Up To a Point: Robber Barons Make Way For Robber Nerds
I fear for America. We’re not making Robber Barons like we used to.
We’re making Robber Nerds. Picture Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page as real (instead of virtual) robbers—coming out of a dark alley and demanding your wallet. You’d take theirs. (And stomp on their Google glasshole eyewear.) Sergey Brin? Him, maybe, I can see as a gonif. But what kind of thug goes around saying, “Don’t be evil”? And Mark Zuckerberg? The alley cat and her kittens would have mugged him already.
It’d be different facing Andrew Carnegie, born in a one-room cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland, and sent to work at 13, an immigrant boy changing spools at a cotton mill 12 hours a day for $1.20 a week. He could have knocked you cold with a thread bobbin.
Not that the “U.S. Steal” magnate would have, except to keep you from hanging around seedy neighborhoods with dark alleys and guide you to the nearest public library. Carnegie donated the money for 3,000 public libraries in 47 states and seven foreign countries. None featured pop-up ads.
Today’s version of Robber Barons would make bad robbers and worse barons. Just look at their clothes. Examine photographs of Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Villains, perhaps, but villains dressed to be popped right into the British aristocracy.
Imagine the costume drama “Downton Abbey” with Pumas, pocket Tees, and dad jeans as the costumes.
Sir Winston Churchill’s mother was the daughter of Commodore Vanderbilt’s stock jobbing partner, Leonard Walter Jerome, “The King of Wall Street.”
Will the next upper crust father of our future greatest wartime leader be looking to a pierced and tattooed software scion for a marriage of American energy to European sophistication? “Ah, yes, old phone-app money.”
I was talking to a friend, a former Clinton administration official who’s now a lobbyist. His clients are Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, guys famous for their high school Math Club ignorance of the workings of political power. (A mistake the Old Blackguard never made. Banking Bandit Andrew Mellon served as Secretary of the Treasury under three presidents.)
I asked my lobbyist friend, “What’s the hardest thing to teach your techie clients about Washington?” He said, “The half-Windsor knot.”
Clothes make the man, but that’s nothing compared to what haircuts can do to him. The old school Malefactors of Great Wealth had severe and serious barbering. Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg go to the poodle groomer. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Larry Page look like me and Dave Barry. But Dave and I have an excuse. We’re print journalists. We’re lucky we can afford the bowl we use to cut our own hair.
Maybe bad hair is why Jeff Bezos bought the hopeless Washington Post, which is like John D. Rockefeller drilling for whale oil in Pennsylvania or Commodore Vanderbilt building the New York Central Goat Path. Bezos’s hair is so bad it walked out on him.
Speaking of Vanderbilt’s double-cross railroads and Rockefeller’s oiligarchy—and Carnegie’s steel snatch, Mellon’s bank bunkum, and J. P. Morgan’s fiduciary numbers racket—what do the Robber Nerds actually do?
Bill Gates invented all the 0s and 1s that make my computer work (not very well). I’m using Microsoft Word right now. Not bad for a word processing program coded by someone who never read a book of English grammar (or any other book that wasn’t about calculus or Fortran).
What is Facebook even for? Why do I need Jeff Zuckerberg as middleman to tell people that I’m having a better time than they are in a nicer place?
About Larry Ellison I haven’t a clue. According to Wikipedia, Ellison’s Oracle Corporation does something having something to do with something called “relational database systems.” My nearest relation, my wife, is telling me to get off my database and take out the garbage. This is a system?
I get it with Jeff Bezos. He’s a fence. Things fall off the back of trucks (or out the windows of a brick and mortar store that’s being demolished). And that’s Amazon.
And I get it with Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They steal stuff. Not cool stuff like jewels or the gold in Ft. Knox, just words and pictures. Not even, usually, secret code words or highly classified pictures. Just old paperbacks, magazine articles, press clippings, and snapshots of you when you had the Larry Page haircut in 8th grade. And they give it to me free on Google. I no longer need to buy books or get the newspaper delivered or go to the library Andrew Carnegie paid for.
What I don’t get is how 0s and 1s, imaginary postcards from Cancun, my wife nagging me, a special deal on bent goods, and yesterday’s papers add up to enormous piles of ill-gotten gains.
Robber Nerds are richer than Robber Barons. You see claims that John D. Rockefeller was “the richest person in history.” But consult the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis’s study on the Consumer Price Index spanning four centuries and you’ll find that, in 2014 dollars, Rockefeller was worth $16.4 billion, Carnegie $13.4 billion, and Vanderbilt $3.4 billion. Gates, Ellison, Bezos, Page, Brin, and Zuckerberg are worth $67, $43, $25.2, $23, $22.8, and $13.3 billion respectively.
The gains are “ill-gotten” because, like Honoré de Balzac and everyone else who isn’t a billionaire, I believe that “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
When Sergey Brin says, “Don’t be evil,” he means, “Leave that to me.”
Except, these days, “evil” has been reduced to “creepy.” (Click on the Google Street View of your house to get creeped out.) And “stinking rich” is the smell of zero carbon emissions at eco-friendly tech company campuses.
The Gilded Age Fat Cats had style. The Digital Age Skinny Doughboys, not so much. Biltmore House, the Vanderbilt family’s summer get-away in Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest privately owned home in America with 250 rooms in 178,926 square feet on 40,000 acres. Biltmore House makes Blenheim Palace look like something a hippie built out of scrap wood over a hole in the side of a hill.
Xanadu 2.0, Bill Gates’ house, is something a hippie built out of scrap wood (“recycled warehouse beams”) over a hole in the side of a hill (“earth sheltered”), only now the hippie is the richest person in the world.
Xanadu 2.0 is a mere 66,000 square feet with only eight bedrooms on a 5.15-acre lot. But it has a lot of electronic gizmos. You wear a pin that adjusts the temperature, lighting, décor, and entertainment to your preference. At Biltmore the servants take care of that.
J. P. Morgan’s yacht, Corsair, was such a seaworthy and stalwart ship that the U.S. Navy bought it to fight in the war against Spain. Larry Ellison’s America’s Cup yacht, Oracle Team USA, is a wing sail catamaran hydroplane whack job that looks like it would sink in light chop. (And it would.)
During the financial panic of 1907 Morgan ordered every major banker in New York into his library, locked the door, and told them no one was leaving until the panic was fixed. Of course if you locked people in a room with Mark Zuckerberg you could probably get them to do anything you wanted to get out of there too.
The Robber Barons founded social and political dynasties. Winthrop Rockefeller was Governor of Arkansas. Nelson Rockefeller was Vice President. Jay Rockefeller is the Senior Senator from West Virginia. What’s the Larry Page family campaign slogan going to be? “Vote For Us—We Know Where You Live”?
Cornelius Vanderbilt had 13 children. Six Robber Nerds put together don’t have that many kids. And I don’t know how Vanderbilt’s progeny would sit with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated $100,000 to fund a “Next-Generation Condom” that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use.”
The Robber Nerds, like the Robber Barons, have given tons of money to charity. It doesn’t buy the Robber Nerds love. But, unlike the Robber Barons, they aren’t repaid with scorn.
This is the worst problem with the Robber Nerds. They’re no fun to hate.
Mellon and Carnegie belonged to the tycoons-only South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in western Pennsylvania. They neglected the 72-foot dam on their private lake. The dam broke and caused the Johnstown Flood. All the trout died, and also 2,209 people. You don’t see that happening at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
In the 1870s, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil refined 90 percent of the world’s oil, cornering the market with shady cartels, forced buy-outs, price-fixing, shyster lawsuits, graft, and industrial espionage. In the 2000s, Zuckerberg’s Facebook cornered the market with giggling teenage girls.
The 1892 Homestead Strike at Carnegie’s largest steel mill lasted 143 days. Seven workers and three Pinkerton agents were killed. An anarchist tried to assassinate Carnegie’s business partner Henry Clay Frick. Now anarchists try to hack Elon Musk’s PayPal account.
Robber Nerds exploit the poor working stiffs—but they do it in China and India where nobody gives a damn.
And, anyway, what would it take to be a Samuel Gompers at Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle, Amazon, or Google?
To harangue the wage slaves on the shop floor with an incendiary call to walk-out and picket and flame scabs on their blogs, you’d have to stand on the seat of your Aeron chair to see over the top of their cubicles. Then the chair seat swivels and you’re talking to the “Be What’s Next” poster. You fall off and land on your Windows Phone 8 and ass-text the list of your demands to your wife and you wind up divorced and out of a job and working on your own start-up in somebody’s garage and your “Buttbook” website, where people get to hate everyone they know, goes public in an IPO at $180 a share and now you’re a Robber Nerd.