Humanity was stagnant for millennia — then something big changed 150 years ago

“It really looks that we had as much technological change and progress between 1870 and today as we had between 6000 BC and 1870 AD. We packed what had previously been nearly eight millennia of changes in the underlying technological hardware of society, which required changes in the running sociological code on top of that hardware. To try to pack what had been eight millennia worth of changes before in 150 years is going to produce an awful lot of history.

Before 1870, most of history is how elites run their force-and-fraud, domination-and-extraction mechanism against a poor peasantry so that they, at least, can have enough, and so that their children are only two inches shorter than we are, rather than five or six as the peasants are. It’s about how the elites elbow each other out of the way as they eat from the trough. And it’s about the use they make of their wealth for purposes good and ill, of civilization and destruction.

But if you’re enough of a Marxist, like me, to say that the real motor of history is the forces of production, their changes, and how society reacts for good or ill to changing forces of production, then yes, [1870 to 2010] has to be as consequential because there’s as much technological change-driven history as there is in entire millennia before.”

“you look worldwide and you take my index of technological progress, and it [grows by] less than half a percent per year from 1770 to 1870. That’s based on exploitation of really cheap coal and also on the productivity benefits of falling transport costs that gather all of the manufacturing in the world into the place [the United Kingdom] where it’s most productive and most efficient, because it’s the place where coal is cheapest.

I was struck by a line I came across from the 1871 version of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy: “Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toll of any human being.”

Say you have some slowdown in global technological progress after 1870 because the cheapest coal has already been mined and the deeper coal is hard to find, and say that you have some other slowdown because you don’t get the boost from gathering manufacturing in places where it’s productive. We might well have wound up right with a steampunk world after 1870: a world with about the population of today, but the living standards of 1870 on average.

That’s what the pace of progress was, except that we got the industrial research lab, the modern corporation, and then full globalization around 1870. The industrial research lab rationalized and routinized the discovery and development of technologies; the corporation rationalized and routinized the development and deployment of technologies; and globalization diffused them everywhere.”

Opinion | Taxing Tech Companies for the Failure of the News Industry Is Just Unfair

“Klobuchar modeled her bill on Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, which through a compulsory negotiation and arbitration set-up forces Google and Facebook to pay qualifying Australian news organizations (from both print and broadcast) about $150 million a year. The rationale behind the Australian shakedown and the proposed American one goes like this: News headlines and snippets on Google and Facebook have enabled the companies to convene mass audiences and abscond with billions in advertising revenues that were once the news industry’s near-exclusive franchise. This shift in advertiser preference from newspapers and TV to Google and Facebook has led to financial pain for many (but not all) news vendors. Given journalism’s high value as a public good, Google and Facebook must pay for the damage they’ve caused and help steer the news industry back to something close to the status quo ante.”

“the Klobuchar bill unjustly punishes the tech giants by making it prop up an industry that has largely failed to address its business problems and has been decaying for decades. It’s not clear whether these subsidies will restore the news business to health, and it appears likely that the act would serve as a prelude to direct government subsidies to save the news — another bad idea. Finally, the bill resembles a reparations package, which is unfair because the tech giants didn’t cause the news industry’s decline. They only contributed to it.
It would be nice to blame all of the news industry’s problems on the tech behemoths, but the undoing of the newspaper industry began well before the web’s advent. Newspaper circulation’s per capita decline started in the post-WWII era, as did the industry’s share of ad spending, thanks to competition from radio and TV. Total advertising revenue peaked in 2005. Some savvy newspaper investors, like Warren Buffett, predicted the industry’s coming decline in 1992, a good half-decade before the commercial Internet was a thing. The newspaper audience and ad buyers had already begun migrating to other mediums, like TV and cable.

One enduring myth of the Internet’s rise is that it caught the news industry by surprise. But that just isn’t so. The historical record shows that starting in the 1970s, they invested deeply and experimented widely on the electronic delivery of news and ads to homes (Viewtron, QUBE, Extravision, Gateway, Interchange, and many other systems) in hopes of inventing something like the web. What prevented them from dominating the electronic space was that the emerging, off-the-shelf technology and the open architecture of the Internet allowed open entry into the news and advertising market — no government licenses or big newsprint presses were required. Winning in this arena meant competing with all comers, and the news business proved to be a bad competitor. Google, which was founded in 1998, had the best ideas on how to sell ads in the space, and by 2012 its ad revenue surpassed that of the entire U.S. newspaper industry.

The rise of Google and then Facebook did parallel the decline of newspaper revenues, but it would be a mistake to say one caused the other. As analyst Kamil Franek points out, Google and Facebook did not build their success by “stealing” newspaper advertising. They did it by disrupting the advertising universe with systems that allowed for more efficient and cheaper ways to attract prospective customers. For better than a century, the ad business had followed the dictum attributed to department store magnate John Wanamaker, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Internet advertising deflated Wanamaker’s wisdom by making it knowable which half was wasted. Web advertisers could finally measure the successes of their campaigns and refine where to advertise next. The web also proved to be a bargain for advertisers, as better and better ad performance became cheaper and cheaper: Total advertising as a percentage of GDP dropped 25 percent between the 1990s and the aughts. Google also created new places to advertise, such as on games and on smartphones. Benedict Evans, another analyst, holds that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of Google and Facebook’s ad business came from companies that had placed no print advertising outside of the Yellow Pages.”

Silicon Valley is wrong about the future of transportation

“The reality of the automobile is quite different from the fiction that we’re sold; the reality is an almost radical dependence rather than a degree of freedom. There’s this high cost of the automobile where you need to buy it in order to get around. You need to pay your insurance, the oil, the gas or the diesel to power it. You need to pay for your occasional maintenance. For some people, those bills can disrupt their finances and their economic security. The idea that this is an example of freedom and not of dependency, in order to enrich a certain number of corporations, is quite laughable to me.
Automotive supremacy is this idea that we’ve reached this point where for many people, there is really no alternative because transit systems were defunded because everyone had an automobile or was expected to have an automobile. That’s a serious problem. It’s not actually as beneficial as it’s been sold to us, as we see in this moment where once again gas prices are through the roof. A lot of people are suffering and struggling as a result.”

The CHIPS Act won’t solve the chip shortage

“On its face, the idea of increasing semiconductor manufacturing in the US seems like it would help address the global supply crunch for computer chips, which has made it harder to buy everything from cars and laptops to sex toys and medical devices during the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has even suggested that the funding package could help fight inflation, presumably by making these goods cheaper.

But while it’s certainly fair to call the legislation a victory for bipartisanship, this plan is primarily focused on keeping up with China’s growing investment in its own domestic chip industry — not solving the present issues with the tech supply chain. The chip factories produced by this package won’t be complete for years, and the bulk of the funding won’t necessarily go toward basic chips, also known as legacy chips, which account for much of the ongoing shortage. And that shortage may be nearing its end anyway.”

Both Democrats and Republicans Want To Break Up Big Tech. Consumers Would Pay the Price.

“You don’t have to believe that the market produces perfect outcomes to understand that government can rarely outperform private enterprise. Political decisions aren’t driven by any market signals, profit motive, or consumer preferences. These decisions are inherently political, suffer from a serious knowledge problem and are mostly untied to any accountability regimes when they fail. Government often proves to be biased against large, successful companies that provide new technology that legislators often don’t understand well but consumers love. This is why government so often fails, and this policy is no exception.”

Don’t Give U.S. Chipmakers a $76 Billion Government Handout

“The current legislation has swelled to a total cost of more than $400 billion. The core of the bill is $76 billion in direct funding for domestic semiconductor manufacturing through a variety of grants and tax credits. The rest of the money, beyond doubling the budget of the notoriously silly spenders at the National Science Foundation, is predictably a billion here and a billion there for vaguely named programs with even more ambiguous purposes. For example, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board pointed out, “The Commerce Department gets $11 billion, most of which it intends to plow into creating 20 new ‘regional technology hubs,’ which will somehow expand ‘U.S. innovation capacity.'””

“Proponents of the legislation would have you believe that the U.S. is overly reliant on foreign, unreliable suppliers of semiconductors, particularly those under threat from China. Semiconductors are unbelievably important components in practically countless goods relied on every day, but that’s no excuse to ignore the fact that the domestic semiconductor industry is, per a 2020 report by the Semiconductor Industry Association, “on solid footing.” U.S.-based semiconductor firms hold nearly half of the global market share, and 44 percent of that production already occurs in the U.S. Moreover, these figures don’t even capture firms based in allied countries such as South Korea and Taiwan that are currently spending billions of dollars to open semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the U.S.—without the need for funding.”

America has an innovation problem. The H-1B visa backlog is making it worse.

“Since the early 20th century, the US has been a world leader in innovation and technical progress. In recent decades, however, some experts have worried that the country’s performance on these fronts has been slowing, even stalling.

There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, but one has seemed especially salient in recent years: an immigration system that discourages, and often turns away, the most highly skilled and talented foreign workers.

Historically, immigrants have played a vital role in American innovation. As Jeremy Neufeld, an immigration policy fellow with the Institute for Progress, a new innovation-focused think tank, remarked to me, “It’s always been the case that immigrants have been a secret ingredient in US dynamism.” Robert Krol, a professor of economics with California State University Northridge, describes it this way: “The bottom line is that when you look at the impact of immigrants — whether you think about starting businesses or innovating patents — they have a large, significant impact.”

Multiple analyses of historical immigration patterns show that more migrants to a region correlates with a higher rate of innovation and related economic growth. By contrast, when immigration is more restricted, companies — especially tech companies and those that conduct innovative R&D work — are less successful, and growth in jobs and wages slows. Studies have also shown that immigrants tend to be entrepreneurial: Based on survey data between 2008 and 2012, 25 percent of companies across the US were founded by first-generation immigrants. Other research shows that immigrants are more likely than native-born US citizens to register patents.

As Neufeld points out, the Covid-19 pandemic might have gone much worse if immigration had always been as restrictive as it is now. A number of co-founders and critical researchers with Moderna are immigrants, as is Katalin Karikó, a pioneer of mRNA research — who, if she had tried to immigrate after the 1990 H-1B reforms to the skilled guest worker program, might not have been able to come to the US at all.

Those H-1B guest visas are at the center of the issue today, some experts say. Designed in 1990 to bring in skilled professionals to meet labor market shortages, visas through the H-1B guest workers program are sponsored by employers, who submit petitions to bring in particular foreign professionals appropriately qualified for specific, highly skilled roles. Guest workers generally need at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), there are about 580,000 foreign workers currently on H-1B visas, a small percentage of the US workforce and immigrant population. But they are disproportionately concentrated in STEM, particularly computer-related occupations, often in fields where cutting-edge technologies are being developed.

Unfortunately, the H-1B process is falling increasingly out of date and badly failing to serve its original purpose of turning on the talent tap for top innovative companies. Congress sets an annual cap on how many H-1B visa holders can come in, and that cap is now far below what the labor market demands. The crush of applications once the window opens for a given year on March 1 is so intense that, in every year since 2014, USCIS has resorted to a lottery system instead of a first-come, first-serve process. That means that year in and year out, hundreds of thousands of high-skilled workers from abroad try to come to the US and ultimately fail, so that both the prospective employee and the company hoping to hire them end up losing out on their preferred option.”