Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ron Paul explained: pseudo-libertarian populism and geek subculture

I hadn't been paying much attention to Ron Paul, but an article on the Ron Paul spam bot caught my fancy.

What, I wondered, would account for his popularity with a slice of American geekdom?


After about 15 seconds of idle speculation I decided the secret sauce would have to be some sort of pseudo-libertarian populism. It would use libertarian language, but it would also offer something that would have a very specific benefit to the software community. It would have to promise better wages by limiting the use of inexpensive foreign workers.

This is from Ron Paul's campaign web site...
Ron Paul 2008 › Issues › Border Security and Immigration Reform

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. Paul tirelessly works for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to sound monetary policies...
  • Physically secure our borders and coastlines...
  • Enforce visa rules. Immigration officials must track visa holders and deport anyone who overstays their visa or otherwise violates U.S. law. This is especially important when we recall that a number of 9/11 terrorists had expired visas.
  • No amnesty...
  • End birthright citizenship...
Yeah, I aced this one. The unionized assembly workers of 1970s Detroit would sympathize.

It wasn't hard to figure out. We have a group of relatively young men who know they're talented and among the strong, but they also know they're falling behind. They assume true capitalism would guarantee a fair competition (they don't understand local minima traps), so we clearly don't have true capitalism. The current system must be some perversion of the ideal, and thus it's unfair.

Since one obvious way these men are falling behind is through competition with inexpensive foreign labor, then that must be part of the perversion.

Hence they're easy to capture by a combination of libertarian language and anti-immigration populism. So they fall for Ron Paul.

I sympathize. I'd dearly like to see us outsource our CEOs and replace our GOP senators with more talented foreigners. As a former primary care physician I also saw primary care being outsourced to low cost foreign immigrants, so I have a (mild) degree of emotional as well as cognitive sympathy.

I'd sympathize more if this group would express solidarity with the former blue collar workers of Detroit, but that's asking a lot.

There's oil in this well. We can expect the GOP to unify behind a stronger anti-immigration stance to try to capture some of that Ron Paul magic.

The irony is that I think the upper end of the IT-outsourcing trend has run into a brick wall. We're going to see the high-end IT skill market strengthen, though more mechanical work will probably continue to move overseas, albeit at a slower pace.

In any event, could immigration and, inevitably, trade restrictions really help IT workers? They might. The traditional US auto industry is slowly dying, but if not for controls on Japanese imports GM would have died ten years ago and we wouldn't have Toyota plants in the US. We don't manufacture computers in the US now, but if Congress hadn't blocked Japanese imports in the 1980s Panasonic would have crushed the nascent US PC market. (Nobody remembers now that Japanese PC clones were far superior and cheaper than US desktops before Representatives took sledge hammers to Japanese clones).

So trade and immigration restrictions don't change the way things go, but they can delay the process long enough for people to shift their educational programs and their work direction. The trick is to realize that whenever Congress restricts trade or immigration the end is about ten years away -- though I think IT prospects aren't quite as dim as those for primary care physicians or auto workers.

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