Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Should the 99% Harbor Resentment Against the Tech Elite?

An eye-catching story from the front page of The Economist grabbed my attention this afternoon. Adrian Wooldridge writes that there's a coming "peasants' revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace". He argues that people's love of iPhones and other popular gadets has thus far largely exempted the tech-elite from Occupy Wall Street-style protests against the plutocracy, but that it inevitably can't last.

Is there indeed a fundamental concentration of power worthy of concern? Consider the question in relative terms to other industries. Wooldridge raises the example that Mark Zuckerberg owns 29.3% of Facebook and Larry Ellison owns 24% of Oracle. By contrast, the largest single investor in Exxon Mobil controls only 0.04% of the stock.

A few years ago the new economy was a wide-open frontier. Today it is dominated by a handful of tightly held oligopolies. Google and Apple provide over 90% of the operating systems for smartphones. Facebook counts more than half of North Americans and Europeans as its customers. The lords of cyberspace have done everything possible to reduce their earthly costs. They employ remarkably few people: with a market cap of $290 billion Google is about six times bigger than GM but employs only around a fifth as many workers. At the same time the tech tycoons have displayed a banker-like enthusiasm for hoovering up public subsidies and then avoiding taxes. The American government laid the foundations of the tech revolution by investing heavily in the creation of everything from the internet to digital personal assistants. But tech giants have structured their businesses so that they give as little back as possible...

Growing political involvement will inevitably make these plutocrats powerful enemies. Right-wingers are furious with their stand on immigration. Others are furious with them for getting into bed with the national-security state. Everyone with any nous is beginning to finger them as hypocrites: happy to endorse “progressive politics” such as tighter labour and environmental regulations (and to impose the consequences of that acceptance on small business) just so long as they can export the few manufacturing jobs that they create to China.

Without placing a value judgment on whether public resentment towards the wealthiest 1% is a positive or negative social characteristic, a different question beckons... What, if anything, sets the tech-elite apart from those wealthiest of plutocrats in other sectors?


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