Scanning the list of America’s wealthiest people, one would describe most of them as men — because they’re all men — who obtained most of their money from work, rather than inheritance. While Donald Trump would be worth just as much if he had invested his father’s money in an index fund instead of failed casinos and shitty vodka, the same cannot be said for Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Mark Zuckerberg.
(That’s not to deny their privilege, of course. Gates’s grandfather was a national bank president and Gates himself attended (and later dropped out of) Harvard; Zuckerberg attended Phillips Exeter Academy, which has an endowment of more than $1 billion, for high school; Buffett’s father was a Congressman; and Bezos, who comes from apparently the most hardscrabble background of the four, recalls spending his childhood summers on his grandfather’s 25000 acre ranch.)
Most of these billionaires became wealthy by starting a company that grew meteorically and came to dominate its field. It’s a pool of people that selects for monomania. Bezos reminisces about how he “always wanted to [become an entrepreneur], even since I was a kid. I had the idea. I was one of those people who every time I looked at something it looks like it could be improved — there’s something wrong with it. So I’d go through, like, how could this restaurant be better? So I’ve always had that kind of idea.” Undoubtedly Gates and Zuckerberg and Buffett and Elon Musk and others are similar.
What I want to explore in this essay is the conflict, or at least orthogonality, between focusing singularly on becoming wealthy and having good ideas about, well, anything at all.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter they were the idle rich, burning through their trust funds and posting elegant Snaps. (I assume that’s what they’re called; I’ve never used the app.) However, people like Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, and Musk matter because companies like Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Tesla are tremendously influential, and not just in the seemingly narrow realm of “technology”. Major tech firms are making or have made forays into advertising, commerce, transportation, journalism, artificial intelligence, biology and medicine, space exploration,and even love. To have a man as profoundly ignorant as Mark Zuckerberg running the most important company in the sphere of media, or a man as clueless about the dignity of work as Jeff Bezos employing more than half a million people is disheartening, to say the least. One wonders if, instead of working 16 hour days, these masters of the universe picked up Nickel and Dimed, or Manufacturing Consent, or A People’s History, the excesses of Silicon Valley might have been contained. It speaks to the intellectual and moral poverty of capitalism that wealth and power can be so disconnected from intelligent thought and a sense of justice.
Let’s start with Bezos. I almost can’t believe this excerpt from an interview between Jeff Bezos and Business Insider:
Döpfner [Interviewer]: Last week we had Bill Gates for dinner here and he said in a self-ironic manner that he has a ridiculous amount of money and it is so hard to find appropriate ways to spend that money reasonably and to do good with the money. So what does money mean for you, being the first person in history who has a net worth of a three-digit amount of billions.
Bezos: The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it. Blue Origin is expensive enough to be able to use that fortune. I am liquidating about $1 billion a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin. And I plan to continue to do that for a long time. Because you’re right, you’re not going to spend it on a second dinner out. That’s not what we are talking about. I am very lucky that I feel like I have a mission-driven purpose with Blue Origin that is, I think, incredibly important for civilization long term. And I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.
Here’s an idea, Jeff: pay your workers better than their current median wage of $28k. (Remember that median means that half of Amazon workers make less than that amount.) Or take some money out of your paycheck so that your company can “afford” to let its warehouse workers take pee breaks. The idea that there’s nothing better to do with 1 billion dollars a year than to send rich assholes into space is almost cartoonishly evil and out-of-touch, like Jamie Dimon’s Christmas cards.
(Perhaps the most galling part of the interview was when Bezos explained that he doesn’t have any “guilty pleasures” or “unreasonable things” he does with money. Remember that he once renovated his mansion to have 25 bathrooms, possibly as a subtle shot at the Amazon workers who have to piss in bottles.)
Bezos and Elon Musk would like us to believe that they have the grandest of visions: to preserve human civilization, to save us from the perils of artificial intelligence and the singularity. The reality of the human condition is much more prosaic, though. We want better wages now, and a cleaner and healthier planet here, not one hundred years from now on Mars. If you can’t recognize human misery at your own company, what hope do you have of building an equitable and flourishing society elsewhere? To return to the point — even when Bezos and others of his ilk attempt to appear “in touch” and altruistic (and, to be clear, I am glad that organizations like the Gates Foundation and OpenAI exist), they often only reinforce their own cluelessness and selfishness. I think it’s intrinsic to running a multibillion dollar company — you don’t have a chance to think deeply outside of yourself and the entity you’ve built. It’s the same myopia from which comments like former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s stem.
Zuckerberg is equally clueless and selfish, albeit in his own cyborgian way. As Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic, “Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Journalism (Either That, or He Doesn’t Care)”. Zuckerberg seems to be under the impression that getting the news should be like buying pasta sauce: the more choices, the better. And by that standard, Facebook is the best of them all:
But while Zuckerberg said Facebook is now ranking news outlets by trustworthiness—in person, he didn’t seem to distinguish among the quality of opinions.
“I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion,” he said. “I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.”
And Facebook, he says, simply “has more opinions.” Show users more opinions, and you give them more options. “It’s not about saying here’s one view; here’s the other side,” Zuckerberg said when I asked him to reconcile the contradiction. “You should decide where you want to be.”
This is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas” taken to its logical extreme. Want some “opinions” on Pizzagate? You can read either side: Rolling Stone or Jack Posobiec. (Although, given the tendency of algorithms like Facebook’s to promote viral content, I think we know which side will win.)
And what about concerns about journalism dying, particularly at a local level, as advertising dollars continue to flow from publishers to aggregators? Zuckerberg is “not sure” if Facebook paying publishers for content “makes sense” because news is “a pretty small minority” of what people read on Facebook. If Facebook is about you “decid[ing] where you want to be”, and you’d rather be watching cat videos and reading the latest politics diatribe from your uncle (you know, “meaningful social interactions”) than perusing the Sacramento Bee, then Facebook will deliver the former content and omit the latter. Plus, paying journalists and media organizations for content is expensive, and there’s money to be made.
Set aside all of the blather and cant about “building common ground in society” and “making sure people can get trustworthy news” and how journalism is “sacred”. Facebook doesn’t give a shit about any of those things. The news, to Zuckerberg, is simply another piece of content that draws eyeballs and therefore advertising dollars. Its value is derived solely from its monetizability. And now that that monetizability is being superseded by other forms of content, and now that Facebook’s role in journalism has drawn increasing scrutiny, the sensible play, from the market’s perspective, is to exit the position, even if that means leaving behind a lot of wreckage.
I think back to the earliest incarnation of Facebook, called FaceMash,
A way for Harvard students to rank whether their peers were hot or not, foreshadowing the debasement and humiliation we’d all feel as social media found its footing. As Wired recently pointed out, the site was created by “nonconsensually scraping pictures of students at Harvard from the school’s intranet.”
Not much has changed. Throughout, Zuckerberg has remained focused on attracting clicks and driving revenue by stealing content, privacy and truth and sustainability of that content be damned.
When I talk about how our elites are ignorant and dumb, I don’t mean it in the sense of lacking IQ points. Bezos and Zuckerberg are bright people. I mean that they are (literally) paid to ignore everything outside of their narrow purview of likes and clicks and shares, of buying and selling widgets, of dollars and cents. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” as Upton Sinclair said. If that’s true, our elites will never understand anything of value.
One thought on “Our dumb elites”