Sep 232011

Sequoia National Park

When the Tea Partiers were getting all upset about the health care plan, one of their rallying cries was “We want our country back!” The refrain was taken up by birthers with an unstated, but rather obvious, at least to me, tinge of racism. Giving the phrase its most charitable interpretation, people who support the tea party will say that the slogan is about out of control government: too much spending, too much regulation, just too much government.

That’s not what I mean when I say I want my country back. The country I want back is one that may have never existed, or at least, one that only partially existed, but is no more.

The country I want back seems to have started disappearing about 30 years ago, around the time Ronald Reagan was President.

The country I want back is the one where each succeeding generation could look forward to doing better financially than their parents; having more to spend, enjoying more leisure time. I’m old enough to remember when a married couple could prosper in the middle class on a single wage-earner’s income. In most cases, that meant the husband had a paying job outside the home and the wife worked in the home, raising the kids and running the household. How many families could do that today? Do you know anyone who could afford that?

The country I want back is the one where we didn’t have a homeless problem, where the homeless were mostly “hobos’ or men who chose to live free of the constraints of society.

The country I want back is one where young kids felt safe playing outside, often far away from parents, sometimes even after dark when hide and seek was the most fun. How many parents would let their kids do that today?

The country I want back is one where people were free to go where they wanted and do what they wanted without intrusive government surveillance of their every action. Where there were no traffic cameras, no surveillance cameras.

The country I want back is one where people could arrive at the airport 15 minutes before the flight left and simply board the aircraft without having to wait in line for a security check, endure a virtual strip search by an X-ray machine or a “pat-down” search that could be properly classified as sexual molestation. One where train trips and car trips could be entirely without hassle or without anyone from the government stopping you and asking whether you are a citizen.

The country I want back is one where merchants aren’t able to track your every purchase through the use of credit card receipts and “preferred customer” cards. Where on-line data aggregators can’t keep track of every move you make, every web search you do, every site you visit and then sell that data on you to anyone that wants it without any oversight. Where cell phone companies can track every place you have been and then willingly and without pressure give that information to government authorities.

The country I want back is one where the healthcare insurance industry is not controlled by a handful of companies that effectively ration the healthcare in the country by the decisions they make concerning coverage and what they will and won’t pay for; where the doctors and patients don’t have to fight with the insurance companies to get the treatments that the doctor and patient agree are most effective.

The country I want back is one where, although they disagreed on many things, the two major parties could work together and actually accomplish things of great import for the good of the country, things like major infrastructure investments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the  interstate highway system, Hoover dam. Where social advances such as women’s suffrage, voting rights and racial equality could be recognized, sometimes after long debate, as worthy accomplishments and worth the effort it takes to enact them.

The country I want back is the one where the educational system was recognized as one of the best in the world and prepared generations for competition in the world they were entering. I want the country where the most serious disciplinary problems facing school teachers were talking and chewing gum in class and teachers were free to concentrate on teaching.

The country I want back is one where we were generally at the head of the pack of all countries in a whole host of measures including education, infrastructure, science, manufacturing and health care instead of ranking much lower, in some cases towards the bottom, in all of these categories.

The country I want back is one which could dream of big things, like putting a man on the moon, and then have the means to actually achieve it.

As I said before, this country probably never existed as I envision it. But all of the things I want did exist at one time or another. The common saying is “9/11 changed everything”, but the effect I’m describing goes back much further than that. And the causes are many. In education, the lack of well planned and executed tests of new educational approaches and the willingness of the educational establishment to try out untested hypotheses have contributed to the decline. But so have the rise of families with two parents working outside the home, the push for “back to basics” education, the rise of illicit drugs aided by the ill-conceived “war on drugs”, struggles to measure progress based on standardized tests and a host of other things.

The decline in manufacturing has resulted from companies’ increased emphasis on short term profitability, outsourced jobs, globalization, and increased competition from emerging economies. The decline in infrastructure is a result of “benign neglect” as Nixon said in another context and the increasing polarization and politicization of government.

While we still have a robust science community, there are pressures here too. Other countries have gained on us, particularly in areas where asinine religious objections have stymied basic research for years (for example, stem cell research). The increasing influence of religion in government has resulted in a de-emphasis and distrust of science. The government has also seemed to lose a good deal of interest in funding basic research in response to the overblown deficit crisis.

We ourselves have contributed to making this not the country I want back, primarily through our desire for the latest new gadgets, expansive use of the internet and other technology in which we have given up the expectation of privacy for the convenience that such technological improvements provide us. I often wonder if it is worth it or if we realize what we have given up.

In spite of the causes, the country I want back is the one where we can say “We’re number one!’ and actually be correct. We were there once, and I don’t know if we can be again, but I believe we can’t get there if we don’t try. We have to try.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm
May 072011

Today, the online version of the Wall Street Journal reported that the number of applications for H-1B visas has dropped off significantly over the last two years.

The H1-B visa program allows skilled foreign workers to come to work in the United States to fill the needs of high-tech industries that can’t hire a sufficient number of US citizens to support their staffing needs. As a member of the software development community, I saw the use (and used it myself on a couple of occasions) of this program to fill slots for which there didn’t seem to be an adequate number of qualified candidates. In fact, in the past, companies lobbied Congress to increase the number of H1-B visas allowed to let them bring in even more foreign workers.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as a simple summary of the facts makes it seem. As a member of the community, I was aware many people with points of view that the hiring of foreign workers was part of an attempt to hold down wages in these highly profitable industries. It was argued that many of these foreign workers would accept salaries which were below what US workers would accept and which were, in fact, below the prevailing salary levels for that locality and industry. The net effect, it was argued was to reduce company costs (in software, the highest cost is in labor). A side effect was to decrease the number of jobs available for US workers.

At the same time, the companies also discovered that, barring the ability to hire more foreign workers in the US, there was also another solution that could drastically reduce labor costs, outsourcing. Why hire workers in the US when you could get 5 (or more) “equally competent” workers overseas for the cost of one US employee? Thus, over the last 10 to 15 years, more and more companies have moved to outsource work and reduce their US based workforce.

At the time all this was going on, the primary thought I had was that companies were, in effect, “eating the seed corn.” By both hiring foreign workers and by outsourcing, they were sacrificing future capabilities for short term monetary gain. I reasoned that moving the work out of the US would lead to bolstering the capabilities of foreign countries and depress the US  labor market resulting in a decrease of US students willing to enter fields for which there were fewer opportunities. It would also lead to a brain drain of sorts, reducing the companies’ own in-house capabilities in the very areas that made them profitable (or in some cases, even possible.)

In the above cited WSJ article, the author speculates that several factors have contributed to the drop in H1B visa applications (50% fewer than last year at this time and 80% fewer than 2009 at this time). These factors include “ the lackluster pace of the U. S. recovery” and “more opportunities for skilled workers in their home nations.”

It is in the “more opportunities for skilled workers in their home nations” where I see the consequences of the companies’ actions to boost short term profit have come to pass. I have noticed that more and more of the software that I personally buy come from companies outside the US (not only Asia, but also Europe.) Thus software development is becoming yet another industry where the US was once preeminent and turns in into just another industry where the world has begun to become ascendent. It has happened with automobiles, steel, manufacturing, and many other value-added industries which contribute to a robust economy and make the middle class possible.

So, for your greed and focus on the short term, I say to the software development industry, “mission accomplished.” You’ve sowed the seeds of moving yet another industry out of the country and are seeing the first green shoots emerge. Good luck with staying profitable in the years ahead.

 Posted by at 11:22 am