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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Chinese Spies! Russian Trolls!! Self-Defeating Tribal Paranoia in America

Last Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese students studying STEM subjects could be spies trying to steal technology from American campuses. According to Wray, we should “view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.” Wray relied on Spy Schools, 2017 book by Daniel Golden describing how Chinese grad students acquire expertise from U.S. universities that they use to start technology companies in China. While Wray did not go into details about what a “whole-of-society” response would entail, one does not need much imagination to foresee proposals to ban Chinese grad students’ studying high-tech subjects at U.S. schools.

I am inclined to view Wray’s comments as symptomatic of a broader strain of self-defeating tribal paranoia (“SDTP” for convenience’s sake). The hallmarks of SDTP are (1) fear of cultural outsiders’ taking our stuff or infecting our minds and (2) panicked efforts to exclude those insidious aliens to safeguard our minds and property.

Consider, first, why Golden’s and Wray’s worries might be paranoid. Yes, of course, Chinese students might be spies. But so what? Spying is not the cause of our decline: We are falling behind the Chinese not because their students study in the United States but because we are too cheap to fund primary scientific research with tax dollars. Tsinghua University is gaining on MIT, because the Chinese government cares about building a first-rate STEM system with public resources, and our government does not. Consider, second, why excluding Chinese grad students is self-defeating: Those grad students are themselves a high-tech resource, as Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been pleading for years. Our folly is not our admission of Chinese students but our exclusion of them: We do not give them H1B visas so that they can put their knowledge and skills to work on behalf of our economy and security. In the name of nationalism, we cut off our nose to spite China’s face.

You might be willing, Gentle Reader, to entertain my argument that Wray’s fears of Chinese grad students constitute an instance of SDTP, at least as a plausible hypothesis. In order to excite a bit more controversy, let me suggest a more contentious hypothesis: The obsession with Russian-financed election meddling is also symptoms of SDTP, in much the same way as our fear of Chinese students.


The problem is not that Russian meddling does not exist (it obviously does) or that it is not evil (it most certainly is). The self-defeating nature of the obsession with Russians is that the focus on the foreign origins of the meddling distracts us from our real problem, which is our home-grown mutual distrust. Our focus on the fact that trolling websites and fake rallies come from Russians (as opposed to, say, ironic Maine guys) distract us from our real problem — a gaping rural-urban divide that leads rural-exurban voters to trust unverified Facebook pages more than anything coming from hated urban sources of news. CNN’s ruthless haranguing and doxxing of an elderly woman for her falling for such a Russian scam is a great illustration of how the relentless pursuit of traitors exacerbates the very distrust that leads rural-exurban voters to endorse Russian scams in the first place. I am a Never-Trumper Republican, but, after seeing CNN’s footage, I came away thinking that, as recruiters for Trump, obnoxious harangues from snotty newscasters easily trumped a few millions in Russian money invested in phoney Facebook pages. If the point is to prevent rural voters from voting against their own self-interest by supporting charlatans like Trump, then triumphantly harping on those rural voters’ gullibility seems like a self-defeating policy. As Ross Douthat noted awhile back, “obsessing over Russian influence can become a way to deny or minimize American realities that are far more important than some provocateur’s Hillary-for-prison meme.”

Actually the problem is worse than denial or minimization: The obsession with treason could actually exacerbate our worst problem, which is mutual alienation of rural and urban voters through our outrage-addicted endless harping on the other side’s traitorous tendencies. The constant accusations of “treason!” distracts us from Walt Kelly’s sad conclusion, true today as it was in the 1950s: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Posted by Rick Hills on February 22, 2018 at 05:19 PM | Permalink

Comments

Interesting post , worth just to note , two substantial and tangible points , which contribute to such Paranoia ( at least according to the respectable author of the post ) :

First is the fear of the unknown caused by the cyber space. One can't always realize who is behind what ( fake identities ) . And indeed , in the Russian affair and that interfering with the election , Russians , used fake identities , through identity thefts simply ( of Americans ) . Here I quote from the charges pressed by the special prosecutor (Robert Mueller ) here :

Defendants and their co-conspirators also obtained, and attempted to obtain, false identification documents to use as proof of identity in connection with maintaining accounts and purchasing advertisements on social media sites.

And :

Defendants and their co-conspirators, through the use of a stolen identity of a real U.S. person, T.W., sent emails to certain grassroots groups located in Florida that stated in part:

End of quotation :

And , one should not forget : taking over foreign national firms and scientific knowledge by Chinese , is a well conceptual and declared policy or doctrine carried out by China . When US firm takes over an offshore firm , it is typically done by private entity , but the Chinese , are doing it typically , by governmental entities ( sovereign funds ) . That is a piece of hell of difference .

One may read the charges ( section 70 for example ) here :

https://www.justice.gov/file/1035477/download

Thanks

Posted by: El roam | Feb 22, 2018 6:44:10 PM

Here in the NYT , one may read for example :

" China’s $800 Billion Sovereign Wealth Fund Seeks More U.S. Access "

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/business/china-investment-infrastructure.html

Thanks

Posted by: El roam | Feb 22, 2018 6:53:53 PM

"Consider, second, why excluding Chinese grad students is self-defeating: Those grad students are themselves a high-tech resource, as Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been pleading for years. Our folly is not our admission of Chinese students but our exclusion of them: We do not give them H1B visas so that they can put their knowledge and skills to work on behalf of our economy and security."

In general, I agree with these points. I'd like to see high skilled immigration quotas opened up. Preferably via eliminating the per country caps on the permanent EB-2 and 3 programs and then allocating them more numbers per year, rather than opening up the H1B program, but the latter would be better than nothing.

That said, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are not terribly sympathetic when they cry about not being able to find workers. All three of them are notorious for hiring practices with a high rejection rate and interviews that test things that bear no obvious relationship to job performance. Perhaps they have private evidence for the efficacy of their -- to an outsider -- bizarre hiring practices, but if so they are just that, private. I think it is reasonable before the public endorses policy measures designed to alleviate their supposed suffering to ask to see the evidence.

One thing we can say for FAANG(M), at least, is that when they hire on H1Bs they at least pay market rate. It may be that they are unreasonably passing over US workers, but at least they aren't doing so in order to undercut their salaries. The same can not be said for many other members of the top H1B visas sponsors list. While Microsoft (#9) pays an average salary to H1B workers of $122k/year, Google (#12) pays $128k/year, and Amazon $117k/year, Infosys (#1) pays $79k, Tata(#2) $69k, and Accenture (#5) $78k.

I think it behooves those of us that support increased immigration, which I do, to be aware of and advocate against abuses. Otherwise the only people talking about them will be those that will push the conclusion that because there are abuses we should make cuts rather than that we should have reforms as well as increases.

Posted by: brad | Feb 22, 2018 7:09:51 PM

I agree that we have to let Chinese in because blacks can't compete with Asians, so if we want smart minorities in college, we have to let foreigners fill those spaces.

Posted by: Mao | Feb 22, 2018 7:16:41 PM

I came here to say more pedantically what @Mao said more sarcastically. It is entirely coherent to agree with point one (that the US need to invest more in science) and at the same time disagree with point two (that part of investing in more science involves letting in more foreigners.) There is no logical connection between science and immigration except for the one Rick has imagined in his own head.

Posted by: James | Feb 23, 2018 10:33:00 AM

James writes that the link between recruiting excellence in scientific expertise and free immigration is entirely one I have imagined in my head.

James, why should it be even slightly controversial to say that, if one wants to recruit the very best scientists, one ought to draw from the very largest pool of scientific labor? If you were looking for a software engineer (or a quarterback, or a comedy writer, or any other skilled worker where talent makes a big difference), would you advertise only among, say, people from Cleveland and stipulate that no others are eligible? Of course not: You’d be missing the talent elsewhere in the USA. The same goes mutatis mutandis for limiting job searches to American citizens: The worldwide pool of labor is the best pool, simply because it is the biggest and, therefore, presents the greatest chance of recruiting a star. Or, as Madison put it in Federalist #10, “if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.”

But don’t believe me: Ask virtually anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley whether they think that they will be able to win the AI race without drawing on the world’s supply of talent. They will tell you that the greatest resource that we sacrifice when foreign students leave our schools to go back home is the students themselves.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Feb 23, 2018 10:57:58 AM

@Rick

I'll take that on. The reason why it should be controversial to recruit foreign scientists is because recruiting foreign scientists is either (a) implicitly an indictment of the American educational system or (b) implicitly an indictment of America's genetic legacy.

I don' t for a moment think that Americans are genetically inferior to Indians and the Chinese. So the argument that we are /unable/ to produce the best scientists on our own holds no water for me. This only leaves the first argument: that the American educational system is failing to produce what it has the ability to produce. That's a fair point. But if the American educational system is failing to produce what it can produce why is the solution to this problem leaving the educational system in shambles and becoming dependent on the human resources of other countries? The answer to that question, I believe, is because it is the economic best interest of Silicon Valley tech companies to do so. Funding the American educational system means higher taxes and no one in Silicon Valley wants to pay more taxes to the government (see Apple's 500 billion dollar foreign cash hoard). Of course people there are going to claim that we can't win the AI race unless they get their way; I would be surprised if they said anything else; but I don't believe it. What is in the best interest of Silicon Valley is usually what is in the worst interests of America.

Posted by: James | Feb 24, 2018 11:10:33 AM

James writes:

“The reason why it should be controversial to recruit foreign scientists is because recruiting foreign scientists is either (a) implicitly an indictment of the American educational system or (b) implicitly an indictment of America's genetic legacy.”

First, James, thanks for your thoughtful comments on a topic that can inspire a lot of acrimony.

Second, I believe that your case against recruiting foreign scientists misunderstands the case for a libertarian labor market. The reason why Google will get better scientists if they recruit from a world-wide pool of labor is not because foreigners are smarter or better educated than Americans: It is because larger pools, by definition, have a higher odds of containing better people. For the same reason, Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent should also recruit from a world-wide labor pool: If they limited their hiring to Chinese, then to that extent they would would have less chance of recruiting the very best. This is not because Americans are smarter than Chinese: It is because the probabilities of improving quality increase with the size of the pool and the variety within that pool. That’s the point of that quote from Madison, by the way.

Tencent knows this, by the way: When my nephew — a Stanford engineering undergrad visited Tencent in Shenzhen, they were offering him jobs on the spot.

China will beat us ( if they do) NOT because Chinese workers are smarter or better educated than Americans but because the Chinese firms still cast a wide net for high-end labor. Employers who open their doors to everyone — Chinese, Indians, Americans, French, Nigerians, you name it — will get better people than those employers who limit their recruiting to a smaller pool. The cosmopolitans are going to win the tech race, because large numbers beat small numbers, not because foreigners beat Americans.

So, sure, let’s improve education in America. But let’s continue to recruit labor from everywhere. Even if we had the very best educational system in the world with the smartest kids, we would be hampered by limiting our search to our own citizens. There could be some super-smart kid somewhere out there in [Name any Nation you please]: Why would we want to miss him or her?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Feb 24, 2018 11:46:28 AM

Rochelle Dreyfuss and I have written a recent article about this - with the best epigraph i've ever had in a law rev article: "psychic spies from china are going to steal our mind's elation" - Red Hot Chili Peppers
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2718557

Posted by: anon | Feb 25, 2018 11:48:39 PM

Rochelle Dreyfuss and I have written a recent article about this - with the best epigraph i've ever had in a law rev article: "psychic spies from china are going to steal our mind's elation" - Red Hot Chili Peppers
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2718557

Posted by: anon | Feb 25, 2018 11:48:40 PM

Thanks, Orly. It is nice to hear that my merely blog-worthy intuition is be backed by serious scholarship. Or, as you and Rochelle put it, “paradoxically, the effort to protect valuable information and retain the United States’ leadership position could disrupt information flows, interfere with collaborative efforts, and ultimately undermine the inventive capacity of American innovators.”

Posted by: Rick Hills | Feb 26, 2018 3:17:56 AM

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