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.




  

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Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."