Originally posted at New Geography.
By Joel Kotkin.
Third-generation venture capitalist Tim Draper believes he has a solution for California’s problems that will make the Silicon Valley safe for its wealthy: secession. In a recent interview, Draper suggested that California be divided into six states, including one dominated by the Valley and its urban annex, San Francisco.
By jettisoning California’s deeply troubled components – the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, Los Angeles – the Silicon Valleyites can create their own enclave, where incomes will be far higher – $63,288 per capital compared with the $46,477 for the whole state. If adopted, Draper’s proposal would mean our self-styled cognitive leaders wouldn’t have to deal with interior California’s massive poverty, double-digit unemployment, farmer demands for scarce water supplies or manufacturers seeking reasonable energy prices.
Yet, for some in the Valley, Draper’s proposals don’t go far enough.
Another venture capitalist recently suggested that the Valley do away with this whole United States thing entirely and form its own Republic. “We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like,” venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya argued.
The notion here is that Silicon Valley might do best if detached from the limitations of American citizenship, with firms essentially running their own countries from islands or man-made, offshore facilities, as proposed by libertarian investor Peter Thiel. What the Valley wants, then, is to be left alone – unencumbered by the masses – so that the clever crowd can live with low taxes, in a perfectly socially liberated environment, but without the encumbrances that come with having to worry about the less-cognitively gifted.
“People,” as technology author Jaron Lanier has noted, “are the flies in Moore’s Law’s ointment.”
This can be seen in the growing pushback over such things as massive wealth accumulation for dubiously useful ventures, and egregious privacy violations. The luxurious Google employee buses shuttling in and out of San Francisco are resented by some residents stuck riding the often poorly maintained, sometimes awful Muni.
One top venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins was so upset over what he sees as scapegoating of the rich that he compared their condition to Jews in Nazi Germany. His directness upset some, but may have expressed more of what is really thought by smoother, younger, more PC-conscious executives.
This is more than simply the usual case of rich people being out of touch. These are not media constructs like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton but very powerful, incredibly wealthy people who increasingly are a dominant force in California and national politics. Yet, their political positions often have a “let them eat cake” character. And to be sure, some new oligarchs lean right, mostly on the libertarian side, but these are a distinct minority. The notion of some in the Republican Party who see the Valleyites as saviors is nothing short of delusional.
For the most part, executive and workers at firms such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter are strong proponents of every politically correct idea from climate change legislation to opposing the expansion of suburbia and favoring gay marriage. Yet they are also becoming the wealthiest entities in the nation; besides GE, a classic conglomerate, the largest cash hoards now belong to Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle and Google, all of which sometimes have more dollars on hand than the U.S. government. Seven of the eight biggest individual winners from stock gains in 2013 were tech entrepreneurs. They were led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who added $12 billion to his paper wealth; Mark Zuckerberg, who raked in an additional $11.9 billion; and Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who each gained roughly $9 billion.
Given their phenomenal wealth, one observer compared Silicon Valley politics to those of a mall outlet selling Che Guevara t-shirts. They no doubt nod their heads when President Obama speaks of economic inequality, but when it comes to doing something about it, their general response is: Nevermind.
However they color themselves politically, the oligarchs live above and apart from the rest of society – and, like Draper, want to keep it that way. Their desire to separate from the hoi polloi is natural and stems, in part, from their notion of being a class apart from mere mortals. “We live in a bubble, and I don’t mean a tech bubble or a valuation bubble. I mean a bubble as in our own little world,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt boasted to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011. “And what a world it is. Companies can’t hire people fast enough. Young people can work hard and make a fortune. Homes hold their value. Occupy Wall Street isn’t really something that comes up in a daily discussion, because their issues are not our daily reality.”
Certainly, politically correct gestures, like support for climate change legislation, don’t change this calculus. Google executives, for example, urge the middle class and working class to pay for subsidized, expensive energy – which they also invest in – but maintain their own fleet of private planes.
The distinct sets of rules for oligarchs and everyone else extends even to the most personal issues. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, a former Google executive, banned telecommuting options for employees – particularly critical for those unable to house their families anywhere close to Yahoo’s ultrapricey Sunnyvale home town. Yet, Mayer, pregnant at the time, saw no contradiction in building a nursery in her office.
Nor can it be said that the Valley elite gives at the office. Rather than “share the pain,” tech firms are notorious for not paying much in the way of taxes, including taxes on their properties. Facebook, for example, paid no taxes in 2012, despite making a profit of over $1 billion. Apple, which the New York Times recently described as “a pioneer in tactics to avoid taxes,” has kept much of its cash hoard as part of its basic corporate strategy.
Individuals like Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates have voiced support for higher taxes on the rich, yet Microsoft has saved nearly $7 billion on its U.S. tax bill since 2009 by using loopholes to shift profits offshore, a Senate panel said in a recent report. As former congressman Barney Frank noted recently, Microsoft and other tech titans “have as good a record of tax evasion as anybody.”
Such miserliness also extends to private philanthropy. There is no equivalent financed by Silicon Valley of anything comparable with the energy-industry-financed Texas Medical Center, nor can we expect any of the tech elite to leave behind anything so durable as the Carnegie libraries. For all their loud advocacy on environmental and education issues, the Valleyites are generally considered miserly when it comes to charity, as only four of the top 50 charitable contributors in 2011 came from the tech sector.
They may give big to the elite universities, like Stanford, but they seem oddly unengaged in the struggles of the vast working-class population around them: Poverty rates in the Valley’s home of Santa Clara County since 2001 have soared from 8 percent to 14 percent, a jump of 75 percent. The self-proclaimed “capital of Silicon Valley,” the city of San Jose,notes urban geographer Jim Russell, is beginning to resemble a post-industrial “rust belt” city. To expect the Valley elite, ensconced in superpricey Palo Alto or San Francisco, to concern themselves with the Central Valley, beyond the Diablo Range to the east, is beyond wishful thinking.
Remarkably some people, on both the right and left, believe that the Valley’s tech community should reform the nation, and recreate the government in their image. True, the likes of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell do not inspire much confidence, but a society run by the tech lords would be very cold, and highly stratified.
Silicon Valley’s problem, as author Jaron Lanier has put it, “is people.” Ultimately, human beings will resent being transformed into little more than digits in a Google algorithm that is then sold to advertisers. Most Americans reject being looked down on by a group that, given accidents of birth, access to money, social networks or even high intelligence, wishes not to share a state, or even a nation, with those who have less. That these attitudes now emanate from people who consider themselves both progressive and uniquely enlightened is not only hypocritical, but almost qualifies as obscene.