Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Controlling the Market - Disruptive Technology at Risk

The Supreme Court handed down a monumental decision last week on the relationship between money and politics. The ruling in  McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission removed the overall limit on contributions from the wealthiest donors to candidates and political parties while setting a precedent of ridiculously specific conditions that have to be met before declaring an action “corruption.”

This move comes three years after Citizens United which opened the floodgates for a torrent of dark money to enter into the political arena. If you will recall the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United “effectively freed corporations and unions to spend money" both on "electioneering communications" and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates.

In a world where money is representative of “Free Speech” and corporate entities or “citizen associations” have the same free speech rights as flesh and blood citizens, we are moving towards an Oligarchical Plutocracy - a society ruled by and for the wealthy. The more money I have, the more speech I have. This effectively removes any concept of equality from the American system. While I have covered this in the past and the media is very interested in the implications of this move, I am fearful of what is on the horizon for our technology and innovation.

While the Supreme Court has recently turned away an opportunity to further chip away at the campaign finance laws it may only be a matter of time before more actions are taken to allow for more direct input on the political system by agencies such as unions, PACs and Corporations. The problem with allowing companies with that much control and influence in the political game is that it destroys the safeguards for public citizens. In the end, traditionally corporations have only one interest, benefiting the future of the company and the return to their shareholders - the bottom line.  

But why is this dangerous for future innovation? Let's indulge in a thought experiment. Imagine that you have invented something that is literally going to change the world as we know it. This invention will not only make you a ton of money and build a company, but it will start a new boom of an entire industry, make like easier and better for humanity and possibly even destroying another industry. This is what is known as disruptive technology.

Just like the refrigerator replaced the icebox and the car replaced the horse and buggy, technologies will arise that will outmode a previous technology and the industry surrounding it. Industries rise and fall, but in some instances, the government will step in to try and salvage industry or even support it through subsidies and incentive programs. Those who have control over industry will seek any way to maintain that control over that industry. This is just a historical fact.

We are still seeing business interests and corporate entities try to stifle innovation and competition today. Everything from gaming the way our patent system works to car dealership groups pressing Texas and New Jersey governments to ban sales of Tesla and taxicab groups in D.C. trying to push out Uber. Each of these businesses are using whatever systems they can to maintain their dominant role. For those familiar with the Sacramento area, back in 2006 energy conglomerate PG&E spent $9 Million on a campaign to make sure that the public utility SMUD couldn't expand their coverage to some areas of Yolo County. The effort was to keep their monopoly hold on the area as the only energy provider. It was completely legal.

These types of efforts almost cost the world FM Radio and AC Power among other great innovations. Some say it through stifling practices that we currently don't have better electric vehicle technology in the world. Even with equalizing tools for innovation like Kickstarter or the Maker Movement, there is plenty of room to worry. 

My concern is that, the more corporations become political players and able to throw huge money around to protect their interests the harder it will be for new technologies and innovations to really shake things up. This is something that even those on more of a conservative side of the argument should be worried about. It is a scenario that will itch at the back of my mind while I pay close attention to the future of decisions like these.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

An Open Letter Response to Charles Koch

Dear Mr. Koch,

When I read your letter to the American people in the Wall Street Journal, I felt I had to respond. I am not doing this because I think you will actually read these words or that, in the end, this letter will make that much of a difference to you if you do. I had to point out the insult in your opinion piece. I had to do this because, in this age where money now equates to speech, I had to throw as much “free” speech into this conversation as I could.

You, your brother, and others like you represent a huge, ever widening divide in America. In a land whose origins rested on equality and stories of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to become successful, you represent an affront to the American dream.   

In your opinion piece, you reference Thomas Jefferson as a historical perspective to support your views on limited government, in justification of your efforts for a “free America." I offer my counter. On the subject of wealth inequalities, Jefferson wrote;

“I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.” Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, was writing to James Madison about the gross inequalities of wealth he observed in pre-Revolution France. His observations there led him to realize that the massive accumulation of wealth and gross inequality of its distribution represented a danger to the American people. 

You are worth roughly $40 billion, 365 thousand times more than the median American family. You and your brother were born into wealth from your father’s oil company and your grandfather’s railroad and newspaper businesses. Through the efforts of organizations like the CATO institute, the Heritage Fund, and Americans for Prosperity, you hold immense political power and influence. You even hold enough sway that you can elicit the exact type of political mandate on things like climate taxes that you rail against in your op-ed.

The reach of your political network extends to push for massive, ecologically damaging projects for your own benefit like the XL Keystone Pipeline, and derailing mass transit efforts. You are also connected to efforts to limit voting rights, and even corruption. Instead of going into depth on these subjects like I have in the past, I really want you to understand one thing.

In your piece you hail the tenets of, among other things, “equality before the law” but the truth is that there is no equality in America. Those who hold unfathomably massive wealth also hold far more influence on, and have access to, unequal levels of our political infrastructure.

You and your brother are so far removed from the actual American experience that you represent what is wrong with our country and where it is headed. A government run for the interests of the wealthy and the corporations in which they have interest. This Plutocracy that represents your vision of a future filled with “freedom” is so far from the American dream that it is a disgusting insult when you try to press your vision on the rest of us by twisting the words of a founding father.

The Koch name will go down in history as a warning against the oily, slimy influence that corporatists can have on our country. The more the American people become aware of your influence, and the influence of those who have gained from Citizens United and subsequent rulings, the more we will fight you and fight for our future. We will fight for future for all of the American people and not just the 1%.