Welcome to the Jungle

Column: The Silicon Valley oligarchy comes to Washington

Jeff Bezos? More like Jeff Best-os, amirite? (AP)
August 9, 2013

The day after billionaire Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, one of the paper’s columnists, Eugene Robinson, appeared on "Morning Joe". Robinson is a reliable voice for conventional liberal opinion, and on this particular day, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, conventional liberal opinion held that Bezos’ purchase of the Post for $250 million was an act of bravery and humanity comparable to the Marshall Plan.

At one point Joe Scarborough observed that rich and powerful men—Warren Buffett, Chris Hughes, Barry Diller, and of course Michael Bloomberg—have been in the habit of buying newspapers and magazines. And in most cases, Scarborough said, the moguls have been humbled by the experience. No amount of technical or financial wizardry seems capable of forestalling print journalism’s demise. "I just wonder, what’s going to be different here?"

Robinson’s answer was priceless. In just nine words, he distilled to its essence contemporary liberalism’s attitude toward wealth and power. "There are rich guys," he said, "and there are rich guys." And from what Robinson has heard—no doubt from totally independent and objective sources—Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is estimated at $28 billion, is "a prince among men."

Really, though, why did Robinson stop there? Why not say Bezos is a king among men, or a Caesar, or a son of Odin? To increase one’s status by flattering a social superior is no trifle. Ruth Marcus, for example, likened Don Graham’s sale of his money-losing paper at an overvalued price to Sophie’s choice. In the book and movie Sophie, a Holocaust survivor, "had to decide which cherished child to save and which to send to the gas chamber." Don Graham faced a somewhat similar situation. Think about that. "If the comparison sounds hyperbolic," Marcus writes—curiously, she doesn’t suggest that the comparison might sound offensive—"you don’t know the Grahams." Marcus does.

That all rich people are equal, but some are more equal than others, is an unspoken axiom of American politics. It has created all sorts of confused and sloppy reporting of which the Bezos story is only the most recent and high profile example. And it has led reporters and editors to overlook one of the most important stories of our time: The connection between the liberal ideology of the global financial elite and the social pathologies—inequality, communal dissolution, family breakdown—that plague liberal society. Inward looking and self-obsessed, status seeking and conniving, the press is all too eager to ask what the sale of the Washington Post means for its industry, and all too complacent about what the deal says about power in America.

When the sale of the Post was announced, writers, editors, and producers sought to determine Bezos’ politics for a simple reason. How the media judges one’s billions determines whether one will be celebrated or scrutinized. Which sort of rich person is Bezos: a Bloomberg (good) or a Koch (bad)?

Bezos needn’t worry. Since the 2006 election cycle the contributions of Amazon’s political action committee have favored Democrats. Most of his personal contributions have gone to Democrats, too, including to liberal stalwarts John Conyers and Pat Leahy, though he also has donated to Republicans Slade Gorton and Meg Whitman. He gave millions to bring same-sex marriage to Washington State, and $100,000 to defeat the state income tax increase championed by Bill Gates Sr. He supports the Internet sales tax making its way through Congress.

Libertarian Reason magazine says Bezos has donated to its Reason Foundation. "If Bezos is a libertarian, however," wrote New Yorker editor David Remnick, in what has to be the week’s most condescending sentence, "he is not one of the deeply conservative mold of the Koch brothers, who have shown signs of wanting to buy mainstream publications, including the Los Angeles Times." Here Remnick, without any real evidence, is offering a sort of benediction for the Internet tycoon, cleansing him of any association with the dread word "conservative," and signaling to fellow manufacturers of taste and opinion that the new owner of the Post, unlike you-know-who, is not to be feared and loathed. He is playing the traditional role of media gatekeeper, keeping friends in and conservatives out.

Reading Remnick’s piece about the Post, where he used to work, one can’t help noticing its tone of ambivalence and mystery. Bezos’ move unsettles him, partly because he can’t figure the guy out. And this confusion over Bezos’ politics has contributed to a secondary confusion over Bezos’ motivation. It is far easier for the Northeast Corridor’s legion of "content producers" to ascribe motivation to someone when they know his politics. Then there are only three options. Depending on where he falls on the ideological spectrum, a billionaire can be well meaning, stupid, or evil.

These categories seem to break down when applied to someone of Bezos’ stature. Remnick is clearly flummoxed at why all this is happening: "Why he would pay a quarter of a billion dollars in cash for a newspaper remains an open question." Brad Stone, the author of a forthcoming biography of Bezos, told the New Republic that when he heard news of the deal, "My reaction was sincere shock." And New Republic owner and editor in chief Chris Hughes, who won $450 million in the Harvard housing lottery, laughably suggested, in what reads like a parody of a TED talk, that Bezos bought the Post for the same reason he, Hughes, bought TNR. "Brands matter."

Hughes comes closer to the mark in his first sentence of his piece. "It turns out Silicon Valley does give a damn about Washington," he writes. The identity of who ever has doubted Silicon Valley’s interest in Washington is a mystery Hughes leaves unsolved. But the implication that Bezos’ act was political rings true not only for the obvious reasons—Amazon spent $2.5 million on lobbying in 2012 and $1.7 million so far in 2013—but also for less readily apparent ones. His politics may be unusual to New York City and Washington, D.C., but they are commonplace in Silicon Valley and are coming to define the contours of debate. Bezos' acquisition of the Post is part of a migration of power from California to Washington, in which the twenty-first century industrialists displace their twentieth century predecessors.

For some time now, the winners of the information economy, the caste of bobo knowledge workers and symbolic analysts, have been ascendant culturally, financially, and philanthropically. But only in recent years have they become particularly interested in partisan politics. An early example was Eric Schmidt of Google’s interest in President Barack Obama. (He’s now interested in Cory Booker.) Silicon Valley favored Obama and the Democrats overwhelmingly in 2008 and substantially in 2012. The contributions have been significant enough that last year the president sided with tech over Hollywood in the fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act. The borders between the most fashionable startups and the data-mining operations of the Obama campaign were hard to discern.

Now, though, the moguls themselves are taking an active role in policy debates. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose net worth at the moment is around $16 billion, announced this shift in 2010 when he pledged $100 million to the Newark school system and began appearing alongside President Obama and Governor Chris Christie. Last year Hughes followed the trend when he bought the New Republic. In April, Zuckerberg founded to lobby for the Senate immigration bill, which would expand his ability to hire at low wages high-skilled labor from abroad. On the very day that Bezos bought the Post, thereby becoming a force in Washington, Zuckerberg delivered a speech on immigration reform alongside illegal immigrant activist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas.

The "about us" section of the website is a tech billionaire who’s who. Supporters include major players at Dropbox, Accel, Benchmark, SV Angel, Al Gore’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Microsoft, LinkedIn, YouTube, Airbnb, Netflix, Paypal, Groupon, Khosla, and Zynga, along with Sean Parker, Barry Diller, Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt, and Bill Gates.

Like Remnick, I would not use the word "conservative" to describe any of the individuals on this list. Even if they sympathize with the Republicans on a few issues, even if they favor an amorphous policy of "fiscal responsibility," I would bet my lunch money—or, better, theirs—that they place far more importance on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, free trade and amnesty for illegal immigrants, green energy and gun control and a "humble" foreign policy, than on low taxes and spending. They share the worldview projected onto the front pages of the Washington Post, the worldview of the men and women that manage the world, the worldview of the rich and famous and powerful. It is a worldview that treats those who disagree or have different priorities as threats, yet wonders why ordinary Americans seem alienated from authority, bereft of confidence, and distrustful of institutions.

Gene Robinson is right. There are rich people and there are rich people. And Jeff Bezos is a prince among men.