughs at me when I refuse to take a job, because "it only pays $60 per hour". Her friends and her don't have any high tech education, and $20-30/hr is their ceiling, most of them making less, and at the same time the jobs they do seem so much more boring than creating websites or building apps.

We are truly lucky, guys. Enjoy the ride it while it lasts.

I learned programming a little later in life and then got into professional software development. I would say the huge thing that makes programming (not IT in general) relatively lucrative is not about education but about skill. Good programmers are hard to find and therefore expensive because they have put a lot of time into developing their craft. If you look around at other fields, having a specific skill that requires practice and time to develop almost always pays off (especially if the skill is a practical one). Highly skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers make salaries very similar to good programmers. And at the more extreme end most of the highest paid people in the medical world are surgeons, who are also valued for a highly practiced skill.

If you have a practiced skill that takes years to develop you are, in most cases, valuable because this is a rare thing. Truth be told very, very few people have the patience and enthusiasm to learn a skill well, so it's almost always valuable when someone does.

Around here a major project had to be shut down simply because the contractor could not find enough welders to do the work.

No, the contractor just didn't want to pay them by the market-determined rate.

If he were offering the right money, welders would come out of the woodwork. They would leave other jobs or relocate.

ABSOLUTELY. It's not about education as commonly taken to mean "college degree." It's about having devoted the effort to develop a skill to the point where you can practice it with high competency.

This is exactly how I feel. I can't really take a lot of credit for thinking practically or rationally when I chose my profession. Just like everyone who studied history, philosophy or nothing at all, I am doing the thing that appealed to me most. Of course, not everyone is like me, but in talking to other programmers whom I respect, the vast majority are doing this because it's their passion.

The fact that it happens to align with a huge economic need, and that it's an amazing profession from every possible vantage-- that's just pure luck and historical happenstance.

Of course there are others who did go into programming for purely practical reasons. I had a colleague once whom I regarded as kind of a mediocre and passionless programmer. He was a cool guy though, and we got to talking one time. I started asking him about programming stuff and he stopped me. He said, "Man, I do this because it pays the bills and provides a nice home for my family. I'm a painter, not a programmer." To be honest, I had a huge amount of respect for that guy after that.

I don't think it is education per se, but having a job that people are unwilling or unable to put at the other end of the world. I have friends that have a high school education, but have skills that command $50 - $80/hr. They are in vocational jobs working the ND oil fields. Automation is nowhere near good enough to replace them, and at -20F when a pipe needs repair you need good, skilled people now.

I guess depending on how broad your definition is, then it my scenario supports your assertion. All vocational people have a training period (modern version of an apprenticeship).

I'm not sure a lot of IT is actually that safe. Companies have a lot easier time outsourcing IT to another country then welders. Silicon Valley has inertia and good laws to foster innovation and startups, but others can change their laws and unfunded liabilities of the state government might not allow for stable conditions long term. SF's attempt at taxing might not be an anomaly but a trend.

Would you rather work in an oil field in -20F or creating a website in an office while sipping your morning coffee?

For myself, I pick the website. For some of my friends, my job would be a death sentence and they would pick the oil field.

Depends whether you ask on a Monday or Friday.

Programming isn't that hard - why don't any of them want to join us? You could become a passable programmer in 3 years and there's no school admittance board you have to impress with test scores!

So I periodically think this is true, and wonder "Why do I get paid so fantastically well for just drizzling some AJAX goo on top of pre-existing APIs?", and then I actually talk to Real People (TM) and remember that I inhabit another planet from them.

On their planet, being able to calculate the area of a rectangle reliably, the first time, makes you anomalously good with math. The notion of programs as long strings of instructions, followed sequentially, with predictable results is a fantasy: computers are observed to operate mostly randomly, all of the time. Some days I go to my Googles and it's the Googles with the box in the middle,a some days I go to my Googles and it's the Googles with the box at the top. Why does Microsoft keep changing the Googles? THIS IS SO FRUSTRATING.

You and I might think there is a distinction between programs and data, and we could describe how these exist in different places in a hierarchical file system on a computer, which is an abstraction over sectors on a hard disk. Every technical word in that sentence is scary juju to most of the population. There are many otherwise intelligent people who cannot open MS Word without a document emailed to them first. If you took away the document, they wouldn't know how to open Word and wouldn't know how to correct that.

In addition, many folks who are unemployed or underemployed in the United States either cannot read this post or cannot understand enough of it to answer simple questions like "Does Patrick think that programming is hard?"

You can certainly become a passable programmer in 3 years starting from being well-educated, intelligent, and reasonably skilled at knowledge work in the information economy. If you're 3 for 3 on those, you don't have a problem right now.

Every technical word in that sentence is scary juju to most of the population.

This is why I hate to get into small talk with someone I've just met. One of the first polite questions I get is "so, what do you do?" and to judge by reactions its as if I immediately start talking like the adults in a "Peanuts" cartoon. And even if I try to be as nontechnical as possible ("I do website work") you can see they just don't want to continue the conversation at that point.

"I make websites. No, not the pretty graphics and stuff, the bit that make them do stuff. You know that little "e" up in the corner? Whenever that's spinning around, my stuff's happening."

"sound exciting"

"Yeah, it's almost exactly that exciting. So what do you do?"

Yeah, when this happens I always feel like I end up being way to high level to actually give the other person a good idea of what my startup does and they lose interest pretty fast.

> On their planet, being able to calculate the area of a rectangle reliably, the first time, makes you anomalously good with math.

So true. I work in an industrial environment, so I end up helping a lot of people out with math. High school geometry might as well be wizardry.

> You and I might think there is a distinction between programs and data

I know you're talking about the difference between word.exe and data.doc, but you're probably going to excite the Lisp programmers with a statement worded that way.

> High school geometry might as well be wizardry.

And yet does anyone doubt that they could learn highschool geometry if motivated to do so?

"You and I might think there is a distinction between programs and data"

Not if you are a Lisper.

I used to be very interested in education during college (stil am). One thing I found really interesting from the writing and research I did on the topic was international comparison.

Here's a fact I learned that has stuck with me for years since: in China, everyone learns algebra in 4th grade, no exceptions[1].

Now the point of this isn't that the Chinese educational system is so awesome (I actually think that there are some really bad tradeoffs they make), but rather that the thing that we think is so difficult for highschoolers can actually be done 100% by every single person in 4th grade. It's an existence proof that for quantitative knowledge it's just a matter of training and context.

Anyone who is reasonably conversant with a computer (in the sense that they know how to type, they can use a mouse, etc.) can be taught to program. It's no harder than algebra. It's within their capacity. The problem I think is that it's just not conceivable. It's not really taught in schools, and it requires you to learn an entirely new set of skills and vocabulary.

I will grant that perhaps 3 years is an underestimate; it might take 6 years. I haven't run any actual experiments. But programming is not cutting edge research; you're not writing a PhD.

I agree with you that most of of the population really truly does not understand computers right now, I just disagree that if motivated they couldn't learn and quite quickly.

[1] Well of course there are a lot of exceptions: the mentally handicapped, children who live on the farm, children who have to work in factories all day. But for students pushed through the system, they all learn.

Programming isn't that hard to you, it's extraordinarily hard to a large percentage of the population. There are plenty of things I perceive as hard that people who specialize in it do not (I can't draw for the life of me!).

You might try Henning Nelms Thinking with a Pencil, it is a great source for learning practical sketching and drawing.

Drawing is actually a skill, you can learn it. It just takes time. Make 10-20 drawings a day of real life objects, and in 3-4 months you will see how much better you are.

This is completely true. I took a 1 year drawing course in highschool and was shocked by just how good I got, practicing 5 hours a week.

Most skills are not as difficult as people think they are with consistent effort over time. People are not born with a drawing module in their brain that makes them different than you, and that's true for programming and pretty much everything else as well.

To be a good programmer is hard. It requires knowledge of a lot of areas - math, logic, algorithms, particular languages, operating system, networks, databases, particular technologies.

Just think of what it really takes to create even a simple dynamic website.

I think to be a good/great programmer is hard. But to be a good-enough programmer to make a well-above-average living isn't that tough.

Exactly. Even below average programmers can find a job and feed their families.

I can honestly say that I hardly ever really use math in the programming I do. The rest I agree with.

EDIT: To clarify, I hardly ever use math at the level I was required to study in my comp. sci. degree curriculum. Of course I use basic arithmetic calculations often enough.

Yes and no.

Do we not use many of the concepts?

* boolean algebra / simplification of terms?

* vectors, matrices, tensors (er, strings, arrays, objects)

* functions? functions of functions?

* set theory?

* graph theory?

* "closure" of operations (e.g. - what are the limits / bounds of this operation / function? Can I encode every character / code-point in this output representation? -- no? prepare to get hacked, then)

3 years of learning will only land you very junior level positions. In 3 years you will barely learn how to write crappy code and a few technologies.

I've written a few times here about how I interview people. Most of the candidates have BS degrees in comp sci, most of them have 3 to 15 years of work experience. Most of them cannot write a (correct) function to reverse a string.

Yes, this is true. They'd only be a passable programmer after 3 years, not a good one. But the main point is that a very junior developer position is actually a really good job for most people.

Where are you interviewing? Are you putting tricky restrictions like you can't allocate a second array and other things like that?

I recently had 2/5 candidates with Master's degrees in CS unable to give me a number in hex. I didn't ask them to write a program to do it, just to include it in the email subject when replying to a posting. Another 2/5 of them gave me awful code to do it. It's kind of sad.

I interviewed at a very large corporation. 3-4 interviews a week.

We accepted any correct solution.

You've said correct twice, but what do you mean by it? Do you give a spec they have to meet or a test set to compare against? Must they handle encodings/Unicode, or fail predictably in edge cases? Or are you talking about characters swapped, even/odd lengths/ empty strings, that's all?

Oh, we usually ask a very simple version - function to return a reversed string that's passed as a parameter. It consists of English letters, it's not blank. You're not allowed to use the standard string reverse function/method.

It never gets to edge cases. Most people can't even write the simple version.

I'm pretty sure nobody can write the unicode-safe version during the interview, even the smartest developers I've worked with (I guess that depends on the language though).

Indeed. I occasionally wonder what I'd be doing if I had been born a hundred years ago. I figure at best a stockbroker, more likely an accountant doing lots of manual arithmetic.

I get the feeling a good chunk of programmers would have tried their hand at early electrical / mechanical engineering. Planes and cars were in their infant stage. Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (IBM in 1924) would have been interesting.

// Some in the IT field would have been selling snake oil, because they do it today.

I think I would be a blacksmith or carpenter. I think building things is the underlying common factor in things that I like to do.

This. As a kid, before getting into computers I built model ships (from scratch, ie. from plywood), played with Lego, fooled around with electronics and generally tinkered a lot.

I find that similar to programming: designing and improving a project in iterations, understanding how things work by analyzing their internals, remembering processes that work, etc.

So I guess that 100 years ago I would have been either into mechanical or electrical engineering or some other more traditional skilled work like carpentry.

I'd most likely be a homemaker because that was all that was available to most women 100 years ago. I often count myself lucky that I was born in an age when women can become programmers.

As a man, I count myself lucky that I was born in an age when a man can become a programmer. In the early days of the industry, programming was relegated to a "woman's job". I think it goes to show just how ridiculous gender biases are.

As for what I would be doing, likely a farmer, as that is a job I still do today. Though I'm not sure I would want to give up some of my modern conveniences.

I'm not liking this bullshit of "were automating all the jobs away" that I've been hearing a lot of lately. People have unlimited wants, so it's just a crock.

This is going to turn into an excuse to put a boot on the Valley's neck.

I don't understand why you think it's all BS. People might have unlimited wants but they have a limited amount of ressources to obtain those wants.

The reality is, there hasn't been a real labor intensive new thing in the past 30+ years. What new thing requires massive man power to do? Even programmers, our job go easier with time. A programmer today with tools today is much more productive then he used to be. Same for most professions.

Companies are outputting the same with less employees now. Productivity measures are up. That just means a more efficient society that requires more and more complex jobs that haven't yet been automated. Some people just can't do those jobs.

(Now I'm going to go buy me this shirt from ThinkGeek: http://www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts-apparel/unisex/frustrations...)

One place we could start is to create an over supply of medical doctors, pharmacists, nurses and medical researchers to reduce the cost of healthcare.

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