PIRATE WIRES #14 // Gilded Rage
blue state secession, creative v. anti-creative leftism, prince anand's war on success, and bezos for president
The clown car secedes. When I was in college, and Bush the Sequel had finally and entirely exhausted the support he received following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Blue State secession became a popular, early meme in a viral map of the United States of Canada vs. Jesusland. It was the era of Jon Stewart, back when the Religious Right was still a fount of power, and long before something like gay marriage seemed possible. This was just a couple years after the Supreme Court invalidated state laws against sodomy, which meant gay sex was illegal in 13 states as late as 2003, and so even then the notion of breaking our country apart didn’t sit well with me. At the time, I was a young gay kid in Boston, still very much in the primordial “I don’t do labels” phase of my sexuality, but fully aware of the fact that I was into guys, and while I got the joke — screw the stupid evil Christian people ha ha ha — I couldn’t help but think about the kids like me in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. I believed in states’ rights up until the point they violated a person’s right to self, which I believed the Constitution existed to protect. It didn’t matter that I felt safe (kind of) in Boston. Every American deserved bodily autonomy. Giving up that fight — for all Americans — seemed wrong. Today, the secession meme is back:
I’ve seen a lot of recent content similar in tenor to the tweet above. But what strikes me here as interesting is how many of the replies to this tweet invoke California as a kind of glowing example for our new United States of Canada. The economy of California is referenced in particular, and with the implication America could not survive without the west coasters it presumably keeps shackled to the Union. While the notion of breaking our country apart, even if unserious, is mostly just unhelpful in ways similar to the early 2000s, the argument that California should in some way be leading any kind of charge toward a better world is frankly hard to comprehend. As a 19-year old in Boston I wasn’t entirely aware of what was going on in the Golden State, but today there’s no disagreement among sober thinking people that California is a disaster. Some clown car highlights from last week alone: the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission proposed a 60% work from home mandate to ease traffic congestion and reduce carbon emissions, which would in a sense make semi-permanent our city’s coronavirus lockdown, if for entirely unrelated reasons. Imagine: being inspired by the pandemic. From Sacramento, hot on his presidential brand building tour, Gavin Newsom attempted once again to deflect away responsibility for the wildfire crisis by proposing a ban on all gas-powered cars, prompting many raised eyebrows given our state’s present failure to keep the lights on:
Of special interest to folks living in the Haight, my San Francisco neighborhood, Trisha Thadani reports the city is moving our homeless population out of hotels, where we’ve been spending upwards of 8,000 dollars a month for every person sheltered, into government-run tent cities. Of note, these are the encampments we were told, way back four months ago in May, would be temporary. Imagine: being inspired by Hoovervilles. I’ve written a lot about the systemically failing California government, and in dimensions ranging from its hysterical, self-defeating war on tech to its abdication of responsibility in the middle of our present wildfire crisis. But it’s also facing a 54 billion dollar budget deficit. We’ve not only paid for this calamitous failure of government, we’ve grossly overpaid, and to the brink of ruin, all of which begs the question… what exactly are we proud of, here?
The tragedy of California is not its cacophony of specific failures, but that our “solutions” are all negative, or restrictive, rather than creative. Banning things, and often things that improve the lives of Californians, is presently our entire philosophy of government: no new science or technology endeavors, no meaningful public infrastructure projects (or, at least nothing resembling success here), and certainly nothing so ambitious as terraforming the Salton Sea. But with each of our challenges comes tremendous opportunity. An emissions and congestion problem is a public infrastructure opportunity. The wildfire crisis is obviously begging for a land management strategy, which requires more public infrastructure, and more (thousands) of public sector jobs. The homeless crisis is in part a public health problem — including, in many cases, mental health — but it becomes a lot easier to manage in a world with affordable housing, which doesn’t even require a strategy. You pretty much just have to let people build. As for California’s massive economy? Abundant natural resources, arable land, and runaway network effects in software, entertainment, and defense technology have almost nothing to do with local policy, and absolutely nothing to do with recent local policy. For decades, Californians thrived in spite of our government, not because of it, which is not to say government doesn’t matter. In the first place, we’re now approaching a state of real, civic disaster, but separately from our present dysfunction I can’t help but wonder: what if our government were good?
What if a state like California, with all of its potential, were run with a long-term plan in mind for abundant energy, fresh water (drought be damned), affordable housing, thriving, growing cities, and first rate science and technology education? What would a California worth following look like? Up until very recently, the impulse of the American political right was to stop the government from doing anything, while the political left, which dominates in California, was ostensibly in favor of using large, expansive government as a tool for progress. But the California government has no coherent strategy for progress, and with its increasingly anti-creative, reactionary legislative impulse, it’s starting to look… well… pretty conservative.
I often say San Francisco should be the greatest city in the world. Well, what’s keeping us back?
No one hates rich people more than people born rich. I’ve been thinking a lot about our now-pervasive cultural contempt for success, which manifests in ways that range from attacking people who’ve built their fortunes to denying the very existence of the “self-made man.” This latter piece is an especially huge problem, as disbelief in earned success is crippling to any creative political philosophy. If individuals aren’t capable of improving their own lives, how could they possibly be capable of improving a country, which is an obviously far greater challenge? Then, if you believe in a world where things can’t improve in any fundamental sense, and in a world where wealth is both fixed and randomly partitioned, the only conceivably “fair” political policies start to look dystopian. Wealth isn’t made in the eyes of the Millennial Marxist, it’s only moved from point to point, and from person to person. If someone is winning, someone else must necessarily be losing. Never mind that this is unambiguously untrue, as global wealth has increased, not decreased, with a rise in global population, while the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen to historic lows. If you do believe, wrongly, that wealth is static, it absolutely follows that anyone “successful” — which can now only mean “rich” — is a bad person, and the concept of success itself, which is the principle element of everything that makes our world livable, is suspect.
Attacks on the concept of earned success tend most often to hit the political left from within the political left, comprising, for example, much of the substance of our now unfortunately daily war between the media, more innately regressive in its leftism, and the technology industry, more innately creative in its leftism. Exhibit A:
Few internet personalities so embody the anti-creative left as Anand Giridharadas, illustrating perfectly the psychology of Millennial Marxism with this absolute banger of a bad tweet storm. Yes, Jeff Bezos is, on paper, the wealthiest man alive. Yes, income inequality — the difference in net worth between our poorest and our newly, extremely rich — is high. Never mind the fact that there are less poor people today than at any other time in history. The poor people who do exist? That poverty is Jeff Bezos’ fault. How? He stole their money, of course. He had to have stolen it. How else did he get it?! This is a world of fixed, static resources. Right? If you have more than your “fair share,” which is to say a single 7 billionth of total global wealth, you had to have taken it from another person. Right?
Before we break this down, let’s remember Anand has a book about elitism and evil rich people to sell, which is a topic — rich “elites” — he of course knows quite a lot about. As a kid, he overlapped with Chelsea Clinton at Sidwell Friends, one of the most elite schools in the country. This was an education afforded by Anand’s father, a director and partner at McKinsey, which is a global consulting firm offering the sort of work for well-connected rich people I didn’t even know existed when I was in high school, and is of course where our young Prince Anand himself worked before attending Harvard University, one of the most elite colleges on Earth. Truly, it was a gilded resume that eventually landed him a job at the mothership of nepotism and inherited wealth, the New York Times.
Jeff Bezos’ dad owned a bike shop.
Separate from background, we should ask ourselves if the mob of psychopaths building guillotines in front of Bezos’ house, a direct consequence of media coverage from people like Anand, really moves the dial for poor people. If we lived in a world without people like Bezos, a man who built a company from nothing that now employs over a million people, that has created over a trillion dollars of value, and that makes possible via Amazon web services the operation of over a million other companies, would we also be living in a world without poverty? Is simply liquidating people like Bezos really Anand’s answer? What poor person would see any of that money? It wouldn’t even cover our deficit. More important question: what happens the year after we outlaw success? This doesn’t make sense. We know this doesn’t make sense. Why are we still pretending this makes sense?
This conversation isn’t about poverty, or fairness. It’s driven by the gilded rage of our country’s most privileged people awash in a mix of guilt for what they have and hatred for those who’ve made it on their own. But let’s not get it twisted: it’s “let them eat cake” all the way down.
This summary of Anand’s background, while obviously a point of tremendous embarrassment for a man who has built his writing career on decrying the existence of such people as himself, is really not meant as an attack. I just think Anand’s background is important to consider when attempting to make sense of his worldview, as it was clearly formative of his thinking, which is a kind of thinking now pervasive in media — a world of elitists like Anand, and people who work for elitists like Anand. Most people born rich don’t understand how wealth is created because they had so little to do with their own, and they project this sense of luck-based economics onto the entire world. But Anand’s own, specific uselessness is not a natural law. Very few people were raised with his spectacular inheritance, and none of us would be benefited by the absence of people like Bezos. This entire framing is insane. Bezos is responsible for a massive, global infrastructure operation that has improved hundreds of millions of lives, and that is separately, as argued at the top of this wire, precisely the skill set required of this sclerotic, American moment. We don’t need people like Bezos to vanish, we need people like Bezos in charge of our government.
The charitable read of government today is that it’s generally reactive — literally putting out fires. Conversely, Bezos is oriented for creative, additive achievement. Every year he sets out with a goal, strategizes for positive-sum realization of that goal, and executes the strategy. He doesn’t simply move money around, from one Amazon department to another. He uses resources to improve and grow his company, and meaningfully alter the world. None of this is to say our government should “be run like a business.” This isn’t about profit. This is about progress, and progress doesn’t just happen. You also can’t ban it into existence. Meaningful progression begins with a vision, which is the fun part and also, somehow, where most people give up. What kind of world do you want to live in? Specifically, what physical things do you wish existed? What would make our lives better? Once you’ve decided what you want, you need a strategy, and you need access to resources required of that strategy. Finally, it’s an operations game, and you manage your team from step one to “look, mom, we built a nuclear power plant.” This is how the world is built. This is also the kind of thing our government, at all levels, is presently not doing.
There’s no reason we can’t shift government into a creative, rather than anti-creative, political orientation. There’s no reason we can’t build a better world. Ground floor? Let’s get back to bridges and tunnels (we could use a little help in California). We need nuclear power plants. Let’s see research projects, and eventually programs, for things like desalination, and forest management, and let’s see these projects held accountable. What did we learn? What do we still need to learn? As long as our government is in the business of owning buildings, like school buildings, police departments, and fire houses, let’s also get into the business of building housing on top of those buildings for teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. It’s an easy slam dunk political position. Why aren’t we doing this?
And by the way, should we just be drafting people like Bezos into government? I’m not saying don’t shame the man. I’m just saying rather than shame him for succeeding, why not shame him for leaving us with such a loser batch of political candidates. Get in the game, Jeff. We need help.
Fuck it, I would.