They Get Rich, We Get Ho-Hum Gadgets

Sam Pizzigati

Our economy would become the world’s most innovative, our elites have assured us over the past 30 years, if we gave our rich enough incentives to innovate. We kept to our end of the bargain. So where’s the innovation?

The pollsters at Gallup have never asked Americans to name the world’s most technologically advanced nation. Neither, apparently, have any other pollsters. But we don’t need a pollster to know how Americans would answer that question.

Most Americans, without a moment’s hesitation, would almost certainly name the United States as the global techno tops. No other nation, after all, can lay claim to the iPhone or Microsoft or Google. We must be number one.

Only in our dreams. The latest stats show the United States lagging far behind on the high-tech benchmarks that matter most in our daily lives. On broadband speed, for instance, the United States ranks 15th globally in one international comparison, 29th in another.

Indeed, earlier this month, Bloomberg News noted that the federal government’s current “national broadband plan,” if successfully completed, would give most American homes a decade from now “the same connection speeds available today in Portugal and Japan.” 

Singapore, news reports last week indicated, will have by 2013 a broadband infrastructure fast enough to let the nation’s every home download a DVD in just a few seconds, at speeds hundreds of times faster than the current U.S. average.

Other nations are also jumping to the global high-tech forefront. Belgium leads the way in smart IDs, the Netherlands in health tech, South Korea in the “telematic” application of info technology to transportation.

The United States has become, in effect, a technological also-ran in one area after another. How could we not know that? What explains the breathtakingly wide gap between technological reality and how Americans perceive it?

Our gullibility may be the culprit. Our rich have spent the last 30 years promising us the best of all possible worlds — if in them we put our trust — and we put our faith in that promise.

We let our lawmakers lavish tax breaks and other incentives on rich people because we believed the rich when they told us these incentives would encourage badly needed investments in innovation.

We let corporate CEOs rake in unspeakable fortunes because we believed these execs when they told us they needed rewards bountiful enough to get their entrepreneurial juices flowing. 

In the end, our movers and shakers guaranteed, everyone would benefit from all these incentives and rewards. Investors and executives would become richer, and the rest of us would enjoy the privilege of life in a sublimely innovative economic powerhouse that delivers endless prosperity and great gadgets.

We average Americans, over the past three decades, have done our best to move this storyline along. And things have worked out fairly well — for investors and executives. They have most definitely prospered — and continue to prosper, even in troubled times.

The latest evidence: the just-released executive pay data from Silicon Valley. Eight execs from Northern California’s high-tech heartland took home over $10 million last year. Silicon Valley’s top 155 CEOs, the San Jose Mercury News reported last week, together pulled in $579 million.

Wealth comparison

The rest of Silicon Valley ought to be doing quite well, too, at least according to our still reigning rich people-first ideology. But helping rich people become richer hasn’t exactly turned Silicon Valley into an Information Age paradise. The past decade, observes Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy, “has been unkind to those of us who answer to those in the corporate suite, rather than sit in it.”

Just under a quarter-million Silicon Valley jobs have disappeared over the last 10 years. Between 2000 and 2008, the typical Valley household income dropped 6 percent. The Valley’s per capita income dropped another 3.5 percent last year.

Housing in Silicon Valley, even after a burst housing bubble, remains ridiculously expensive. In 2009, just under half the families looking to buy their first house couldn’t afford the price of a typical Silicon Valley family home.

signupThe ostensible good news? Analysts have found a “steep decline” in Silicon Valley’s rate of child abuse. The not-so-good-news behind this heartening stat: Reported cases of child abuse are declining, notes the Silicon Valley Network, because social worker layoffs have meant that “fewer reports of child abuse and neglect are investigated and more abused children are left without help.”

Amid this carnage, two former Silicon Valley CEOs, eBay’s Meg Whitman and Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina, will be sitting on California’s statewide ballot this November, as the GOP candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.

Both candidates are touting their can-do, high-tech CEO experience as ample reason they deserve high office. Americans, Whitman and Fiorina must figure, have been trusting in rich people for three decades. To win this November, they only need that trust to continue for five more months.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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