Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs was capitalism at its best. Let's not make him the champion of capitalism at its worst.

Wednesday night, my Twitter feed—after the Phillies game ended—was primarily concerned with two things: Occupy Wall Street, and the death of Steve Jobs. It's terribly dangerous to mash up two wildly disparate news stories and find a Common Meaning in them, but I was struck nonetheless. And so I Tweeted my thoughts: That while capitalism has real, sometimes huge flaws, it is also capable—uniquely so, in my opinion—of offering us goods and services that help us survive, thrive, and extend our abilities. I think it's also largely true, as Rod Dreher said—and he, incidentally, is no fan of Big Corporatism—"socialism just doesn’t produce a Steve Jobs."

But I think National Review's Kevin D. Williamson takes the Jobs-as-awesome-capitalist meme too far:
Profits are not deductions from the sum of the public good, but the real measure of the social value a firm creates. Those who talk about the horror of putting profits over people make no sense at all. The phrase is without intellectual content. Perhaps you do not think that Apple, or Goldman Sachs, or a professional sports enterprise, or an internet pornographer actually creates much social value; but markets are very democratic — everybody gets to decide for himself what he values. That is not the final answer to every question, because economic answers can only satisfy economic questions. But the range of questions requiring economic answers is very broad.
That phrase—that profits are "the real measure of the social value a firm creates"—strikes me as a bridge too far. Profits are one indicator, a significant one, but the real measure? There's no other good way to assess a firm's social value? No.

Porn is hugely profitable. For that matter, so is selling meth. So is housing speculation—at least, until it isn't. And even Jobs' record on the front of "social value" isn't uncomplicated—witness the debate over working conditions at Apple's China factories.

The point here is not that Steve Jobs should be lumped in with flesh peddlers and junk dealers. He shouldn't. But Williamson writes that "economic answers can only satisfy economic questions"—and it's simply obvious that sometimes the answer is wrong. And sometimes, it can be very difficult to see that because of the profits involved. We are, in 2011—on the apparent cusp of a double-dip recession—living with proof of that.

Williamson concludes:
And to the kids camped out down on Wall Street: Look at the phone in your hand. Look at the rat-infested subway. Visit the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, then visit a housing project in the South Bronx. Which world do you want to live in?
Well, no question: I'd rather live in the Apple Store. But I can't. The Apple Store is an advertisement, really, for Apple products specifically and the Apple ethos more generally. It's not a place I can live—advertising exists outside the realm of reality. Mistaking it for reality, as Williamson does here, doesn't do much to advance the cause of capitalism. Apple Stores are nice in part because poor people, generally, don't go in. That's not the case in the subway. But many of us need the subway to get to work—rat infestations and all—so that we can make the money we use to buy Steve Jobs' great products. That's a huge social good—it is an answer to an economic question, as Williamson says—and yet transit systems are pretty much never profitable.

As my headline says: Steve Jobs is an example of capitalism at its finest. Conservatives like Williamson should take that example for what it's worth, instead of using it to argue for a fairy tale version of reality. There are flaws, and Jobs—for all his genius—wasn't completely exempt from them.


Andrew S. said...

That socialism couldn’t produce a Steve Jobs is an odd argument. What is a Steve Jobs? Can his ideas be distinguished from his consumer products? If not, then sure. If so, then it’s likely that Socialism could produce a Steve Jobs, but a socialist Steve Jobs wouldn’t make iPhones. He wouldn’t make “i” anything. Capitalism measures its heroes by its own internal criteria, and I think it’s fair to say that the way we practice it, you can’t have capitalism’s finest outputs without embracing its most deeply flawed inputs. The bill for those inputs--the outsourcing, the working conditions, etc.--hasn’t come due yet. Jobs’ legacy will not be complete without that reckoning.

kdwmson said...

No, you can't live in the store. It's a store, not an apartment. But you can buy the things that are in the store and use them. You can make use of the value of what Apple creates.

As for transit systems' unprofitability -- why should that be so?