Friday, September 23, 2011

The economy: programming is the problem, and the solution

Tomorrow I am going to be on a panel called the Newark Leadership Roundtable, talking about the solution to the dire economic situation in inner cities in general, and in Newark in particular.

I have lots of thoughts and I am not sure with such a large and distinguished panel that I will have an opportunity to say everything I think, so I figured, both to prepare for the panel and to air my ideas out more fully I'd blog them here.

The situation in inner cities is a complex one and there are a variety of factors that drive the current context. But the truth is I don’t think any of the issues that are driving the inhospitable economic environment are local. Inner cities in general, and Newark in particular may have specific local problems but the primary issues are national if not global.

Broadly speaking, the problem, and the solution to the problem is technology. Back in 2009 I wrote a piece called “The problem with the economy: you aren’t needed anymore”. The basic thesis of that piece was that technology is reducing the number of people required to provide our planets most basic of needs. Be it energy production, food, transportation, retailing, communications, or a myriad of other industries, software is, at an astonishing pace, allowing us to operate at greater and greater levels of efficiency. In this context greater efficiency means employing fewer people.

This means that fewer and fewer people can control larger and larger chunks of the economy. This is driving a massive consolidation of economic power and wealth.

My piece ran in Business Insider where it was roundly criticized the editor-in-chief Henry Blodget, and many other commenters. But since that time others have written similar pieces. For example Douglass Rushkoff wrote a piece in called "Are Jobs Obsolete". And Mark Andreessen, famed investor, and one of the creators of the first commercial web browser, recently wrote an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal called “Why Software is Eating The World”, where he explains that essentially every business category is being transformed into a software company.

The implications of this are profound because when software does things, then people are not doing those things. As we become a planet where all of us are not needed to feed and clothe and shelter each other, we become a planet where wealth is much less evenly distributed. We become a planet where certain people have critical contributions to make and some just don’t. And so the question becomes how do we create a politically palatable framework for caring for those people who are just not needed.

This is an important question because it is essentially where we are now. There is massive unemployment in america, well north of 20%, and much higher in minority communities. The unemployed are not, for the most part, dying of starvation. They are just living very poor unhealthy unhappy lives. The employed majority’s survival is not dependent on the unemployed minority. Many employed folk consider the unemployed lazy and in circumstances of their own making.

The policical right considers this economic underclass useless and politically expendable. And that may be good cynical 2012 politics. But it will not be good politics as the number of unemployed grows and wealth continues to consolidate. Technology guarantees that the trend will continue. In fact technology *demands* that the trend continues. It will likely not be a straight line curve, we will have ups and downs in employment and GDP. But the bottom line is existing economic theory does not apply to a world that has infinite efficiency, and that is where we are headed.

So this is the big picture problem. It is not a local problem. It is not a problem for Newark, or Paterson, or Bedford Stuyvesant, or Harlem. It is a problem for the planet. We can’t do much to change the trajectory of the planet, but we must understand the trends if we are going to survive them.

The first thing to understand is that it is critical that a broader spectrum of society become creators of technology instead of consumers of it. My wife is a professor at Montclair State University where she teaches teachers in the school of Education, and researches educational strategies and social justice issues. And she tells me that elementary school curriculums, to the extent that they include technology, are focused on how to integrate it into the learning experience. For example, a big part of the discussion is about how we use facebook, or blogs, or twitter in the classroom. This is all good, but its like teaching kids to be patients rather than doctors. We are teaching consumption rather than production.

The point is that in order to have any economic self sufficiency, poor disenfranchised communities, must create their own opportunities, their own businesses, their own centers of power. And a big part of this must come from learning how to create software because software already drives most economic activity and it will ultimately drive almost all of it.

And so my fundamental point is that all kids, but particularly inner city minority kids that may not have significant opportunities, can learn to create those opportunities by learning to program. Creating software in twenty years will be like reading is today. We must engage. There is no reason that third grade kids are not learning the basics of programming. More importantly, learning how to program effects learning and reasoning in every other academic pursuit. Our educational system today is primarily focused on how much knowledge we can stuff in a kid’s head when what kids really need is to learn how to think, how to reason, how to gather information and how to develop answers, arguments, and strategy.

I believe every single school day, starting in third grade and going through at least tenth grade, that every student should have a period dedicated to programming. It is critical that we start this young before the educational system succeeds in teaching our kids that they are dumb and can't learn which is what it does today. And I am confident that programming is as learnable at an early age as is basic math or reading.

I realize that given that there are so few teachers that know how to program that there would be insecurity in schools giving students skills that most of their teachers don’t have. I also realize there are no curriculums focused on this. But this is why we must start now. There is nothing more important. Because as economic power is consolidated amongst those that control the software, not following this course will cement the groups that are currently at the bottom of the socio-economic structure into that position permanently.

To be clear, teaching poor kids in inner cities to program will not fix the bigger picture problem, but it can at least more fairly and more broadly distributed the world's wealth.


  1. I'm skeptical that the consolidation of money and power is really due to technology and not simply government policies encouraging wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy. Nor is the replacement of workers by technology anything new, it's been a common theme of our economies since the 19th century and we've always somehow managed to put people to work (the logical explanation for this is that new technology is eventually wealth creating, not wealth destroying).

    Simply put: it's a great idea to educate the poor (and it will certainly help) but to fundamentally change this situation you need more than just programmers, you need politicians, ones who will speak for the poor when current politicians won't.

    It's a tired old trope, but your technical solution will not fix this social problem. Inequality has not gotten out of control because of technology, it's gotten out of control because we let it.

  2. sigh...

    " it's been a common theme of our economies since the 19th century and we've always somehow managed to put people to work (the logical explanation for this is that new technology is eventually wealth creating, not wealth destroying). "

    Funny thing about exponential growth is that at some point what worked before no longer works. Moores law (the idea that computers got faster by a factor of 2 every 18 months or so) obviously couldnt continue forever and (surprise!!) we have hit the wall!

    And so the idea that increased efficiency will always create more jobs is obviously mathematically ridiculous. There *is* an end point. When we can all sit in our rooms and press a button and create all of the food and energy we need without any other workers (the end point of infinite efficiency) obviously there will be no more jobs. In short the fact that something "was" has no bearing on what "will". History is a great predictor of the future... until it isnt.

    "but your technical solution will not fix this social problem"

    There is nothing more annoying that puts up some ridiculous straw man version of your argument so that you can disagree with it: "To be clear, teaching poor kids in inner cities to program will not fix the bigger picture problem, but it can at least more fairly and more broadly distributed the world's wealth."

  3. Hank, I recommend you read some von Mises... as well as _The_State_Against_Blacks_ by Walter E. Williams. If you do, you'll come back to this post and laugh at the silliness of your former self. Just sayin'

  4. I have difficulty accepting the premise that software/efficiency is the cause of unemployment. I agree that the wealth and control has become concentrated, but if you look at the historical trends of unemployment (, in graphical form, it's clearly not following the same trend of concentration of wealth ( Translation: there's not even correlation in the relationship (let alone causation).

    I'm all for teaching more stuff to the inner city. Heck, my high school (inner city, poor, now mostly black, it was 45/45/10 white/black/other in my day) had the best CS program in the state in the late 80's, and I'd argue top 20 in the country, and politics took that away (among many other things).

    But, the simple fact that we (as a country/state/city) can't get the basics (math/reading) up to snuff makes me seriously doubt that we can get programming taught.

    Nor do I think that programming lies at the heart of even 25% of new businesses - but I've no data to back that up, so take it for a wild-@ss guess.

  5. I rescind my doubt regarding software vs human labor...

  6. Wow, man versus machine is backed up by a graph covering 2 whole years. And those two years were the two immediately following a year long recession.

    Perhaps it's worthwhile looking at a longer time frame, maybe since 2000?

    Given that the year leading UP TO the time period in the graph you linked to was the recession, it's really no surprise that all of CAPEX was down DRAMATICALLY in 2009 from 2008 (just before where your graph picks up). The information sector itself (software/computers) has been in decline between 2000-2009. At some point businesses have to replace their software and hardware, and it doesn't look like they did it before the end of 2009, so a small uptick in spending isn't terribly surprising.

    I agree we're in a jobless "recovery" but the data hardly supports a slam-dunk for software being the primary driver.

  7. In other words, the act of programming software is quickly making human work obsolete. Employers are right to ask themselves: "what need have we for the working class?"

    But to me, the real question is this:

    If programing is something that's easy to learn as long as you put your mind to it, thus putting mastery of it within reach of most people;

    and since software delivers more returns per unit effort than any other mode of production on the planet, making each programmer more productive than any type of worker in history;

    and furthermore, since technology like software is quickly obviating the need for human drudgery, and by extension the classic wage system;

    Then working people people would do well to ask themselves: "what need have we for our bosses?"

    If ever we were to reach a point where software constitutes the bulk of production methods, won't our bosses have to literally prevent us from learning computer science in order to maintain their control over the means of production? I believe that the trend you have identified could make class distinctions even more artificial and unnecessary.

    We are the 99%!

  8. Sam,

    I won't disagree with anything you've said.