Why anti-business business writers give tech titans a free pass on
‘red in tooth and claw’ capitalism…
Among the enduring questions of American journalism – What happened to Amelia Earhart? Who was that guy lurking behind the fence on the grassy knoll? How does Gail Collins keep her job? – is this: Why are business journalists so anti-business?
That is, why do the boys and girls who write about capitalism bear such hostility to the men and women who practice it?
Having worked over the course of a long career for a number of outlets that cover business, I speak from personal experience. You could set off a neutron bomb in the Bloomberg News headquarters without bumping off a single Republican. That is, if you don’t count the maintenance crew and maybe a couple of nerds writing code in the basement.
But this timeless conundrum of hackery admits one exception: business journalists love tech titans. Tim Cook, Larry Ellison, Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg, and Mark Zuckerberg… These folks at the very tippy top of the capitalist heap enjoy a view that would have made the most successful robber baron green – or greener, anyway – with envy.
Not only have they become admired, even beloved by business reporters – they have become darlings of the left generally, somehow indemnified against the bitterness directed at pharmaceutical executives or the CEOs of oil companies.
The traditional posture of progressives toward people who have won the market lottery is mistrust with a generous helping of moral outrage, on the assumption that success is always underpinned by the exploitation of the disadvantaged by the powerful.
Every good statist has learned about the great 19th century robber barons from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the best-selling history textbook of the last 30 years and the most effective anti-capitalist propaganda ever printed. “In industry after industry,” Zinn instructed his young readers, there were “shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies.”
Progressives despise the accumulation of wealth when they can’t get their hands on it. Except when it comes to tech titans, anyway.
The shift first hit me smack in the face with the retirement of Steve Jobs a couple years ago, followed shortly thereafter by his death.
Jobs, of course, was a model of the rapacious capitalist, hipster division. Viewed objectively, forgetting the sneakers and the black mock turtleneck, he seemed to do business like a fevered socialist caricature. He encouraged in his consumers all the things that liberals claim to despise. Jobs specialized in the tactics that appalled Herbert Marcuse, the premier theorist of the New Left and a commie’s commie, in the 1960s: manufactured wants, the “marketing of desire,” the “fetishizing” of commodities, “planned obsolescence,” the exploitation of cheap foreign labor, indifference to the natural world, and more.
Rapacious capitalism made Jobs very rich and very famous, yet the encomiums and then the eulogies shimmered with admiration and affection from people who are otherwise sworn enemies of rapacious capitalism.
In the New York Times, the business writer Joe Nocera called Apple’s co-founder the “single most indispensable chief executive on the planet.” (Nocera had to make clear that he wasn’t talking about chief executives off the planet.) The left-wing economics writer for the Washington Post – a Pulitzer Prize winner, wouldn’t you know – praised Jobs’ “brilliance and strength of character,” which turned his company into “a symbol of what American workers and American business and the American economy can achieve.”
It sounds a bit like Ted Cruz giving an award to a right-to-work activist, doesn’t it?
On and on it went: Jobs, said the liberal magazine Washington Monthly, was a “great inventor, great businessman, great innovator, great American.” The news website ThinkProgress wondered: “What with Republicans slashing funding for clean energy, who else will be the engine of innovation, efficiency, and dematerialization?” As we’ll see in a moment, this was an odd compliment to steer toward Steve Jobs.
But not as odd as this statement from a business columnist in the Chicago Tribune, who compared Jobs’ futuristic vision with Republicans who “think small” when it comes to financing the welfare state. “If one can’t help neighbors in need,” the columnist asked, “it doesn’t speak well of figuring out the future.”
Anyone who followed Jobs’ career will understand what makes these comparisons so inapt.
First, Apple’s environmental track record under Jobs, including its interest in “clean energy,” was dismal. In the second instance, Jobs’ passion for “helping neighbors in need” seemed to be non-existent. There’s no record, for example, that he ever gave a sou to charity. That’s OK, explained a business writer in the Times. Jobs had a “single-minded focus on work over philanthropy” because he believed “he could do more good focusing his energy on continuing to expand Apple.”
This is a perfectly sensible argument. It’s the same argument Milton Friedman made against corporate philanthropy. The first obligation of CEOs is to their company’s shareholders, Friedman said, and if they think it necessary to demonstrate their towering compassion and elevated social conscience through charitable activity, they should do it on their own dime. The argument was usually cited as evidence of Friedman’s heartlessness and indifference to human suffering. It’s strange to see a Friedmanian case made in the New York Times.
Then again, Friedman didn’t invent the iPhones and the Macs that are the modern journalist’s constant playmates. Steve Jobs did, and he sold them to the public using a classic mix of flattery and status anxiety. Remember the famous ad copy that Jobs wrote himself? “Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The ones who see things differently.” There is no more succinct description of what business journalists see when they look in the mirror. This is how progressives in general see themselves. Standing up to the Man. Speaking truth to power. Daring to be different, as long as all your colleagues are being different in the same way. The herd of independent minds.
Jobs was one of a kind, of course, but his exemption from the left’s usual contempt for businesspeople has been stretched to include nearly all the tech-industry leaders.
Consider Tim Cook. Apple’s environmental record and reliance on cheap foreign workers are no better under Cook than they were under Jobs, yet Cook continues to ride Jobs’ coattails… getting a free ride from the people who you would expect to be appalled at Apple’s corporate behavior.
So does Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose bestseller Lean In is the baldest expression of the “Let ‘em eat cake” philosophy since Marie Antoinette lost her head.
As does Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Google, when his company parks billions of dollars in Bermuda and manages to reduce its tax rate in Britain to roughly 2% – and when he plays patty-cake with the plutocrats and authoritarians of China.
Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook would build a new corporate headquarters, a town-within-a-town in Menlo Park, California. Facebookville will feature amenities to satisfy every human whim – shops, housing, theaters, restaurants, and public transportation – so his employees would never have to leave the grounds.
There is an obvious precedent for Zuckerberg’s plan. Many industrialists of the 19th century established company towns as a way of keeping a close eye on workers and their families. Company towns have been a great bugaboo of progressive historians, including Zinn, who saw them as the crudest sort of life-denying exploitation. But scarcely a peep of objection has been heard against Zuckerberg’s creepy idea.
Most of this – from Jobs’ planned obsolescence to Schmidt’s romance with the Chinese government to Sandberg’s clueless classism – is fine by me. I would rather sleep in a nest of copperheads than live in Zuckerberg’s utopian community, but he certainly has the right to build it and encourage his employees to settle in. Business people should legally and ethically do what they have to do to protect and advance their businesses.
But then, I’m a fan of rapacious capitalism – capitalism red in tooth and claw, the less regulated the better. I’m entitled to approve of rapacious capitalists.
What’s jarring is when anti-capitalists approve along with me, or at least happily ignore the unpleasantness in approving the capitalists who rely on it. Only a premeditated act of will can keep a left-wing journalist from noting the resemblance of his current heroes bear to the old robber barons.
It helps, of course, that these tech titans are Democrats. They share, or at least publicly profess, the same progressive sympathies of journalists and others on the left. This alone may explain the free ride. But a comparison of our present-day, not-a-robber barons with the original 19th century robber barons is instructive too.
How grubby they must look to the progressive mind – Rockefeller’s oil wells, Carnegie’s steel plants, the railroad locomotives of Crocker and Huntington belching soot across the pristine landscape.
These were men who violently built things amid roars of smoke and fire, producing and selling wares of gross physicality. What are their products compared with the ethereal time-waster Facebook or the slimly elegant iPad? Google’s robber barons called their first product a search engine, perhaps in unconscious emulation of a distant era when capitalists drilled and pumped and manufactured things. Vroom, vroom, goes the search engine.
As Victor Davis Hanson, the great historian of the classical world, has said, we can’t “drink Facebook, eat Google, drive on Oracle, or live in Apple.” But perhaps that’s precisely what makes our new robber barons so appealing to their admirers.
A capitalism detached from the physical helps lift us higher and higher above the workers who make things and grow things and dirty their hands, as they did under Carnegie and Rockefeller.
Under our new robber barons, such people are rendered obsolete – or at least moved offshore and out of sight. Which is the way the anti-business business writer likes it.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.