‘Where are the tech elites in talking about the public good?’

This comment on the difference between the mid-20th Century American titans of finance in the post-war world and the tech elite of Silicon Valley stands out.

Zachary Karabell, an investment guy with experience in China, has written a book called, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, which traces the story of one bank and its role in the rise of the American century. (Source here).

Speaking of the US bankers, Karabell said:  

They believed that it was their duty literally to attend to the public good because they understood they couldn’t beggar the commons endlessly but their fortunes and the fortunes of society were ultimately linked and therefore they had a responsibility to make sure that everybody thrived ultimately — because they kind of knew that they couldn’t unless everyone did.

That then extends to the world at large after World War II.

The whole point of the Marshall Plan and creating this post-war architecture…was to fight communism. But it was to fight communism because the belief that capitalism and an open market was a better system to achieve human freedoms and affluence.

And that if you didn’t help [these things] develop they were going to collapse and therefore you were going to be a peril.

Serving and self-serving, serving and self-serving were so intimately and ineluctably interwoven.

And today, where are the tech elites in talking about the public good? And talking about public service?

It seems to be their version of public services is massive private philanthropy on the one hand and some belief in the utopian potential of what they’re doing to break the cycle of human suffering and need.

And maybe that utopian vision will prove to be true, but right now it does seem like that they’re sort of absent.

I think particularly of Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Peter Thiel.

There seems to be a communitarian notion of – ‘Can we engineer this new reality? If so, how cool would it be?’ But notions of public good fade away in the glow of their particular imagined, and often unaligned and contradictory, utopias.

In the communitarianism impulse of millennial Silicon Valley, I’m not sure a conception of a public good beyond the notion of user/customer is even present.

US supply chains to reach ‘communities of color’

As noted earlier, the Biden Administration is seeking to link foreign policy with domestic policy. Specifically, Biden is seeking an economically stronger middle class and working class, while ensuring that historically disadvantaged communities, including those of color, benefit.

Yesterday, Biden signed an executive order aimed at more resilient supply chains with the longer-term strategic goal of competition with China.

The statement ends with a discussion about the impact on jobs and communities within the US.

President Biden has directed his Administration to ensure that the task of building resilient supply chains draws on the talent and work ethic of communities across America, including communities of color and cities and towns that have for too long suffered from job losses and industrial decline. As the Administration implements the Executive Order, it will identify opportunities to implement policies to secure supply chains that grow the American economy, increase wages, benefit small businesses and historically disadvantaged communities, strengthen pandemic and biopreparedness, support the fight against global climate change, and maintain America’s technological leadership in key sectors.

A warehouse (cc Reycenas)

So in the Biden playbook, the nation’s “unlimited competition” with China will run right through communities in need of jobs, higher wages and more opportunity. Whether Biden will be successful remains to be seen, of course. Biden will require support in Congress. Having said that, programs that see government dollars flowing to localities can always be shaped to gain a given representative’s support.

Is there any precedence for this? Yes, actually. NASA’s creation is a one example. People today wonder why NASA has so many facilities flung so widely across the US and the South. This was done during the Civil Rights era, in part, to assure that people in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama benefited from the space race, as well as California, Texas, and Florida.

Viewing the future in dark times – more engineers, fewer bookies

In the past, confidence for the future in advanced democracies offered a counterpoint to endless security fears. The existential terror of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, for example, lived side by side with the promise and expectation of a better life, fundamental to the success of democracies.

Standards of living rose, lifespans extended and citizens enjoyed freedom of movement unimaginable in the past.

Now, instead of an optimism pegged to a concrete vision for a better future in Western democracies, there is wariness and doubt. The outlook is provisional, conditional, tentative.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that future terror attacks are discussed in terms of risks, as is the style today. Risks, likelihoods and odds have become the de facto way to discuss, not just the chance of a terror attack, but a politician’s prospects of winning an election. Taking alongside the risk-based view of major economic or ecological events and it seems odds now dominate how the future is conceived and discussed.

But is a horse-racing form guide the best way to view the future that we can shape?

Buckminster Fuller’s US pavillon at Expo 67. Fuller forecast techno-utopian visions.

In past times, people looked forward to the future. Their optimism was grounded in specific expectations of a better world: financially, socially, physically. The Depression and World War II generation, after surviving those events, witnessed technological leaps that changed their world, giving people every reason to expect a better life ahead.

Achievements as mammoth and varied as penicillin, the Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, computers, vaccines to inoculate against disease, intercontinental jet travel, the Apollo moonshot or even national healthcare schemes fundamentally reshaped the world.

Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel eschews the power of risk and luck in favour of the power of planning. He believes that from the 1700s to the 1960s, optimists with definite plans led the Western world.

Since the long bull market of 1982 began and the string of major technological advances seemingly dried up, “finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future”.

Peter Thiel

In Australia, you could argue that the mining and housing booms have further enshrined the concept of risk, chance and odds as a way to understand the future.

Individuals manage “risk” in their retirement savings. They “future-proof” their careers against as many different outcomes as they can. For a decade, the economic outlook of the Lucky Country, relied on the puzzle of what was going on inside China’s economy.

Australia’s real estate market placed further emphasis on sentiment and luck for the winners of auctions. Quite tellingly, Malcolm Turnbull, upon becoming PM, noted it was a “turn of events I did not expect.”

Mentions of ‘risk’ (red line) and ‘progress’ (blue line) in books from 1900 to 2008.

Even on the national security front, Australia “hedges” its risk, simultaneously hoping against but planning for an eventual China-related war in Asia. All of it, a risk-based future.

Perhaps Thiel is right in saying that “if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you give up on trying to master it”.

Watching politicians in Australia and in democracies beyond, one can only conclude that many have given up on trying to master the future.

Politicians govern from poll to poll in fear of voter or party revolts, while businesses can only see ahead to the next quarter in trying to placate the market. In the throes of the current US primary season, notice the absence of future plans and how abundant polls are.

Everyone fancies themselves an armchair statistician. A Nate Silver. A 538er. And so the future vision of a nation extends ahead only weeks, rather than years. This is particularly true on the Republican side, as the GOP contends with a leadership vacuum being filled by Donald Trump.

Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss, 1929

Maybe the popularity of this risk-based view of the future accounts for how democracies generally have responded to the big challenges of the time. There is a lassitude, a wobbliness about decision-making in matters as diverse as the eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, the war in Syria, Islamic State, and China’s island-building.

In Australia, mining taxes and climate change legislation have been enacted then reversed as governments watched their approval ratings oscillate. Even the national broadband network has somehow become a whipping post of successive governments.

If it’s true that Western democracies need new industries in order to keep incomes rising and employment full, then clearly a bit of engineering is in order. But let’s be honest: governments and people don’t embrace this kind of thinking unless they have to. Embarking on major projects means accepting a sizeable chance of failure.

Deep in France’s Trente Glorieuses – Jean Luc Godard directing a film in 1964

The question now is, have we reached such an uncertain point, that we need to begin planning big for the future. Economic growth is uncertain. Great power politics are emerging again in Asia but also in Europe. Islamic State is active abroad and lurks within Western nations, too. Mass migration is reshaping politics. Meanwhile, rising and revanchist powers use their military to jockey for influence.

Rather than drifting towards a future with options continually held, bets hedged, hoping for lucky days ahead, democracies can create their own destiny: economically, technologically and socially. Setting ambitious national goals – concrete, tangible, but rhetorical and political too – would give the future shape.

Then, the optimistic world view that acted as an engine for Western democracies in decades and centuries past can be put back in place. It would be an counterweight to the parade of dangers democracies confront. If liberal democracies know where they are going, they will be able to shape their future. If they shape the future, they can bend it in a favourable direction. In uncertain times, this can’t help but offer hope of a better tomorrow.

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How Charlie Brown’s Christmas matters today

In 1987 activist and writer Todd Gitlin titled the first chapter of his book about the 1960s (Years of Hope, Days of Rage), “Cornucopia and its Discontents.”

The chapter name comes to mind watching the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas. Awash in material comforts, Charlie Brown has a serious case of the Christmas blues.

As Wikipedia notes:

The story touches on the over-commercialization and secularism of Christmas, and serves to remind viewers of the true meaning of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ).

Part of the nostalgia for the show today may also be wrapped up in the memory of the post-war economic experience, a time of increasing commercialization, sure, but a commercialization that went hand-in-hand with the kind of rising wages which are elusive today – not just in the US but in Australia and other developed economies.

Back then, rising wages and incomes (and expectations) must have felt like a given, because they had been so consistent in post-war America.

For example, in 1965, when the show debuted, wages had increased by about 70 per cent since 1948 (for white America, at least). The memory of the horrors of World War II and the Depression didn’t exist for the Baby Boomer generation, either. Cornucopia and its Discontents, indeed.

EPIFor viewers today to look back on Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it was a time when the US middle class was economically strong. The link between rising productivity and rising wages was still very much in place. It’s against this backdrop that Charlie Brown finds aluminum Christmas trees and Snoopy’s doghouse made out as a garish Christmas display.

Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! You didn’t know how good you had it in 1965!

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