Feb 17th 2016

The urgent need for Silicon Valley to lead a smart and civil conversation on inequality

There are very few issues that Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton all agree on.  One of them is the growing problem of inequality in income and wealth.  From the extreme left to the extreme right, everyone is angry about the one percent who have the majority of the wealth.  There has always been an income and wealth gap, but the divide between average worker and the very wealthy has not been so great since the Roaring Twenties. This is fueling the rise of both the Tea Party and the socialists.

Income equality is not going to improve; technology is about to make things much worse.  It will, over the next decade, begin to disrupt almost every industry, wipe out millions of jobs, and make the rich even richer.  Even though everyone will be able to live better and healthier lives and benefit from the technology advances, the widening gap will cause greater resentment and create a larger cauldron of dissent.  This is something we need to be prepared for.

Already, in Silicon Valley, the Google bus has become a symbol of inequity.  These ultra-luxurious, Wi-Fi–connected buses take workers from the Mission district to the GooglePlex, in Mountain View.  The Google Bus is not atypical; most major tech companies offer such transport now.  But so divisive are they that in normally liberal San Francisco, activists scream angrily about the buses using city streets and bus stops, completely ignoring the fact that they take dozens of cars off the roads.  Teslas have also become symbols of the obnoxious technoelite—rather than being celebrated for being environmentally game-changing electric vehicles.  In short, there’s very little logic to the emotionally charged discussions.

Intellectuals are trying to build frameworks to understand why the divide, which first opened up in the 1990s, continues to worsen.  Thomas Piketty explained in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that the economic inequality gap widens if the rate of return on invested capital is superior to the rate at which the whole economy grows.  His proposed response is to redistribute income via progressive taxation.  A competing theory, by an MIT graduate student, holds that much of the wealth inequality can be attributed to real estate and scarcity.  Silicon Valley has both: an explosion in wealth for investors and company founders, and a real-estate market constrained by limits on development.

So far, the Valley’s moguls have largely been in denial that technology will wipe out millions of jobs and increase inequity.  They prefer to believe they are building a utopia that doesn’t have a dark side.  But one of the most influential people in Silicon Valley, Paul Graham, broke ranks and wrote an essay about the role of startups in income inequality.  It created a firestorm and started an important debate.

Graham explained that income inequality is an inevitable outcome of startups, and asked what choices we want to make.  He acknowledged that dire poverty co-exists alongside astounding wealth and that resentment is building.  He voiced concerns about the backlash and its potential to generate unwise government policies to more heavily tax startups.  He argued that this could smother growth and stifle innovation.

Almost every aspect of Graham’s essay was criticized by fellow venture capitalists, angry socialists, and the press.  But his concerns are valid.  There is a very good reason for which Silicon Valley remains home to the majority of the dynamic technology companies on the planet.  And, as Graham notes, many startups do produce enormous value for society.

The best of these disruptive startups create far more value than they capture, even as they disrupt or even destroy older, less efficient industries.  Uber may generate much controversy, but no one would disagree that the old ways of moving people around densely populated areas can be improved.  This goes beyond taxis and towards a future of weaving all transportation systems into a single intelligent, flexible service that makes it much easier to move around at a lower cost, with lesser environmental impact.  Twitter and Facebook may deserve criticism, but these social platforms were primary information-distribution mechanisms that fueled the Arab Spring, and they continue to power other democratic uprisings around the world.

Yes, the economy’s digital transition is amplifying globalization and affecting American workers.  Automation is already decimating the global manufacturing sector, transforming a reliable mass employer providing middle-class income into a much smaller employer of people possessing higher-level educations and skills.  The growth of the “Gig Economy” is shifting businesses towards the goal of part-time, on-demand employment, with aggressive avoidance of obligations for health insurance and longer-term benefits.  The winner-takes-all nature of the tech industry explains why only a few giant digital companies compete with each other to dominate the global economy.  A substantial part of the value they capture is concentrated at the center and mostly benefits a few shareholders, executives, and employees.  With technology advances and convergence, we are in the middle of a gold rush.  Tech is making amazing things possible, but it is also widening the economic gulf.

We need to have open discussions about the good and bad of technology and soften its negative impact.  With robots and artificial intelligence increasingly doing the jobs of human workers and multiple industries being simultaneously disrupted, we are heading into a jobless future and need to rethink the nature of capitalism itself.  This cannot be only about taxing the rich, because that is not what Americans want.  They have never demanded income equality and have always been fans of the entrepreneur, the Henry Fords and the Mark Zuckerbergs alike.  What Americans really want is economic security.  What makes us unequal is not so much the money we have at any given moment but our capacity to face critical adversarial events such as having cancer or falling behind on mortgage payments.  Advancing technologies can make it possible to provide for the basic needs of every human being—so that a job isn’t about survival or subsistence any more.

A more fruitful discussion would be about how we can ease the impact of technology and social change.  We need to discuss safety nets, the retraining of workers, and the concept of a universal basic income for everyone.  We need a nationwide dialog on how we can distribute the new prosperity we are creating.  Equally importantly, we need to create equity and fairness in our legal, justice, and economic systems—which are badly lacking.  Otherwise we will see even more anger, and unrest nation wide.

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Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering,  Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He is author of  “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”—which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012, and ” Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology”—which documents the struggles and triumphs of women.  In 2012, the U.S. Government awarded Wadhwa distinguished recognition as an  “Outstanding American by Choice”— for his “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans”. He was also named by Foreign Policy Magazine as Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012. In 2013, TIME Magazine listed him as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

Wadhwa oversees research at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world.  These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

In his roles at Stanford and  Duke, Wadhwa lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects.  He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Accelerators, LinkedIn Influencers blog, Forbes, and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, Wadhwa founded two software companies.




  

Browse articles by author

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Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.