Unfair business tactics are being used by corporate chiefs to “build up a kingdom” within our republic. They are guilty of “the evasion of almost all taxes” and have created unassailable monopolies for their own enrichment while paying scant regard to customer or worker concerns.
Accusations against big tech at this week’s congressional hearings? No, this was H.D. Lloyd writing about American railroads for The Atlantic magazine in 1881.
The executives from Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon this week painted themselves as industrial heroes, starting in a barren wasteland and building companies from scratch that today bring information, knowledge, goods and communication to our fingertips.
This could have sounded familiar to railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt. If you wanted to move product or people overland at the time of his birth, your choices were limited to horse, mule or ox. The beast of burden was the rotary phone landline of its day.
By the time of his death, there was enough railroad track to span the nation 30 times over. The Industrial Revolution was in full bore.
The Technology Revolution and the Information Age we are living through today are playing out much the same as the Industrial Revolution and the railroads played out 150 years ago. Something new comes along, a handful of great minds exploit it and the rest of us sit back in awe for a while until someone notices that serious gains are being made at serious cost.
The robber barons were hauled up before Congress, just as the tech barons were this week. If history is a guide, the tech barons will learn nothing from the experience. They will continue to grab all they can until policy makers, as happened under Teddy Roosevelt, finally say “enough.”
And the tech barons will have their feelings hurt, just as J.P. Morgan couldn’t believe he was being persecuted before Congress after effectively having bailed out the U.S. government in the midst of a financial crisis.
Yesterday and today, market manipulation was and is a common occurrence; Facebook is famous for buying up any company that it perceives as a threat to its business, and Apple has built some of its riches on the backs of individual app developers.
For deviousness though, they would be hard-pressed to match Jay Gould and James Fisk, who in 1869 cooked up a scheme to drive up the price of gold to entice Western farmers to sell more grain — which would then need to be shipped on their railroads.
Today, it’s the search giant Google that stands accused of manipulating not currency but information, which today is about one and the same. The enormous power of a search engine can be visualized by considering the worth, if you are a dry cleaner, of having your website come up first in a search instead of on page two.
Members of Congress, some of whom pretty clearly have a hair-thin grasp of technology themselves, are primed to throw their regulatory lasso around the mammoth tech firms on antitrust grounds. Whether that is necessary is hard to say. It might be a better use of Congress’ time to recoup the billions of dollars in taxes that big tech avoids by sheltering profits overseas.
What tycoons never seem to realize though, is that it is possible to avoid regulation simply by doing good work. If the public is happy, Congress is loath to intervene.
But we’re seeing tech start to go down some of the same roads that robber barons traveled in the Industrial Revolution, putting their own personal riches ahead of the customer and the worker. When the people get mad, Congress feels more empowered to regulate.
And people are mad that Facebook is cultivating Russian interference in our elections. They’re mad that Apple has been pumping out junk keyboards and venturing off into forays in finance which, if early returns are an indication, it clearly knows nothing about. People are mad that Amazon, awash in money, treats employees as if we had returned to sweatshop days.
Needless to say, these problems could be addressed and all it would cost the guys at the top would be a little couch change off of their net worth. But perhaps the same brain wiring that makes them wizards in the world of commerce renders them incapable of seeing how a little more investment in product and people — and humanity — would shield them from unwanted congressional attacks.
From railroaders to financiers to oil companies to telecom, all have been taken down a peg through the years by antitrust salvos that but for just a little bit of generosity could have been avoided. Many a tycoon has learned the hard way that it costs just as much to be bad as it does to be good.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.