By Pete Dolack
The lone inventor is an archetype of long standing. The image remains, but, particularly in the United States, the image of the inventor has morphed from Thomas Edison and his cluttered laboratory to the hard-charging entrepreneur who single-handedly builds businesses.
The change in imagery mirrors the emphasis on wealth in U.S. popular culture, and the tendency to either defer to or scorn people based on perceptions of their wealth. Such imagery also serves as a particularly enticing carrot to dangle in front of those who aren’t millionaires, allowing them to entertain ideas that, if only they work hard enough, they too can accumulate fortunes.
Nobody creates a product, builds a company or makes a scientific discovery all on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies who create the demand for the product. For scientific discoveries, there are public investments in equipment or laboratory facilities, and scientific discoveries are often the basis for new products. For any of these, there are schools and universities, often paid for with public money, that provided the education that developed the skills of the creator or discoverer.
Then there is the social structure that enabled the millionaire to become wealthy through an invention or the creation of a popular product or through rising to the top of a large corporation or simply through being a popular entertainer or athlete. (We’ll set aside for now the fact that inheritance is the path most often trod to wealth.)
It appeared that the foundation of financial success was going to become a focus of the otherwise intellectually arid presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For one day last week (prior to the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado) the two campaigns traded barbs over a speech President Obama made the previous week in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he pointed out that business leaders often ignore the social capital behind their success. He said:
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t, look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.”
There is nothing in the above quote that should strike any rational U.S. citizen as controversial. President Obama made the requisite genuflection to “American exceptionalism” — an ultra-nationalistic slogan used within the United States to portray the country as superior to all others in all categories, a vapid capitulation to xenophobia that is mandatory for any major office-holder. But in this specific context, “this unbelievable American system” is not out of place since the subject at hand is the ability to amass wealth. Having made the ritualistic genuflection, the president felt free to acknowledge that government investment is behind many a private fortune (or perhaps he accepts he has to do something to recapture the populist image he crafted in 2008 after spending most of first term thumbing his base in the eye).
Government research, after all, did create the Internet; President Obama did not mention that government research created the World Wide Web, perhaps because it was European, rather than U.S., money that created that. Private businesspeople simply found ways to get rich off what others invented. Thus we have the spectacle of Microsoft founder Bill Gates becoming for a time the richest person on Earth because his company aggressively wields its monopoly status in personal-computer operating systems while making inferior products at the same time the people who invented the Internet and its architecture earned no fortunes.
Mr. Gates’ billions enables him to be a prime mover behind the privatization of education and compels the corporate mass media to portray him as a genius whose every word is a golden pearl. The inventors of the Internet and its architecture — although it is their work in government laboratories that made possible the Silicon Valley moguls’ fortunes — are obscure. Indeed, we would have to do research to learn their names.
There are many examples of industries similarly booted up by government investment — among them, cellphones, GPS technology and medical equipment. That is a simple fact; it is only the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology that makes such a statement in any way controversial. The Obama administration bends over backwards to benefit business: Showering subsidies on them, giving bailouts with no strings attached, promoting their interests with “free trade” agreements with a variety of countries, and discarding most of his promises to ease the extreme tilt against employees in labor relations.
Indeed, one of the very first people President Obama picked to staff his administration was Lawrence Summers, one of the leading ideologues of neoliberalism. Mr. Summers has distinguished himself in various ways, including in imposing austerity on Russia and other countries from posts at the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury Department. He once infamously, while the World Bank’s chief economist, wrote in an internal memo that Africa was “vastly UNDER-polluted” (emphasis in original) and “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”
So said the person whom President Obama picked to be his lead economic adviser. During the 2008 campaign, the public’s exhaustion with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their administration’s unilateral foreign policy led to Barack Obama becoming the embodiment (realistically or not) of a widely desired change. At the same time, the disapproval of a significant number of capitalists over the narrowness of the Bush II/Cheney administration in promoting the interests of a handful of industries (in particular energy) instead of pursuing more general business interests and a desire for a White House that would be less quick to alienate allied countries led to an unusual split among elites who normally overwhelmingly prefer Republicans.
The interests of powerful capitalists and the interests of the rest of the country are far from aligned, and it should come as no surprise that the interests of capitalist elites are dominant in the Obama administration. The capitalist elites who backed him desired a calm, steady hand at the helm of empire, and that is what they have received: Military interventions are coordinated with allied capitalist countries, the fig leafs of United Nations resolutions are obtained, Nato allies are treated as partners (albeit junior partners) and not as flunkies to be ordered about; a soothing public demeanor to mask harsh policies; and conducting the arm-twisting of foreign governments behind closed doors. Those elites are dependent on selling their products in stable foreign markets.
It is precisely the concept of “American exceptionalism” that provides a crucial ideological underpinning for unending interference in the affairs of other countries. All presidents have to carry out the duties of the belief in “American exceptionalism” and could do not do so without a firm personal belief in it themselves. A president or any other high government official can (and does) convince themselves of their duty to act on the “exceptionalism” but all that is exceptional is that it happens to be the United States that is the center of the capitalist system and possesses the military muscle to maintain it.
The “duty” carried out in the name of this “exceptionalism” is a “duty” to assert the interests of multi-national corporations. That the country voted by a solid majority to put an end to wars and corporate domination was of no consequence.
Having low expectations for the president, I did not expect “change,” although the extent of the willingness of the Obama administration to give almost nothing to its base is a surprise. For some time, it is has been apparent that the main theme of the re-election campaign would be “You have to vote for us, the Republicans are even worse.” But it is useless to see this in terms of “selling out” or “ineptitude” or “softness.” The Obama administration is simply reflecting the dominant sources of power within the U.S., and that is not going to change without a countervailing mass movement.
Governments around the world are at the mercy of the largest capitalists within the advanced capitalist countries; interests that are distilled into the pressures applied by financial markets. A country at the center of the world capitalist system, the United States, experiences such pressures primarily from its domestic capitalists, although those capitalists’ business interests are intimately tied with peer capitalists around the world in today’s global economy. Most countries experience market pressures as external forces.
As an example, let us briefly examine South Africa in its first years after the apartheid system was overthrown in a negotiated process forced by a massive international popular movement backing the African National Congress. During the long years of struggle by the ANC and pitiless repression by the National Party, the apartheid-era rulers in South Africa, the guiding document of the ANC was its “Freedom Charter.”* The charter, adopted after democratic consultations in 1955, calls for the right to work; to decent housing; freedom of thought; and nationalization of mines, banks and “monopoly industry” and land distribution so that all South Africans can share in the wealth of their country.
Although the ANC had the moral authority to carry out its program, its negotiators tragically (and unwittingly) gave up all economic control, forfeiting their ability to carry out any aspect of their program, with the result that, two decades later, the economy is firmly in the hands of its numerically minuscule White business elite (which is tied to international markets) and South Africa remains among the world’s most unequal countries. The country’s eyes were on the political talks between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, in which the ANC decisively was the victor against the National Party’s attempts to dilute its loss of government control.
But in the parallel economic talks, which drew little attention, the ANC gave everything away. The central bank would be independent of government (as financiers demanded), National Party government finance officials would remain in office and the ANC government would sign on to everything demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all international trade agreements. Having done so, the ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further discipline by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them. From pleasing markets and giving financiers repeated assurances, it proved a short path to President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, imposing austerity — a 180-degree turn from the Freedom Charter.
The mythology that markets know best is intimately linked with the mythology that the economy should be entrusted to financial elites and those elites’ intellectual servants, neoclassical economists. The mythology of the solo genius justifies massive inequality because the “solo genius” single-handedly created a popular product and thus single-handedly brought prosperity upon the land. For such selfless services, the solo genius must be compensated with fantastic wealth.
The “magic of the market” takes care of the compensation. For a young, growing company, the preferred route is the initial public offering. The IPO does indeed shower riches upon the founder, a small circle of his or her insiders, and the investment banks who take care of the details. If that money comes out of the wallets of everyday investors, well that’s the market for you. This system reached near-perfection in the Facebook IPO earlier this year. The key to an IPO is to price the stock high enough so that the money largely accrues to the insiders (who possess most of the stock through pre-IPO awards) but not so high that the stock price plummets afterward (making the scam too obvious) nor so low that a significant post-IPO stock-price rise means that some money was lost to investors.
Thus Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wound up with $18 billion, Facebook’s investment bankers and insiders received substantial windfalls and all those who bought in after the opening bell are out of luck. The stock price never has returned to its opening-day level. Oh well, a “long-term hold” as they say in financial-analyst circles.
Facebook’s current popularity is undeniable, but what of value did Mr. Zuckerberg create? Perhaps Facebook will be an exception, but Internet sites tend to be cyclical fads. What was once popular can rapidly become passé. Does he, or anyone, really deserve $18 billion for a few years of work? Did he work tens of thousands of times harder than the average employee of a U.S. company? Remember, what he, and other Internet moguls, created was built on the creation of people who didn’t get rich or famous, and who created it through public investment — that is, in a government facility.
It would seem that the carrot of a multibillion-dollar payoff is not necessary for technical progress. People invent, people create works of art, people write, people aspire every day without outlandish renumeration. Often without it at all. Inventions are made routinely in government laboratories, in university laboratories and in corporate laboratories — and in each of these, it is the government, university or corporation and not the inventor who owns the rights to the invention. Many others toil on their own to create an invention, with only slim chances of making a fortune out of it. Some of these people undoubtedly are motivated by the potential for enrichment, but the overwhelmingly majority will never see it — either they will fail, or their success will lead to little or no money.
Why should one person amass $18 billion and so many other get nothing? Why should a lucky handful of people amass billions of dollars and then get to claim they did it all on their own with no help at all? President Obama’s reference to “this unbelievable American system” is true here in the sense that a few people are able to amass fantastic riches. But it is glaring inequality that enables the accumulation, and the accumulation comes on the backs of employees. Without a system that does not simply tolerate, but celebrates and causes, massive inequality, the superrich whom Governor Romney is so fast to promote as solo geniuses who had no help (no surprise as this is the myth he spins for himself) would not be the superrich.
Without the infrastructure that government provides in the form of educational institutions, a court system that adjudicates commercial disputes, means of coercion such as police and the military to suppress dissent at home and abroad, an ever larger basket of subsidies, “free trade” agreements that promote corporate interests above human rights, and a transportation infrastructure such as expressways that are mostly free, billionaires would not be able to become billionaires. And yet they continually whine that “government” is in the way.
In a better world, government would be the product of public demand and benefit. Instead, it is the reflection of the arrayed social forces within a given society — in an advanced capitalist country, that is its most powerful industrialists and financiers. The constant chatter of government “getting in the way” of business interests and of entrepreneurial geniuses single-handedly creating wealth should be laughed at for the joke those mythologies are.
* This and the next two paragraphs based in part on Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, pages 194-217 [Metropolitan Books, 2007]