Two essays in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine that cover developments, which are not prominently reported in the mainstream media, of the changed economic and social landscape. Independent writer Rebecca Solnit’s op-ed Easy Chair column, titled The Octopus and Its Grandchildren, compares those who accumulated great wealth in the nineteenth century with technology’s billionaires of today. Southern Pacific Railroad and Standard Oil were depicted in cartoons as a rapacious octopus. Goldman Sachs has recently been called “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Solnit points out that the relationship between the first such creature and today’s version is not coincidental:
Everyone knows that to a great extent Silicon Valley comes out of Stanford University, but where Leland Stanford Junior University comes from hardly anyone inquires. It comes directly out of the Southern Pacific, . . . The Southern Pacific, back when the railroads were our state-of-the-art networked technology, begot Stanford, which begot Sun Microsystems, Google, Yahoo, and numerous others.
When Leland Stanford was elected governor of California, the state conveniently gave the railroad $15 million in state bonds while the major share of profits of business and industry on the Coast landed in its “tentacles.”
There was no alternative to their transit networks, just as there is nowadays, for example, virtually no alternative to Google’s vast and spreading information networks.
San Francisco-based Twitter went public last year, creating 1,600 employee-millionaires overnight, . . . Twitter also benefited from a payroll-tax break worth $56 million, which the mayor of San Francisco gave the company under the threat that it would decamp if it had to pay what ordinary businesses do.
In the Southern Pacific era, politicians were bought directly even if taking kickbacks was illegal and considered immoral; now candidates are openly for sale via campaign donations and lobbying. Google spent more money on lobbying the federal government in 2012 than any other corporation except General Electric . . .
Google, Facebook, and Apple use offshore shell games to largely avoid paying taxes, while billionaire former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel co-founded (with none other than Milton Friedman’s grandson) a non-profit pursuing the pipe dream of building artificial islands to which individuals and businesses can relocate to be free of regulations and taxes. . . . Another billionaire, the venture capitalist Tim Draper, is funding a ballot initiative to divide California into six states, one of which would comprise the whole Bay Area under the name Silicon Valley. Secession from the United States . . . has been another popular idea.
Jessica Bruder, who teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, reports in the second essay, The End of Retirement: When you can’t afford to stop working, about the new non-retirees (7.7 million Americans sixty-five and older) who worked at middle class low-paying but full-time jobs their entire lives and can no longer afford to retire or maintain their homes without pensions. Some of these people are now living in RVs and traveling from one mammoth warehouse to another for seasonal work provided by the new behemoths of online shopping—from Amazon to Zappos. Officially called a CamperForce by Amazon, they spend ten-hour workdays walking continuously on a concrete floor for $12.50 an hour.
They call themselves workampers, travelers, nomads, gypsies, . . . [T]hey are geriatric migrant labor, meeting demands for seasonal work in an increasingly fragmented, temp-driven marketplace. . . . [T]hey’re part of a demographic that in the past several years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans.
After following one worker, 65-year-old Linda May, as she makes her way from one campsite to another, Bruder proposes that these retailing giants have spawned a new kind of temporary social interaction for those who work in their warehouses to stock our boxes. (Note the contrast between this interaction and the increased isolation of the online shopper who has given up the social activity of shopping.) Bruder describes the activities she observed at May’s campsite for Amazon in Fernley, Nevada and the one salvation she found for the workers—camaraderie:
Once newcomers connected their electric, water, and sewer hookups, they set out doormats and patio furniture and hung wind chimes and bird feeders . . . They displayed homemade yard art, . . . They put up Halloween decorations: hay bales, dried cornstalks, a pumpkin covered in pink glitter. They formed car pools to save gas money and swapped advice on inexpensive restaurants for a day-off treat. . . . The camps soon developed small-scale economies, run by the stay-at-home partners of warehouse workers. They hawked their services—dog walking, cooking, sewing, upholstery repair, painting lessons for beginners—on bulletin boards in the communal laundry rooms . . . the more stories you heard from the campers, the more you realized that the camps were themselves microcosms of the national economic catastrophe . . . jammed with aging Americans who had fallen a long, long way from the middle-class comforts they had always taken for granted.
— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate
Image is Amazon’s logo for it’s CamperForce program, begun in 2008.
Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus: A Story of California was published in 1901. It describes the conflicts between wheat growers and a railway company in California.