Still Running Things — Thomas Frank in Salon on why the 1% are still in charge.
The big news after President Obama’s State of the Union address in January was that he didn’t really talk about the issues of inequality that everyone expected him to talk about. Instead, he shifted the “conversation,” as we call it, toward the subject of opportunity. He shied away from the extremely disturbing fact that when you work these days only your boss prospers, and brought us back to the infinitely less disturbing fact that sometimes poor people do get ahead despite it all. In a clever oratorical maneuver, Obama illustrated this comforting idea by referencing the success stories of both himself—“the son of a single mom”—and his arch-foe, Republican House Speaker John Boehner—“the son of a barkeep.” He spoke of building “new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” a phrase that has become a trademark for his administration.
The problem, as Obama summed it up, is that Americans have ceased to believe they can rise from the ranks. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said. “And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”
The switcheroo was subtle, but if you’ve been paying attention you couldn’t miss it: These were almost precisely the words Obama had used the month before (“The defining challenge of our time”) to describe inequality itself.
Well, the Democratic apparat heard it, and as one body did they sway and swoon. This was a move of statesmanlike genius, they said. “Opportunity” and social mobility are what Americans have always liked to hear about, they declared; “inequality” sounds like a demand for entitlements—or something much worse. “What you want to do is focus on the aspirational side of this,” said Paul Begala in a typical remark, “lifting people up, not on just complaining about a lack of fairness or inequality.”
If you’re in the right mood, you might well agree with him. In the distant past, “opportunity” used to be something of a liberal buzzword, a way of selling welfare-state inventions of every description. The reason was simple: true equality of opportunity is not possible without achieving, well, greater equality, period. If we’re really serious about opportunity—if we’re going to ensure that every poor kid has a chance in life that is the equal of every rich kid—it’s going to require a gigantic investment in public schools, in housing, in food stamps, in infrastructure, in public projects of every description. It will necessarily mean taking on the broader problem of the One Percent along the way.
But that was what the word meant long ago. It’s different today. When people talk about opportunity nowadays, they’re often not trying to refine the debate over inequality, they’re trying to negate it. The social function of mobility-talk is usually to excuse inequality, not to change it; to persuade us that the system we have now is fair and even natural—or that it can be made so with a few more charter schools or student loans or something. Because everyone has a chance at making it into the One Percent, this version of “opportunity” tells us, there’s nothing wrong with letting the One Percent hog every dish at the banquet.
The well-known libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for example, writes in his new book “Average is Over” that we increasingly inhabit a “hyper-meritocracy” in which “top earners” take home more than ever before because, duh, they’ve got the right skills and hence they deserve to take home more than top earners ever have before. The future might look bleak for less-than-top people like you, but if you fall off the ladder of opportunity there’s only one answer: Get used to it.
Kids These Days — Yiren Lu in the New York Times Magazine on how Silicon Valley how technology is dealing with the generation gap.
The Cisco Meraki office in Mission Bay, San Francisco, is 40 paces from the water, and just as nice as Google’s. On a clear winter day in late December, I sat in one of its conference rooms with a company spokeswoman on my right and Sanjit Biswas on my left, peering out through floor-to-ceiling glass. On the other side: brightly patterned furniture, murals and paneled wood, a well-stocked cafeteria, a deck with spectacular views of the bay. Twelve months earlier, in a deal meant to bring fresh edge to Cisco, the networking behemoth bought Meraki from Biswas and two co-founders for $1.2 billion. Now they were making good on their promise — starting with the décor.
Like Cisco, Meraki makes networking equipment — routers, wireless devices and the software to manage them, the sorts of products that even by tech standards have always been a little short on glamour. When Biswas and his co-founders left their graduate programs at M.I.T. in 2006 to work full time on Meraki — the name comes from a Greek word that means creating something with passion — they had few start-up competitors among their peers, who were making Twitter knockoffs. Six years later, their company had become a formidable player in the midsize router market. In a field notorious for opaque technical standards, Meraki emphasized simplicity and ease of use, while also managing to tick a lot of boxes on any Web 2.0 checklist: cloud-based, scalable, mobile-friendly. “They’re buzzwords,” Biswas said. “But they’re also true.” You don’t need a SWAT team of technicians to set up a Meraki router; the system is intuitive and well designed, qualities that are especially appealing to a company like Cisco, which has dominated networking for three decades but has struggled in recent years to maintain its air of leading-edge inevitability.
The same dynamic is playing out throughout Silicon Valley, as companies like Intel post disappointing earnings reports and others like Snapchat turn down billion-dollar offers. The rapid consumer-ification of tech, led by Facebook and Google, has created a deep rift between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses. On their face, these cleavages seem to be part of the natural order. As Biswas pointed out, “There has always been a constant churn of new companies coming in, old companies dying out.”
But the churn feels more problematic now, in part because it deprives the new guard as well as the old — and by extension, it deprives us all. In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps.
Feed Us — Andy Borowitz on President Obama’s latest outrage.
Washington (The Borowitz Report) — President Obama has sparked outrage in Congress and renewed calls for his impeachment by signing a daring Presidential memorandum that would pay workers enough to eat.
The memorandum, which is based on the President’s view that people should be paid for the hours they actually work, is shaping up as one of the most controversial and incendiary actions of his Presidency.
House Republican leaders held a press conference this morning to warn Obama that, by advancing his agenda of paying people for the work they do, he is “playing with political fire.”
“A Presidential memorandum is a powerful tool and should be used sparingly,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It is not a vehicle for this President to enact his pet theories about people earning enough to survive.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) concurred, telling reporters, “With one stroke of the pen, President Obama is removing the single greatest incentive for work: hunger.”
“Apparently, President Obama needs a lesson in American history,” he said. “Hunger built the railroads. Hunger picked the crops. When the American people learn more about this action of the President’s, they will see it for what it is: a hunger-killer.”
Doonesbury — Downgrading upgrading.