28th August 2020
Time and time again, we hear of the massive American “big tech companies” and their origins as “rags-to-riches” success stories. We are captivated by the idea of the “self-made man” and those who triumph over adversity, the regular David vs Goliath stories. We have heard that Apple, Google and Amazon were created in garages.
We know that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college because they believed that much in their own ideas. We know (or rather, it is drilled into us) that hard work does pay off. This is all part of the American Dream, so instated into our minds as children – the idea that quality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.
But the problem we are seeing, now more than ever, is that this American Dream mentality is backfiring. America’s hunger for profit, no matter the costs to sustainability or human rights, is catering to massive businesses and the people behind them feeling justified in practising exploitation. It is pushing the nation to further splinter along class as well as racial and ethnic lines. We also see it encouraging the population to accept the accumulation of unfathomable wealth as normal, even when the lack of wealth taxation goes against their own direct interests.
A prime example of this is the big tech business model that has been allowed and encouraged to prevail in the US especially. In a recent congressional grilling, Amazon, Facebook and Apple proclaimed their credentials as all-American success stories in an attempt to counter claims made that they are unfair stiflers of competition. Jeff Bezos of Amazon, while arguing that he wanted “American workers to get products to American customers”, failed to touch on the fact that Amazon’s share of ecommerce stands at a huge 40 per cent, effectively pushing any healthy competition out of the market. Tim Cook of Apple described the company as “uniquely American” before defending its role as gatekeeper to the App Store through setting onerous commission fees and favouring its own apps.
Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as a “proudly American company”, and defended Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, which critics argued were an attempt to quash growing rivals, by claiming that both platforms benefited from Facebook’s existing technology, infrastructure and ad sales. These are not companies that seem to appreciate or respect the American Dream. They appear to find no problem with squashing the innovation of others for the gain of their company and the acquisition of frightening amounts of money.
The composition of these firms is also worth having a look at. What is not often discussed is that these companies usually recruit those from Ivy League or other elite colleges like the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Stanford University – which includes only a slim intersection of the population. A Forbes reporter acknowledged that a head of diversity recruiting mentioned that she was only willing to spend $5,000 dollars of her recruiting budget recruiting a “non-elite” student, compared to the $50,000-$100,000 she typically spends recruiting “elite” students. And this is coming from someone in charge of improving diversity.
The fact that entrance to such schools is highly skewed towards those from more advantaged backgrounds is just the final cog in a vicious circle of elitism-driven-inequality. In this way, big tech firms step over millions of talented and hardworking students that miss the mould.
“Economic mobility is lower in the US than almost every other developed country – it is one of only four high-income economies amongst 50 economies with the lowest rate of relative upward mobility.”
The American Dream is a mightily compelling way to guide your lifestyle choices. It is an appealing idea and a really, tremendously admirable concept. This enduring myth maintains that if you are willing to work hard for as long as it takes, you can rise up and achieve the “good life”. And we have seen it in action. But these big tech firms, that may have arisen to power themselves due in part to these ideals, seem to very quickly forget the origins of their success.
The power of capitalism is being concentrated ever more in the hands of the few which is having drastic effects on the average American working to provide for themselves and their family, looking to rise up the ranks, looking to reach that level of success that they are promised is achievable through hard work. But this very same average American is worse off today than a decade ago.
From 1999 to 2016, the employment-to-US-population rate over fell from 64.3% to 59.7% – not counting the recent extreme effects of the pandemic on the economy. Staying in third-level education is now harder than ever – about one-third of undergraduates transfer at one point in their careers, and an even bigger percentage drop out for financial or other reasons. Millions of hardworking, intelligent people are living paycheck-to-paycheck and on the breadline but are stuck in jobs with few opportunities for advancement, and little hope for the future.
The recession arising from the pandemic is going to show this as clearly, wreaking absolute havoc on small businesses and those living just above the breadline in favour of the biggest and most tech-focused corporations. When so many our people are hurting, it is difficult to accept that corporations are using the global pandemic as an opportunity to continue making outrageous profits. Recent claims by Democratic politician Bernie Sanders state that “While Amazon is denying paid sick leave, hazard pay and personal protective equipment to 450,000 of its workers, Jeff Bezos has increased his wealth by over $70 billion. While 40 million Americans face eviction, Elon Musk has nearly tripled his wealth over the past four months and now has a net worth of more than $70 billion. While millions of Americans are lining up at emergency food banks because they don’t have enough money to put food on the table, Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook has increased his wealth by more than $37 billion during the pandemic and is now worth over $90 billion.”
The sad truth is that fewer people today are getting ahead and gaining real success or even stability than before. Economic mobility is lower in the US than almost every other developed country – it is one of only four high-income economies amongst 50 economies with the lowest rate of relative upward mobility. We must remember, though, that it is not the case that the values and beliefs resulting from this concept are inherently wrong, or non-existent, or flawed, or misguided. It is that those individuals, those big businesses who have the power to make the American Dream a real and accessible means to millions of people, are actively opting not to. Not only is this not the American Dream. It is the exact opposite of the American Dream.
Featured photo by Joe Flood