|Mark Zuckerberg, Billionaire founder of Facebook|
see: America’s New Oligarchs—Fwd.us and Silicon Valley’s Shady 1 Percenters
by Joel Kotkin 05/14/2013
A new, and potentially dominant, ruling class is rising. Today’s tech moguls don’t employ many Americans, they don’t pay very much in taxes or tend to share much of their wealth, and they live in a separate world that few of us could ever hope to enter. But while spending millions bending the political process to pad their bottom lines, they’ve remained far more popular than past plutocrats, with 72 percent of Americans expressing positive feelings for the industry, compared to 30 percent for banking and 20 percent for oil and gas.
Outsource Manufacturing, Import Engineers
Perversely, the small number of jobs—mostly clustered in Silicon Valley—created by tech companies has helped its moguls avoid public scrutiny. Google employs 50,000, Facebook 4,600, and Twitter less than 1,000 domestic workers. In contrast, GM employs 200,000, Ford 164,000, and Exxon over 100,000. Put another way, Google, with a market cap of $215 billion, is about five times larger than GM yet has just one fourth as many workers.
This is an equation that defines inequality: more and more wealth concentrated in fewer hands and benefiting fewer workers.
While Facebook and Twitter have little role in the material economy, Apple, which continues to collect the bulk of its profit from physical goods—computers, iPads, iPhones and so on—has outsourced nearly all of its manufacturing to foreign companies like Foxconn that employ workers, often in appalling conditions, in China and elsewhere. About 700,000 people work on Apple’s physical products for subcontractors, according to the New York Times, but almost none of them are in the U.S. “The jobs aren’t coming back,” Jobs bluntly told President Obama at a 2011 dinner in Silicon Valley.
Not so much anti-union as post-union, the tech elite has avoided issues with labor by having so few laborers who could be organized. Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford exploited workers in Pittsburgh and Detroit, and had to deal with the political consequences; the risks are much less if the exploited are in Chengdu and Guangzhou.
"There doesn't seem to be a role" for unions in this new economy, explained Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, because people are "marketing themselves and their skills.” He didn’t mention what people without skills in demand at tech companies might do.
But Americans with those skills shouldn’t rest easy, either. These same companies are always looking to cut down their domestic labor costs. Mark Zuckerberg, in particular, is pouring money into a new advocacy group, Fwd.us, with a board consisting of big-name Valley luminaries, to push “comprehensive immigration reform” (read: letting Facebook bring in a cheaper labor force). In a remarkably cynical move, Fwd.us has separate left- and right-leaning subgroups to prod politicians across the political spectrum to sign on to the bill that would pad the company’s bottom line.
Ostensibly, the increase in visas for high-skilled computer workers is a needed response to the critical shortage of such workers here—a notion that has been repeatedly dismissed, including in a recent report from the Obama-aligned Economic Policy Institute, which found that the country is producing 50 percent more IT professionals each year than are being employed in the field. The real appeal of the H1B visas for “guest workers”—who already take between a third and half of all new IT jobs in the States—is that they are usually paid less than their pricy American counterparts, and are less likely to jump ship since they need to remain employed to stay in the country. Facebook’s lobbyists, reports the Washington Post, have pressed lawmakers to remove a requirement from the bill that companies make a “good faith” effort to hire Americans first.
The Valley of the Oligarchs
Even as market caps rise, the number of Americans collecting any cut of that new wealth has scarcely moved. Since 2008, while IPOs have generated hundreds of billions of dollars of paper worth, Silicon Valley added just 30,000 new tech–related jobs—leaving the region with 40,000 fewer jobs than in 2001, when decades of rapid job growth came to an end.
The good jobs that are being created are also heavily clustered in one region, the west side of the San Francisco peninsula—a distinct and geographically constrained zone of privilege. The area boasts both formidable technical talent and, more important still, roughly one third of the nation’s venture funds along with the world’s most sophisticated network of tech-savvy investment banks, publicists, and attorneys.
But little of the Valley’s wealth reaches surrounding communities. Just across the bridge to the East Bay are high crime rates and an economy that’s lost about 60,000 jobs since 2001 with few signs of recovery. Inland, in the central Valley, double-digit unemployment is the norm and local governments are cutting police and other core services and even trying to declare bankruptcy.
“We live in a bubble, and I don’t mean a tech bubble or a valuation bubble. I mean a bubble as in our own little world,” Google’s Schmidt boasted to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011. “And what a world it is. Companies can’t hire people fast enough. Young people can work hard and make a fortune. Homes hold their value. Occupy Wall Street isn’t really something that comes up in a daily discussion, because their issues are not our daily reality.”
Inside the bubble zone, centered around the bucolic university town of Palo Alto, employees at firms like Facebook and Google enjoy gourmet meals, child-care services, even complimentary house-cleaning. With all these largely male, well-paid geeks around, there’s even a burgeoning sex industry, with rates upwards of $500 an hour.
Those at top of the tech elite live very well, occupying some of the most expensive and attractive real estate in the country. They travel in style: Google maintains a fleet of private jets at San Jose airport, making enough of a racket to become a nuisance to their working-class neighbors. They have even proposed an $85 million flight center, called Blue City Holdings, to manage airplanes belonging to Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. Like the Russian oligarchs, currently making a run on Tuscany’s castles and resorts, the Valley elite have embraced conspicuous consumption, albeit dressed up in California casual. In San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties combined, luxury vehicles accounted for nearly 21 percent of new car registrations from April 2011 to March 2012, more than twice the national average. Home prices in places like Palo Alto and the fashionable precincts of San Francisco go for well over a million—and routinely trigger all-cash bidding wars.
We’re the best thing happening in America,” one tech entrepreneur told the Los Angeles Times. Even a reporter for the New York Times, usually worshipful in its Valley coverage, described the spending as “obscene.” An industry party he attended included a 600-pound tiger in a cage and a monkey that posed for Instagram photos.