[FoRK] [IP] more on Tech: A 'hostile environment' for US natives???? (fwd from dave@farber.net)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Sun May 8 12:28:59 PDT 2005

----- Forwarded message from David Farber <dave at farber.net> -----

From: David Farber <dave at farber.net>
Date: Sun, 8 May 2005 10:42:21 -0400
To: ip <ip at v2.listbox.com>
Subject: [IP] more on Tech: A 'hostile environment' for US natives????
X-Mailer: Apple Mail (2.728)
Reply-To: dave at farber.net

Begin forwarded message:

From: "Jonathan S. Shapiro" <shap at eros-os.org>
Date: May 8, 2005 9:18:10 AM EDT
To: dave at farber.net
Cc: Ip ip <ip at v2.listbox.com>
Subject: Re: [IP] more on Tech: A 'hostile environment' for US  

[For IP]

Gordon poses the question:

>...just how I can seriously compete with someone in another
>country who's delighted to do essentially equivalent work for
>(what to him is a princely salary) $450 a month?

Nobody else seems willing to come out and actually say it, so perhaps I
will to do so: he can't.

Here is the point that everyone seems to agree on. Most of us don't like
it, but we all seem to agree that in an international marketplace it is
a fact:

  Setting aside certain "boutique" markets, the price of programming
  is set by an international market. It follows directly that US
  programmers will either lower their prices to  or they will,
  professionally speaking, cease to exist.

But nobody wants to be the "sounder of doom" for the US programming
market, so none of us want to state the consequence:

  US programmers *cannot* lower their prices to that point.

  Therefore, absent a fundamental change in the economics of
  software, it's time for US programmers to (a) move to places
  where what they can earn is a living wage, or (b) find a new

It's not that the US has a "tech hostile" environment. It's that the
laws of global economics are hostile to expensive providers.

The right question isn't "How do we keep programmers employed?" The
right question is: "How do we change the economics of software?"

Here are some options (good and bad, none realistic):

1. Tariffs. We could impose protective tariffs on software written
outside the US, just as we do for many other goods. The bottom line is
that this isn't a long-haul solution, and we need a long-haul solution.
Tariffs just won't work.

2. Eliminate software patents. It is now widely agreed that the main
effect of software patent has been to stifle innovation and change in
the software industry. Innovation is one of the places where the US
still holds a fundamental advantage vs. the rest of the world. Get rid
of the impediments to innovation. Use our international political
leverage to tear them down elsewhere.

3. Remove liability protection for software vendors. In my opinion this
is long overdue, and it would benefit the users. No better way to employ
programmers than to finally force us to rebuild everything correctly --
and for that matter, to discover *how* to rebuild things correctly.

4. Invest in raising the standards of living in India and China. This is
a long term strategy, and a good one. We've been doing it for a long
time. It doesn't solve anything in the short term.

5. Re-think the way we train programmers. We still view Computer Science
as a science discipline rather than an engineering discipline. Making US
programmers 10 times as effective would go a long way toward offsetting
their higher salary. The problem with this approach is that
international students can go to school too.

6. Recognize that in the commodity software market the cost of software
construction basically doesn't matter, because the profit margin is so
high. The place where the cost of programming really matters is in
contract effort and/or efforts where there are only a small pool of
potential customers. In one sense, the free software people are right:
customers do not, and never have, paid for software.

7. Invest in the free software process, since that price cannot be
undercut. Shift our business attention to other parts of the value

Some of these thoughts just won't work. Others are politically
unacceptable, but I do think that I'm asking the right question: How do
we change the nature of software economics?

The one thing I'll add to the mix, which may prove thought-provoking to
programmers: the answer isn't going to be initiated by software
companies. It is in your employer's interest to hire at the lowest
price. If you want to see change happen, you are going to have to
organize a grass roots lobbying effort. This probably means creating a
serious programmer's union to protect your jobs as you lobby against the
entrenched practices of your employers. It's a long, rough haul.

Personally, I'ld prefer to see a more productive solution. I just don't
see one within the current political and economic climate.

Jonathan Shapiro

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