They Want Out

11.30.13

The Race Is On in Silicon Valley to Escape Real America

The master nerds who rule the Valley are talking about ditching the rest of us and heading for the hills. But they’ll only be the first—‘Real America’ faces a brain drain.

Day in and day out, the message from the media is the same. Your country is becoming a nightmare. However you can, get out—and do it now, before you’re trapped.

From Saul Alinsky to Sarah Palin, the view of the problem is also the same. Society has been divided into Elites and Real People. But the situation now seems so dire that instead of achieving transformative change, many of us are simply opting to flee into dreams—of a post-revolutionary paradise, or of traditional times restored. As the promise of real life claustrophobically collapses around us, we turn our sights on a mythical future or a re-enchanted past.

Like reality television, “Real America” has become the height of unreality.

That might not be news to you, but to the master nerds who rule Silicon Valley, it’s a rude awakening indeed. In a startling speech last month at Y Combinator, the latest and greatest startup conference, high-powered genetics nerd Balaji Srinivasan proposed the ultimate tech revolution: seceding entirely from the United States.

Not Washington or Hollywood or even Wall Street is the real source of value, you see. It’s the Valley, because in a very literal sense, the Valley is now the only source of a future in America. In politics, entertainment, and finance, all we see are closed horizons.

Think that’s hyperbole? Just last week, at another exclusive do, Larry Summers delivered another shocking address to another slice of the master caste. At the IMF Research Conference, Summers stunned big-time economists by claiming that the bubble economy isn’t a one-time thing. We’re locked into booms and busts forever. There is no bubble bubble. Rather than an economic march, as Marxists would have it, along the inexorable path of history, Western capitalism has returned us to the ancient world of fate, where time is cyclical and not linear, and the best we can hope to do is persist as the vanities of man rise and crumble.

For pre-Socratic Greeks or Eastern mystics—or for acolytes of the ex-Thatcherite neo-nihilist John Gray—that radical view is cause for a sweeping new humility, a dramatic lowering of our sights and hopes around what it means to be human. For the most ambitious and talented among us, however, it’s occasion for a stark choice: Go Galt, or go government.

Do you really imagine our tech titans can resist the temptation to accept the one prize—ultimate political privilege—that they can’t create for themselves?

The Paul Krugmans of the world, of course, make a strong case for going government. Only by concentrating ambition and talent in the citadel of public power can the elite engineer their own survival—and the survival of a political economy capable of keeping the masses enlisted in our national confidence game.

For Srinivasan’s ilk, by contrast, the only way to maintain the kind of elitehood that makes organized society possible is preserving what some libertarian theorists call the “exit option”—an escape hatch into a space, however small, where all horizons haven’t closed.

The options presented by Krugman and Srinivasan strike terror into the heart of more traditionally minded elites. For Farhad Manjoo, writing in The Wall Street Journal, “Silicon Valley has an arrogance problem”—one that becomes, thanks to the indispensable role of supernerds in today’s economy, a problem for all of us. For Andrew Leonard, writing for the diametrically opposed Salon, “You will not find a better distillation of Valley arrogance than in Srinivasan’s speech.”

Ideology appears to make no difference to the fear that our top 0.001 percent will pull up the ladders on the rest of us, destined for a heaven on earth we mere mortals are condemned merely to yearn for in fantasy.

But it was just a few months ago that the real fear making headlines concerned our supernerds’ complicity in the panopticon of permanent surveillance known as our federal government. Given how tightly interconnected Silicon Valley and Washington have become, it seems almost silly to sweat the idea that secession will take our tech lords away from us. Aren’t they much more likely to finish what they’ve started, going full government instead of full Galt?

After all, D.C. needs them to save Obamacare from itself. Without the partnership of our digital demigods, the feds can’t run a website, much less mass biometric monitoring. Do you really think our elected representatives—or the vast bureaucracy of “public servants” hardwired into the American regime—would let the creators of augmented reality and radical life extension sneak into a hot air balloon and float off to utopia?

Indeed, it’s a two-way street. Do you really imagine our tech titans can resist the temptation to accept the one prize—ultimate political privilege—that they can’t create for themselves? Even if Real America is largely a ruin, the presidency of the Republic of Siliconia can only get you so far once you set foot outside its gates.

Well, here’s the bad news. As a class, our supernerds are so well-endowed that they can have it both ways. Some will head for the hills. Some will head for the Hill (or the White House). Either way, they’re outta here.

They’ve got what strategists call “first-mover advantage.” But the most daunting news is that the app elite are only the first of movers. From tech to finance to law and beyond, Real America faces a brain drain from both ends—as going Galt and going government suck competence and confidence out of everyday life in red states and blue states alike.

Hey, wait a minute. Why is Real America collapsing again?