High-tech exploitation is still exploitation

In the so-called “sharing economy,” it isn’t the profits that are being shared. What is being shared are ways of putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

“Sharing economy” enterprises designating employees as “independent contractors” so that workers are left without legal protections, and undercutting competition through insisting that laws and regulations don’t apply to them, really aren’t new or “innovative.” But it’s Silicon Valley companies that are doing this — so, hurray!, it’s now exciting and, oh yes, disruptive! Quaint, archaic standards such as minimum wages and labor- and consumer-law protections are so old-fashioned that Silicon Valley billionaires are doing us all a favor by disrupting our ability to keep them.

That “sharing economy” enterprises are focal points of a new technology-stock bubble is another reason to question the hype surrounding them. While waiting for the right moment for an initial public offering, the poster child for the “sharing economy,” Uber Technologies Inc., has had no trouble attracting investors, and is now valued at US$51 billion. Not bad for a company that claims to be nothing but an app — except for when it claims to be hiring drivers when its interests dictate. (More on that below.) To put that valuation in perspective, it is higher than 80 percent of S&P 500 companies — an index selected from among the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. This for a company founded in 2009.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

How Uber’s valuation matches up with its income is impossible to say as the company does not reveal its financial results. A report in TechCrunch says that Uber may be pulling in more than $1 billion in gross receipts per year, and estimates Uber’s cut of that revenue to be about $213 million. (Uber takes a 20 percent cut from its drivers, but some drivers say it takes an additional cut for “fees”) Between its revenue and the $5 billion in funding it has received, the company could afford to hire its drivers as employees, but instead spends its money on attack advertising.

The company launched a multi-media fusillade of attack ads last month when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dared suggest regulations observed by others might apply to it, including a bombardment of television ads and robo-calls. (I received two. They didn’t work.) True to form, Mayor de Blasio, the Obama of New York City who is carrying out former billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term, backed down.

Uber vehemently opposed a proposed one-year cap of one percent growth in its drivers (which would have applied to all companies) despite already having more registered cars than all of the city’s yellow-cab companies combined, and in contrast to the hard cap that exists on the number of yellow-cab permits. When not attacking the mayor, Uber’s attacks were concentrated on yellow-cab companies and drivers.

Driving down wages for low-wage taxi drivers

Who are the taxi drivers whom Uber wishes you to believe are privileged and should be subjected to more competition? A New York City yellow cab driver pays the company that owns the cab $100 or more at the start of a 12-hour shift, pays for gas and is subject to consumer regulations. The driver spends the first hours of his or her shift covering these daily expenses. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance summarizes the situation for taxi drivers this way:

“Drivers are earning less and working longer, some days earning below the minimum wage. Right now, after 12-hour shifts, with no overtime pay, taxi drivers make $10-12 an hour in take home pay. More traffic and more cars competing for the same fares will drive incomes deeper into poverty levels. … In its ‘disruption’ playbook, meanwhile, Uber tells drivers to pick up illegally as a way to overwhelm local enforcement and break down regulators, and promises to pay the fines. Drivers desperate for work risk time in jail and for immigrants, loss of naturalized citizenship, while brand Uber claims innovation. Drivers are used and discarded. …

Uber seeks to decimate the regulated taxi industry and replace it with a transportation monopoly of no consumer protections and no full-time work for drivers. For Uber, drivers aren’t just Independent Contractors, they, quite frankly, are not workers at all. Why tip, or require commercial insurance or registration, or comply under federal or state transportation or labor laws when this is ‘just a side thing.’ Low Uber fares — when they are not price surging — are aimed at out-competing taxis and justified by calling the income supplemental. Taxis aren’t the only target, as they also aim their sights on dismantling public transportation, by proclaiming to be cheaper than buses in Chicago and LA and faster than an ambulance. If they gain a monopoly, the purpose of low fares will have been served and price surging will be the norm.”

The “disruption” or “innovation” that this promises is the Wal-Martization of transportation. In fact, the corporate law firm that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. used to successfully defeat a discrimination class action (Wal-Mart v. Dukes) by women employees, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, has been hired by Uber to fight its California drivers who say they are improperly classified as independent contractors instead of as employees. Not exactly the defender of working-class drivers Uber claims to be in its propaganda.

A San Francisco federal judge and the California Labor Commission separately ruled earlier this year that Uber drivers are employees, rulings the company continues to contest. But when it was sued for alleged text spamming, Uber claimed the messages were legal because they were hiring solicitations. But how can Uber “recruit” if it is nothing more than a software provider as it claims?

The degradation of working conditions through the “sharing economy” is of course not limited to one company. A provider of home-cleaning services, Homejoy, has closed itself rather than contest lawsuits seeking to have its “independent contractors” be re-classified as employees. Grocery-delivery service Instacart and courier Shyp have reclassified some of their workers as employees in the face of lawsuits.

A lottery economy facilitates inequality

The founders of these companies and the speculators who sink millions into them hope to be the winners in what has become a lottery economy. Only a minuscule percentage of inventions become commercially successful — a director of public affairs for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office said a decade ago that 99.8 percent of issued patents are not commercially viable. A small number of those commercially viable ideas are worth millions or billions to its creators. This is similar to the art world, where a minuscule number of artists sell works for millions while the overwhelming majority of artists earn little or nothing.

But are the entrepreneurs who win the lottery really worth so much more than everybody else? None of these corporate lottery winners created their successful company on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies that create the demand for the product. 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 (although most inherited their money through luck of birth).

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. But why should Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg amass $18 billion and so many others get nothing? Why should Apple Inc. accumulate unprecedented wealth while conditions in the sweatshops that produce its gadgets are sufficiently grim to cause a wave of suicides?

Why should those who stand to make gigantic fortunes from whatever “sharing economy” enterprise is the one that wins the lottery make fortunes on the backs of working people struggling to survive?

At the end of the day, what computers and apps do is shift consumer spending from one merchant to another. The rider who uses an Uber black car is substituting that service for a taxi; the shopper who buys online is substituting for a local store. Just as Wal-Mart seeks to monopolize low-end retail, thereby sending money into the bulging wallets of the multi-billionaire Walton family instead of re-circulating the money through local spending, “sharing economy” enterprises are seeking to vacuum up as much money as possible, with speculators salivating over the potential profits.

Billionaire Silicon Valley libertarians are attempting to become wealthier at the expense of working people. That’s not disruption, that’s capitalism as usual.

Those who do the work in the workplace should get the rewards

A cooperative enterprise rests on a basic concept — the people who do the work earn the money. Strange, isn’t it, that this straightforward idea is considered radical.

It shouldn’t. Yet it is. The modern capitalist system is advertised as a “meritocracy” — those who work the hardest earn the most. In reality, this is a fairy tale; those who accumulate the most are those who have the most capital, often inherited. The system is called “capitalism” for a reason.

Not even the hardest-working chief executive officer works 340 times harder than his or her average employee. The financier who manipulates numbers on a computer screen, indifferent to the humanity that produces those revenues and net incomes, surely does not work hundreds of times harder. Or, likely, even as hard, particularly if the corporate raider is looting a manufacturing company with a factory floor.

If the chief executive, or any manager, is elected from the ranks of the workforce by those same co-workers due to his or her meritorious effort and/or willingness to obtain a degree in management, then indeed an enterprise can be said to operate on a meritorious basis. Such enterprises already exist; some were created as cooperatives at the start and some were taken over by their workers to forestall closure or abandonment.

If you gave the average employee the choice of working in a cooperative, in which everybody shares in the rewards if the enterprise succeeds and everybody has a vote in strategic decisions in a democratic process, as opposed to being an exploited, powerless cog in the traditional authoritarian, top-down capitalist enterprise, there would be considerable support for the former option. If the person given this choice were to be told that wages, benefits and working conditions would be better in the cooperative (as in fact is the case), the decision becomes easier.

But what do we say to a small-business owner? Mom-and-pop businesses form part of the backbone of communities and, unlike a large corporation in which ownership shares are traded among speculators far removed from the actual underlying business, the small businessperson is present, often for long days. Here we have people who do put in more hours than others, and have put their limited capital at risk.

Why should anyone have to work 14 hours a day?

Two recent conversations have gotten me to think about this particular question. One was a debate conducted on another blog in direct response to a question from a small business owner who said he works 14 hours a day, six days a week. The other was a debate with a passerby I had last weekend while staffing an Occupy Wall Street literature table who insisted she was more deserving than others because she worked 12 or more hours a day when others weren’t willing to do so.

If someone chooses to work such hours and is personally fulfilled by doing so, that is that person’s business and not mine. But if you are at your job 14 hours a day, six days a week, your family is missing all the other things you have to offer them. And no matter how nice a house you may have, you’re not there to enjoy it.

Nobody should have to work such punishing hours. There are those who choose to do so out of personal conviction, but there are many millions of people in sweatshops working such hours, or still longer hours, who earn starvation wages — and they have no choice about it. The big capitalists of the world — people who have far more than any small-business owner — earn their fabulous wealth by exploiting such people, and by exploiting relatively more privileged people in advanced capitalist countries who work lesser hours but nonetheless work long, hard days.

Capitalists become rich by paying their employees less than the value of what they produce — usually far less. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t capitalists who don’t work, but a person who runs a small family business is not in the same category as a big capitalist. The passerby with whom I debated last weekend said if the people whom she claimed were jealous of her house were to run businesses like she does, and put in as many hours, they could have what she has.

But there is only so much space for such businesses; under capitalism, most people are going to have to work for somebody else. Moreover, opportunities are vastly unequal. I grew up in a middle class household where the expectation was always that I would go to college (which I did), and we lived in a town with an excellent public-school system, so I received a better education than most students. I had advantages that many people do not have, had I wished to pursue a business career.

Yes, some folks do climb out of disadvantageous situations, but only so many can do that in a (capitalist) system that puts tremendous roadblocks in front of people. Saving is difficult when mere survival is an increasingly difficult struggle.

A small-business owner may object that s/he puts in more hours than employees do (if they have any) and has capital at risk. That may be true, but having to do so is a requirement imposed by the capitalist system; it is not something ordained by some natural order. The capital put at risk was undoubtedly lent by a bank, which collects high interest — in other words, the bank is exploiting the small businessperson. The banker did nothing but sign a piece of paper while the owner works 14 hours a day. Why should the banker earn such big money? Quite likely, the banker, who repeats this exploitative operation with others, earns far more money and works far fewer hours.

The small businessperson is exploited by capitalists, too, just in a different way than an employee is.

The proprietor works, the landlord takes

Let’s take a concrete example. For more than 30 years, including two decades at his last location, a vegan baker much loved by the community operated a bakery before being forced out of business by a landlord who continually jacked up his rent, at three times the rate of inflation. The baker always gave to the community, frequently donating goodies at public events; I was far from the only person routinely greeted with a hug and often offered a free tea when I stopped in. During those years, the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City changed from a unique enclave of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks to its present-day state of gentrification run amok.

[Credit: VegGuide.org at http://www.vegguide.org/entry/436]

[Credit: VegGuide.org]

The baker worked from early afternoon to midnight six, and usually seven, days a week, just so all of his money could go to the landlord, who merely needs to sit in his comfortable office many miles away and let the money roll in. For landlords, the neighborhood is nothing but a cash cow to exploit, cynically taking advantage of the cachet created by the residents they are squeezing out by their exorbitant rents. The baker’s fate has been the fate of countless small businesses; only faceless chain stores are able to afford the rents. This corporatization has been replicated in countless other neighborhoods.

The free-lance worker gets the short end as well. For years, I was self-employed, and had to, for tax purposes, operate as my own small business and fill out tax forms the same way an actual small business would. But I was no businessperson — I was a worker who didn’t have a regular job. I was exploited; in fact I was more exploited than I now am with a regular job because I had no health insurance and I had to pay double the usual Social Security taxes (my half and the employers’ half).

People are taught to have a 19th century, romantic notion of capitalism — a myriad of small enterprises competing in a free market. But a “free market” has never existed. Capitalism was built on pushing people off their farms and passing draconian laws to force them into the new factories; markets are expanded through force both military (World War I is one particularly bloody example) and financial (such as International Monetary Fund diktats); and the largest competitors become a handful of oligarchs whose wealth enables them to get governments to give them yet more advantages and who compete by cutting wages rather than through competition that exists only in textbooks.

Employees are exploited through this system, regardless of collar color, by being paid only a small fraction of what they produce and forced to compete for a dwindling number of jobs, but also because they, as consumers, have to pay the high prices that result when competition reduces an industry to a small number of oligopolistic behemoths who dominate a market. Small businesses are also at the mercy of larger corporate entities, including rapacious bankers, and are hurt when their customers have less money.

In a cooperative economy, no individual must assume all the risk. The cooperative can do so, taking loans at reasonable rates by making a good case to a publicly accountable bank operated as a public utility. Enterprises would relate to other enterprises in a cooperative, not competitive manner, eliminating much of the anxiety inherent in a capitalist system in which humans serve markets instead of the other way around.

Hard workers such as the small businesspeople under discussion would be valuable to a cooperative enterprise. Someone possessing such drive would likely wind up being elected to an administrative or management post by their collective. Talents and hard work would still be recognized; such a driven person would still have the personal satisfaction of a job well done; and s/he could work fewer hours, allowing more time to be spent with family and friends.

Others, too, will contribute talent and work to the cooperative enterprise while sharing the burden. Everybody who works should have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, with community input — after all, it is the community that would be supporting the enterprise, and the enterprise in turn would be operated by people from the community. Production should be for human need, not for a minuscule elite’s private profit with no regard to the greater good. Benefiting the community and earning a comfortable living while working a humanistic workday shouldn’t be oxymoronic.

Solo geniuses who scorn the society that provides the shoulders they sit on

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]