To Get Rich Is Glorious

My post title here is of course Deng Xiaoping’s slogan celebrating the opening of China’s economy to private enterprise. It is also an allusion to the tendency of prominent academic economists to line their pockets by serving as (typically secret) “hired guns” for controversial entities, be they corporations, trade groups or nations. Alan Tonelson’s latest blog post on Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs’ troubling defense of China in the Huawei case combines both of these aspects.

As Alan points out, there is nothing inherently wrong with an academic writing in support of some entity. But as I have noted, if the academic in question is accepting funding from that entity, serious ethical issues arise:

If one takes money from a given source and wants to continue receiving the funds, one cannot do work antagonizing the source. It’s that simple.

And the corollary is that, if the entity asks the academic to write on something specific, it’s difficult if not impossible to decline.

Well, then, was Sachs accepting money from Huawei/China? As Alan reports, the Washington Post‘s Isaac Stone Fish asked Sachs point blank on Twitter,

Hey : you just published an article praising Huawei and criticizing the U.S. government…Last month, you wrote the forward to a Huawei report Did Huawei pay you for that? If so, don’t you think you should disclose that?

Alan notes that Sachs then blocked Fish from following Sachs’ Twitter feed. But there’s more.

Sachs did reply that he had received no Huawei funding. But then I wrote,

Just to be clear: Huawei has not funded Columbia or your organization?

He did not respond.

Then, after having taken so much flak on Twitter, Sachs actually closed his own Twitter account, quite a move in view of the fact that he reportedly had 250,000 followers.

In spite of China’s many recent troubling actions, there are things that economists might praise. The question is whether the praise is given in full sincerity.

US Media Missing the BIG News

Last Wednesday at 10 pm, I decided to check the TV news. Here’s what I found: The Chinese-language channel KTSF led with the latest on Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO, with a US request to extradite; the local English station KTVU (Fox, but liberal) led with the Bush funeral; and CNN…well of course, it was Mueller, Mueller, Mueller as usual.

Arguably, only the Chinese program got it right. US-China relations are spiraling out of control. China is threatening” severe consequences” for Canada’s cooperation with the US, taken to mean arrest of Canadians in China, and of course denounced the US for “illegally” requesting Canada to extradite Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei CFO. The US State Dept. had previously issued a Travel Advisory for Americans considering going to China. And who would dare go even if the advisory is lifted, not only with this event but many other troubling actions by China in the last couple of years, e.g. the disappearance of the Interpol chief, a Chinese national?  At great risk is the already-shaky US-China relationship, with potential major economic, political and even military adverse impacts for both parties. China is fiercely demanding Meng’s release.

The evidence revealed so far is scant, as it is just for the bail hearing. Meng is accused of directing the financial aspects of Huawei’s secretly violating its agreement with the US not to sell sensitive equipment to Iran, and in so doing, engaging in bank fraud.

In addition to the possible global implications, the case is certainly making for good high drama. Meng owns two homes in Vancouver, one valued in the  millions and the other in the tens of millions. One was the subject of a mysterious home invasion attempt over the weekend. Meng has been married two or three times. Her half-sister is a Harvard debutante. Meng has at various times been in possession of about seven passports.

Meanwhile, tragedy: Stanford professor Zhang Shoucheng committed suicide last week. He was originally from China and had close ties to the Chinese government and, it is reported on the Chinese-language news in the US, ties to Meng as well. He co-directed China’s Thousand Talents Program, itself the object of controversy. According to the South China Morning Post, a respected English-language paper in Hong Kong,

Zhang’s contribution to the quantum field earned the recognition of not only his peers but also of the Chinese government. In 2009, Zhang was hand-picked to be part of an expert panel for the state-run “Thousand Talents” programme that aims to attract overseas scientists. US Pentagon and intelligence officials have branded the decade-old recruitment drive as a platform to “facilitate the legal and illicit transfer of US technology, intellectual property and know-how” to China, according to reports earlier this year.

Zhang was head of the VC fund Danhua, a firm that had been mentioned negatively in a 301 trade practices report involving connections to China. Many rumors are going through the Chinese-immigrant community that he was murdered rather than having taken his own life.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is shrilly demanding Meng’s release, all charges dropped. This seems uncharacteristic of him, so what is the driver? According to controversial Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, the real impetus is coming from the family of former Pres. Jiang Zemin, who supposedly have huge financial interests in Huawei and related firms. It could also be that China is afraid that even more damning information will emerge if Meng is brought to trial in the US.

And of course, there is national pride involved, as Huawei is viewed as the epitome of China’s emergence as a tech power. That pride has also been seriously wounded of late, with a similar case involving the Chinese firm ZTE, in which among other things was a major wakeup call to China, exposing just how dependent Chinese tech is on the US.

These things have been brewing for years, of course. Huawei has been accused of stealing technology long ago from Cisco and Nortel, contributing to the demise of the latter. And recently, fearing backdoor spy channels in Huawei equipment, the US and several other nations have banned the use of that equipment in military use.

But now things are coming to a head, suddenly and dramatically.

It is also bringing out the old and sensitive question of loyalties of immigrants to their adopted countries. Vancouver has a very large Chinese-immigrant community, and there have been protestors from that community, again demanding that the charges against Meng be dropped and she allowed to go free. They say there is “no evidence” against Meng, though again they would have no way of knowing this. Some Chinese in the audience at the bail hearing have been conspicuous in that a patriot song is played as the ringtone when their phones have incoming calls. A UBC professor who is originally from China, in an interview with a local (English language) TV news program, flatly stated that the sole motivation of the US in the Meng case is to stifle economic competition from China, hardly the impartial, nuanced analysis one would hope from an academic.

The Mueller probe won’t have big effects, I believe. It won’t contain any smoking guns about Trump, and will be milked by House Democrats just for publicity. But the Meng case could indeed have serious, long-lasting global impact. At least TIME has noticed, with an article titled “It’s Hard to Overstate How Big a Deal the Huawei CFO’s Arrest Could Be.”  Maybe CNN et al ought to devote more than a minor mention of the case.

 

 

Making Things Worse

Sorry, everyone, but this will be another “Told ya so!” post, commentary on yesterday’s unanimous jury decision in favor of Tata Consultancy Services, finding that TCS does not discriminate against US workers.

I’ve long warned activist critics of the H-1B work visa program that they were shooting themselves in the foot with their obsession with the IT outsourcing firms such as TCS — what I term the “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” syndrome (IGIB). Under IGIB, it is presumed that the outsourcing, “rent a programmer” firms like Infosys and Tata are the main abusers of H-1B, while the “Intels,” firms that hire H-1Bs from the foreign student populations at US universities, use the program responsibly.

I’ve explained numerous times that, not only is the IGIB premise incorrect — the Intels are highly culpable too — but also the activists’ emphasis on IGIB will be a political disaster. In the end, Congress will enact some mild sanctions on the Infosyses while rewarding the Intels, with an expanded H-1B program and a “staple a green card to their diplomas” act. In short, the activists’ IGIB strategy/mentality will make things worse, with MORE foreign workers than before.

Well, with the TCS verdict, now it’s happened, though in a slightly different manner. The jury unanimously sided with Tata, setting a (moral if not legal) precedent. Sorry, H-1B activists, but you have indeed made things worse for yourselves.

I’ve long held that cases like this one do not have a firm legal basis. More on that shortly, but first, how could the plaintiffs’ legal counsel possibly have chosen Oakland as a venue? This is one of the most liberal areas in the nation — large minority population, and very liberal whites — and as a liberal myself I say, good for them. But apparently the jury saw this in solidarity-with-People-of-Color, resist-Trump terms.

As reported by Bloomberg,

The trial casts a spotlight on work-visa programs that companies use to bring overseas workers to the U.S., a practice President Donald Trump has criticized in his protectionist push. TCS, Asia’s largest outsourcer, and rival Indian information technology staffing firms Infosys Ltd.and Wipro Ltd. have all been squeezed by the Trump administration…

Mumbai-based TCS denies any unlawful bias in its U.S. operations and says in court filings that the Caucasian American leading the lawsuit was removed from one of its projects and ultimately terminated over “performance concerns.”

Ah yes, Trump is working to protect lazy, incompetent whites against competition from Immigrants of Color. This would resonate with any upstanding progressive Oaklander. How could a juror show her face around Lake Merritt or the Temescal district after voting for the plaintiffs and thus failing to support minorities and quelle horreur, siding with Trump?

Suing TCS in Oakland? What was lead plaintiffs’ counsel Daniel Kotchen thinking?

Actually, I had warned Kotchen (he and I have served on a couple of panels together) that I’ve long believed that discrimination on the basis of national origin is the wrong grounds for a lawsuit, going way back to the Guy Santiglia case in 2002. Yes, there is discrimination involved, but NOT on the basis of national origin. Instead, it’s discrimination on the basis of immigration status (US citizens and green card holders vs. work visas)  He found my comment interesting but has proceeded anyway.

The H-1B-critic activists, notably including the immigration reform organizations, have viewed the Infosyses as the low-hanging fruit, the most obvious abusers. Now with this verdict endorsing TCS’ hiring practices, a JURY verdict mind you, the activists have shot themselves in the foot.

Paul Romer Is Computer Illiterate?

I’ve often wondered what Nobel laureates “do for an encore.” Are they content to do mundane work? Or do they step up their work as public intellectuals? Maybe just enjoy their reign as deans of their fields?

Thus I read with interest yesterday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Government Can Do More to Support Science and Innovation” by Paul Romer, who earlier this year shared the Nobel Prize in Economics, for work done related to the title of his piece. I was shocked, indeed appalled, at this passage:

Take Python, the open-source programming language that has become the language of choice for software developers in the fields of artificial intelligence and data science. Programmers have used Python to power innovation in everything from the detection of gravity waves…to reducing the cost of developing new drugs.

First, many of us in AI/data science greatly prefer the R language to Python; ironically I just wrote on this yesterday in my statistics/R blog. But the much more salient point is that choice of programming language is a matter of taste. For Romer to claim — and I fear, believe — that without Python we’d still be searching for gravity waves and drugs would take longer to develop is absolutely absurd.

Romer is also confusing programming languages with software written in those languages. Any major language is free, but commercial software is written in all of them, including Python. And contrary to another implication of Romer’s piece, federal grants are used to develop open-source software all the time.

Actually, I myself am very big on open-source software. In fact, all the software I use is open-source. But Romer’s ignorance here is alarming.

Told Ya So!

Right after Donald Trump won in 2016, I wrote a post here titled, “Suggested ‘First Things First’ for Trump.” Given that he has no idea who I am, and my being a Democrat who voted for Bernie, I had no delusions that he’d heed my advice. But still…I must say that my comments might have been prescient.

The loss of the House obviously resulted from many factors, but the consensus seems to be that the biggest one was the GOP attack on Obamacare. As a supporter of that program (indeed, of Medicare for All, funded by employer tax), I warned in November 2016 that the health care issue (from both directions) led to Bill Clinton’s loss of the House in 1994 and Obama’s in 2010. I wrote,

Do NOT go headlong into the health care issue early in your term. It’s the new Third Rail, as seen in the huge midterm election losses experienced by Bill Clinton and Obama, largely due to controversy over health care. Yes, Obamacare is beginning to run into some serious problems, but go slowly on this one. And remember, many of those who voted for you have found Obamacare to be the solution to scary situations they had found themselves in.

I also wrote,

Focus on solutions, not retributions. Resist the chants of “Lock her up!”, for instance.

Seems that these days divisiveness is the New Normal. Both parties seem to exist solely for the purpose of sabotaging each other, and the press has been egging them on. Trump, of course, loves to gives the press red meat in that regard, but can’t he be just a wee bit less outrageous in his comments?

Mind you, I’d be the first to concede that the press has been horribly unfair to Trump. Indeed, I’ve said so, more than once. And the ejection of Jim Acosta should have come long ago, as I said back in 2017. But again, Trump should have handled it more calmly, simply giving Acosta a Penalty Card, having him leave the room, rather than giving the journos a chance to cite freedom of the press and make comparisons to China. Trump should have pointed out that he didn’t eject any other liberal writers; Acosta was ejected simply because he was being a jerk.

One more of my suggestions from November 2016:

Take a balanced, practical approach to unauthorized immigration. Assure people that you don’t plan to be any more aggressive in deportation than Obama has been; the ethnic activists say even that has been far too much, but you will get much credit if you give some assurance to the actual people at risk. On the other hand, take steps to solve the jobs and fiscal problems caused by the illegal inflow. You’ve threatened to withhold federal dollars from Sanctuary Cities, who after all, are flouting federal law. I agree with that (with a “devil in the details” disclaimer), but how about going further, doing something on the same lines for E-Verify? For instance, press cities and states to require that any business seeking a license utilize E-Verify in its hiring; to not do so amounts to encouraging hiring of the unauthorized, again flouting federal law, thus providing justification for your action.

Look, most of us liberals are not happy with the caravans coming from the South (though many would not say so publicly). Indeed, blue collar Latino and black communities — ostensibly objects of great sympathy from those of us on the left — are the biggest victims of the failure by both parties to solve the (admittedly complex) problems of the undocumented. But again, Trump’s choice of language has greatly exacerbated the problem, and his failure to stand up to the more extreme positions pushed by his advisers, notably on the decision to separate parents and kids at the border, has greatly harmed him, without contributing at all to a solution. As I pointed out then, E-Verify, properly promoted and enforced, would help a ton.

I’m not saying Trump shouldn’t be Trump. But maybe a 98% Trump would help?

Tech Workers Group Takes a Wrong Turn

Many in the world see us Americans as being obsessed about race. Today, for instance, a journalist and book author whom I admire (and have praised here) tweeted that the only reason people, indeed “progressive” ones!, voted for Trump was that they are racist. In certain circles, the “R word” seems to be the default explanation for any problem.

This is not to say that everyone in the US has 100% healthy racial attitudes. Far from it. Today’s testimony in the Harvard admissions lawsuit includes some disturbing stories about the way white students view and treat underrepresented minorities. And need I mention the acts of violence against, blacks, browns and now Jews?

Over the years of my writing on the H-1B work visa, I have explained, with some irritation, to numerous reporters who contact me that H-1B is NOT about race. If one loses a job, directly or indirectly to a foreign worker because the statutes are so lax, one does not care what the race of the foreigner is; losing a job is losing a job. Reporters, coming from their “race is the answer” echo chambers, have a hard time getting this. I’ve been interacting with anti-H-1B activists for nearly 25 years, and I’ve never encountered any with bad attitudes toward people of color; indeed many are POC themselves.

And yet…I was contacted last week by a member of an organization called Protect US Workers (PUW). The member, whom I’ll call Lucinda, asked if I might join in their teleconference. I knew little more about the organization than it was headed by attorney Sara Blackwell. I told Lucinda that I have a profound disagreement with Ms. Blackwell, who I am sure is well-meaning but who is actually harming the cause of H-1B reform by her emphasis on the “Infosyses”; this will result in a LARGER H-1B program, as I’ve explained before.

But Lucinda, in urgent proselytizing mode, repeatedly pressed me to look into PUW’s lobbying against HR 392, a bill being promoted by Immigration Voice, an organization of H-1Bs who are stuck in an interminable wait for green card approval. The cause of their troubles is that current green card law allocates the same yearly number of green cards for each country of origin. Since the tech green card applicants are mainly Indian and Chinese, their wait times are years or even decades. HR 392 would remove the per-country limits while preserving the current overall cap.

I am well aware of the bill (on which I have been neutral), but I wondered why Lucinda was so agitated. If enacted, the bill would not increase the number of jobs available to US citizens and permanent residents. After a few more DM iterations on Twitter, it came out: Lucinda resents the Indians. She’d been mistreated by them, and extrapolates that to all Indians. HR 392 would reduce green cards for “our allies,” in Europe and Israel. She is not bothered by the Chinese H-1Bs, just the Indians. Revenge.

Mind you, I can understand Lucinda’s frustration. I constantly hear from American techies who tell me (and often show me) that Indian recruiters are contacting them for jobs that they (the Americans) will never be actually considered for. And Lucinda’s racial problem appears to be rather mild. But it IS a problem, and apparently is one that is common in PUW, judging from the public tweets.

PUW, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” Don’t get sidetracked.

Book review: All You Can Ever Know, by N. Chung

For a number of reasons, I looked forward to Nicole Chung’s new memoir, All You Can Ever Know, about growing up as a transracial adoptee in an all-white US town. The book did not disappoint, a beautifully written and highly moving account. (Chung does not name the town, just stating it is in southern Oregon, and she has taken on her birth surname, all apparently to keep privacy for her and her family.)

Chung was born to Korean immigrants in Seattle, then adopted by a white couple at two and a half months. Born severely premature, she still weighed less than six pounds at the time. She writes of being raised by loving parents who did not fully realize the taunts, cruel jokes and above all, isolation, that an Asian kid might suffer in an all-white setting. She had no real school friends until high school. Meanwhile, though likewise being devoted to her parents, she developed an intense desire to connect with her birth family, a yearning that she kept largely to herself. Much later, when she is pregnant with her first child, she starts that process of connection, ultimately with mixed results.

Chung’s account, though apparently fully open, brings to mind questions not raised in the book. I have the impression that Chung’s angst was due much more to her semi-pariah status in school than to her being adopted. Suppose her parents had lived in a more cosmopolitan locale, such as Seattle with its large Asian population, so that Chung would have little or no problem “fitting in” at school. I surmise that her interest in connecting with her birth family might then have been only mild. She writes about being shocked whenever other adoptees have expressed to her such moderate views regarding their birth parents.

I can empathize. Growing up as a Jewish kid in East LA and the San Gabriel Valley, there were various anti-Semitic remarks. Kids can be mean. I must say that my wife and I, visiting Eugene, Oregon this past August, were startled by the stark “whiteness” of the city. Presumably Chung’s hometown was smaller than Eugene, and even whiter and less tolerant, back in the 1980s when she was growing up. Maybe her town is less white today, at least due to a Latino presence.

As we all must, Chung eventually learns the validity of the old adage, “The grass is [misleadingly] greener on the other side of the fence.” Though she develops a precious, close relationship with a birth sister, her search for roots also leads to profound disappointment.

In addition to her unhappiness at school, the fact that Chung spent the first months of life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, devoid of parental touch and nurture, must also have taken a heavy toll. Yet in spite of all the angst, she comes across as a very “together” person, very self-confident and upbeat, in fact more so than her birth sister.

Oddly, as a non-adoptee, I have very little interest in my own roots. I met only one of my four grandparents, and know very little about them. Further back than them, I know absolutely nothing. When I mentioned this recently to a friend, he asked in an emphatic tone, “Why?!” I’d never been asked that before, and had no real answer.

Bottom line: Chung’s book is a powerful read, a courageous laying bare of her psyche. Adoptees and adoptive parents should find it especially moving, but it is a compelling work for any reader interested in race, parenting and so on.