Sunday, April 14, 2019

On ‘Learn to Code’: Right-Wing Protectionist Trolls vs. Market Economics

The Articles in an Online Collage, Which Right-Wing Trolls Present As Evidence of Journalists Conveying Callous Dismissal of Blue-Collar Workers, Don’t Say What the Right-Wing Trolls Accuse Them of Saying

Stuart K. Hayashi

Protectionist Trump-apologist vlogggers and right-wing internet-trolls use this collage
of six articles as their proof that mainstream, left-leaning journalists callously
tell laid-off blue-collar workers that they should suck it up and Learn to Code.
The problem: the articles do not say what the right-wingers accuse them of saying,
as we shall see below.

This is an abridged (medium-sized) version of the longer blog post “Right-Wing Trolls and Vloggers and Their Delusional ‘Learn to Code’ Narrative.” I thought perhaps many readers would consider my prolonged discussion of “creative-destruction” economics, especially concerning the moral implications of factories closing either due to governmental interference or to market conditions, in the longer version to be tedious or distracting. Therefore, here I edited out some of those passages.

For readers who want to bypass all explanation of the economics of “creative destruction” and the history of the media’s bias concerning this topic, please see the shortest version of this essay, “ ‘Learn to Code’? More Like ‘Learn to Read.’ ”

In January of this year, Buzzfeed and HuffPost announced hundreds of employee layoffs to cut costs. On cue, politically right-wing trolls scoured Twitter for journalists lamenting the layoffs, and then spitefully tweeted at them that they should just suck it up and “Learn to Code.”

What was meant by that? Since the 1990s, the mainstream media have been running stories about how factories, plants, and mines in the U.S. Rustbelt have been closing, in part due to foreign-born competition, but much more due to the provision of manufactured goods and energy being automated, conducted by computer-programmed robots.

In the blinkered narrative of right-wing trolls, mainstream journalists — most of whom have an admittedly politically left-wing perspective — have for years been gloating about the job losses in the Rustbelt. This is because, proclaim the right-wing trolls, mainstream journalists look down on members of the white working class, dismissing them as bigoted rubes and cultural villains. The right-wing trolls conclude that because mainstream journalists hold dislocated blue-collar workers in such contempt, these journalists express no sympathy or concern for them, crowing at them that they should “Learn to Code,” analogous to a caricature of a rich man snapping at a beggar, “Go inherit your own money!” Hence, say the right-wing trolls, mainstream journalists themselves getting downsized out of their jobs is an instance of poetic justice. The right-wing trolls admonished the journalists “Learn to code” to show them how it feels.

Disappointingly, this tweet is from someone who has a Fellowship at an organization that purports
to be a free-market think. I hope the reader will see, by the end of this blog post,
how this tweeter’s depiction of journalists is a straw man.

As the Alt-Right YouTube vlogger “Black Pigeon Speaks” frames it to his 480,000 subscribers,
“Learn to code” was the response by many to tweets and posts made by the newly unemployed journalists talking about having been let go on social media. The meme was, in effect, being thrown back at many of the activist-slash-journalists that had just been fired to pretty much rub their noses in their own sanctimonious and smug suggestions, beginning in the 1980s but really ramping up in the 1990s when working-class Americans who saw their livelihoods and jobs evaporate as manufacturing was outsourced to China and Mexico, and their suggestion to those workers was to go out and Learn to Code. Obviously, people with gender studies- and psychology degrees working at news outlets across the United States came off as totally out-of-touch with people in the Rustbelt. And thus the retort to journalists who themselves are now seeing their own industry dying out as a result of technological change, and telling them to “Learn to Code,” is as genius as it is simple.
The “anti-Social-Justice-Warrior” vlogger “ShortFatOtaku” — who, to my knowledge, is less politically radical than “Black Pigeon Speaks” — similarly phrases it to 56,000 subscribers, the past, when the working class of hinterland America saw layoffs, firings, and factory closings, as the combination of globalist trade policies shipping their jobs overseas and influxes of cheap labor into the market through mass migration completely destroyed America’s mining, manufacturing, and energy sectors, these bourgeois upper-class journalists and bloggers, sitting in their coastal elite offices, would write about how the working class should just “Learn to Code.”  [ . . . ] There is[...]a dedicated section of hell for journalists who tell coal miners “Learn to Code”; you’re experiencing it right now.
There are many inaccuracies in those jeremiads.

First, contrary to “ShortFatOtaku,” the USA’s domestic manufacturing sector isn’t anywhere near “destroyed.” From 1962 to the present year, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that is in blue-collar manufacturing jobs has been decreasing, and yet the per-capita manufacturing output and per-capita manufacturing exports have only had a dramatic net increase in the same duration. The main cause of this phenomenon, though, will be of little consolation to ShortFatOtaku and “Black Pigeon Speaks,” as it is automation that the latter decries.

Job Obsolescence and the Market’s “Creative Destruction”
These phenomena are part of a larger principle of market economics that Joseph Schumpeter dubbed creative destruction. The idea is that the purpose of the market is for vendors to maximize the satisfaction of consumer demand with maximum plausible efficiency. As every input of labor or natural resources imposes a cost upon the entrepreneur,“efficiency” in this context means maximum production of economic value, per unit sold, from the smallest and fewest such inputs.

When the market finds a new production method that improves efficiency, that displaces marketplace demand for workers and firms whose jobs and income rely on the older and less-productive methods.  Throughout much of history, people relied on fireplaces to heat their homes, creating a market for chimney sweeps. As industrialization advanced, people adopted much more efficient methods for heating their residences. Homes with chimneys, as a percentage of all domiciles, decreased — and, consequently, chimney sweeps had to search for other lines of employment.

In the term creative destruction, the “destruction” is in the discontinuation of older, less-efficient practices.  The “creative” is in the creation of newer, more-efficient jobs.  That may result from any or all of the following measures that attempt at cost-cutting:
  • Firm restructuring – this happens when the owners of a firm ascertain that the firm has become too large and bureaucratic.  Thus, its divisions and job functions need to be scaled back or simplified. Hence, they close entire divisions or shrink them down. An example of this is Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s (KKR’s) turnaround of the grocery chain Safeway (more about that later).
  • Foreign-born competition – this can come in the form of immigrants coming to the United States to work for low pay, or in the form of these foreigners remaining in their countries of origin and having the job transferred over to them from the USA. “ShortFatOktau,” “Black Pigeon Speaks,” and many other Donald Trump apologists especially object to this phenomenon, though I explained in Arc-Digital why they should not.
  • Technological change – new machines performing functions that previously only human beings could perform (also addressed in my Arc-Digital piece).

The Media’s Actual General Attitude Toward “Creative Destruction”
Thus, we come to the second falsehood in the narrative promulgated by “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku”: far from conveying any schadenfreude about the plight of displaced blue-collar workers, the mainstream journalists who report on this phenomenon have consistently evinced the same sympathies as these right-wing protectionist trolls. That is, insofar as any ideological bias may be inferred from mainstream left-leaning journalists’ articles from the 1990s about job losses in the Rustbelt, their implication was that the displaced blue-collar workers were the innocent victims, and the villain was either a cabal of cost-cutting billionaire stockholders or, more often, the wider phenomenon of the market’s “creative destruction” itself.

That was the case with Susan Faludi’s much-vaunted coverage in the Wall Street Journal of the KKR Safeway buyout. In 1990, the financial firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) made a leveraged buyout (LBO) of the grocery chain Safeway.  Essentially, KKR borrowed money to purchase controlling shares in Safeway, and its shares were the collateral if KKR could not pay back its creditors. Just as automation and the hiring of foreign-born workers are thought to cut costs, KKR underwent another method of cost-cutting for Safeway: restructuring it, closing unprofitable outlets and eliminating redundant positions and divisions. Consistent with the tone taken by most news articles about the market’s “creative destruction” — and actually consistent with the moralism of “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” themselves — Faludi painted an unflattering portrait of cost-cutting executives.  She highlighted the plight of employees anxious over their job security. This won her a Pulitzer, and it was specifically because, the Pulitzer Committee announced, the article “revealed the human costs of high finance.”

Since the online version of that article is behind a paywall, I will quote a non-paywall summary of it from a 1997 Fortune article,
In 1990 a public offering of Safeway stock and the buyout’s prominence led Susan Faludi of the Wall Street Journal to write about the company in one of the longest articles ever published in that newspaper. Titled “The Reckoning: Safeway LBO Yields Vast Profits but Exacts a Heavy Human Toll,” the article described employee traumas — all said to be directly linked to the LBO — that included suicides and job-related heart attacks. [ . . . ]
The “vast profits” mainly referred to capital gains and fees extracted from the buyout four years before and definitely didn’t describe Safeway’s finances in 1990: The company wasn’t making much money, and the public offering itself had received only a tepid welcome. But these were matters swallowed up by the wave of emotion that greeted the article. Many readers brought to it their own opinions about LBOs, some finding the article monstrously one-sided, others chorusing in agreement with its harsh indictment of the business mores of the Eighties. In short, the article not only immediately became emblematic of the Safeway buyout but also came to frame the entire debate about LBOs. 
The article also rocked KKR, whose principals thought it hung the firm with a totally unjustified reputation for, in George Roberts’s words, “coming in and firing everyone.” That image, he says, both hurt KKR’s negotiations with certain acquisition candidates and riled some of its limited partners, particularly public pension funds whose constituents included unionized workers.
This trend was also plainly visible in 2004. Democrat presidential challenger John Kerry received sympathetic coverage when, to set himself up as a foil to globalist incumbent George W. Bush, he denounced corporate executives as “Benedict Arnold CEOs” on account of their hiring foreign-born workers over native-born Americans.

Since, following Donald Trump’s lead, so many right-wing trolls are quick to label any news piece “fake news” if it provides evidence for any conclusion that might not be entirely palatable for their sensibilities and preconceptions, I would be remiss if I did the same myself. Susan Faludi’s article and the many copycats following it are not fake news. Fake news consists of complete fabrications — what you find with Paul Joseph Watson having claimed the FBI itself did the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, or the bogus health advice in Health Impact News. Biased left-wing journalists do report actual events and usually do mention actual data. Contrary to too many right-wing trolls I have encountered online, center-Left news publications such as the New York Times are not to be dismissed as wholly unreliable.  They still contain actual information in them, albeit often presented in a subconsciously slanted manner.  This means they should still be read but with thoughtful caution.

I have grievances about these mainstream center-Left periodicals inasmuch as they mislead the reader by downplaying or omitting important information that would give the reader a better understanding of the context. In the case of the articles from the 1990s lamenting the market’s “creative destruction,” it is that they frequently omitted or downplayed how quickly significant portions of the laid-off workforce found new jobs comparable to the old ones.  The also overlooked how inflation-adjusted employee US compensation actually increased since the 1950s.

As Cypress Semiconductor cofounder T. J. Rodgers observed in 1996,
These job losses are highly publicized: Richard Allen, the CEO of AT-and-T, was labeled a “Job Killer” in a recent Newsweek magazine article because of layoffs, many of which came from AT-and-T’s decision to exit the personal computer business in which it was not competitive. What is not publicized is that my company has already hired some of those AT-and-T people. And, unfortunately, our rival, Cirrus Logic (a billion-dollar chip company about which I bet you’ve never heard) beat us to the punch in starting up a design center in South Carolina to take advantage of hiring those highly skilled ex-AT-and-T engineers. The bad news from big companies gets front-page coverage, but the near-immediate absorption of their skilled workers is rarely discussed.
“ShortFatOtaku” and “Black Pigeon Speaks” would likely scoff at Rodgers’s claim that laid-off skilled workers are rehired more often than the public believes. That would be ironic, as, against their own intention, “ShortFatOtaku” and “Black Pigeon Speaks” themselves showed, right to their audience, evidence that lends more support to Rodgers’s case than their own.

“Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” Directly Contradicted By the Six Case Studies in the Collage They Present
No doubt, apologists for President Trump and protectionism maintain that there are indeed myriad examples of the mainstream media being smarmy and lecturing laid-off blue-collar workers that their dislocation from heavy industry is for the best and that it would behoove them to “Learn to Code.” As supposed proof, both “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” present, pictured below, the exact same collage of six online media headlines. “Black Pigeon Speaks” does it at the 3 minute, 55 seconds timestamp and “ShortFatOtaku” at the 1 minute, 35 seconds timestamp.

Again, this is the collage they cite.

“Black Pigeon Speaks” citing the collage.

“ShortFatOtaku” citing the collage.

That same collage was tweeted to journalists who vented online about the lay-offs.

Here is the problem: when you actually look at the articles in total — or even bother to read their headlines — the articles don’t actually do what “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” accuse them of doing.

And it turns out I am not alone in noting this. Days after I uploaded the three different versions of this essay, I learned that the blog Angry White Men pointed out back in January that the articles “are anything but malicious, and none of them are examples of journalists ‘push[ing] coding on the coal miners.’ ”

Not one of the six articles is a prescriptive essay urging laid-off blue-collar employees to learn to code. All of them — even the one in the right-hand corner from the New York Times labeled “Opinion” — are straight-news articles that are descriptive of the phenomenon of blue-collar employees actually learning to code.

 When it comes to the mischaracterization by “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” of what the articles actually say, a red flag should go off immediately from the title of the Bloomberg Business article directly in the middle. It is not “Appalachian Miners Should Learn to Code.” It is “Appalachian Miners Are Learning to Code.”  ARE Learning to Code — as in: regardless of what anyone’s opinion is, the reality is that laid-off miners are learning to code. In fact, all of them except for the New York Times piece, are about the same for-profit company, Bit Source, founded by M. Lynn Parrish and Rusty Justice and employing former coal miners as software engineers.

Let’s start by addressing the three news articles that first seem to be the likeliest to be sermons exhorting laid-off workers to stop feeling sorry for themselves and just learn to code already.

The one that at first seems to be such an opinion piece is the one on the bottom from Forbes, by Anne Field, “Turning Miners Into Coders — And Preventing a Brain Drain.” It begins, “Is learning to code the answer to the plight of struggling coal miners? For business partners Rusty Justice and M. Lynn Parrish, it’s at least one solution.”

That sounds like it may be opinionated — the author saying that Justice and Parrish believe learning to code is a possible “solution” sounds like praise for that prospect. But those two sentences are the most opinionated in this and the other five articles from the collage. The rest of the Forbes article is just straight news. Here is a sample:
Three years ago, Justice and Parrish got tired of watching out-of-work coal miners struggling to survive. So the owners of Jigsaw, a Pikeville, KY, excavation and engineering company, decided to start a new business — a software development company that would hire former miners in eastern Kentucky, first teaching them how to code.
This is the conclusion:
The partners plan to ramp up their current employees’ skill level before making any more hires. Still, so far, according to Justice, his newbie coders have been doing just fine. He points to one employee, a former miner who used to run a shuttle car underground and recently attended a lunch in New York City about agile software development. “He fit right in,” says Justice.
Now let’s get to the New York Times story in the upper right-hand corner, titled “The Coders of Kentucky.” It is, after all, labeled “Opinion.” But it is actually not structured as an argument. The only one of these six articles that is not about Bit Source, it consists of straight news contents like these:
Mr. Gopal is at the forefront of a new movement to bring money and jobs from the coastal capitals of high tech to a discouraged, outsource-whipped Middle America. Ro Khanna, the Democratic representative from California whose district includes Apple, Intel, LinkedIn and Yahoo, was among the first politicians to float the idea of Silicon Valley venturing inland. “Why outsource coding jobs to Bangalore when we can insource jobs to eastern Kentucky, poor in jobs but rich in work ethic, and every one I.T. job brings four or five other jobs with it?” he said.
Unlike the videos from “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” on this topic, this New York Times piece isn’t telling you to adopt a particular opinion or value-judgment. Unlike even Susan Faludi’s Wall Street Journal piece, this one doesn’t even have any subtext about who are the bad guys against whom the reader is expected to root. It is, like the Forbes piece, bringing attention to the fact that former blue-collar workers in Kentucky are becoming computer programmers. And this New York Times piece focuses on a company called Interapt, indicating that Bit Source is not alone in what it is doing.

Now let’s get to the article with the most ambiguous title: the Wired piece “Can You Teach a Coal Miner to Code?” Again, this is an article about the computer programming firm Bit Source, which employers former coal miners. It does not condescend toward former coal miners, ridiculing them as relics to be cast aside if they cannot adapt to the new IT marketplace.  It does mention that the firm’s cofounder believes that true condescension comes from the assumption that former miners are helpless and unable to adjust to the new global competitive marketplace. Although former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg — similar to “ShortFatOtaku” — seemed to believe he was standing up for dislocated blue-collar workers by protesting that it is unrealistic to think they could learn to code, the article quotes Bit Source cofounder Rusty Justice on how that attitude severely underestimates the capabilities of the working class.
Rusty Justice thought he might know miners a little better than some fancy tycoon in New York did. That’s why, at dawn one October morning last year, he trotted down his driveway towards a silver F-150 truck idling in the street and drove some 150 miles along the Mountain Parkway to Lexington.

It was time to go and prove Bloomberg wrong.
And, judging from the article’s relaying of facts, that is precisely what Rusty Justice did.

The National Public Radio article in the bottom right-hand corner, “From Coal to Code,” is straight news like the others:
...the coal industry is shrinking fast. More than 10,000 coal workers have been laid off since 2008. 
Many have had to leave the area to find work, but a few have found employment in other — and sometime unexpected — fields, as businesses are innovating to use former coal workers in new ways. 
Rusty Justice’s company is one of these.
This one from the bottom of the collage is the most straightforward about focusing on the same IT firm that most of the other articles do: “BitSource Building a Coal to Code Mentality in Appalachia Kentucky.” It says,
BitSource has gained national attention for its “Coal to Code” mentality that has taken the transferrable skills of coal miners and turned them into world-class computer coders. 
A proud East Kentucky partner of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR), BitSource redesigned the SOAR website, and, in 2016, helped create, an innovative platform to allow people and organizations from across the region to share ideas and network with one another.
Finally, the most obvious one, the one in the middle, “Appalachian Miners Are Learning to Code”:
Jim Ratliff worked for 14 years in the mines of eastern Kentucky, drilling holes and blasting dynamite to expose the coal that has powered Appalachian life for more than a century. . . .

He works for Bit Source now, a Pikeville, Kentucky, startup that’s out to prove there’s life after coal for the thousands of industry veterans who’ve lost their jobs in an unprecedented rout that has already forced five major producers into bankruptcy.
To the extent that these articles betray an ideological bias, the bias is in the implicit premise that, everything else being equal, former coal miners working as computer programmers is preferable to them not finding any new work. Imagine a reporter from a local newspaper doing a story on someone in the community receiving an award or undertaking some high-profile project. The reporter doesn’t know the community member well, but has no reason to root against him. The reporter is happy for the community member and wishes him well, and, while the article is just a presentation of straight news, the goodwill is apparent from the article. That’s how far the ideological bias goes.

That’s what we find with these articles. Not turning up any noses at dislocated workers and saying, “Just learn to code; now shoo!”, the only discernible opinion that the journalists let slip is their hope that these dislocated workers succeed in their lives and future endeavors, whatever those might be.

Remember from the beginning that the “Learn to Code” meme came from the mass layoffs of journalists of HuffPost and Buzzfeed.  Also recall that when right-wing trolls told these journalists “Learn to Code,” the trolls were simply saying back to the journalists what the journalists had said to laid-off blue-collar workers first. And also remember that the six aforementioned articles were presented by “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” as case studies of left-wing journalists callously dismissing the plight of laid-off blue-collar workers by telling them “Learn to Code.” Not one of the articles presented as “evidence” of the phenomenon in this collage came from HuffPost or Buzzfeed. This casts doubt on any supposition that the right-wing trolls are trying to inflict vengeance on the specific parties who had supposedly wronged blue-collar workers in the manner that the right-wing trolls claim.

Here is the real reason why the six articles of the collage were cited as an excuse to celebrate the misfortune of journalists laid off from HuffPost and Buzzfeed.  It is that the right-wing trolls who mocked them have developed a bigoted grudge against young mainstream journalists in general. The assumption is that writers for HuffPost, Buzzfeed, Forbes, and Bloomberg Business are all so alike that they are interchangeable.  We are to think they’re all just generic bad guys who deserve to be subjected to vindictive gestures when they are at their lowest points emotionally.  But as far as accuracy and precision are concerned, the citation of the six articles in the collage — as case studies in mainstream journalists’ callousness toward the white working class — amounts to whacking at a big straw man. In this case, it is the journalists who have been stigmatized in a sweeping, false, and bigoted generalization.

Some right-wing protectionists might retort that regardless of the specifics of what the articles said or who wrote them, such right-wing protectionists still resent the articles for their subtext, the subtext that blue-collar workers learning to code was a change that was welcome and is worthy of further reinforcement.  It is still offensive, they may maintain, as they believe that society-at-large, at least to some degree, just owes it to blue-collar workers in the Rustbelt that they retain greater job security. That makes no more sense than saying that, decades after more efficient methods of indoor heating became available and affordable, people should have felt obligated to continue building homes with fireplaces and chimneys.  That way, chimney sweeps could persist in steady employment and not feel pressured to train in a new set of skills in a new line of work.

I hope by now the reader will discern how
this tweet makes use of a straw man.

At this point, we can discern the falsehoods in the above tweet from Preston Byrne, who holds a Fellowship at the Adam Smith Institute. Contrary to some alt-right protectionists who, for their own blinkered reasons, call themselves capitalists, their hatred for creative destruction exposes their internal contradiction. It is not that creative destruction is what happens when capitalism mutates into something else, such as a once-healthy cell mutating and becoming cancerous. Creative destruction is not a perversion of capitalism; it is capitalism. And it is disappointing that someone at a think tank named after Adam Smith would fail to acknowledge that.

Also contrary to Preston Byrne, it is not as if mainstream journalists have been sour grapes about capitalism only after they or their colleagues were on the receiving end of mass layoffs. The tone of Susan Faludi’s Pulitzer-winning piece is not unusual. The general attitude that journalists — including financial journalists — have expressed about creative destruction ranges from it being distasteful at best to it being evil at worst. Fellows at free-market think tanks usually notice that bias. As far as journalists have disapproved of creative destruction, they have disapproved of capitalism. And the right-wing trolls churlishly tweeting at fired journalists that they should “Learn to Code” happen to share in that disapproval.

And, finally, regardless of whether the readers of my blog post approve of creative destruction or not, it should be clear that in starting from the trolls’ presumption that left-wing journalists, in general, have brusquely told laid-off blue-collar workers that they should just “Learn to Code,” Preston Byrne is presenting an obvious straw man.

When it comes to their false presentation of the aforementioned six articles as evidence of journalists snidely admonishing displaced blue-collar workers that they “Learn to Code,” there are three possible reasons why “Black Pigeon Speaks” and “ShortFatOtaku” might have done this.
  1. They didn’t actually bother to read the articles in-depth. They just saw in the headlines some optimistic-sounding mentions of former coal miners learning to code, and decided that that was close enough — egregiously imprecise as it is — to the narrative they wanted to foist.
  2. They didn’t consider that some member of their audience — someone who didn’t have 100% faith in their assertions — might take a closer look at the six articles shown in the collage.
  3.  They did read the articles but, because they are so committed to their narrative and already know what conclusion they want, they re-interpreted the articles and told themselves that the articles were snide lectures to displaced blue-collar workers that they should just learn to code. Never mind that they were really straight-but-sympathetic news articles about how displaced blue-collar workers are already learning to code.
Notwithstanding Michael Bloomberg and the right-wing trolls and vloggers, it appears T. J. Rodgers was right — former blue-collar workers are more adept at adapting than assumed. If the trend continues into the next decade, some of these former blue-collar workers might end up programming the computers that run the very robots that perform the old jobs these same blue-collar workers once held in heavy industry.


* Longest version of this essay (with the longest discussion of economics, including the passages on political economy and related ethics, removed from this medium-length version).

* Shortest version of this essay (bypassing the discussion of the economics of “creative destruction,” and removing the history of the media’s bias concerning this topic).

On April 25, 2019, I added the paragraph mentioning that the blog Angry White Men also noted that none of the articles cited expressed callousness toward dislocated blue-collar workers.