sexta-feira, 6 de novembro de 2015
Silicon Valley faces a new political problem
One of the more unexpected moments in recent US political history came four years ago when news of the death of Steve Jobs reached the forces of Occupy Wall Street — then in possession of fairly substantial swaths of urban parkland. Some of the protesters were pretty distraught and took to Twitter to mourn the loss of one of history’s greatest wealth creators.
The sadness on the city streets revealed one of the more curious blind spots of much of today’s American left. The occupiers were angry with the influence wielded by the richest 1 per cent of the population but they were willing to make exceptions for some captains of industry in the technology sector.
Executives such as Jobs were not part of the problem, in the view of many of the young people banging their drums at night in the parks. They were part of the solution, disrupters of traditional businesses and creators of the communications infrastructure that was enabling the smartphone-wielding activists to express themselves as never before.
But the times may be a changin’. Evidence that US progressives are turning against their old heroes in the Silicon Valley emanated this week from an intriguing locale: San Francisco, the Californian city by the bay that has become a very expensive place to live thanks to the presence — and arguably the products — of the high-tech elite.
The rebellion came in the form of ballot proposals designed to maintain the supply of affordable housing in the city. One sought to prevent landlords from converting residences into permanent offerings on the Airbnb home-sharing site by limiting short-term rentals to 75 days a year. Another would have stopped the construction of luxury homes in the traditionally working-class Mission district for 18 months.
Both local propositions went down to defeat on Tuesday. But I would note that they were supported by tens of thousands of San Franciscans, garnering more than 40 per cent of the vote in both cases. This flaring of anti-tech feeling is significant because Californian ideas have a way of spreading to other places. The hippie movement is one example. The anti-tax crusade that began with a California ballot initiative in 1978 is another. So too were the iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads sold by a certain Cupertino, California, company that employed Jobs from time to time.
San Francisco’s case also comes as something of a wake-up call in a country where neither major political party has shown any inclination to stand in the way of Silicon Valley — either through antitrust enforcement or other laws.
Rightly or wrongly, the Republicans tend to be focused nowadays on older technologies — witness Donald Trump’s call for the US to follow the example of Qin Dynasty China and build a great wall on the Mexican border.
The Democratic presidential campaign has featured plenty of big-business bashing as the frontrunner Hillary Clinton has been “pulled” to the left by socialist Bernie Sanders. But when Democrats complain about capitalists, they are usually talking about the ones working at the big banks, demonstrating the tendency of politicians, like generals, to fight the last war (when Wall Street was really falling apart during the 2008 campaign, few leaders in either party said much until it was too late).
If you run into a prominent Democrat talking about Silicon Valley these days, chances are they are doing so in the employ of a technology company. As Airbnb mounted an $8m campaign against the San Francisco proposal on short-term rentals, it hired Chris Lehane, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, has provided similar assistance to Uber, the ride-hailing service, while Jay Carney, his former press secretary, can be found kicking up a fuss on behalf of the happy campers at Amazon.
I would argue that political people of either party ignore the anti-tech stirrings in a place like San Francisco at their own peril — even though the city’s ballot proposals this week were far from perfect. Airbnb rentals, after all, could help homeowners of more modest means make ends meet. Higher-end housing developments in the Mission also could create jobs for lower-income people who might otherwise be idle.
The bigger point is that there are good reasons for people to worry about the Silicon Valley behemoths. The disparity in wealth between San Franciscans in the tech sector and other fields is raising questions about how the city can remain a home for both groups. Transport services such as Uber are threatening the livelihoods of taxi drivers around the world. The systemic online snooping into our personal affairs by private-sector entities points to the need for new rules of engagement (my sympathies on this score are with Walter Kirn, author of an Atlantic magazine article entitled: “If you’re not paranoid, you’re crazy”.)
A political reckoning with the big Silicon Valley groups is in order — just as one was with the leading banks when they were spreading their tentacles during the past decade. All it would take to get started would be one presidential candidate serious enough to talk with the American people about such things.