The Apple watch goes on sale Friday, and, just in time, the left is preparing a new assault on the world's most-admired company.
The signal came in The New Yorker magazine, a publication that embodies elite left-wing political sensibilities and one that has also happily accepted its share of Apple advertising dollars over the years. It came in a New Yorker article written by Jill Lepore, a professor at Harvard University, an institution that rivals The New Yorker as an elite left-wing flagship and that has also sold its share of Apple products over the years.
The key passage in the New Yorker article went like this: "The iPhone exists, as Mariana Mazzucato demonstrated in her 2013 book 'The Entrepreneurial State,' because various branches of the U.S. government provided research assistance that resulted in several key technological developments, including G.P.S., multi-touch screens, L.C.D. displays, lithium-ion batteries, and cellular networks."
What a breathtaking claim. By this analysis, Apple's success isn't the result of Steve Jobs's brilliance or Apple executive Jonathan Ive's design savvy or international trade. It's the product of the U.S. government.
I must confess that I find this claim troubling. Even if one concedes that various components and technologies in the iPhone—and in the Apple watch—had origins in the U.S. defense technology, this explanatory framework leaves a lot to be desired. Why did Apple successfully commercialize the technology and not some other company or branch of the government? Why are Apple stores so much more pleasant to be in than, say, a post office or a veterans' hospital waiting room. Why does the online Apple store work so much better than Healthcare.gov?
Searching for answers, I bought Professor Mazzucato's book. Disappointingly, there is a lot of nasty name-calling. One chapter title refers to "rotten apples," as if the author were an ill-behaved youngster insulting someone as a "rotten egg." Private businesses—Apple included—are repeatedly described as "parasitic," an unwelcome contemporary twist on the age-old anti-Semitic libel of capitalists as blood-suckers.
Typically of the left at its worst, the book not only refuses to seriously engage with different views, it denies even the possibility that they can exist. "It is indisputable that most of Apple's best technologies exist because of the prior collective and cumulative efforts driven by the State," Professor Mazzucato writes. Got that? "Indisputable," as in, impossible to dispute.
Mazzucato, who teaches at the University of Sussex in England, declares on her website that her current research is funded by the Ford Foundation, by the European Commission, and by George Soros's Institute for New Economic Thinking. Maybe in her next book she'll explain how the government is responsible for the outperformance of Soros's hedge fund, or for the invention by Henry Ford of the Model T. (The Ford Foundation no longer has anything to do with the auto company, though it did occur to me that Mazzucato's writings about the "parasitic" private sector might have been something that the Henry Ford who distributed "The International Jew" could relate to.)
Until then, one must wonder at the urgency of this cause. Why is it so important for the left to show that the government, not Apple executives or investors, deserves the credit for Apple's success? The answer is right there in Professor Mazzucato's book: she's afraid that giving Apple rather than the government the credit will result in "denying the State its reward (via taxes…)."
Never mind all the sales taxes generated by the sale of Apple products, and never mind all the capital gains taxes generated by the astronomical rise of the company's stock, and never mind the income taxes and payroll taxes paid by the company's employees. Mazzucato's view is that Apple doesn't pay enough tax. The claim about the government's role is the company's success is at the core of her accompanying claim about the justice of increased taxes, miraculously transforming the tax collection from a government confiscation of the fruit of private industry into a "reward" the state duly earned for its "indisputable" efforts.
If this argument sounds familiar, it should. It's not confined to some obscure book by a European academic or even to the pages of the New Yorker—it's the fight at the center of contemporary American politics.
In 2011, then-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren said, "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody." In 2012, President Obama said, "you didn't build that." In 2014, Hillary Clinton claimed, "Don't let anybody tell you that corporations and businesses create jobs."
These are all variations on the Apple watch argument. The left-wing politicians want you to thank them for the watch instead of thanking Apple. And they want to seize a larger share of Apple's profits in taxes so they can spend the money on things that are a lot less useful than Apple products.
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