I’m a great fan of Paul Graham, essayist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator (along with his wife Jessica Livingston, whom I also admire greatly). Through Y Combinator, Graham has changed the startup and tech company landscape and profoundly affected the world. (Some Y Combinator-funded companies you’ve probably heard of are Reddit, Airbnb, Dropbox, Scribd, Disqus, and Stripe). Graham also started Hacker News, a Reddit-of-sorts for the programmer/startup crowd. In the world of letters, Graham is better known for his long-form essays that include incisive social commentary. If you haven’t yet read his pieces, I encourage you to check them all out (I particularly like this one, that might be somewhat relevant here). He’s done more for the world than most people, including me, could dream of. And he knows a lot more about how the world works than I do.
Recently, while investigating the reasons for a surge of traffic to the site from Hacker News, I came across Paul Graham’s essay Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In. Though I was in broad agreement with Graham’s premises and conclusions (which broadly agree with the innovation case for open borders), I found some of the argumentation weak. In many ways, I thought that Graham both overstated and understated his case. He conceded too much to citizenism and to flawed framings of the issue, even if he didn’t directly endorse them.
A warning at the outset: it is quite possible that I am mistaken. In fact, given Graham’s substantially greater knowledge of the issues, your Bayesian prior, as you start reading this, should be that I am mistaken and Graham is right. But also consider another possibility. As Graham himself said, there are some things he can’t say. Graham is a contributor to high-tech immigration advocacy group FWD.us (see Nathan’s post on them). In that capacity as well as in his capacity as Y Combinator partner, he is keen to see high-tech immigration reform actually achieved. Even if he is broadly sympathetic to freer migration for all, coming out in favor of that might be a risk he’s not willing to take if it jeopardizes high-tech reform (relatedly, see my post on the dearth of moderates’ critiques of open borders). Thus, it could well be that my criticisms of Graham are epistemically correct but that his apparent results are a reflection of political savvy rather than intellectual sloppiness.
Here’s my “list of N things” of criticisms, followed by elaboration of each:
- The 95% statistic is a gross exaggeration: Graham’s framing, and his choice of title, radically overstate his case. His actual text, if read carefully, is less misleading.
- Graham overstates the need for reform specifically targeted at exceptional workers: He overstates the case for letting them in, and the difficulties they face.
- Graham understates and undermines the importance of letting in the merely competent: The merely competent include many who may go on to become exceptional. They support the exceptional through division of labor and comparative advantage. And their children may go on to become exceptional.
- Graham concedes too much to the flawed jobs-and-wages-focused economic framework: He tacitly endorses the view that it’s somehow bad for companies to let in workers for the purpose of cutting costs. But cutting costs (holding the quality of service constant) is critical to economic and social efficiency.
- Graham couches things too much in the language of American competitiveness: He is right that there is a chance that the global hub could move out of Silicon Valley due to poor policy choices (including immigration policy and local land use policy). But the sad thing about this cost isn’t so much that America loses out, it’s the huge social and global costs of the transition.