How Silicon Valley’s Oligarchs Are Learning to Stop Worrying and Love Trump
The oligarchs’ ball at Trump Tower revealed one not-so-well-kept secret about the tech moguls: They are more like the new president than they are like you or me.
In what devolved into something of a love fest, Trump embraced the tech elite for their “incredible innovation” and pledged to help them achieve their goals—one of which, of course, is to become even richer. And for all their proud talk about “disruption,” they also know that they will have to accommodate, to some extent, our newly elected disrupter in chief for at least the next four years.
Few tech executives—Peter Thiel being the main exception—backed Trump’s White House bid. But now many who were adamantly against the real-estate mogul, such as Clinton donor Elon Musk, who has built his company on subsidies from progressive politicians, have joined the president-elect’s Strategic and Policy Forum. Joining Musk will be Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who half-jokingly threatened to “move to China” if Trump was elected.
These are companies, of course, with experience making huge promises, and then changing those promises to match new circumstances. Uber, for instance, touted itself as a better deal than a cab for both riders and drivers before it prepared to tout a better deal for riders by replacing its own soon-to-be obsolete drivers with self-driving cars.
Silicon Valley and its leading mini-me, the Seattle area, did very well under Barack Obama, and expected the good times to continue under Hillary Clinton. Tech leaders were able to emerge as progressive icons even as they built vast fortunes, largely by adopting predictably politically correct issues such as gay rights and climate change, which doubled as a perfect opportunity to cash in on Obama’s renewable-energy subsidies. Increasingly tied to the ephemeral economy of software and media, they felt little impact from policies that might boost energy costs or force long environmental reviews for new projects.
No wonder Silicon Valley gave heavily to Obama and then Clinton. In 2016, Google was the No. 1 private-sector source of donations to Clinton, while Stanford was fifth. Overall the electronics and communications sector gave Democrats more than $100 million in 2016, twice what they offered the GOP. In terms of the presidential race, they handed $23 million to Hillary, compared to barely $1 million to Trump.
Yet, there is one issue on which the Valley has not been “left,” and that is, predictably, wealth. It may have liked Obama’s creased pants and intellectually poised manner, but it did not want to see the Democrats become, God forbid, a real populist party. That is one reason why virtually all the oligarchs favored Clinton over Sanders, who had little use for their precious “gig economy,” the H-1B high-tech indentured-servants program, or their vast and little-taxed wealth.
Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder with a net worth close to $70 billion, used his outlet, The Washington Post, to help bring down Bernie, before being unable, despite all efforts, to stop Trump. So now Bezos sits by Trump’s side, hoping perhaps that the president-elect’s threats to unleash antitrust actions against Amazon will be conveniently forgotten as an artful “deal” is struck.
For these and other reasons, there’s little doubt that the tech elite would have been better off under Clinton, who likely would have, like Obama, disdained antitrust actions and let them keep hiding untaxed fortunes offshore. Now, they will have to share the head table with the energy executives they’d hoped to replace with their own climate-change-oriented activities.
The tech oligarchs have long had a problem with what many would consider social justice. Although the tech economy itself has expanded in the current period, its overall impact on the economy has been less than stellar. For all of its revolutionary hype, it’s done little to create a wide range of employment gains or boost worker productivity.
To be sure, there have been large surges of employment in the Bay Area, Seattle, and a handful of other places. California alone has more billionaires than any country in the world except China, and nearly half of America’s richest counties.
But for much of the country, notably those areas that embraced Trump, the tech “disruption” has been anything but welcome news. This includes heavily Latino interior sections, home to many of America’s highest employment rates. Overall, the “booming” high-wage California economy celebrated by progressive ideologues like Robert Reich does not extend much beyond the Valley. In most of California, job gains have been concentrated in low-wage professions.
Despite its vast wealth, California has the highest cost-adjusted poverty rate in the country, with a huge percentage of the state’s Latinos and African Americans barely able to make ends meet. California metropolitan areas, including the largest, Los Angeles, account for six of the 15 metro areas with the worst living standards, according to a recent report from demographer Wendell Cox. Meanwhile, the middle and working class, particularly young families, continue to leave, with more people exiting the state for other ones than arriving to it from the, in 22 of the past 25 years.
Even in Silicon Valley itself the boom has done little for working-class people, or for Latinos and African Americans—who continue to be badly underrepresented at the top tech firms as many of those same firms aggressively promote diversity. A study out of the California Budget and Policy Center (PDF) concluded that with housing costs factored in, the poverty rate in Santa Clara County soars to 18 percent, covering nearly one in every five residents, and almost one-and-a half times the national poverty rate. Since 2007, amidst an enormous boon, adjusted incomes for Latinos and African Americans in the area actually dropped (PDF).
Much of this has to do with change in the Valley’s industrial structure, which has shifted from manufacturing to software and media. The result has been a kind of tech alt-dystopia, with massive levels of homelessness, and housing costs that are prohibitive to all but a small sliver of the local population.
With a president whose base is outside the Bay Area, and dependent on support in areas where jobs are the biggest issue, the tech moguls will need to find ways to fit into the new agenda. The old order of relentless globalization, offshoring, and keeping profits abroad may prove unsustainable under a Trump regime that has promised to reverse these trends. In some senses the Trump constituency is made up of people who are the target of Silicon Valley’s “war on stupid people.” Inside the Valley, such people are seen as an obstacle to progress, who should be shut up with income supports and subsidies.
So can Silicon Valley make peace with Donald Trump, the self-appointed tribune of the “poorly educated”? There are two key areas where there could be a meeting of minds. One is around regulation. One of the great ironies of the tech revolution is that the very places that are home to many techies—notably blue cities such as San Francisco, Austin, and New York—also tend to be the very places most concerned with the economic impacts of the industry.
Opposition to disruptive market makers in the so-called sharing economy like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb is greatest in these dense, heavily Democratic cities. What’s left of the private-sector union movement and much of the progressive intelligentsia is ambivalent if not downright hostile to the “gig” economy. Ultimately, resistance to regulations relating to this tsunami of part-time employment could be something that Trump’s big business advisers might share in common with the techies.
More important will be the issue of jobs. It may not work anymore for firms to lower tech wages by offshoring jobs or importing lots of foreign workers under the H-1B visa program, since Trump has denounced it. IBM’s Ginni Rometty, who had been busily replacing U.S. workers with ones in India, Brazil, and Costa Rica, has now agreed to create 25,000 domestic jobs. Other tech companies—including Apple—have also been making noises shifting employment to the United States from other countries. Trump may well feel what “worked” with Carrier can now be expanded to the most dynamic part of the U.S. economy.
If the tech industry adjusts to the new reality, they may find the Trump regime, however crude, to be more to their liking than they might expect. Companies like Google may never again have the influence they had under Obama, but many techies may be able to adjust. As long as the new president “deals” them in, the techies may be able to stop worrying about Trump and begin to embrace, if not love, him.