Welcome Our New Oligarch


Because, once you’re a billionaire, your political views matter. They should matter. Right?

According to Business Insider, Mark Zuckerberg may feel the irresistable draw of turning some of his financial power into political power. Because, why not?

As I have pointed out elsewhere, there’s no value to having power, unless you intend to abuse it. Of course, defenders of Zuckerberg might opine that he’s not planning on abusing power, he means well, etc. But by the basic fact that he may condition his access to power with his wealth, he is gaining power illegitimately: he’s bypassing the process whereby people try to determine whose public policy is good, who has appropriate values, and so forth. Simply being rich doesn’t mean that you’re wiser or more talented or have a sensible view of how to do things: it just means you’re rich. And that’s it.

Ringing the bell on the stock market

Ringing the bell on the stock market

I remember when Facebook completed its IPO. Zuckerberg phoned President Obama to to express his frustration about NSA wiretapping. The newly-minted paper billionaire, age 30, called the president to give him a piece of his mind. Guess what would happen if I, who am merely “well off”, tried to call the president? Bill Gates can meet with the president whenever he wants. Gates built an empire of mediocre software and Zuckerberg built a website of mediocre, uh, stuff – of course their opinions are more important.

Zuckerberg has expressed interest in political issues before: He wants to speed up the process of bring worldwide broadband access to the internet, for instance. That might require various rule changes in the telecoms industry, as it greatly impacts the broadband carriers that Facebook and WhatsApp are dependent on. He has also hosted a fundraiser for Trump supporter Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and former head of Trump’s transition team. Zuckerberg once donated $100 million to Newark’s school system. (source)

Sure, he wants worldwide internet access to be better. He’s such a philanthropist. I’m sure poor people around the world will enjoy playing “Farmville” and seeing banner-ads for tchotchkes that cost more than they make in 10 years. The whole world needs unfettered access to banner ads!

I’ve had a few shoulder-rubbing-close interactions with some of the oligarchs that run this country* and I am not of the opinion that they are great fountains of wisdom from which good governance will flow. Zuckerberg’s getting advice from Peter “paypal vampire” Thiel and Marc Andreesen** about how to maintain control over his company while appearing to give control to shareholders, so the “optics” will be good if he runs for office.

Meet the new boss,
same as the old boss,
leaving banner ads to annoy you when he’s gone…

divider2

Cnet: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Phones Obama About NSA

(* One made a point of interrupting our lunch so he could call New York City’s then-mayor Michael Bloomberg about a friend’s parking ticket. I waited 30 seconds then got up and left.)

(** Marc Andreesen wrote a browser called Netscape. His code was garbage, but it sure was popular.)

Comments

  1. says

    Marc Andreesen wrote a browser called Netscape on the taxpayer’s dime. One of the very few ways to create copyright-free intellectual property is to do it as work for hire by the US government.

    Then he claimed it as his own.

    And leveraged that into quite a bit of wealth, by building exactly zero successful companies around it.

    By contemporary measurements he’s a genius. By mine… well. No. He’s a terrible person.

  2. John Morales says

    Marcus, I am ambivalent whether you’re being more cynical or idealistic.

    Personally, I think power is fungible.

    The whole world needs unfettered access to banner ads!

    Indeed. What FB does well is put those within its own domain, so that without good pattern matching (“AI”) they can’t be avoided without affecting the functionality of the site. Because that’s its core business.

    (Unlike this place ;) )

  3. Holms says

    As I have pointed out elsewhere, there’s no value to having power, unless you intend to abuse it.

    A ridiculous claim, unless you classify any use of power as abuse. But then, that claim is still ridiculous, just for a different reason.

  4. says

    Interesting, what Zuckerberg wants, with net neutrality about to be a thing of the past. Of course, that won’t bother people with a fucktonne of money, just people like me, who already get to open a vein for the privilege of not-great access to the net.

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “Simply being rich doesn’t mean that you’re wiser or more talented or have a sensible view of how to do things: it just means you’re rich.”
    You just don’t get Theology. God doesn’t reward Evil people. If you are Rich, you are Good.

    “Gates built an empire of mediocre software”
    But he also created the computer virus industry by unleashing Windows 95 on the unsuspecting Internet. And that lead to the creation of computer virus detection industry, and other interesting stuff filtering industries. Which eventually lead to the creation of computer security consulting industry where you grew fat. You should be grateful.

  6. Dunc says

    But he also created the computer virus industry by unleashing Windows 95 on the unsuspecting Internet.

    I’m pretty sure Robert Morris deserves at least some “credit” there.

  7. Andrew Dalke says

    Andrew @#1: Marc Andreesen co-wrote Mosaic on the taxpayer’s dime, not Netscape Navigator. The Mosaic copyright was controlled by “The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (“University”), on behalf of NCSA”. It was not copyright free. Here are the license details: ftp://ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Web/Mosaic/Licensing/ . Spyglass managed commercial licensing for Mosaic on behalf of UIUC. Instead, Netscape Navigator was a new browser written independently of the original Mosaic code base. One source which confirms that is at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~spert/netpaper.html :”Netscape chose to develop its own software instead of licensing the NCSA Mosaic source code which Marc Andreessen had written”. Instead of source code, “Netscape employes [sic] the people who originally wrote the Mosaic browser.”

    (Eric Bina is the other original Mosaic author, who Murray and Pert in their essay failed to mention.)

  8. says

    Holms@#3:
    A ridiculous claim, unless you classify any use of power as abuse. But then, that claim is still ridiculous, just for a different reason.

    Well, if you want to fight a scorched-earth war over the definition of “power” and “abuse” then you can certainly assert that any statement using those terms is ridiculous. But then one can reduce pretty much any claim to ridiculous by destroying the users’ vocabulary.

    Rather than simply asserting it’s a ridiculous claim, why don’t you show your work and offer some reasons why?

  9. says

    Dunc@#6:
    I’m pretty sure Robert Morris deserves at least some “credit” there.

    George Dyson did a talk about the early days of computing in John Von Neumann’s lab. Apparently there was an Italian mathematician who managed to write some self-replicating code – which would be quite a trick on a computer that had so little memory (about 1k) and ran on punched tapes and cards. Fred Cohen later claims to have invented the virus in 1983 ( https://www.wired.com/2009/11/1110fred-cohen-first-computer-virus/ ) and in 1989 Tom Duff famously wrote a shell script that ran on early UNIX systems, which appended itself to other shell scripts ( https://research.swtch.com/virus ) The Morris worm of 1988 was a big deal, and a pretty exciting thing at the time. Morris, by the way, is the son of NSA Chief Scientist Robert T Morris Sr, who was quite an interesting character that told some very funny and unsettling stories. I was on the UUCP networks, not internet, when the Morris worm hit, so it didn’t affect any of my systems. We were all impressed.

    But I digress…

  10. says

    Andrew Dalke@#7:
    That’s as I remember it, too.

    If I recall correctly Spyglass sold Microsoft a site/general license, and the first version of Internet Explorer came from there (and Spyglass had no revenue per license, so they withered on the vine and died when Microsoft “shipped” a bazillion copies and they got nothing for them)

    When we were trying to figure out how to make NCSA work with our firewall, some of the guys at TIS did code reviews of the browser, and there was some really really yucky crap in it. Like, for telnet URLs it would check for “telnet://” at the beginning of the line and append the rest to “telnet ” (after checking for :port) so you could hand the stupid thing a URL like “telnet://localhost; rm -rf *” to wipe someone’s files. Those were fun times.

  11. says

    John Morales@#2:
    Marcus, I am ambivalent whether you’re being more cynical or idealistic.
    Personally, I think power is fungible.

    I’m not sure, either. Probably a bit of both.

    Power’s fungible in that you can exchange it freely for money (mostly) but I’d argue that’s abusive because it means one is exploiting one’s power to gain unearned wealth. There are other arguments one can make in which power is used in accordance with the individual’s opinion of the common good – but that’s also abusive because you’re denying them negative liberty (per Isiah Berlin) you’re making decisions for them, not with them. I would argue that a powerful person who asked “what can I do for you?” of their (?subjects?) (?victims?) (?fellow citizens?) is going to have tremendous trouble serving a constituency fairly, without showing preference – which would, again, be abuse. Even giving power away is problematic, unless it’s somehow diffused fairly without questions of successorship.

  12. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Dunc@#6: “I’m pretty sure Robert Morris deserves at least some “credit” there.”
    Yes, in the sense that his worm was a proof of concept for later attackers. But it didn’t spread wide, because there were so few servers it could attack. In those days personal computers were still most of the time off-line, and could be reached only via sneakernet. Besides, all home computers were different, and their users knew quite a lot about their machines, because many of them had built their rigs themselves.
    Windows 95 changed all of that. Suddenly there were lots of almost identical off-the-shelf machines on-line. They had the same security holes, and their users were mostly illiterate in security matters. The critical mass was reached.

  13. Andrew Dalke says

    Marcus @#10: Spyglass licensed Mosaic to Microsoft for a quarterly fee plus percentage of sales of what became Internet Explorer. Microsoft then gave it away for free, so there were no sales per se. The other Mosaic licensees left the market because they didn’t want to compete with $0. Spyglass sued Microsoft, asking for an audit to prove there was no revenue. Microsoft settled, and paid $8 million mostly to buy out future royalties.

    As to code quality, at least part of NCSA Mosaic was written by undergraduates. Very good undergraduates (Max Levchin of PayPal fame was from the same cohort), but still relatively inexperienced.

  14. says

    Holms@#3 and #14:
    A ridiculous claim

    That’s not a positive assertion?

    I actually tried to justify my assertion, which is a lot more than you did. If you want to engage with someone’s ideas, by all means, do so, but just rubbishing them isn’t a refutation. I could just as easily blown your comment off “that’s a waste of a good comment” right?

  15. Holms says

    Well, you made a claim, and I replied in the negative. A stronger negative than was necessary I suppose, but the interaction was still basically ‘A is true’ ‘no it isn’t’. Anyway, I did offer a reason for scoffing: you’ve advanced nothing more than an argument by definition, by stating all use of power is abuse of power. Via that link, you make it explicit:

    “Sticking with Wolff’s definition of “power” – the ability to compel compliance – there is no point in being able to compel compliance and not doing so.”

    You permit no use of power / forced compliance that could possibly be anything other than abusive in nature. Multiple counter examples: speed limits, food safety regulation, gun regulation, workplace safety standards, emission limits, fishing catch limits, minimum training requirements for X job, air traffic control… a whole host of laws are created with public safety and freedom in mind.

    In fact, many laws are specifically in place to curtail abuses of power. Workplace law in particular arose in opposition to exploitation of employees, from placing maximum shift duration and minimum compensation to age limits and on and on. Unskilled labour in particular used to be grossly exploited, now it is not. Well, not as much.

    Is an employer doing as they want – working their employees to death for a pittance – an abuse of power? Yes. Is a group of laws designed to stop employers doing that an abuse of power? You appear to be arguing that it is.

  16. says

    Holms@#16:
    you’ve advanced nothing more than an argument by definition, by stating all use of power is abuse of power.

    That’s not what I stated, that’s your re-formulation of what I stated. However, let’s work with that:
    “Sticking with Wolff’s definition of “power” – the ability to compel compliance – there is no point in being able to compel compliance and not doing so.”
    that seems not unreasonable to me. Why else would anyone go to the trouble to be able to compel compliance in others, unless they expected to use that capability? Why would anyone go to the trouble to acquire any capability without seeing the value of being able to use it?

    I was also careful to personalize the dynamic. I describe an individual’s wanting personal power – the ability to compel compliance with their personal wishes. Now, you’re extending that to the state, which is an entirely different thing because states don’t use personal power and the relationship between the individual and the state is different from the relationship between two individials. It’s one thing to say I have power over you, it’s a completely different thing when the state (which is an emergent property of a large number of people, including you) has power over you.

    You permit no use of power / forced compliance that could possibly be anything other than abusive in nature.

    That’s exactly what I was trying to say.

    Multiple counter examples: speed limits, food safety regulation, gun regulation, workplace safety standards, emission limits, fishing catch limits, minimum training requirements for X job, air traffic control… a whole host of laws are created with public safety and freedom in mind.

    Those aren’t multiple counter examples. Those are multiple instances of the same thing: laws. The question then is whether a society’s laws are “power” or not. I happen to think they aren’t. Certainly, a speed limit is not personal power: someone is not seeking to be the speed limiter I would actually argue that if someone in a government were seeking the authority/power to be the speed limiter, that probably would be abusive – simply because society can collectively decide on speed limits. Which brings the next point – if you believe that society and government are emergent properties of a people (per Rawls via Rousseau) then the speed limits, minimum requirements, etc that you cite are called “laws” exactly because they are not “power” – they are not authoritarian or arbitrary, they are actually enforced by the people, who accept them. (Which is why a lot of people appear to ignore speed limits) The entire dialogue concerning government and the authority of government, versus the autonomy of the individual is entirely about this: to what degree do the people in a society create and then accept the rules they created for themselves. That’s directly opposed by the notion of authority or arbitrary power, in which an individual wants to enforce the rules they personally decided upon.

    Perhaps my language was sloppy, but I’m trying to grapple with that very question, when an individual wants to be able to see their will writ large on society (“power” is necessary for that) versus when society emergently decides using some process to capture the collective will.

    In fact, many laws are specifically in place to curtail abuses of power

    Yes, though I don’t see how that’s a counter-argument. One view of society is that civil society is all about making it harder for individuals to exercise arbitrary will on the collective. That’s not society using “power” – it’s not personal authority – it’s collective decision-making, literally the antithesis of power.

    It seems that our main disagreement is that you appear to believe society has “power” whereas I believe “power” is a question of personal authority and capability. If we were to use a broader definition of “power” as something like: “the ability to influence people and events”(wikipedia) instead of the more personal definition of “power” that I am using, then, yes, my argument falls apart. But then you’re left with a nearly useless definition of “power” as such a broad capability that gravity, a political process, a person, and a water-wheel all have “power” and then we’d need to add another layer of terms in order to have a vocabulary of power we could use in discussions about politics.

    I’ll also note that the complaint that I’m engaging in definitional arguments seems a bit weird because that is sort of the point. Does that make it circular reasoning? Well, yes, in the sense that how humans use vocabularly requires words to define other words, so eventually it’s all a circular mass of words.

  17. says

    TL;DR version:
    Laws are not “power” – they are the antithesis of personal power. That’s why “the rule of law” is often contrasted with despotism.

  18. Holms says

    You’re drawing a distinction between the state having power to shape behaviour via law vs. a person having power to issue orders. Fine, they are certainly power expressed in different ways so let’s go with it. I still disagree with your ‘power is valueless unless you intend to abuse it’ statement.

    Firstly, because I don’t think your distinction is all that meaningful in this context. Yes there is a difference between ‘complying with behaviour mandated by the state’ and ‘complying with an order issued by a person’, but the state isn’t some wholly emergent property of large numbers of people, a gestalt guiding force that arises and gains power as populations grow. Rather, it is an aggregate of people’s different attempts to shape behaviour for any number of reasons – rather like a net force on an object being the sum of all forces on that object – some reasons being a desire for public safety in Pet Issue X, a desire to Fix Problem Y, or hell just a desire for power for the sake of power.

    In other words, even if we grant your statement, the state should not be treated differently just because the nature of the power inherent to a position is expressed differently. If you apply it to the individual, personal power of being able to issue orders to others, then in my view you must also apply it to the individuals that want political power. The distinction between the different expressions of power does not change the fact that both can be populated by people that want that particular power purely for the sake of having that power.

    But I still don’t agree with your statement even if we grant your distinction. It suffers from the same ailment that many pithy deepities have: it is absolute. It permits no possibility of a person being a good steward of the power they gain, no responsible police officer or politician or anything of that nature. And the plain fact of the matter is that there are loads of people that are responsible with authority.

    I’ll grant your point to only a limited extent: the reins of power should have high scrutiny placed on whoever gains it. I have long said that the main problem with people having power is not so much people having power, but power going to the power hungry. The fact that bullies can easily become police officers and get away with bullying, or that the rich can easily become politicians (or gain political influence via donations) don’t prove that all power corrupts, so much as it proves that all power needs to be protected relative to the level of power a position grantes. Governments succeed in this task to wildly varying degrees, depending on which nation / state / province / department / ward etc. etc. we happen to be looking at.

    America’s system is pretty poorly protected, as we can see at multiple levels.

  19. Holms says

    And I suppose I may as well give a TL;DR of my own:
    You are trying to reconcile an absolute statement with human behaviour and human made systems of governance.

  20. Holms says

    On a tangentially related note, about the only government that has done a good job of protecting power by keeping it from the power hungry was the one in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… If you recall, the President of the galaxy was actually a sham position with high visibility but no real power, with the real political leader being an anonymous guy who spent his time fishing and keeping to himself.

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