Yesterday marked the conclusion of the two-day Summit on Technology and Opportunity, an anti-poverty conference cohosted by the White House, Stanford University, and Mark Zuckerberg’s charity. Something is wrong here.
In a rich country, which America is, poverty is a distribution problem. Which is to say: it is a political problem. It is conventional wisdom that other problems are essentially political in nature—for example, you don’t need to be employed by the UN to know that global hunger is not due to a lack of global food, but instead to corruption and war and broken governments and other things that prevent food from being distributed to everyone who needs it. Likewise, it is not a shortage of money causing poverty in America. The U.S. per capita income is more than $56,000, more than enough to offer everyone a middle class lifestyle. The problem is the distribution of that money. And that is a political problem. You may believe our current level of economic inequality is justified, or you may not. But maintaining that inequality—with its accompanying riches and poverty—or changing it is a political decision.
The structure of taxes that allows money to accumulate at the top or redistributes it downwards; the regulations or lack thereof that allow industries of varying degrees of unfairness to wither or flourish; the strength or weakness of the social safety net; the rules that determine the power relations of labor and capital. All political choices. Choices that determine who has power, and which are themselves ultimately determined by who has power. Poverty is an economic situation, but whether poverty grows or declines is, to a great extent, the result of political choices that we make. If we speak about poverty outside of the context of politics, we are fooling ourselves.
Which brings us to the Summit on Technology and Opportunity, the invite-only event that just concluded on Stanford’s rarefied campus. I don’t wish to criticize the individual participants in the event—in isolation, they represent a wide array of worthy charitable endeavors and academic research. But I do wish to criticize the mindstate and political posturing that leads to the White House lending its imprimatur to such an event. With all of the do-gooder conferences in the world, why does the White House come to put its name on one that explicitly holds up technology and private philanthropy and public-private partnership as the solution to poverty? This summit did not spend its time discussing new taxes and government regulations to rein in inequality, or how to purge Congress of members hostile to poverty-fighting legislation; instead, its sessions touted “Philanthropy as a Catalyst” and “Technology to Facilitate Financial Access” and “Tech Talent for Public Impact and the Way Ahead.”
This purge of politics from the language of poverty-fighting was not a mistake. It was the point. And that is why it is hollow.
Poverty and wealth are inextricably linked. The economy is not a zero-sum game, but the fruits of the economic growth that creates and fuels wealthy nations like ours are hoarded to a shocking extent by a tiny group at the top, which warps our political system, starves our economy of demand, and fuels poverty both directly and indirectly. Philanthropy is fine and dandy. Show me a good charity, though, and I’ll show you an idea that could be practiced on much larger scale by a government. (One of the world’s most effective anti-poverty charities does nothing but send money directly to poor people. Hello, redistribution of wealth.) Fighting poverty—and making our nation more economically fair—is not a mystifying riddle waiting for a technological breakthrough. It is a question of political will. If we want to push more wealth down the economic chain, we will.
Of course, the illusion that poverty can be solved by the ingenuity of civic-minded tech zillionaires is an alluring fantasy for the White House. Silicon Valley is the new cradle of extreme wealth in America. Philanthropy is popular with the rich tech set, and that situation is certainly preferable to them hoarding all their money. More preferable still, however, is what we should be doing: taxing extreme wealth (or making it hard to accumulate outlandish fortunes in the first place by passing laws that ensure wealth is spread more fairly) and then using our democratic process to determine how that public revenue is spent. Philanthropy is the privatization of the social safety net. That is not a desirable state of affairs. Social Security and Medicare and the CDC are robust government programs with millions of stakeholders; Mark Zuckerberg’s charity is ultimately at the whim of two people. We do not need a nation that turns to its tech-enriched kings and begs them to solve poverty. We need a nation that acts collectively to build an economy in which our wealth is shared.
But acting to tax the rich and regulate corporate power and strengthen labor against the predations of capital is controversial and difficult. Doing so requires politicians to take on the interests of the rich, which has traditionally been a risky move for any elected official’s political longevity. It is safer to hold a conference in which officials and billionaires stand hand in hand and discuss Ways to Solve These Serious Problems. It may even be possible, in the right setting, for all of these people to convince themselves that they are on the most optimal path to utopia.
It’s an illusion. The rich and the poor were around long before Silicon Valley. It’s not another class at Stanford that we need. It’s class war.