Silicon Valley's 1%: Stinginess Is Not The Problem
Are the people who drive Silicon Valley a bunch of self-centered elitists? Let's debate business diversity -- not make gross generalizations about "the wealthy."
When in public discourse did arguments start losing their grounding in facts? When did stereotypes start ruling the day?
The current issue evoking such vacuous partisanship is whether the "wealthy" -- and more specifically, the venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and executives who drive Silicon Valley -- are a bunch of self-centered, stingy, even sexist and ageist elitists.
The center of this tempest is a letter to the editor published by The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 24 in which Tom Perkins, founder of Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, compares the "demonization" of the wealthy in the US to Nazi Germany's "war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews." Perkins concludes: "This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?"
Now, I'm no fan of the anti-capitalist class warfare of the far left, as I wrote in a column titled War On Business And Innovation back in 2010, near the bottom of the recession. But comparing just about any movement to Nazi Germany is clear evidence that your position is intellectually bankrupt. Quacks on the far left and right have been making such comparisons for decades. The founder of one of Silicon Valley's most successful VC firms should know better, and he should comport himself better.
The anti-wealth examples that Perkins cites -- the Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide, a Bay Area backlash against the luxury buses that take Google employees to work, concerns that tech millionaires are pushing up Bay Area real estate prices and pushing out long-time residents -- are hardly the stuff of the Third Reich and the Kristallnacht rampage. (Perkins, to his credit, later apologized.)
But there's another extreme at play. In a New York Times column published on Jan. 27 headlined "Paranoia of the Plutocrats," Nobel Prize economics laureate Paul Krugman writes that "Mr. Perkins isn't that much of an outlier" but is part of "a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality."
"Every group finds itself facing criticism, and ends up on the losing side of policy disputes, somewhere along the way; that's democracy," Krugman writes. "The question is what happens next. Normal people take it in stride; even if they're angry and bitter over political setbacks, they don't cry persecution, compare their critics to Nazis and insist that the world revolves around their hurt feelings." OK, so far so good, until he adds: "But the rich are different from you and me."
Krugman presents Perkins as the poster boy for the hated "1%," an abnormal collective predisposed to hoarding their wealth, crying persecution, and comparing their critics to Nazis. (Evidently the non-rich are all upstanding citizens.) This from a wealthy former Enron adviser who's now a columnist for the elitist New York Times. Perhaps Krugman doesn't see the irony.
If we want to debate whether Silicon Valley or Wall Street or Washington or any other "class" of people tends to be insular or doesn't do enough social good with their riches or influence, let's debate those issues, presenting facts rather than gross generalizations. Tech blogger and academic Vivek Wadhwa (for one) has been making this broad case against Silicon Valley in a series of recent pieces in the Washington Post.
In his most recent post, titled "Enough is enough, Silicon Valley must end its elitism and arrogance," Wadhwa argues persuasively that Silicon Valley's workforce isn't nearly as diverse as it should be, pointing to Twitter's male-dominated board (and the CEO's defense of it), a sexual harassment scandal at Kleiner Perkins, and past statements from the principals of Facebook, Y Combinator, and other Silicon Valley firms about their inclination to back and hire young (rather than older) people. Despite some progress on the diversity front over the past several years, there's a body of evidence to support the notion that the tech industry remains the province of white men -- and to some extent, young men, especially among web companies. Even the CEO of old school SAP doesn't hide the company's ambition to attract younger talent, though he isn't just looking for white males.
In the end, tech companies will do what's in their own commercial interests, and diversity is becoming a business imperative, not just a social one. As Tom Georgens, CEO of No. 2 storage company NetApp (No. 33 on Fortune's 2014 "100 Best Companies To Work For" list), says: "If we're going to create an environment that's not attractive to certain categories of people, then we need to get a disproportionate amount of smart people from all the other categories. And I don't think that's a worthwhile thing. So whether it be race, gender, geographical location, sexual identity -- we want the best people in the world to work for us and we want to create an environment where they want to live and grow."
Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech ... View Full Bio
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