Is Silicon Valley the New Wall Street?

Not yet, and hopefully not ever
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Mike Segar/Reuters

A few years ago, key leaders in the technology industry, led by Apple's Steve Jobs, colluded to hold down their employees' wages. They agreed not to recruit from each other, and this spring they settled a civil lawsuit that brought evidence of their brazen scheme to wide public notice. The case unveiled a Silicon Valley that most Americans didn’t recognize—an ugly side to America's most innovative and, increasingly one of its most essential, industries. 

It's certainly become one of the biggest and most profitable, spinning off countless billions to investors even as it forces ever-greater changes in the local, national and global economy. Which raises an interesting question, given a new level of scrutiny that has revealed some unpopular, and sometimes repugnant, practices and attitudes: Is Silicon Valley the new Wall Street?

In some interesting respects, it is. But in the most important ways, it's not even close.

Before I explain, here’s my bias: In general, I have a much more positive than negative view of the tech community. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, and my journalism career owes a great deal to the tech world. I have many friends in the field. I’ve invested in several tech companies and co-founded several others since leaving my newspaper career almost a decade ago. But I’ll never be an uncritical cheerleader. 

Silicon Valley's most obvious parallel with Wall Street, after its economic muscle, is systemic arrogance that has become part of a newer public narrative. The press turned Wall Street CEOs into heroes in the early 2000s, only questioning them after they almost destroyed the global economy and then demanded—and incredibly got—hundreds of billions in taxpayer handouts. Even today, much of the business (and political) press prefers the role of courtesans to actually doing their job.

Silicon Valley's image was stellar in the 1990s. It suffered briefly after the 1990s bubble, which was created by an unholy collaboration among founders, venture capitalists and investment bankers, inevitably deflated and left countless retail investors, among others, holding the bag. The negative image didn't last long as a new generation of tech giants emerged. For the last decade or more, until quite recently, the public love affair with Silicon Valley blossomed again, encouraged by the West Coast's journalist-courtesans. That's all changing as people consider what the tech culture has wrought on our society in less positive ways.

An Occupy Tech movement hasn't stormed the gates, but protesters have blocked and vandalized Google buses in San Francisco, where tech-fueled gentrification has just about priced the middle class out of any hope of renting, much less buying a home. The industry’s lack of diversity, and behavior bordering on misogyny at times, are coming under increasing criticism. The public isn’t thrilled, either, at being considered lab rats in Web giants’ experiments. Anger has grown at tech giants' cooperation, willing or otherwise, with the federal government's surveillance programs, not to mention the Internet industry's essential business model—advertising-driven spying on us in ever-more pervasive ways. Communities are fighting back against companies in the so-called "sharing economy" that go out of their way to show disdain for local regulations (and the tax base) as startups like Uber and Airbnb field substitutes for taxis, hotel rooms and more. (In general I favor this disruption, as long as the disruptors aren’t given unfair advantages.) Eyes rolled as prominent venture capitalist Tim Draper spent big bucks to push a ballot initiative for a vote on whether California should split into six states, one of which would be a Silicon Valley that would jettison its poorer neighbors like so much flotsam.

Silicon Valley chieftains, like the bosses of Wall Street, are rarely held accountable for their companies’ offenses. In addition to his leadership in restricting employees’ job movements, Steve Jobs was almost certainly involved in a scandal disproportionately weighted toward the tech industry: the repricing of stock options, which favored insiders over common shareholders. Apple threw two executives under the bus, but the man in charge wasn’t charged. In the greater scheme of things—e.g. the bankers’ never-ending predations—the options affair wasn’t earthshaking. But it was illegal.

Silicon Valley isn't in the same ballpark as Wall Street when it comes to systemic corruption and manipulation, however. The banksters—one of the best new words to emerge from the financial meltdown—rigged the economy with the help of their well-compensated allies in Washington. Not one senior banker was charged in the era’s systematic fraud against investors and the public, and modest reforms have done almost nothing to curb their power.

But here’s the main reason Silicon Valley isn’t a new Wall Street. The financial institutions are, by definition, heavily leveraged. The biggest are bigger than ever—way, way too big to fail, and not much more solvent than in 2007. It is clear to absolutely everyone paying attention, moreover, that another financial crisis would lead to yet another government/taxpayer bailout.

A new tech bubble is inflating, as anyone living in the Bay Area can attest. But no tech company is too big to fail, at least not by Wall Street standards. Why? The tech giants are exactly the opposite of heavily leveraged. One of their core strengths is how much cash they generate and save. It’s immense. Apple alone had more than $150 billion in cash and short-term investments at the end of the second quarter, and could go north of $200 billion by the end of the year; its business could grind to a halt for several years (which is plainly not going to happen) before it would run out of money. Google’s $61 billion hoard looks small only by comparison.

Here’s perhaps most important way Silicon Valley isn’t like Wall Street: The tech companies deploy hardware and software engineering to create actual products that real people use. Wall Street’s primary mission is financial engineering to skim money from the economy in essentially unproductive ways (for everyone but Wall Street). Both compete for the best programmers, so it makes me sad to see smart young people opting for an industry that creates value almost only for itself. 

It’s fair to say that a lot of the products coming out of the tech world these days range from modestly useful to utterly pointless, as always happens in recent tech bubbles, but software and hardware are, truly, “eating the world” in profound (if also scary at times) ways. I’m no fan of the tech industry’s bad behavior, of which there’s plenty. But they’d have to go a long, long way down an unlikely path before I’d ever insult Silicon Valley by likening it to Wall Street.

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Dan Gillmor teaches digital-media literacy and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books about technology and media.

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