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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 21, 2007

The User's Column, March, 2007
Column 320, part 3
Jerry Pournelle
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

It started with last week's column when I included an exhortation for readers to subscribe to Chaos Manor Reviews analogous to the pledge drives mounted periodically by public radio stations. One of the ways to subscribe is by using a credit card. I don't have a merchant account and never set up a system to accept credit card payments, so for many years that has been handled by Roberta Pournelle's Reading: The Literacy Connection web site.

Her site is hosted by EarthLink and has been since EarthLink founder Sky Dayton set up her account. At the time it wasn't easy. She had to get a merchant account at our local bank, and set up a PGP encryption key system. EarthLink provided a secure server, and a script that collected the credit card data and transmitted it, encrypted, to Roberta. She then used her PGP keys to decrypt the messages, then connected by dialup modem to a service that actually submits the claims to the credit card companies. Eventually the money appears in her merchant account.

As I said, that worked for years, and it was that system that I directed people to in last week's exhortation.

Many of you must have read it, because shortly after that we began to get messages: the credit card submission system was broken. Would be subscribers got messages warning them that the link wasn't secure. If any persisted and attempted to send the subscriptions anyway that failed too. The system was entirely broken.

EarthLink Tech Support Service: The Early Days

EarthLink began as a mostly dial-up Internet access service provider. Roberta and I have some very early accounts – her EarthLink email address is rjp, and mine is jerryp – set up by Sky Dayton himself. When Roberta wanted a web site to advertise and sell her reading instruction software, it was hosted at EarthLink. This was in the early days of the Internet, and everything was very difficult.

In those days EarthLink had the best technical support in the Internet business. Their efficiency, knowledge, and courtesy rivaled the legendary Word Perfect technical support. There were layers, of course, but even the first line support people were both knowledgeable and patient. One of them was a friend, Joe Zeff, who used to tell stories of what he had to put up with; in places it sounded as if he had been reading User Friendly, but in fact it sometimes went the other way, with Joe supplying stories for the cartoonist (at least one of those through me). The higher layers of early day EarthLink tech support got not only progressively more knowledgeable, but had increasingly higher authority to make things happen. The Executive Service tech support official was married to an EarthLink VP.

Those were the days when EarthLink grew from a small and nearly unknown company to one of the largest Internet Service Providers in the country; and that growth was due in no small part to the excellence of their technical support services.

EarthLink Technical Support: The Later Years

EarthLink merged with several other companies. One of those was Mindspring, which pretty well absorbed the old EarthLink. Not long after, the headquarters moved to Atlanta. That was followed by everything else, including the Pasadena based technical support operation. Shortly after, many users noted that both the competence and the authority of the technical support team declined from what it had been.

It wasn't awful. We had a couple of problems after the merger, and they did get straightened out. It took a lot longer than such things had taken when the team was in Pasadena, but the job got done.

Then tech support got exported to India. Once again the service deteriorated: it took longer to get a human on the line, and the people we did get were difficult to understand and hadn't much authority to make things happen.

On the other hand, nothing much went wrong. Roberta's site worked. We had no need for technical support.

The Problems Begin and End

That all changed suddenly. First, as I told you in last week's column, customers for Roberta's reading program began getting mysterious messages about compromised security. Roberta spent a long time on the phone trying to get that fixed. Then we found that attempts to subscribe to this site were not going through. Readers got various messages, none very comprehensible.

Calls to EarthLink technical support are now handled by VoIP and go to Manila, Philippine Republic. Between the accents and the VoIP compression, the tech support people tend to be incomprehensible. Worse, they are reading from scripts, and the ones we got didn't understand the problem; they had to get someone else to fix things, the someone else didn't fix them, and Roberta would have to start all over again. We were told that EarthLink had changed its secure link facilities, but had neglected to tell us they'd done this. Then we were told we had to pay for a new Security Certificate. We did that. Nothing changed. It still didn't work, and Roberta would start over, getting up early to spend her mornings on the telephone.

About the middle of the week that changed. We got a young man in Manila named Alex, who gave us a number that reached his support level. In two calls and about three hours (connected all the time; Roberta just wasn't going to hang up until it worked) everything was fixed. We can now alter our scripts, and orders for both Roberta's program and subscriptions for my web sites come through securely. Everything works again.

This was just in time. When EarthLink finally fixed the problem I was in negotiation with the web support people at GoDaddy; they assured me they could move her site to their host servers and set up the credit card sales, and it wouldn't cost more than we were paying EarthLink.

In addition, I find that if we set up Roberta with a PayPal account, PayPal can accept credit cards and pay the money directly into any bank account, not just a Merchant Account as we must use at present. Mazin, the ISP that hosts both my web sites, doesn't deal in security certificates, but provided that I let PayPal take care of all the money collection, Mazin can host Roberta's site at considerable savings. Since Mazin is run by long time readers and friends, that's a very attractive offer.

For the moment, everything is working again, so we are in no hurry, and I don't intend to change anything until after I finish Inferno II, pay my taxes, and get a few other obligations out of the way. Then I'll have a look at redesigning my original Chaos Manor in Perspective and changing the hosting for Roberta's Reading: The Literacy Connection site.

The bottom line is that you can subscribe to this site, and buy Roberta's reading program, in confidence.

On Job Exports

I discussed these matters with my advisors, and that triggered an interesting discussion. First, Eric Pobirs:

EarthLink shipped my brother's job to India a few years ago, so tell them you've replaced them with an outsourced credit card handling operation.

OTOH, in the long term, they did my brother a favor. They had to pay for him to go to school and as a result he's in a much better job now. Still, it was pretty annoying at the time.


I replied,

That's true enough for Eric's brother. The 40 year old seamstress may have an entirely different view. The 55 year old lathe operator may not get a better job. He may in fact simply be put on the dole, for everyone else to pay for.

Many of the consequences of Free Trade allow those who exported the job to make big profits while putting much of the cost onto the public.

That got Robert Bruce Thompson into the discussion:

If you think it's tough on those folks, come to North Carolina. In the last 10 or 15 years, the government's free trade policies and war on tobacco have wiped out an incredible number of jobs. North Carolina went from being one of the largest producers of tobacco products, textiles, and furniture for the US markets to being a high-tech center (Research Triangle Park is the least of it; high-tech stuff is springing up all over.)

But none of that helps the poor, marginally literate folks who used to work in factories that are now shuttered. Winston-Salem/Greensboro, Raleigh/Durham, Charlotte, and the other major urban areas are doing fine, but small-town North Carolina is drying up and blowing away.

As I've said before, the fundamental problem is that people who are below average in intelligence have become economically useless. We need only so many plumbers or electricians or auto mechanics. Those roles used to be filled by below-average IQ people, but nowadays the combination of downward pressure from brighter people who aren't bright enough to compete in mentally challenging occupations and the increase in requirements for formerly manual trades (you should see the computer equipment at my mechanic's garage) have made it impossible for dumb people to hold these jobs. And the competition for those jobs must inevitably reduce the earnings available from them. What is an IQ 90 person really worth today in a free market? If he works like a slave seven days a week, probably not enough to keep him fed and housed at even minimum levels.

That and the fact that labor is an increasingly small component of the value of manufactured goods is eliminating jobs for anyone who's not above average in IQ. A factory that used to require 1,000 workers now requires only 50, and produces more than it did with 1,000 workers. And I note that, despite your frequent statements about the death of manufacturing in the US, the US manufactures more every year than it did the preceding year, both in absolute terms and in per capita terms.

Ultimately, this means we're heading for an environment where very few people are needed to run the factories. That's a good thing, in the sense that we'll have large amounts of manufactured goods with almost zero labor component to the cost of them. That means plenty for everyone, but it also means that most people will be unemployed or marginally employed. Of course, there's nothing graven in stone about a 40 hour work week. Perhaps in the not too distant future, people will look upon a 40 hour week as drudgery, just as we look upon the 100-hour weeks that peasants used to work just to feed themselves. Maybe the new norm will be a 4-hour work week. Half a day a week, and really long weekends.

All of that implies bread and circuses on a larger scale than we have even now. And that most people will be idle most or all of the time, which is what concerns me more than anything.


All of which is food for thought. I doubt that many readers of Chaos Manor Reviews are on the left side of the Bell Curve; but in a republic, every vote is equal to every other. Anatole France once said that the law in its infinite equality forbids rich and poor alike from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges. It is also true that the law in its infinite equality preserves the right to vote for both the intelligent and those less so. If nearly half the population is in fact useless, and know that they are useless, preserving even the appearance of a republic may become very difficult indeed.

Incidentally, while the number of jobs in manufacturing steadily decreases, Thompson is correct in saying we still make a lot of products while employing fewer people. That's called increased productivity. Alas, much of what we are losing were cash cow products that employed people long term. They may have had less than spectacular profit margins, but they were profitable, and paid decent wages.

Free Trade, Ricardo, and the Future of Employment

The economist that Free Trade advocates quote most often is David Ricardo because of his principle of comparative advantage. Ricardo believed that if nations specialized in what they did best, and trade between them was free of tariff, then everyone would be better off.

Those who quote Ricardo generally ignore his other basic assumption, which was that wage rates would be set by economic competition free of political interference. That condition prevailed during the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1849): and vast quantities of food produced in Ireland were shipped to England where it fetched higher prices. This was of great advantage to the landlords. A hundred years before a similar condition induced Jonathan Swift to write his bitter satire A Modest Proposal and similar works appeared during and after the Great Famine. Another result was a large export of population from Ireland to the United States. Yet another was the tradition of enduring hatred of English rule in Ireland. The short term profits of food exports during the famine have long vanished in their continued costs over the years.

In this case economics trumped politics, because the benefits of Free Trade went to those who had political power, and the costs – famine, disease, and death – fell on those who had no vote. It is extremely unlikely that had the Irish had any political power they would have used it to uphold the principles of Free Trade and maximize profits by exporting food during a famine.

That's a stark case. Unemployment in the United States due to job export has not produced such horrors, and probably won't. On the other hand, we do have a situation in which most of the profits from Free Trade fall to employers, but many of the costs fall on the general public.

Some of those costs are not purely economic although they certainly have economic repercussions. Social philosophers have for more than a century warned us of the dangers of wide spread anomie – that is, citizens with no ties to their community. No patriotism, no civic pride, and no reason other than fear of punishment to obey the laws. Telling half the population that it is unemployable – in effect useless – and can hope for nothing better than make work and the dole is not likely to make for a healthy republic.

Of course it has not been demonstrated that half the population really is useless. Note that Ricardo's theory assumed a fair amount of freedom: labor would be free to seek employment and entrepreneurs would be free to offer employment. New businesses could start and succeed or go broke without excessive regulation. A businessman need understand only his own business; he need not be a tax expert and cogniscent of myriad employment regulations. Alas, those conditions don't prevail.

Adam Smith once noted that businessmen would seldom meet without conspiring to induce government to restrict entry into their field of business, and thereby reduce competition. Our complex employment laws and regulations have that effect: large enterprises can afford to have personnel experts on their payrolls. Startup companies can't afford an equal opportunity compliance officer, much less afford to hire a deaf person and signing translator.

My guess is that one remedy to the loss of manufacturing jobs would be greater freedom to those who want to try small scale manufacturing. And of course one remedy to unemployment among the lesser skilled is to stop the free import of the unskilled from across the borders.

At the moment we have Free Trade, job export, bad schools that are getting worse, and open borders. This does not seem a recipe for future success.

Most of those reading this have little experience working with, or even being acquainted with people from the left side of the Bell Curve. That doesn't mean that the matter is not important. If the United States is to sustain a First World economy, we are not likely to do that while condemning half our workers to makework and the dole. There have to be better remedies than that.

The historic policy of the United States was low to medium tariff, controlled immigration, and local schools responsive to local needs. I was taught in grade school that the Republican Party stood for protective tariff to build domestic industry, while the Democrats strove for "tariff for revenue only", which meant a flat uniform tariff on all imports. The argument against protective tariff was that it tended to distort investment: money went into the protected industries, so that unprotected businesses were starved for capital.

Neither party argued for unrestricted free trade. Neither party advocated open borders and unrestricted immigration. Both parties argued for local control of local schools on the grounds that a Federal bureaucracy would not benefit real education. Civic pride would drive school improvement, and local control would allow experimentation.

Those policies, plus a general preference of freedom and competition over regulation, built the First World Economy we now enjoy. They also put the lie to Karl Marx's dictum that capitalism would result in the concentration of wealth with a small number getting richer and richer while most everyone else fell further and further behind.

We are now engaged in a new experiment to determine whether trusting regulation over liberty, free trade, centralized control of schools, and open borders can sustain our First World economy without the consequences Marx predicted. It's an important experiment; perhaps more important than our experiment in raising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.