Silicon Valley Doesn’t Know Best

FacebookSilicon Valley has had a rough year. For the first time since the start of the social media revolution, the American public has begun to question the tech sector’s integrity and intentions. Many brand-name Internet-based companies have worked hard over the years to obscure the true nature of their business models, which typically involve harvesting and selling user data to advertisers. Google, Apple, Facebook, and others have tried to insulate themselves from criticism by cultivating a benign image as post-partisan problem-solvers and pure-hearted community builders. In the first half of 2018, however, giant cracks began to appear in this carefully constructed façade. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress in April to explain his $500 billion company’s apparently lax attitude toward data privacy. Now the company’s stock price is tumbling, due in part to investor concerns over the run of bad publicity. Silicon Valley realizes the magnitude of the crisis at hand. Tech-industry executives have spent the last six months scrambling to assure users that their data are safe and that the bond of trust between the public and the new engine of American economic growth and innovation should never be broken.

It’s a tough sell. The game all along has been to distract us with shiny electronic toys while converting our most personal information into cold cash (or, lately, cryptocurrency). The mountains of money being made off our browsing habits and purchasing history go to funding ever-more extravagant and utopian projects that, by their very nature, would corrode the foundations of free society, leaving us practically enslaved to an elite coterie of tech geniuses.

The vision of the future that Silicon Valley has in mind is not the one you probably imagined for yourself when you were a teenager, unless you grew up with a dream of living out your adult years on the Starship Enterprise. In fact, the self-sustaining, self-explaining world of Star Trek makes a good analogy for the tech future that the Silicon Valley overlords envision. On the Enterprise, a handful of superbly qualified specialists assigned themselves the lion’s share of responsibility for running the ship, carrying out the “prime directive,” and boldly going where no man had gone before. To viewers, the Enterprise seemed like a large vessel, but almost everyone apart from the show’s stars existed out of sight. You didn’t see much of them unless they became a necessary (and usually disposable) plot device. What was everyone else on the ship doing while Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura were getting into and out of interstellar scrapes? No one knows for sure, but they functioned as a kind of disposable service class, rarely noticed by the officers on the bridge.

Futurists and sci-fi fans drooled over the Enterprise’s omniscient, disembodied voice known as “computer” that could be called on at any time to answer questions. It wasn’t just an eerily prescient version of the new breed of countertop digital assistants, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. It was also artificial intelligence with the capability of doing complex, sometimes abstract, computation on the fly. It could engage in hypotheticals and had a physical dimension as well. It was not just the ship’s brain; it was the ship itself.

In its conception and presentation, the Enterprise’s computer was close to what WIRED magazine founder Kevin Kelly has called “the technium”—a discreet “superorganism of computation.” In books and interviews, Kelly has described the emergence of a global cloud, a computer of computers. The technium is a summa of the world’s computing power: all its desktops, laptops, mainframes, servers, cell phones, tablets, and land lines rolled into one. Throw in the cars and the ovens and the baby monitors and the wireless printers from the Internet of Things, too. Sometimes Kelly calls it the One Machine, the sum total of all the hardware and software working, humming, and resonating in an ever-closer harmony of artificial intelligence. “It has its own force that it exerts,” Kelly has said. “That force is part cultural (influenced by and influencing of humans), but it’s also partly non-human, partly indigenous to the physics of technology itself. That’s the part that is scary and interesting.”

The scary parts are easy to see.

The visionaries of Silicon Valley seem, at best, ambivalent about the social implications of calling into existence an omniscient, self-aware technium; at worst, they are so eager to see it happen that they can barely contain themselves. Call it delusions of grandeur, the God complex, or plain-old ordinary lust for power, but the celebrated geniuses of tech seem to have one thing in common: they think that they know better than the rest of us how society should run. They envision a pyramid-shaped political economy, with themselves and the super-productive Silicon Valley workforce at the top and the rest of us spanning out below in a massive, obedient—and grateful—base. The bad news is that they have the means to try to make this happen, and the implicit support of many of the soon-to-be governed, which derives from more than a decade of supplying everyone with things that we didn’t know we wanted until we got them.

The “techdaddies”—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin—just know that the fulfillment of the technium’s promise will be great for everyone. But it will benefit them most of all, because it will give them—and their smart, talented, productive ilk—a place of undeniable privilege at the top of the pyramid. Why shouldn’t it be thus? They’ve already proved their worth.

The tech visionaries also know that far-out ideas sometimes become reality. In the Think Different world of Silicon Valley, this has translated into an attitude of “the whackier, the better”—if you can dream it, it can be done; if it can be done, it should be done. “Make it so,” in the words of Kirk’s successor as captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, is the order of the day.

The list of Google’s extravagant ideas is too long to print here, but they range from the achievable—scanning every book ever published—to the far-fetched—a “space elevator” connected to an orbiting satellite. In the near future, expect Google to offer you the computing power and Internet connectivity of a smartphone in the form of a contact lens or the windshield of a self-driving car. Captains Kirk and Picard would be envious. Google’s futurists have also bandied about impossible dreams that they call “moonshots”—wildest-imagination stuff, such as mining asteroids for rare minerals. In 2013, Google launched the California Life Company, or Calico, a mysterious “longevity lab” with a goal to extend human lifespans. The venture prompted Time to ask, “Can Google Solve Death?”

Among Mark Zuckerberg’s big dreams is to engineer a way for us to send our innermost thoughts directly to one another via instant-message telepathy. Call it thought mail. “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,” he said during a 2015 question-and-answer session. “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it, too, if you’d like.” This idea is no doubt borne of a charitable impulse to assist those who cannot speak for one reason or another, or to eliminate the problem of texting while driving, but it is patently ridiculous. I can think of few things that I would desire less than having other people’s thoughts—complete with emojis and a soundtrack?—beamed into my head. The plan has pitfalls for sender and receiver alike. As Nicholas Carr quips, “That’s really going to require some incredible impulse control.” Then again, maybe it won’t, since many of us have already given up on being able to control ourselves around technology.

And there is a more urgent concern. As we have learned from the hacking, data dumps, privacy breaches, and security failures of recent years, nothing on the Internet is private, or if it is, it won’t be for long. The Internet and everything wired into it is public, or potentially public. That means your e-mails, direct messages, texts, online purchases, reading habits, and social-media comments will become easy fodder for the Peeping Toms and digital historians of the future. Connecting your home, office, and car to the Internet means anything that happens inside those formerly private spaces is similarly at risk of exposure to the wider world. Inviting a technology company into your living room is bad enough, but inviting one into your mind? You’d have to be crazy.

Not if you’re a Silicon Valley overlord, though. “This plan is so crazy, it just might work” was a classic plot convention of late-Baby Boomer, early Gen-X television culture, and tech visionaries seem to have internalized it. Bezos had the idea to start Amazon while driving alone across the country. He was evidently inspired by all those hours spent in solitary contemplation, because one of the wildest-dream projects that he supports is the 10,000-Year Clock. A 200-foot tall timekeeper built into the side of a mountain in West Texas, the clock has so far cost the multibillionaire north of $40 million. As Bezos told the Wall Street Journal in 2012: “The reason I’m doing it is that it is a symbol of long-term thinking . . . . We humans have become so technologically sophisticated that in certain ways we’re dangerous to ourselves. It’s going to be increasingly important over time for humanity to take a longer-term view of its future.” How ironic: Bezos, who has made several fortunes by selling the world a technologically sophisticated lifestyle of spiritual ease, material comfort, and high-touch customer service, now warns us that too much technological sophistication can be dangerous.

Elon Musk has used his billions to seed a range of companies with moonshots in mind. Tesla Inc. makes $90,000 electric cars and gigantic batteries (all highly subsidized by taxpayers). SpaceX is a private exploration firm that would love to give you a ride to Mars someday. (Musk thinks that we ought to colonize other planets.) Musk’s Boring Company is trying to convince state and local governments to let him dig tunnels throughout the U.S. so that another of his companies, Hyperloop, can solve the country’s traffic problems. Tech investor Peter Thiel poured money into the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to create sustainable floating cities on the earth’s vast oceans—another moonshot.

Silicon Valley’s billionaire CEOs understand that their wild plans will likely unleash reactionary social forces opposed to their disruptions. They know perfectly well that their gadgets, apps, self-driving cars, brain-mail programs, back-flipping robots, algorithm ads, surveillance toys, space elevators, floating cities, outer-space colonies, and all the rest will push humanity into an ever-more complete reliance on “smart machines” to do the kinds of low- or no-skill jobs that once provided satisfying livelihoods to millions. The Silicon Valley economy, as incredibly productive as it is, can’t provide jobs for every American who wants one. The techdaddies know that not everybody is cut out to be a Google engineer or a Facebook programmer—or even an Apple store Genius Bar service professional. One by one, the lower rungs of the economic and employment ladders could be lopped off by high-performance cyborgs that can cook and serve a meal, clean a house, fix a car, or teach a child to read, at almost no marginal cost. That’s going to cause a lot of disruption. Silicon Valley’s big brains could find themselves staring down the barrel of some serious social unrest. It’s not unreasonable to expect economic upheaval and potential resistance.

Naturally, visionaries that they are, the tech bosses aren’t stumbling blindly forward into this potentially chaotic future. They have already settled on a remedy: the universal basic income, a guaranteed minimum-welfare payment to everyone, regardless of income level, ability to work, or employment status. “A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs,” wrote billionaire Virgin CEO Richard Branson in an August 2017 blog post. “This will make experimenting with ideas like basic income even more important in the years to come.”

The idea is simple: removing the need to fend for yourself in the ultra-sophisticated economy of the technium will free you to pursue your dreams of writing a novel, staying home with your kids, or starting that online business for which you could never quite find the time. The universal basic income will ensure that you never find yourself worrying about paying for, well, the basics. Food, clothing, and shelter will be well within your reach. Beyond that, how you pursue happiness will be up to you.

“We should make it so that no one is worried about how they’re going to pay for a place to live, no one has to worry about how they’re going to have enough to eat,” says Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, the influential Mountain View, California, “accelerator” fund that invests in tech startups. “Just give people enough money to have a reasonable quality of life.” It’s a nice theory, if paternalistic, but there are some obvious flaws. First, we don’t all agree on what level of income constitutes a “reasonable quality of life,” so someone will have to decide what that level is—probably someone with a tech leader’s proven talent for seeing around corners.

Here’s another problem: the techdaddies think that you won’t mind losing your old livelihood, since it was probably unfulfilling work and you probably hated pulling your tired, undereducated carcass out of bed in the morning, only to be insulted all day by your junior college-trained business-major boss who insisted on looking over your shoulder while you performed mindless manual labor for a few bucks more than minimum wage. If for some strange reason it turns out that you found satisfaction in providing for yourself and your family by driving a cab or working at the widget factory or waiting tables or cleaning motel rooms, they think you’ll be willing to accept the basic-income payoff as compensation for the disruption to your livelihood. It’s a win-win, as they see it: you get some free money and they don’t need to worry about you and your old pals from the shop floor coming after them with torches and pitchforks.

The universal basic income is a bribe, plain and simple—and Silicon Valley’s biggest names have lined up behind it. Musk says “it’s going to be necessary.” Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, views it as a tool for combating income inequality. Gates says we’re not ready for it yet, but we will be soon. Zuckerberg thinks of it as a “cushion” that allows you to “try new things.” After returning from a 2017 campaign-style trip to Alaska, a state that pays every resident an annual average oil-income dividend of $1,000, Zuckerberg said: “When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. But when you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest and grow further. Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income.”

One of the selling points that Zuckerberg and his peers have seized on is that the universal basic income supposedly transcends the liberal/conservative ideological trap. It may seem like a dream cooked up in the liberal big-government kitchen, but universal basic income actually has roots in conservative economics. Free marketeers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman supported the idea of what they called a “negative income tax,” under which anyone making below a certain annual income receives a cash payment from the government at tax time, rather than the other way around. Conservative intellectual Charles Murray has endorsed the idea of a $10,000 annual payment to everyone over 21. The Friedman approach, which lives on today in the American tax code as the Earned Income Tax Credit for families with children, has the virtue of rewarding work—the amount of the credit rises with each dollar of earned income. But often left out of the story are Friedman and Murray’s caveats, the prime one being that any guaranteed-income program should be offered in lieu of other welfare programs, not in addition to them.

“The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need,” Friedman told William F. Buckley on a 1968 episode of Firing Line. “Rather than, as now, by requiring them to come before a governmental official, detail all their assets and their liabilities, and be told that you may spend X dollars on rent, Y dollars on food, et cetera, and then be given a handout.” When the tech leaders extol the “bipartisan” nature of the universal basic income, it’s not clear that they fully appreciate that they’re allying themselves with free-market conservatives who seek to empower individuals, promote personal responsibility, and dismantle the infrastructure of the welfare state that liberal Democrats have spent the last 80 years constructing.

Many on the left have an entirely different view of the universal basic income. To them, it seems like just the latest government safety-net program on the road to what they like to call Democratic socialism. That’s the happy kind of socialism, the kind that obtains in much of Europe, where a handful of national-champion businesses produce geysers of cash that the state then redistributes to the less productive and less educated members of society. Democratic socialism is the capitalist alternative where nobody can ever be fired, so nobody ever gets hired. Bill Gross, founder of the $1 trillion Newport Beach-based investment firm PIMCO, says that if a universal basic income “strikes you as a form of socialism, I would suggest we get used to it.”

Maybe it never occurs to the tech overlords that the industry their ingenuity has built, and the titanic wealth and prosperity they’ve personally enjoyed as a result of their success, has only been historically possible in a country like the United States, where a vibrant private economy is governed by relatively light regulation and relatively low taxes, robust property-rights protections and the rule of law, and an entrepreneurial culture that rewards risk-taking. Are they under the impression that Silicon Valley is the last industry that the world will ever know or need, so that we can safely shut down the 250-year-old American experiment, an experiment based not only in ordered liberty and limited government but also in work-based opportunity?

There are other, more practical issues to consider before signing over America’s economic future to the universal basic income. As urbanist and City Journalcontributing editor Aaron Renn points out, such a program would require far more restrictive immigration controls than many on the left would probably tolerate. Basic-income boosters, writes Renn, frequently gloss over the thornier ethical issues that the idea presents, including a vision that he calls “morally problematic, even perverse: individuals are entitled to a share of social prosperity but have no obligation to contribute anything to it.”

Yet this has always been the ethic governing almost every Silicon Valley innovation. “Information wants to be free,” partisans of the early Internet used to insist. From Napster to YouTube, the digital ethos has been to fling open the gates and invite all comers; to drive established industries into the proverbial ditch by offering the products they once sold at no cost—or below cost; to undermine America’s bourgeois values and hollow out its mediating institutions; to boldly go where no man has gone before. To the tech leaders and their followers, the past is a vast wasteland of ugly ideas, simple machines, hot wars, and petty political squabbles. Nothing truly creative ever happened there until Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. The world had little purpose, and almost no beauty, until Steve Jobs and Jony Ive gave it the iPhone.

In part, this relentless focus on the glorious future derives from the entrepreneurial culture of risk that permeates Silicon Valley, where past failures are merely prerequisites for future success. But it also derives from the riddle that all successful people must grapple with: am I successful because I’m superior, or am I superior because I’m successful? Almost all of the techdaddies appear to have concluded that their own superiority is what drove their success. Perhaps the most successful moneymakers of every age similarly succumb to such hubris. But unlike yesteryear’s robber barons, the tech overlords have achieved almost unimaginable levels of wealth and accomplishment at alarmingly young ages—some are still in their late thirties. Their success has given them the means to remake society, their sense of superiority has given them the inherent right to do so, and their youth has given them the time.

Beware of the ‘Woke’ Tech Oligarchs

Mark ZuckerbergOnce the rich protected themselves by aligning with Republicans who would protect their property from high taxes and their firms from regulation.

Some still do — notably the Koch brothers — but this breed of right-winger is gradually losing out to more progressive tilted plutocrats. In 2016, according to Open Secrets, three of the four largest billionaire political donors — hedge fund manager James Simon and his wife Marilyn, Michael Bloomberg, and currency speculator George Soros — titled progressive. This reflects a broader social trend.

Overall the GOP continues to slightly outpace Democrats among the ultra rich, but most of the big conservative donors such as Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Rupert Murdoch, and Irvine Chairman Don Bren are well into their seventies or in their eighties. The trend belongs, clearly, to the progressives. Between 1980 to 2016, support for Democrats from the 0.1 percent has tripled, and donors in the nation’s wealthiest ZIP codes overall now give more to Democrats than Republicans.

Take Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican of convenience who last week announced he would invest $80 million into Democratic campaigns this fall before teasing, yet again, a possible presidential run of his own. Bloomberg’s usual causes are not those of traditional social democracy — after all this is the guy who proclaimed what New York really needed was more billionaires, and who beta-tested in New York City the businessman-as-better-political-leader pitch he then watched with dismay Donald Trump take all the way to the White House — but issues less threatening to the plutocracy, such as climate change and gun control.

The buyout of mainstream progressivism has changed its nature. Big donor-driven candidates — who still dominate the party’s leadership ranks, even as small-donor powered insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez test that arrangement, at least in low-turnout elections — are less concerned with the fate of auto or communication workers than they are with issues of environmental regulation, identity, and culture.

Facebook President Sean Parker, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Salesforce.com Chairman Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg, and the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, are all relatively young men devoted to the progressive cause — at least those parts of it that don’t threaten their bottom lines.

The Trump Effect

With his horrendous comments and awful actions, Trump has accelerated wokeism among the wealthy and their minions. This oligarchic drift has been building for years, as wealth has shifted from traditional resource and manufacturing industries to software, media, finance, and entertainment. In sharp contrast to energy firms, home-builders, and farmers, the regulatory state does not threaten the bottom lines of these industries, as long as it refrains from breaking up their virtual monopolies.

Indeed, as researcher Greg Ferenstein suggests, the new oligarchs favor an active state that will subsidize worker housing or even a guaranteed minimum income, and keep their businesses off the hook for providing decent benefits to their ever expanding cadre of gig-economy serfs. He points out that the former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare and that many top tech executives — including Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk — favor a government-provided guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about what happens to most of the workforce as their industries and jobs are “disrupted.”

Geography plays a role here as well. With the biggest concentrations of wealth now in the most “progressive” regions — the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Seattle — moguls must operate in an environment dominated by fervent anti-Trump social-justice and green advocacy. Many big tech employees — nearly 40 percent in the Bay Area, by some estimates — are noncitizens, with little reason to be concerned about how the wealth in these corners is, or is not, spread across the nation.

So it’s no surprise that woke employees at Microsoft, horrified by the brutalism of Trump’s immigration policies, have decided not to cooperate with ICE. Not to be outdone, Amazon workers compare their company’s cooperation with immigration authorities to IBM’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. Similarly Google workers are refusing to help with drones used to combat terrorists, while Apple is actively working to make it difficult for police to break into phones used in committing crimes, including in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terrorist massacre.

So powerful, and self-referential, are these companies — and their highly compensated workers — that they are increasingly willing to deny even the idea of national interest when that does not suit their political notions. Unlike businesses that worry about competition or mass opinion, these oligarchic companies can demonize half of the country with impunity. At the end of the day, even Trumpians depend on these systems unless they want to look at Chinese alternatives.

The New Controllers

Since Trump’s election, many progressives have pushed the idea that we are on the cusp of a return to traditional authoritarianism, as portrayed in books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet the real model for future tyranny may be more that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which portrays a society run by a biologically conditioned scientific and technological elite.

In Brave New World, the masters are not hoary Stalinoids or angry right-wing fundamentalists, but gentle, reasoned executives. The Controllers preside over a society where social classes are well-defined, and only those at the top — the Alphas — live in comfort. Families have been abolished except on reservations for misfits, and people widely enjoy access to pleasurable pharmaceuticals and unconstrained, commitment-free sex in the city.

Huxley’s future eerily resembles the one favored by the oligarchs, who are now paying women workers to freeze their eggs as they aim to create an elite Alpha class without children or property, to be serviced by the low-wage Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons of Huxley’s world — bused in from the suburban fringes.

The Controller’s power, first and foremost, depends on implanting information. In Brave New World contrary ideas are dismissed not as breaking the party line but as simply absurd or even pornographic. Today’s woke oligarchs do much the same by controlling both information and culture. Bloomberg is a prime example but he’s a pauper compared to Bezos, the world’s richest man owning one of the nation’s most influential newspapers.

Tech sofa change in recent years also helped Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate buy The New Republic, and run it into the ground before selling it. More recently Laurene Powell, the left-leaning widow of the late Steve Jobs (net worth $20 billion), scooped up The Atlantic for a nonprofit that will compete with more traditional competitors who still, sadly, have to make money.

Meanwhile, Google is promoting journalism by robots while also planning to invest $300 million in favored outlets. What could go wrong?

The Agenda

In the emerging regime, here’s what’s not important: personal autonomy and privacy. A controlled and woke society starts with access to people’s thoughts, something critical to the advertising-driven businesses of Google and Facebook and, increasingly, also to Apple and Microsoft. It’s important to remember what Google’s former Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt once told CNBC: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The digital revolution, which had so much promise for democratizing information, appears to be hyper-concentrating media both geographically, on the coasts, and through pipelines controlled overwhelmingly by firms like Facebook, so that a change in policy there can undermine even established media, and Google, which controls over a thirdof all on-line advertising and a remarkable 90 percent of global search. As The Guardian recently put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”

These patterns are reinforced by students shaped by our ideologically homogeneous education system. The censorious instinct now intrinsic to universities, particularly the elite ones, shapes the thoughts of the highly educated workers critical to these companies. Controllers like those at Facebook increasingly seek to “curate” views, largely conservative, they don’t like, according to former employees. Often this censorship is being carried out under guidance developed by largely progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has too often labeled anyone outside its ideological “safe space” as racist bigots. Over 70 percent of Americans, notes a recent Pew study, believe social media platforms “censor political views.”

Ultimately the oligarchs, reacting to their woke workers and constituency, seek a control over basic behavior in ways even the snoop-crazy Chinese would admire. Facebook already admits to having patented technology that would allow them to snoop on their users, although they deny using it. Netflix, the oligarchical company that by some estimates is now worth more than any of the movie studios, recently imposed controls over what people do on sets of movies they finance. That includes rules that ban asking for phone numbers of co-workers or even looking at people for more than five seconds, an innovation even more intrusive than those of Huxley’s Controllers.

Hypocritical Oaths

Stanley Bing’s recently released Immortal Life gives a riveting version of a near-future society shaped by our tech oligarchs. In his not-so-distant future, government has largely been replaced by a cabal of superannuated tech moguls — effectively Global Controllers — who shape societal views, implant devices in human brains, and dominate every aspect of the economy. Democracy hasn’t just been constrained; it’s been excised.

Right now the rising power of the Controllers has been obscured by the Trumpian counterrevolution, a peasant rebellion supported by a less than charming alliance of old economy moguls, angry white males, and more than few xenophobic racists. But over the long term, history is bending toward the woke oligarchy—particularly as the old generation conveniently dies off.

If these well-heeled progressives have a vulnerability, it’s their extreme hypocrisy. In California, the epicenter of the resistance and elite wokefulness, Silicon Valley oligarchs and their shrieky Hollywood counterparts are fervent in their embrace of progressive values. But, as a new report from Chapman University shows, the prevailing oligarch-friendly California economic agenda — hostile to suburbs, fossil-fuel energy, and manufacturing — has proven unequal and particularly damaging to minorities.

Not without reason has the maverick environmentalist Mike Shellenberger called California “the most racist” state in the union. Far from Malibu and swanky haunts of the cultural elites, the bulk of Los Angeles suffers among the highest poverty rates of any metropolitan areas. Cost-adjusted wages for middle-class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley have actually dropped during the recent economic boom there.

Perhaps there’s no better illustration of hypocrisy than the Disney company. The once conservative bastion-turned-promoter of woke values has been led by Robert Iger, a fantastically well-compensated self-defined “progressive,” who has made much of denouncing President Trump’s immigration policy as “cruel and misguided ” and taking standard progressive positions on guns and the Paris accords. Yet, as Bernie Sanders has pointed out recently, Disney workers are generally poorly paid, many on the verge of poverty. Even middle-class workers have been given the shiv: The company infamously replaced its IT workers with outside contractors shipped in from India.

Against the Oligarchs

This unprecedented agglomeration of wealth and power needs to be opposed both by conservatives and traditional progressives. It won’t be easy. In the presidential run, The Washington Post took hard aim at Bernie Sanders before turning, albeit less successfully, against Trump. More recently Amazon and its minions forced Seattle’s progressives to back down from a plan to make the company pay more taxes. Majority Leader Charles Schumer opposes higher capital-gains rates, warming the cockles of venture capitalists and the new economic royalists, some of whom are his contributors.

Even on green issues, the famously pious oligarchs demonstrate remarkable levels of hypocrisy. These firms have bought enough allowances and built solar or wind facilities to claim “carbon neutrality.” But such offsets, as the new Chapman report reveals, mostly shuffle greenhouse gases around and don’t actually reduce global emissions. Apple keeps its California carbon footprint down by making all its products abroad, mostly in China — which ends up spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than if they built them here.

Ultimately the only way to stop the new Controllers and challenge their hypocrisy will be to meet them head on. Companies like Google need to be broken up, as many on both right and left agree. This position has even been adopted by the generally liberal Boston Globe which warned that, “Never ever in the history of the world has a single company had so much control over what people know and think.”

But it’s not just Google — which spends more on lobbying than any other private company—or Amazon, which has quadrupled its government spending since 2014. This relatively new focus on inside Washington influence-peddling, combined with their oversized influence on critical technologies, our media, and overall economic system makes these firms a threat to the pluralism essential to democracy, unlike any we have seen in the last century. Their vision presages a society where few work and a handful control the nation’s riches. To avoid a rebellion, the “redundant” are supposed to be paid off with some sort of government allowance.

Americans need to oppose this evolution and fight for the flourishing of a grassroots and more dispersed economy now, before the oligarchs brave new world is fully and finally here.

ditor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

This piece originally appeared on The Daily Beast.

Cross-posted at New Geography.

Bay Area companies paying employees to protest Trump

While many conservative claims about paid protesters demonstrating against President Trump have been met with skepticism and dismissal — in the Bay Area — some of them might actually be getting money for being there.

Companies in the region are increasingly offering their employees paid time off to participate in protests, marches and other demonstrations as part of civic engagement policies.

“Democracy is a participatory institution; it’s not just something that takes place every four years when you have a candidate in a race,” Adam Kleinberg, CEO of San Francisco ad firm Traction, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The company gives its workers two paid “Days of Action” per year.

Furthermore, tech giants like Facebook recently allowed their employees to take a day of paid leave to participate in the May Day immigration rights demonstration in San Francisco — a rally that was largely a protest of Trump’s agenda.

“At Facebook, we’re committed to fostering an inclusive workplace where employees feel comfortable expressing their opinions and speaking up,” a spokesman explained in an emailed statement. “We support our people in recognizing International Workers’ Day and other efforts to raise awareness for safe and equitable employment conditions.”

Major tech figures like Facebook COO Sharly Sandberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and co-founder Sergey Brin have all spoken out against the president, illustrating this administration’s frosty relationship with the industry.

And even those who showed a willingness to work with the White House have faced a wave of scrutiny. For example, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from the president’s business advisory council earlier this year after facing intense backlash, seeing #DeleteUber trend at the top of Twitter over his decision to offer guidance on a job growth agenda.

The policies appear to reflect a growing discontent in the heavily liberal region that Trump presents more than just policy differences — but an existential threat to their well being and daily life.

“It’s a recognition of the fact that civic engagement is something that we should be doing not just as individuals but as a company,” Buoyant CEO William Morgan told CS Monitor about his software company’s policy. “I wanted to make it more clear that we could not be passive citizens in this world.”

While the policies aren’t new — as companies like Comcast have been offering such leave for years — they appear to be taking on new life in the Trump era.

“People were wishing that I was dropped off in an (Islamic State) territory, calling me an idiotic libtard, candy-ass, saying they hope we’ll go out of business. Really nasty stuff,” Kleinberg told the Chronicle about the backlash to the policy.

Overall, Trump’s policy proposals have been met with a particularly strong response in Silicon Valley due to his stance on issues like the controversial H-1B visa program that tech companies say they rely on to recruit top talent — but one critics say comes at the expense of American workers.

And the president’s rhetoric may be having some effect, as the number of H-1B applications dropped to under 200,000 in 2017 — a 15 percent decrease from a year earlier.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Why the American Conservative Union Declined Meeting with Zuckerberg, Facebook

WASHINGTON DC — This past weekend, a senior representative from Facebook contacted me to invite American Conservative Union to attend a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg and other conservative leaders to discuss the allegations that Facebook suppressed conservative content. We appreciate their invitation, especially since our organization and annual conference, CPAC, were specifically targeted.

However, we do not believe that the problem between Facebook and CPAC and the broader conservative community is merely a communication problem. Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg are drawing the wrong conclusion from the negative response from conservatives. It appears that they believe they can avoid having to answer for their actions by hosting conservative luminaries at their state-of-the-art headquarters.

Facebook has a history of agitating against conservatives and conservative policies, especially when it comes to ACU’s own conference, CPAC.  The facts are:

1) Facebook staff has admitted to suppressing content about CPAC.

2) Facebook rejected ACU’s overtures for Facebook to play a meaningful role at CPAC.

3) The deck is stacked:  CPAC content egregiously underperforms on Facebook compared to Twitter and other platforms by factors of 10.

4) The Facebook Trending News Chief, Tom Stocky is a maxed-out donor to Hillary Clinton.

5) Of the 1,000 political donations from Facebook employees, 80 percent have gone to liberals.

6) Facebook holds liberal positions on important issues such as privacy, property and priests.

We will not be attending this meeting. We know one meeting cannot possibly resolve all of the above mentioned issues.

ACU would, of course, prefer to have real engagement with Facebook about whether pastors and priests can have full access to Facebook, or if we could come to terms on the FCC’s intrusive rule-making on privacy, or how we could actually protect intellectual property owners.

Facebook has harmed its credibility with conservatives, but if they want to mend the relationship, we’re happy to sit down with their experts about how they can better strike a balance between sterile algorithms choosing news content and when a human curator decides to put a finger on the scale. If Facebook wants the benefit of the doubt, they need to start with complete transparency on how decisions are made concerning its newsfeeds.

Inducing people to sign-up for a Facebook account under the potentially fraudulent assertion that the company is neutral on news content has serious repercussions. We applaud Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune’s (R-SD/ACU Life Rating: 86 percent) efforts to ask the tough questions so Facebook users can know the truth.

This is much bigger than just having a meeting with “leading conservatives,” and winning the day’s news cycle.  The Gizmodo story has exposed the rift between Facebook’s liberal perspective and the hundred million Americans who self-identify as conservative.   We hope to have substantive interactions that can begin to resolve these issues.

Can CA Survive Without Oil? Two Perspectives

Gas-Pump-blue-generic+flippedA week ago, Zocalo Public Square published an article, Imagining California Without Oil Refineries, by one of its editors, Lisa Margonelli, suggesting that Californians are embracing new technology that will lead to an oil free future. She wrote that not being gasoline consumers has become part of many Californians’ identities. Meanwhile, the California Resources Corporation (CRC), a publicly traded oil and natural gas exploration and production company, produced a website also asking Californians to imagine the state without oil. The two imaginings could not have been more apart.

The Zocalo piece spoke of the history of the environmental movement in the Golden State and the fact that younger generations are limiting consumerism and supporting a new way of living that reduces — and some day would eliminate — the need for oil. The CRC imagined a day without oil and offered a list of products that would disappear. Never mind the energy that is used to power products, petroleum is raw material used in refrigerators, dishes, smartphones, coffee makers, kayaks and more.

But it was the area of economic effects that made me take notice.

Margonelli wrote that, “Technologies as diverse as Facebook, compost bins, and electric vehicles have made many Californians see themselves as participants in building an oil-free future, without much fear of the potential downsides.”

And: “Rather than being afraid, a surprising number saw an economic upside in getting oil out: In polls, 43 percent of Californians said that cutting gasoline use would create jobs, while only 13 percent said it would kill them.”

(I might note that the PPIC poll respondents don’t always have the best information. Continually when asked, they describe prisons as getting the most money from the state budget and education near the bottom when the opposite is true.)

But accepting for the moment that there would be a rush of new jobs with technology and alternative energy what might be lost if we shut down the oil business?

The CRC made the following assertions:

The industry directly employs 184,100 Californians from diverse backgrounds and all levels of the socio-economic spectrum, which translates into $23.3 billion per year in wages and salaries for oil and natural gas jobs. It offers jobs to workers of all education levels, including truck drivers, geophysicists, chemists and machinists.

The oil and natural gas sector reflects California’s diversity. Over a quarter of the statewide industry workforce is Latino … In California, the average annual oil and natural gas industry salary of $118,032 is double the $56,590 average for other private industry jobs, according to a 2015 report by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC).

In total labor income alone, the oil industry injected $40 billion annually into the state’s economy, according to the LAEDC report. These salaries filter into the local economy through the vendors who work with the oil companies and the local businesses frequented by workers… The oil industry supported 456,000 jobs in the state, or 2.1 percent of California’s employment, and generated more than $204 billion in direct economic activity.

In addition, U.S. oil and natural gas companies pay considerably more in taxes than the average manufacturing company. According to Standard & Poor’s research, in 2013 the oil and natural gas industry paid an average effective tax rate of 40.2 percent versus 22.3 percent for other S&P 500 industries such as healthcare, retail, utilities, media and pharma.

In California, nearly $22 billion in state and local taxes collected in 2013 can be attributed to the oil industry, as well as $14.8 billion in sales and excise taxes, according to the LAEDC report, all of which help fund essential services and infrastructure that Californians rely on every day.

The issue of taxes paid by oil and gas companies plays against the future imagined in the Zocalo piece. Will the new alternative energy industries produce the same kind of revenue for the state?

The end-oil commentary concluded that a young woman was driving an electric vehicle – a Leaf—“with state and federal incentives.” (The family) “even installed solar panels that feed the Leaf, making them participants in generously funded state programs…”

You wonder if we cut out the traditional energy industries with all those jobs and the billions paid by the oil and gas industry in taxes if there will be revenue available to offer generous state funded incentives to buy solar panels and electric vehicles or pay for other budget items.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Do Californians Even Care About High Taxes?

Tax surveyIn Tuesday’s Republican debate in Milwaukee a graphic was displayed to show where Facebook activity occurred discussing taxes. The green shaded areas on the graph indicated areas and states that had Above Average chatter on taxes (whatever average is). What catches the eye is that about two-thirds of California is white — no heavy tax chatter. Included in the white area are the large metropolitan and heavily populated areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego and Sacramento.

Does this mean that Californians don’t care about taxes, at least to the extent that they don’t talk about taxes on Facebook as much as residents of other states?

More to the point for analysts and consultants, does this Facebook chart bode well for the many advocates who are hoping to place tax increases on next year’s ballot? Are taxes not a concern for Californians?

Certainly, the Facebook graphic is not a scientific survey. Who knows how many likely voters are spending time on Facebook to discuss taxes?

Perhaps, Californians are not as concerned about taxes because the state is flush. The Controller’s Office announced yesterday that in October the state pulled in nearly $200 million more than was expected lifting the surplus over $500 million more than anticipated by budget projections.

A budget surplus would play a role in the coming debates over tax measures on the ballot and lead voters to feel that no new taxes are necessary – at least those who discuss such things on Facebook.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Pentagon to launch cyberstrategy push in Silicon Valley

As reported by the L.A. Times:

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will unveil a new military cyberstrategy Thursday in the heart of Silicon Valley, reaching out to Facebook Inc. and other companies to help boost the nation’s digital defenses.

The two-day visit underscores a long-delayed shift in Pentagon priorities to recognizing cyberattacks on government agencies, major companies and crucial infrastructure as a major threat to U.S. national security.

Carter’s visit to Silicon Valley is the first by a Pentagon chief since the mid-1990s when the Internet was in its infancy, Wi-Fi and smartphones didn’t exist and America’s digital dominance was unquestioned. …

Chick here to read the full article

Facebook fights California privacy push

Computerworld – California is considering legislation that would tighten Facebook’s privacy practices, and the social network is not happy about it.

The bill, Social Networking Privacy Act (SB 242), would require Facebook and other social networking sites to make big changes to the way they handle users’ privacy. Industry analysts say social networks like Facebook could be wary of this move for fear that it will lead to a slippery slope of government control and privacy rules.

“Facebook has been very passive about security . They put the onus on the user to figure the security out on their own,” said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group. “Now it would automatically be more secure.”

Read More at ComputerWorld By Sharon Gaudin, ComputerWorld