Stanford has established itself as the epicenter of computer science, and a farm system for the tech giants. Following major scandals at Facebook, Google, and others, how is the university coming to grips with a world in which many of its students’ dream jobs are now vilified?
At Stanford University’s business school, above the stage where Elizabeth Holmes once regurgitated the myths of Silicon Valley, there now hangs a whistle splattered in blood. More than 500 people have gathered to hear the true story of Theranos, the $9 billion blood-testing company Holmes launched in 2004 as a Stanford dropout with the help of one of the school’s famed chemical engineering professors.
When Holmes was weaving the elaborate lies that ultimately led to the dissolution of her company, she leaned heavily on tech truisms that treat dogged pursuit of market domination as a virtue. “The minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed,” she said onstage in 2015. But Shultz and Cheung, who faced legal threats from Theranos for speaking out, push back against the idea of pursuing a high-minded vision at all costs. “We don’t know how to handle new technologies anymore,” Cheung says, “and we don’t know the consequences necessarily that they’ll have.”
The words resonate in the jam-packed auditorium, where students line up afterward to nab selfies with and autographs from the whistleblowers. Kendall Costello, a junior at Stanford, idolized Holmes in high school and imagined working for Theranos one day. Now she’s more interested in learning how to regulate tech than building the next product that promises to change the world. “I really aspired to kind of be like her in a sense,” Costello says. “Then two years later, in seeing her whole empire crumble around her, in addition to other scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica and all these things that are coming forward, I was just kind of disillusioned.”..But the endless barrage of negative news in tech, ranging from Facebook fueling propaganda campaigns by Russian trolls to Amazon selling surveillance software to governments, has forced Stanford to reevaluate its role in shaping the Valley’s future leaders. Students are reconsidering whether working at Google or Facebook is landing a dream job or selling out to craven corporate interests. Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.
As tech comes to dominate an ever-expanding portion of our daily lives, Stanford’s role as an educator of the industry’s engineers and a financier of its startups grows increasingly important. The school may not be responsible for creating our digital world, but it trains the architects. And right now, students are weighing tough decisions about how they plan to make a living in a world that was clearly constructed the wrong way. “To me it seemed super empowering that a line of code that I wrote could be used by millions of people the next day,” says Matthew Sun, a junior majoring in computer science and public policy, who helped organize the Theranos event. “Now we’re realizing that’s maybe not always a good thing.”
.. Because membership costs $21,000 per year, the career fairs tend to attract only the most renowned firms.
“Honestly, I think they’re horrific,” says Vicki Niu, a 2018 Stanford graduate who majored in computer science. She recalls her first career fair being as hectic as a Black Friday sale, with the put-on exclusivity of a night club. (Students must present their Stanford IDs to enter the tent.) But like other freshmen, she found herself swept up in the pursuit of an internship at a large, prestigious tech firm. “Everybody is trying to get interviews at Google and Facebook and Palantir,” she says. “There’s all this hype around them. Part of my mind-set coming in was that I wanted to learn, but I think there was definitely also this big social pressure and this desire to prove yourself and to prove to people that you’re smart.”
Stanford’s computer science department has long been revered for its graduate programs—Google was famously built as a research project by Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin—but the intense interest among undergrads is relatively new. In 2007, the school conferred more bachelor’s degrees in English (92) than computer science (70). The next year, though, Stanford revamped its CS curriculum from a one-size-fits-all education to a more flexible framework that funneled students along specialized tracks such as graphics, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. “We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn’t just sitting in a cube all day,” Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor who once worked at Google, said later.
The change in curriculum coincided with an explosion of wealth and perceived self-importance in the Valley. The iPhone opened up the potential for thousands of new businesses built around apps, and when its creator died he earned rapturous comparisons to Thomas Edison. Facebook emerged as the fastest-growing internet company of all time, and the Arab Spring made its influence seem benign rather than ominous. As the economy recovered from the recession, investors decided to park their money in startups like Uber and Airbnb that might one day become the next Google or Amazon. A 2013 video by the nonprofit Code.org featured CEOs, Chris Bosh, and will.i.am comparing computer programmers to wizards, superheroes, and rock stars.
Stanford and its students eagerly embraced this cultural shift. John Hennessy, a computer science professor who became president of the university from 2000 to 2016, served on Google’s board of directors and is now the executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. LinkedIn founder and Stanford alum Reid Hoffman introduced a new computer science course called Blitzscaling and brought in high-profile entrepreneurs to teach students how to “build massive organizations, user bases, and businesses, and to do so at a dizzyingly rapid pace.” (Elizabeth Holmes was among the speakers.) Mark Zuckerberg became an annual guest in Sahami’s popular introductory computer science class. “It just continued to emphasize how privileged Stanford students are in so many ways, that we have the CEO of Facebook taking time out of his day to come talk to us,” says Vinamrata Singal, a 2016 graduate who had Zuckerberg visit her class freshman year. “It felt really surreal and it did make me excited to want to continue studying computer science.”
In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm. Even without direct Stanford funding, the school’s proximity to wealth helped plenty of big ideas get off the ground. Evan Spiegel, who was a junior at Stanford in 2011 when he started working on Snapchat, connected with his first investor via a Stanford alumni network on Facebook. “Instead of starting a band or trying to make an independent movie or blogging, people would get into code,” says Billy Gallagher, a 2014 graduate who was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. “It was a similar idea to, ‘Here’s our band’s vinyl or our band’s tape. Come see us play.’”
..But it’s not just that coding was a creative outlet, as is often depicted in tech origin stories. Working at a big Silicon Valley company also became a path to a specific kind of upper-crust success that students at top schools are groomed for. “Why do so many really bright young kids go into consulting and banking?” asks Gallagher. “They’re prestigious so your parents can be proud of you, they pay really well, and they put you on a career path to open up new doors. Now we’re seeing that’s happening a lot with Google and Facebook.”
By the time Niu arrived in 2014, computer science had become the most popular major on campus and 90 percent of undergrads were taking at least one CS course. As a high schooler, her knowledge of Silicon Valley didn’t extend much further than The Internship, a Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy about working at Google that doubled as a promotional tool for the search giant. She soon came to realize that landing a job at one of the revered tech giants or striking it rich with an app were Stanford’s primary markers of success. Her coursework was largely technical, focusing on the process of coding and not so much on the outcomes. And in the rare instances when Niu heard ethics discussed in class, it was often framed around the concerns of tech’s super-elite, like killer robots destroying humanity in the future. “In my computer science classes and just talking to other people who were interested in technology, it didn’t seem like anybody really cared about social impact,” she says. “Or if they did, they weren’t talking about it.”
In the spring of her freshman year, Niu and two other students hosted a meeting to gauge interest in a new group focused on socially beneficial uses of technology. The computer science department provided funding for red curry and pad thai. Niu was shocked when the food ran out, as more than 100 students showed up for the event. “Everybody had the same experience: ‘I’m a computer science student. I’m doing this because I want to create an impact. I feel like I’m alone.’”
From this meeting sprang the student organization CS + Social Good. It aimed to expose students to professional opportunities that existed outside the tech giants and the hyperaggressive startups that aspired to their stature. In its first year, the group developed new courses about social-impact work, brought in speakers to discuss positive uses of technology, and offered summer fellowships to get students interning at nonprofits instead of Apple or Google. Hundreds of students and faculty engaged with the organization’s programming.
In Niu’s mind, “social good” referred mainly to the positive applications of technology. But stopping bad uses of tech is just as important as promoting good ones. That’s a lesson the entire Valley has been forced to reckon with as its benevolent reputation has unraveled. “Most of our programming had been, ‘Look at these great ways you can use technology to help kids learn math,’” Niu says. “There was this real need to not only talk about that, but to also be like, ‘It’s not just that technology is neutral. It can actually be really harmful.’”
Many students find it difficult to pinpoint a specific transgression that flipped their perception of Silicon Valley, simply because there have been so many.
- For Facebook it was not only the Russian meddling, but also last year’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, which showed the company’s carelessness with user data.
- At Uber a 2017 blog post by Susan Fowler detailed a workplace rife with sexual harassment, which only compounded growing criticism of the way the company treated drivers and local governments.
- Studies investigated how Apple’s iPhone was becoming addictive among children, causing increased risks of depression and suicide.
- Amazon’s facial recognition software was pitched for government surveillance in 2018, and at
- Microsoft, employees signed a petition protesting the company’s contract with ICE.
- At Google, 20,000 workers walked off the job last November because of the unsavory manner in which the company paid off an executive accused of sexual harassment.
The torrid pace of bad news has been jarring for students who entered school with optimistic views of tech. Nichelle Hall, a senior majoring in computer science, viewed Google as the ideal landing spot for an aspiring software engineer when she started college. “I associated it so much with success,” she says. “It’s the first thing I thought about when I thought about technology.” But when she was offered an on-site interview for a potential job at the search giant in the fall, she declined. Project Dragonfly, Google’s (reportedly abandoned) effort to bring a censored search engine to China, gave her pause. It wasn’t just that she objected to the idea on principle. She sensed that working for such a large corporation would likely put her personal morals and corporate directives in conflict. “They say don’t do evil and then they do things like that,” she says. “I wasn’t really into the big-company idea for that reason. … You don’t necessarily know what the intentions of your executives are.”
- ..Google has hardly been the most damaged brand during the techlash. (The company says it has not seen a year-over-year decline in Stanford recruits to this point.)
- Students repeatedly bring up Facebook as a company that’s fallen out of favor.
- Uber, with its cascade of controversies, now has to “fight to try and get people in,” according to junior Jose Giron.
- And Palantir, the secretive data-mining company started by Stanford alum Peter Thiel, has also lost traction due to Thiel’s ties to Trump and worries that the company could help the president develop tech to advance his draconian immigration policies. “There’s a growing concern over your personal decision where to work after graduation,” Sun says.
“There’s a lot of personal guilt around pursuing CS. If you do that, people call you a sellout or you might view yourself as a sellout. If you take a high-paying job, people might say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to work for a big tech company. All you care about is yourself.’”
Landing a job at a major tech firm is often as much about prestige as passion, which is one reason the CS major has expanded so dramatically. But a company’s tarnished reputation can transfer to its employees. Students debate whether fewer of their peers are actually taking gigs at Facebook, or whether they’re just less vocal in bragging about it. At lunch at a Burmese restaurant on campus, Hall and Sun summed up the transition succinctly. “No one’s like, ‘I got an internship at Uber!’” Sun says. Hall follows up: “They’re like, ‘I got an internship … at Uber …’”
The concerns are bigger than which companies rise or fall in the estimation of up-and-coming engineers. Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence. Sahami acknowledges that many computer science classes are designed to teach students how to solve technical problems rather than to think about the real-world issues that a solution might create. Part of the challenge comes from computer science being a young discipline compared to other engineering fields, meaning that practical examples of malpractice are emerging in real time from today’s headlines.
Vik Pattabi, a senior majoring in computer science, originally studied mechanical engineering. In those classes, students are constantly reminded of the 1940 collapse of Tacoma Narrows Bridge: A modern marvel was destroyed because its highly educated engineers did not foresee all the possible threats to their creation (in that case, the wind). Pattabi’s CS coursework hasn’t yet included a comparable example. “A lot of the second- and third-order effects that we see [in] Silicon Valley have happened in the last two or three years,” Pattabi says. “The department is trying to react as fast as it can, but they don’t have 30 years of case studies to work with.”
Another issue is the longstanding divide on campus between the engineering types—known as “techies”—and the humanities or social sciences majors, known as “fuzzies.” Though the school has focused more on interdisciplinary studies in recent years, there remains a gap in understanding that’s often filled in by stereotype. This sort of divide is a common aspect of college life, but the stakes feel higher when some of the students will one day be programming the algorithms that govern the digital world. “There’s things [said] like, ‘You can’t spell fascist without CS.’ People will tell you things like that,” Hall says. “I think people may feel antagonized.”
The school’s deep ties to the Bay Area’s corporate giants, long a much-touted recruitment tool, suddenly look different in light of the problems that the industry has created. At the January career fair, members of Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP), an activist group on campus that aims to disrupt Stanford’s “culture of apathy,” handed out flyers that urged students not to work at Amazon and Salesforce because of their commercial ties to ICE and the United States Border Patrol. (Employees at the companies have raised similar concerns.) “REFUSE to be part of the Stanford → racist tech pipeline,” the flyer reads, in part.
Two students in the group said they were asked to leave the career fair by Computer Forum officials. When the students refused to comply, they say they were escorted out by campus police under threat of arrest for disrupting a private event. A Stanford spokesperson confirmed the incident. “The protesting students were disruptive and asked by police to leave,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The students were given the option to protest outside the event or in White Plaza. They chose to leave.”
For members of SLAP, the exchange reinforced the ways in which Stanford institutionally and culturally cuts itself off from the issues occurring in the real world. “You might hear this idea of the ‘Stanford bubble,’ where Stanford students kind of just stay on campus and they just do what they need to do for their classes and their jobs,” says Kimiko Hirota, a SLAP member and junior majoring in sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, who participated in the career fair protest. She said many of the students she talked to had no idea about the tech firms’ government contracts. “To me the amount of students on campus that are politically engaged and are actively using their Stanford privilege for a greater good is extremely small.”
The computer science major includes a “technology in society” course requirement that can be fulfilled by a number of ethics classes, and teaching students about their ethical responsibilities is a component of the department’s accreditation process. CS + Social Good has expanded its footprint on campus, teaching more classes and organizing more events like the Theranos talk starring the whistleblowers. Yet the flexibility of the CS major cuts both ways. It means that students who care to take a holistic approach to the discipline can combine rigorous training in code with an education in ethics; it also means that it remains all too easy for some students to avoid engaging with the practical ramifications of their work. “You can very much come to Stanford feeling very apathetic about the impact of the technology and leave just that way without any effort,” Hall says. “I don’t feel as though we are forced to encounter the impact.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, students spill into a lobby in front of a standing-room-only auditorium in the School of Education, where Jeremy Weinstein is talking about the promise and perils of using algorithms in criminal justice. Next year Californians will vote on a bill that would replace cash bail with a computerized risk-assessment system that calculates an arrested person’s likelihood of returning for a court appearance. The idea is to give people who can’t afford to make bail another way to get out of jail through a fairer policy. But such algorithms have been found to reinforce racial biases in the criminal justice system, according to a ProPublicainvestigation. Instead of being a solution to an unfair process, poorly implemented software could create an entirely new form of systemic discrimination. Students were asked to vote on whether they supported cash bail or the algorithm. The class was evenly split. Unlike in most CS classes, Weinstein could not offer students the comfort of a “correct” answer. “We need to deconstruct these algorithms in order to help people see that technology is not just something to be trusted,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s objective and fair because it’s numerical, but it actually reflects a set of choices that people make.”
Though Weinstein is a political science professor, he’s one of three educators leading the new version of the CS department’s flagship ethics course, CS181. Teaching with him are Sahami, the computer science professor, and Rob Reich, a political science professor and philosopher. The trio devised the course structure over a series of coffee-fueled meetings as the tech backlash unfolded during the past year and a half. After discussing algorithmic bias, the class will explore privacy in the age of facial recognition, the social impacts of autonomous technology, and the responsibilities of private platforms in regard to free speech. The coursework is meant to be hands-on. During the current unit, students must build their own risk-assessment algorithm using an actual criminal history data set, then assess it for fairness. “We run it like a talk show,” Weinstein says. “There’s a lot of call-and-response, asking questions, getting people to talk in small groups.”
While Stanford’s computer science program has had an ethics component for decades, this course marks the first time that experts in other fields are so directly involved in the curriculum. About 300 students have enrolled in the course, including majors in history, philosophy, and biology. It provides an opportunity for the techies and fuzzies to learn from one another, and for professors removed from the Valley’s tech culture to contextualize the industry’s societal impacts. In the course overview materials, the moral reckoning occurring in the tech sector today is compared to the advent of the nuclear bomb.
The course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibility—when referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says...While the early years of the decade saw prominent tech executives like Holmes and Zuckerberg teaching students how to lifehack their way to success, the new ethics course will bring in guest speakers from WhatsApp, Facebook, and the NSA to answer “hard questions,” Sahami says “I wouldn’t say industry is influencing Stanford,” he says. “I would say the relationship with industry allows us to have more authentic conversations where we’re really bringing in people who are decision-makers in these areas.”.. Some of the more critical voices from within the industry are also taking on more permanent roles at Stanford. Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook, taught a “hack lab” for non-CS majors last fall, helping them understand cybersecurity threats. He’s now developing a more advanced computer science course, to be piloted later this year, that explores trust and safety issues in the era of misinformation and widespread online harassment. Stamos led Facebook’s internal investigation into Russian political interference on the platform and clashed with top executives over how much of that information should be made public. He left the company in August to join Stanford, where he hopes to impart lessons from his time battling a digital attack that was waged not through hacking, but through ad purchases, incendiary memes, and politically charged Facebook events. “One of the things we don’t teach computer science students is all of the non-technically advanced abuses of technology that cause real harm,” Stamos says. “I want to expose students to [things like], ‘These are the mistakes that were made before, these are the kinds of problems that existed, and these are the company’s reactions to those mistakes.’”
Stamos rejects the idea that ethics is the correct framework to think about addressing tech’s most pressing issues. “The problem here is not that people are making decisions that are straight-up evil,” he says. “The problem is that people are not foreseeing the outcomes of their actions. Part of that is a lack of paranoia. One of our problems in Silicon Valley is we build products to be used the right way. … It’s hard to envision all the misuses unless you understand all the things that have come before.”
While he says that Stanford bears some responsibility for the Valley’s tunnel vision, he praises the school for welcoming tech leaders with recent, relevant experiences to help students prepare for emerging threats. “When I was going to school, computers were important, but we weren’t talking about building companies that might change history,” Stamos says. “The students who come to me are really interested in the impact of what they do on society.”
Stamos regularly fields questions from students about whether to work at Facebook or Google. He tells them that they should, not in spite of the companies’ mounting issues, but because of them. “If you actually care about making communication technologies compatible with democracy, then the place to be is at one of the companies that actually has the problems,” he says. “Not working at the big places that could actually solve it does not make things better.”
The tech giants continue to consolidate power even as they face withering criticism. Facebook’s user base growth accelerated last quarter despite its scandals. Uber will go public this year at a valuation as high as $120 billion. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all planning to open large new offices around the country in the near future. And for all the optimistic talk of working at ethically minded startups among students, creation of nascent businesses is at roughly a 40-year low in the United States. Small firms that enter the terrain of the Frightful Five are typically acquired or destroyed.
It is hard to find a Stanford computer science student, even among the ethically minded set CS + Social Good has helped cultivate, who will publicly proclaim that they’ll never work for one of these dominant companies, as all of them offer opportunities for high pay, engaging individual work, and comforting job security. International students have to worry about securing work visas however they can; students on financial aid may need to make enough money to support other family members. And for many others, it’s not clear that anything that’s happened in the Valley is truly beyond the pale. In that sense, the engineers are just like us, aghast at the headlines but still clicking away inside a system that’s come to feel inescapable. “These events feel too big for most students to take into account,” says Jason He, a master’s student in electrical engineering. “At the end of the day, I think for a lot of students who have been paying a lot of money for their education, if the six-figure salary is offered, it’s pretty hard for students to turn down.”
There is still an opportunity, the thinking at Stanford goes, for every company to do good. Nichelle Hall, the senior who declined the Google interview, landed a job working on Medium’s trust and safety team. But she recognizes that she may have set her qualms aside if Google had been her only employment option. “Some of the feedback that CS + Social Good gets is, ‘Oh, the members end up working for Facebook, they end up working for Google,’” says Hall, who’s been involved with the organization since 2017. “People who care about this intersection of social impact and computer science will go to these companies and do a better job than if they weren’t interested in this stuff.”
Impact is the word that I heard more than any other while on campus. It’s how students framed their decision to go to Stanford, to pursue a career in computer science, to do good in the world after graduating. It’s a word that Hoffman used to describe his Blitzscaling class, and one Holmes used to explain to students why she dropped out of school. “I had the tools that I needed to be able to go out and begin making this impact,” she said. It’s the currency of Silicon Valley, that people spend for good and for ill.
The ability to create impact with a few lines of code has long been what separated software engineers from the rest of us, and turned the Valley into a self-proclaimed utopia of young rebels using technology to save the world from its older, antiquated self. But that’s not the image anymore. Now aspiring engineers draw a comparison between their chosen profession and investment banking. The finance industry wrecked the world a decade ago because of its misunderstanding of complex, automated systems that spun out of control—and its confidence that someone else would ultimately pay the price if things went wrong. You see this confidence in Zuckerberg’s incredulous response when anyone suggests that he resign, and in Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s initial refusal to testify before Congress. And you can see it at Stanford, where the endowment has never been higher, the fundraising has never been easier, and the career fair is still filled with slogans vowing to make the world a better place.
Perhaps this entire strip of land known as the Valley will fully calcify into a West Coast Wall Street, where the people with all the insider knowledge profit off the muppets who can’t stop using their products. If today’s young tech skeptics turn to cynics when they enter the working world, such a future is easy to imagine. But—and this is the hopeful, intoxicating, dangerous thing about technology—there’s always bright minds out there who think they can build a solution that just might fix this mess we’ve made. And people, especially young people, will always be enthralled by the romance of a new idea. “We’re creating things that haven’t necessarily existed before, and so we won’t be able to anticipate all the challenges that we have,” says Hall, who graduates in just four months. “But once we do, it’s important that we can reconcile them with grace and humility. I’m sure it will be a hard job, but it’s important that it’s hard. I’m up for the challenge.”
Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.
Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.
That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy:
- Take over an existing company for a short period of time,
- cut costs by firing employees,
- run up the debt,
- extract the wealth, and
- move on, sometimes
- leaving retirees without their earned pensions.
Romney became fantastically rich doing this.
Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country.
Mitt Romney refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the “mainstream Republican” view. And he’s right about that. For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars. Modern Democrats generally support those goals enthusiastically.
There are signs, however, that most people do not support this, and not just in America. In countries around the world — France, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, and many others — voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.
Something like this has been in happening in our country for three years. Donald Trump rode a surge of popular discontent all the way to the White House. Does he understand the political revolution that he harnessed? Can he reverse the economic and cultural trends that are destroying America? Those are open questions.
But they’re less relevant than we think. At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.
The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.
The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy:
Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.
But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.
One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.
Members of our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party who usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow, they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, come to the debate from the opposite perspective, and yet reach a strikingly similar conclusion. The real problem, you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.
Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two. It used to be possible to deny this. Not anymore. The evidence is now overwhelming. How do we know? Consider the inner cities.
Thirty years ago, conservatives looked at Detroit or Newark and many other places and were horrified by what they saw. Conventional families had all but disappeared in poor neighborhoods. The majority of children were born out of wedlock. Single mothers were the rule. Crime and drugs and disorder became universal.
What caused this nightmare? Liberals didn’t even want to acknowledge the question. They were benefiting from the disaster, in the form of reliable votes. Conservatives, though, had a ready explanation for inner-city dysfunction and it made sense: big government. Decades of badly-designed social programs had driven fathers from the home and created what conservatives called a “culture of poverty” that trapped people in generational decline.
There was truth in this. But it wasn’t the whole story. How do we know? Because virtually the same thing has happened decades later to an entirely different population. In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.
This is striking because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives, mostly.
Yet, the pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.
But Republicans now represent rural voters. They ought to be interested. Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.
Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.
This isn’t speculation. This is not propaganda from the evangelicals. It’s social science. We know it’s true. Rich people know it best of all. That’s why they get married before they have kids. That model works. But increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.
And yet, and here’s the bewildering and infuriating part, those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.
This is negligence on a massive scale. Both parties ignore the crisis in marriage. Our mindless cultural leaders act like it’s still 1961, and the biggest problem American families face is that sexism is preventing millions of housewives from becoming investment bankers or Facebook executives.
For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer. They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote an entire book about this. Sandberg explained that our first duty is to shareholders, above our own children. No surprise there. Sandberg herself is one of America’s biggest shareholders. Propaganda like this has made her rich.
What’s remarkable is how the rest of us responded to it. We didn’t question why Sandberg was saying this. We didn’t laugh in her face at the pure absurdity of it. Our corporate media celebrated Sandberg as the leader of a liberation movement. Her book became a bestseller: “Lean In.” As if putting a corporation first is empowerment. It is not. It is bondage. Republicans should say so.
They should also speak out against the ugliest parts of our financial system. Not all commerce is good. Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work — consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
And by the way, if you really loved your fellow Americans, as our leaders should, if it would break your heart to see them high all the time. Which they are. A huge number of our kids, especially our boys, are smoking weed constantly. You may not realize that, because new technology has made it odorless. But it’s everywhere.
And that’s not an accident. Once our leaders understood they could get rich from marijuana, marijuana became ubiquitous. In many places, tax-hungry politicians have legalized or decriminalized it. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner now lobbies for the marijuana industry. His fellow Republicans seem fine with that. “Oh, but it’s better for you than alcohol,” they tell us.
Maybe. Who cares? Talk about missing the point. Try having dinner with a 19-year-old who’s been smoking weed. The life is gone. Passive, flat, trapped in their own heads. Do you want that for your kids? Of course not. Then why are our leaders pushing it on us? You know the reason. Because they don’t care about us.
When you care about people, you do your best to treat them fairly. Our leaders don’t even try. They hand out jobs and contracts and scholarships and slots at prestigious universities based purely on how we look. There’s nothing less fair than that, though our tax code comes close.
Under our current system, an American who works for a salary pays about twice the tax rate as someone who’s living off inherited money and doesn’t work at all. We tax capital at half of what we tax labor. It’s a sweet deal if you work in finance, as many of our rich people do.
In 2010, for example, Mitt Romney made about $22 million dollars in investment income. He paid an effective federal tax rate of 14 percent. For normal upper-middle-class wage earners, the federal tax rate is nearly 40 percent. No wonder Mitt Romney supports the status quo. But for everyone else, it’s infuriating.
Our leaders rarely mention any of this. They tell us our multi-tiered tax code is based on the principles of the free market. Please. It’s based on laws that the Congress passed, laws that companies lobbied for in order to increase their economic advantage. It worked well for those people. They did increase their economic advantage. But for everyone else, it came at a big cost. Unfairness is profoundly divisive. When you favor one child over another, your kids don’t hate you. They hate each other.
That happens in countries, too. It’s happening in ours, probably by design. Divided countries are easier to rule. And nothing divides us like the perception that some people are getting special treatment. In our country, some people definitely are getting special treatment. Republicans should oppose that with everything they have.
What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old.
A country that listens to young people who don’t live in Brooklyn. A country where you can make a solid living outside of the big cities. A country where Lewiston, Maine seems almost as important as the west side of Los Angeles. A country where environmentalism means getting outside and picking up the trash. A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations. A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything.
Suppose, for example, that you cared passionately about the objectives of a particular charity, had a flair for fundraising, and successfully increased that charity’s share of available donations. You would probably feel both motivated and good, even if all you had done was divert money from another charity about which another equally motivated fundraiser was equally passionate.
The crucial economic question, therefore, is not whether individual jobs are “bullshit,” but whether they increasingly perform a zero-sum distributive function, whereby the dedication of ever more skill, effort, and technology cannot increase human welfare, given the skill, effort, and technology applied on the other side of the competitive game.
Numerous jobs fall into that category: cyber criminals and the cyber experts employed by companies to repel their attacks; lawyers (both personal and corporate); much of financial trading and asset management; tax accountants and revenue officials; advertising and marketing to build brand X at the expense of brand Y; rival policy campaigners and think tanks; even teachers seeking to ensure that their students achieve the higher relative grades that underpin future success.
.. But available figures suggest that zero-sum activities have grown significantly.
.. some 17.6% of all US jobs, receiving 30% of all compensation, are in “management and administrative” functions likely to involve significant zero-sum activity.
.. Eventually, almost all human work might be devoted to zero-sum activities.
.. Whether or not robots will ever achieve human-level intelligence, it is illuminating to consider what an economy would look like if we could automate almost all the work required to produce the goods and services human welfare requires. There are two possibilities: one is a dramatic increase in leisure; the other is that ever more work would be devoted to zero-sum competition.
.. As I argued in a recent lecture, such an economy would probably be a very unequal one, with a small number of IT experts, fashion designers, brand creators, lawyers, and financial traders earning enormous incomes.
.. Paradoxically, the most physical thing of all – locationally desirable land – would dominate asset values, and rules on inheritance would be a key determinant of relative wealth.
.. we would have solved “the economic problem” of how to produce as many goods and services as we want , but would face the more difficult and essentially political questions of
- how to achieve meaning in a world where work is no longer needed,
- and how to govern fairly the inherent human tendency toward status competition
No one who was paying attention to Greece’s predicament three years ago should be surprised by the position that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Europe find themselves in today. But only a dangerous fool would celebrate.
.. today’s defenders of the European status quomust fight on two fronts: against Trump’s encroachments and, within Europe, against the likes of Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, the rising stars of Italian politics who, despite their parliamentary majority, were denied the right to form a government by the country’s besieged pro-establishment president... Just as it is Trump’s aim to overturn the global system from which Germany has benefited for decades, Salvini and di Maio see the disintegration of the euro as a welcome development and a boon to their anti-immigration campaign... If you insist on policies that condemn whole populations to a combination of permanent stagnation and humiliation, you will soon have to deal not with Europeanist leftists like us but, instead, with anti-Europeanist xenophobes who see it as their vocation to disintegrate the European Union.”.. Germany’s establishment media are now referring to the Italian economist whose appointment as finance minister was vetoed by the president as “Italy’s Varoufakis.” That moniker obscures a fundamental difference: I wanted to keep Greece in the eurozone sustainably and was clashing with Germany’s leaders in favor of the debt restructuring that would make this possible. By crushing our Europeanist government in the summer of 2015, Germany sowed the seeds of today’s bitter harvest: a majority in Italy’s parliament that dreams of exiting the euro... Trump understands one thing well: Germany and the eurozone are at his mercy, owing to their increasing dependence on large net exports to the US and the rest of the world. And this dependence has grown inexorably as a result of the austerity policies that were first tried out in Greece and then implemented in Italy and elsewhere... a condition of agreeing to bailout loans for distressed governments and banks. Then note that this pan-European austerity drive took place against the backdrop of massive excess savings over investment... large excess savings and balanced government budgets necessarily mean large trade surpluses – and thus the increasing reliance of Germany, and Europe, on massive net exports to the United States and Asia... In other words, the same incompetent policies that gave rise to the xenophobic, anti-Europeanist Italian government also bolstered Trump’s power over Merkel... the US will aim to force China to deregulate its financial and tech sectors. If it succeeds, at least 15% of China’s national income will gush out of the country, adding to the deflationary forces that are breeding political monsters in Europe and in the US.