This piece originally appeared in the East Bay Express, and is reprinted here with their permission.
The health and vitality of a society can be measured by its cultural values, including what it honors and celebrates. For years, the Bay Area could be quite proud of its values. The region has a glorious history of diversity and has championed important political and economic causes. Here at the Express, we are proud to be located in Oakland’s Jack London district. London’s legacy of concern for working folks and social justice, as well as his personal quirkiness, form one of the defining touchstones of the East Bay. But the times they are a-changin’.
The ugly sustained attacks on middle-class BART workers in the mainstream press over the last year, combined with a blind eye toward Silicon Valley arrogance and large-scale financial criminality, have exposed a growing and worrisome trend in the Bay Area. The heroes of the current age are not the hardest working or most caring or most helpful members of our society. Instead, they are the most arrogant, and in some ways, the most compromised.
Take the tech industry. For all of its coolness and shiny products, values espoused by the leaders of this industry are contributing to a hollowing out of Bay Area progressivism and humanism. This month, Farhad Manjoo, author of the “High Definition” column for The Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece titled “Silicon Valley Has an Arrogance Problem.” In it, he argued that many tech entrepreneurs believe that due to “their cultural and economic power,” only they have the ability to “shape the future.” Non-techies are dismissed as “unimportant to the nation’s future.”
Manjoo wrote about a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and lecturer at Stanford University, Balaji Srinivasan, who gave a talk at a start-up conference in San Francisco in October. In the talk, entitled “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” Srinivasan proposed that techies should leave and build an “opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology.” Why would techsters want to leave the United States? Srinivasan, according to Manjoo, “pointed to a few headlines in the national press warning that robots might be taking over people’s jobs. These, he said, were evidence of the rising resentment that technology will foster as it alters conditions across the country and why Silicon Valley needs to keep an escape hatch open.”
Think about that for a minute. Silicon Valley knows it is building and promoting technologies that will cause major job losses. Yet instead of being concerned with the well-being of those who will be unable to find work, the techsters are worried about whether they will be able to escape with their skin—and of course with their money.
Tech is not alone in corrupting local values. Consider the powerful companies that inhabit the gleaming buildings of San Francisco’s financial district. It is not an exaggeration to say that the greatest organized criminality that has taken place in our lifetime is thriving there today. Yet even with namby-pamby enforcement from financial regulators who participate in the revolving door of Wall Street to Washington and back, some exposure is coming. William C. Dudley, president of the New York Federal Reserve said in a recent speech—using the measured tones of an old-style banker—that some of the large financial institutions demonstrate an “apparent lack of respect for law, regulation, and the public trust…there is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions.”
Last week, a big hedge fund, SAC Capital, pleaded guilty to several financial crimes. For years the company had denied wrongdoing, but a lawyer for SAC recently admitted blame—while crying crocodile tears, of course. The head of the firm will escape criminal prosecution—as is typical. I wonder what the folks who are sitting in the SAC Capital offices in San Francisco are thinking about being part of a criminal enterprise.
And the hits just keep on coming. This year, we have learned that large-scale global conspiracies have taken place to rig interest rates and foreign exchange transactions. Every one of us has been ripped off in the interest rate fix known as the LIBOR scandal. And each of us who buys foreign products or travels to another country has been cheated by the burgeoning foreign exchange scandal. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote that the investigation revealed “traders and various other mid-level bank sociopaths laughing and joking about rigging rates and screwing customers all over the world.” Probably all the big banks were involved in some part of these scams. Rabobank, which has several San Francisco locations, just agreed to pay $1 billion for its part alone in the foreign exchange scandal.
And the king of the banksters, JP Morgan Chase, is reportedly going to spend a billion dollars just on legal fees defending itself for its various misdeeds. Yet it continues to maintain the arrogant attitude shared by the techsters. Recently, a friend of mine asked a mid-level sales guy what he thought about the mountain of charges and lawsuits the bank was facing for all its gross misdeeds. “What is the problem?” the bankster replied. “None of our people have gone to jail.”
Manjoo also quoted local venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya as arguing that “value is no longer being created” in New York or Washington or even Los Angeles, but only in Silicon Valley. This presents a question we should ponder. What “value” is being created? What values do we, our families, and our communities want to create and live with?
Make no mistake about it: values matter. And it is impossible to build a healthy and caring culture in which we can feel good about our children’s future when our society genuflects to the worst among us.
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