Complaining about inequality isn’t just the purview of the Obama administration. Lately, it has become a preoccupation in Silicon Valley, a part of the world used to thinking of growth as an unalloyed good.
The class warriors here have a lot to learn from Washington: So far, their main target has been the sleek buses that shuttle programmers and other workers from San Francisco to their offices at Apple, Google and a constellation of startups in the Valley. Dubbed “Google buses,” the shuttles remove thousands of cars from San Francisco’s madcap streets and allow coders to continue building the enterprises that help to keep the city’s jobless rate at 4.8%.
But leftists in San Francisco see daggers in Google buses, which they insist are symbols of growing inequality. In December, Oakland protesters broke the windows on a Google bus, and last spring a few dozen street demonstrators in San Francisco’s Mission District smacked piñata buses. Local writer-activist Rebecca Solnit summed up the populist perspective about the buses when she wrote recently in the London Review of Books that “some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.”
Yet the presumptions behind this simmering obsession are disproved by the example of Silicon Valley. There is vast wealth in the Valley, and last year $29.4 billion was invested in about 4,000 venture-capital deals. Cash on hand at large technology companies—about $350 billion at Apple, Google, Cisco and alone—has swollen startup valuations.
But the more one looks at the areas in which Silicon Valley companies are working—from social networking to genetic testing—the clearer it becomes that tech companies are targeting those industries where small coteries of incumbents had been funneling value into their own pockets, largely through the instrument of government. The startup process may yield outsize returns for founders, but the returns are shared broadly.