They are men, mostly. They are young, mostly. They are visionaries on a mission -- to systematize and make all the world’s knowledge accessible (Google); to connect all the world’s people with each other (Facebook); to change the way books are read and the sound of music is heard (Apple, Amazon); to reorganize urban transportation in 55 countries (Uber); to make brevity mandatory (Twitter); to create a more literate world and, not to be ignored, elevate free delivery to a right (Amazon). They are the disrupters, practitioners of what Joseph Schumpeter called the process of creative destruction. They have no interest in nibbling away at an incumbent’s market share: “Proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job,” biographer Brad Stone reports Jeff Bezos telling his “Amazonians”. Disrupters believe creative destruction is the main reason capitalism has created the greatest material wealth the world has ever seen. That is the mantra of Silicon Valley, the result of a swaggering culture that other parts of this country, and even centrally controlled economies such as China’s and Russia’s, are attempting to create. Or in some cases, contain. Neither emulation nor containment has been very successful, although with some help from Google our British friends are making progress in imagining and funding potential disrupters.
These disrupters move with remarkable speed. If Google and Facebook were people they would be too young to vote. And they don’t hesitate to take a leaf out of their rivals’ books. Like many media companies, the disrupters combine maintenance of control with an ability to raise capital by using various classes of stock. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, own 14% of the company’s shares but control 56% of the votes through super-voting shares. That relieves them of the need to meet quarterly earnings targets, pay dividends, or otherwise take their eyes of their main goal --disruptive change. There is an extensive academic and financial literature about corporate governance, arguing inconclusively whether the gain -- relief from short-term profit-maximizing pressures -- is exceeded by the loss -- founder/owners with unconstrained power to chart their companies’ course.
So what are the next targets of the disrupters? Not easy to predict, since many of the disruptive companies sprang full-blown from the heads of young Stanford students, and will continue to do so. But we do have clues. Google and Apple have decided that an assault on Big Pharma will enable them to do well by doing good. They believe the drug companies are inefficient, slow to use masses of data to direct their research, their products excessively costly. Apple has arranged for its users to provide data to its new partners -- among them a Harvard-affiliated cancer center to measure the long-term effects of chemotherapy, and a Stanford center studying links between physical activity and heart disease. Google has invested in 23andMe, a DNA testing company, and Calico, specializing in age-related diseases. The pharmaceutical companies confess they find this “unsettling”, not least because their physical products, pills and such, provide only a small part of the total value, most of which comes from the research and development process. If Google and others connect their enormous data bases with patient records -- a formidable task given privacy restrictions and other impediments -- they can become hyper-efficient research and development companies.
Then there is the banking industry. The Economist, not exactly a left-wing rabble-rouser, describes the huge global banks as “lumbering giants … the wooly mammoths of finance … dysfunctional conglomerates…”, just the sort of targets that attract disrupters. Not that any sensible firm would want to duplicate the structure of “wooly mammoths.” Instead, challenge them in specific markets. Enter marketplace lending, otherwise known as peer-to-peer lending. Borrowers can now shop online for loans from individuals, hedge funds and other institutions, with cost-efficient lenders able to make do with lower spreads between their cost of capital and what they charge borrowers. Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lender valued at $1.5 billion, has attracted Google as its partner. It "… is using the Internet to reshape the financial system and profoundly transform the way people think of credit and investment… We are excited to be part of it," said David Lawee, of Google.
The European Parliament has called for the dismemberment of Google, the French want “les Gafa,” as they call Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, reined in, EU regulators are under pressure to get tough with the Americans. And the leaders of Silicon Valley’s non-tax-paying, privacy-invading, dominant tech firms, to use EU descriptives, are surprised. They shouldn’t be.
It's an article of faith among bien pensant liberals that all institutions in society must achieve perfect gender parity. Consider, for example, the left’s outrage at the dearth of women employed at Google and other tech firms (despite the fact that far fewer women study computer science than men) or its efforts to lower physical standards so that more women become firefighters (despite the fact that most people in burning buildings would rather their lives be saved than politically correct mandates be met).
For those of us who believe in the market system, there is something unsettling about the thought of the billionaire bosses of Google, Apple, Adobe, Intel, two Disney subsidiaries, and Intuit sitting around a table and agreeing not to compete for staff. Facebook declined an invitation to join the conspiracy. These are the self-styled “disrupters”, believers in the virtues of a market system that allows them to compete for customers even if, especially if, that competition destroys existing enterprises.
Some three hundred years ago Sir Walter Scott asked, “Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.” Well, in America corporations are legally deemed “persons,” so the answer to Scott’s question is “Yes,” at least when it comes to tax payments. In this globalized world corporations are “multi-national,” run by executives who may never have set foot in the lands they declare to be “home” for tax purposes. Nothing illegal about it all: These firms play by the rules written for them by the governments in which they do most of their business. And their executives do have a fiduciary obligation to the owners of the business, their shareholders, to minimize their tax payments to the greatest extent possible within the law. Moreover, to some extent their continued search for benign tax regimes puts something of a limit on the ambitions of national tax collectors, witness the unhappiness of France with the low taxes on offer in Ireland, which is coming out of the recession in which over-taxed France remains mired.
President Obama will partner with Google for the "first-ever Presidential Hangout Road Trip," Google announced today.
"Next Tuesday, at 9pm EST, President Obama will deliver his annual State of the Union address to Congress. Later that week, you'll have the chance to connect with the President and speak about his administration’s plan in the first-ever Presidential Hangout Road Trip," claims Google in a blog post.
In an NBC interview, Google's Eric Schmidt reminded America that "It's important to remember these 5 billion people are just like us. They're just trapped in bad poverty and bad governance and so forth." The CEO of Google was referring to those in the world who don't have smartphones: