Like most people in the Left, I’m fairly critical of the Capitalist system. It’s a system that is often exploitative of workers, it exploits natural resources and causes environmental and pollution problems, it leads to great inequalities between the rich and the poor, it fosters a culture of greed and corrosive self interest, and it leads to unhealthy concentrations of wealth in a small group of people. I do think though, that Capitalism does have its good points: it fuels competition that leads to technological advancements; in the long run it helps more people get out of poverty and raise the living standards of many communities. So I think that Capitalism is a system with great benefits and great flaws. I think one of the reasons I have the views that I do is the place where I live. If I lived in Michigan or some other place that has been hardest hit by the economic crisis, I think I would be more of a revolutionary. But I live in Silicon Valley, where the benefits and flaws of capitalism are both very pronounced.
I often think of Silicon Valley as being the land of the overworked engineer. Most of the people that I know are engineers and my wife is an engineer. Engineers earn a lot of money, but they also work unearthly hours and often face a lot of pressure to solve technical problems at a deadline. During the 1990s, many young engineers worked long hours and had no private lives and eventually got burned out during the tech boom. Unions have not made any headways in organizing engineers, so they are often vulnerable to management whims. I’ve heard stories from friends who worked in start up companies that withheld their vacation pay or their last paychecks when they moved to other companies. Many high tech workers work late at night to communicate with India, as night time here is morning in India.
One of the good things of the tech companies is how they have raised the living standards of many neighborhoods. My parents’ neighborhood is a more blue collar neighborhood with many Filipinos, Hispanics, Vietnamese,and Indians. Their neighborhood improved a lot during the tech boom years, as the parks had lusher grass and new bikeways and hiking paths parallelling the creek. During the housing bubble, many people upgraded their houses and improved their lawns. After the housing crash, though, in 2008, many homes have been foreclosed, and people have been struggling. My parents and many of the people in the neighborhood have been living in their homes for over thirty years, and a large group are veterans who retired from Moffet Field military base and have found jobs in more blue collar lines of work. They bought their homes before the tech revolution in Silicon Valley, so housing prices were still within the reach of average working class families.
Over the past two decades though, people in the high tech industries have been buying homes in the heart of Silicon Valley to be near their work and have caused housing prices to rise. This has made housing prices out of reach for many lower wage workers. Many lower wage workers have had to live farther away and had to have longer commutes to get to work. This was especially tough for them when gas prices began to rise, as more of their paychecks went to pay for the longer commute. In the Silicon Valley, there are pockets of poorer neighborhoods, where people struggle in a place where there is so much wealth. Homeless people wander the streets and many churches and nonprofits have set up shelters and lunch programs to try to help them. Though many people have benefitted economically from high tech companies, many people have been left behind and are trapped.
One of the wonderful things about Silicon Valley is the great ethnic diversity. Chinese, Filipinos, Hispanics. Indians, Russians, African Americans, Vietnamese, Middle Easterners, all have flocked here for greater economic opportunities. I’ve learned a lot about different cultures just from visiting friends’ homes and having conversations about their traditions. It’s common to see interracial couples, and if you go to a farmer’s market, there are many different types of food from different countries.
One of the reasons I favor immigration reform is that our valley’s prosperity depends on immigrants. Around the country, there has been a growing prejudice against Hispanic immigrants because of the illegal immigration issue, and my observations in Silicon Valley is that these people work hard in jobs that are often unnoticed. They work to keep people’s yards clean and well manicured. They cook and serve the foods in many of the restaurants that high tech engineers eat at. In the weekends I’ve driven past the farming fields in Watsonville and Monterey, to see Hispanic workers on the fields picking the vegetables in the hot sun. The idea that is often espoused by many conservative Republicans that these people are exploiting the system seems to me a fallacy. From what I observe, our country is exploiting these immigrants for their cheap labor far more than they’re exploiting us.
Many progressives have criticized corporate CEOs for their greed and I share a lot of that sentiment. Here in Silicon Valley, my perceptions of high tech CEOs are far more complicated. High tech CEOs are often as competitive and greedy as CEOs in other industries. But many CEOs have also given back to the communities and have supported progressive causes. David Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett Packard, is a noted philanthropist who founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute , the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, and has donated to programs for populution control, environmental sustainability issues and health insurance for children. Packard’s son has helped the Stanford Theater, a wonderful theater in Palo Alto that runs old movies made before 1960.
Recently Steve Jobs died, and he’s an example of the contradictions of high tech CEOs. He’s helped Apple become a leading company with the Mac, the iPod, the iPad, and many other technological products that have changed the lives of many people for the better. His commercials extol the rebel, the noncomformist, people who “think different”. Yet Jobs was also verbally abusive to many of his employees, and his products are often made in countries that exploit poor workers for their cheap labor. Many progressives have been justifiably critical of Jobs because of this dark side. Jobs’ wife, Laurene Jobs, has been a strong supporter of progressive causes and Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Last week I dropped by Apple to see the tributes that were being given to Jobs. A steady stream of people, from young people to whole families, filed past the flowers and cards that were placed on an Apple bench to pay tribute to Steve Jobs. I don’t own any Apple projects, but I too felt a sort of loss for a man that brought us so many technological advancements in computers and animation.
Since the Kennedys and the Roosevelts were rich families that worked hard to help the poor and disadvantaged, I don’t think that all rich people are bad. I do think though that the rich do have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate and to give back to their communities. One thing that has bothered me is the attitude among some rich people that since they worked hard to gain their wealth, they blame the poor for their condition, when in fact the poor people that I know work very hard. This attitude tends to be more prevalent among wealthy people who live in communities where they have no contact with poorer people on a social level. I have met wealthy individuals who have volunteered to serve food for the poor or to go aid in disaster areas like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Several wealthier business people from minority communities have tried to give back to their communities. Especially in these hard economic times, I think more is required from those people who have benefitted from this economic system to help the victims of the economic system.
The competitve spirit that drives Silicon Valley is a major reason that it is the technological hub of the country. But this competitiveness has it disadvantages, especially for its youth. Many wealthier parents compete to have their children go to Cupertino schools, as that city has a repution for having a top notch school system. Many students feel a lot of stress due to the competitive nature of the school system. In affluent Palo Alto, about two years ago, there was a rash of teen suicides where a number of high achieving teens walked in from of a train to end their life. An article by Chris Kenwick for the May 22, 2009 Palo Alto News stated:
It is hard to be a teenager anywhere, but may be particularly hard in a high-achieving place such as Palo Alto, Rey believes.
Pressure to succeed is such that teens and parents often feel a need to hide their challenges, he said.
“On the outside we all have that smile, we’re all healthy, beautiful, drive a Mercedes, have a big house, yet we suffer in silence and alone in our homes because admitting that there’s something wrong is a sign that we have failed.
“We think that going out and saying, ‘I have a depressed child’ is a reflection of the failure of the parents, when it is not. But I think we’re all afraid of that so, sadly, we stay in denial,” Rey said.
The environment in Silicon Valley has a mixed record. Because of the toxic materials that have been used to make the silicon chips for the high tech industries in the 1980s and 1990s, there are many areas that are under ground that is contaminated with those older toxic materials, The paving over of land that was once orchards and farms has been a difficult transition for many older residents. On many summer days, we have Spare the Air days because the smog levels from traffic is so bad, it becomes a health hazard to people with lung problems or to people who are sensitive to unhealthy air.
On the other hand this area has been a major center for clean air industries. Many high tech parking lots like Google have solar panels hovering over their spaces. The Adobe building in downtown San Jose has 20 wind turbines to produce around 50,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year. The valley has many Prius and other hybrid car owners.
The San Francisco Bay Area Wetlands Restoration Program has been working to restore the wetlands around the Bay Area and it has improved the Bay environment greatly since the worst environment damage of the 1960s. A recent report called “The State of San Francisco Bay 2011” stated that the Bay is far less polluted than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but that more progress needs to be done to stop the diversion of fresh water that would have naturally flowed into the bay but instead go to farmland in the central valley. Environmentalists have worked to convert salt flats back into wetlands to help bring back some of the natural state of the Bay. Closer to the heart of Silicon Valley, a major effort is being expended to build up the Stevens Creek Trail, which follows the Stevens Creek through Mountain View, past the Shoreline Park in to the San Francisco Bay. Shoreline Park is a 700-acre park with a saltwater lake, golf course, rolling grassy hills, and bay trails that was built over an old landfill. There is a wonderful PBS documentary called Saving The Bay that documents the history of the San Francisco Bay.
This week a group of protesters have settled in San Jose’s City Hall to continue the protests against financial institutions that were started by the Occupy Wall Street protests. This group calls itself Occupy San Jose and it has a facebook page that people could visit. After work last Friday, I visited the group and found a lot of idealistic individuals with admirable concern for the state of our country. That night they were going to decide whether to follow a City Hall mandate to take down their encampment or to keep their encampment as an act of civil disobedience and face arrest. I hope they stay and continue to raise people’s awareness to the increased concentration of power and wealth in corporations and the flaws in this economic system. Many of the people who have been hurt by the recession that started in 2008 had no money invested in Wall Street and been leading honest respectable lives.
Here is a quote from a Nicholas D. Kristof article for the October 1, 2011 New York Times:
I don’t share the antimarket sentiments of many of the protesters. Banks are invaluable institutions that, when functioning properly, move capital to its best use and raise living standards. But it’s also true that soaring leverage not only nurtured soaring bank profits in good years, but also soaring risks for the public in bad years.
In effect, the banks socialized risk and privatized profits. Securitizing mortgages, for example, made many bankers wealthy while ultimately leaving governments indebted and citizens homeless.
We’ve seen that inadequately regulated, too-big-to-fail banks can undermine the public interest rather than serve it — and in the last few years, banks got away with murder. It’s infuriating to see bankers who were rescued by taxpayers now moan about regulations intended to prevent the next bail-out. And it’s important that protesters spotlight rising inequality: does it feel right to anyone that the top 1 percent of Americans now possess a greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent?
…Much of the sloganeering at “Occupy Wall Street” is pretty silly — but so is the self-righteous sloganeering of Wall Street itself. And if a ragtag band of youthful protesters can help bring a dose of accountability and equity to our financial system, more power to them.
I end this blog with a quote from Paul Krugman from the October 6, 2011 New York Times:
A weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, has taken over much of our political debate — and, yes, I myself have sometimes succumbed. In the process, it has been easy to forget just how outrageous the story of our economic woes really is. So, in case you’ve forgotten, it was a play in three acts.
In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support — and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts — behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis.
Given this history, how can you not applaud the protesters for finally taking a stand?
Scenes from Youtube from the Occupy San Jose movement