Too Cynical by Half
I used to think public outreach by private companies was just hot air, but my view is changing.
I am a cynic from way back. When I was 10, my parents assembled the kids in the living room and explained to us that my dad was moving to an apartment across the river to be “nearer to his work.” Within a few short years, I learned that my mom kicked him out because he had been having multiple affairs and she was fed up with it. I started distrust young.
The protection of cynicism was a good survival mechanism and a comfort until it wasn’t. At least half the things that haven’t gone right for me over a lifetime were the result of excess suspicion. I assumed the other party wasn’t acting in good faith. One in 10 times, they weren’t, and I probably saved myself something. But nine times out of 10, they were just being helpful, and there I was gnawing on the hand that was trying to feed me.
That’s something to admit after a lifetime of pursuing a strategy born out of turmoil. All the good things that might have been.
Cynicism and its cousin, contempt, say a lot about how someone feels about themselves. My contempt for others — slower, less adept, more hesitant — was really a statement about how I myself was unlovable unless I won that love through hyper-achievement. I set about hyper-achieving. Ultimately, results were mixed, and that conditional love never did arrive.
Fast forward many years, and I found myself recognizing in Steve Jobs some of what I knew. A man contemptuous of his fellow humans, who created inner and outer sanctums to torture people. In the innermost room, his confidants basked in praise and attention. Beyond that, everyone huddled in insecurity. But Jobs was also a rationalist, and, toward the end of his life, I was struck by how he phrased his response to the Cupertino city government’s attempt to shake Apple down for citywide Internet access as part of the approval process for the “mothership” company headquarters, which, then a dream, is now completed.
In the video of the event, Jobs makes his pitch and then takes questions. Kris Wang, one of the city councilors and originally from Taiwan, puts it this way: “What the city residents can benefit from this new campus?”
Jobs patiently explains that Apple is the largest taxpayer in Cupertino. He then goes on to make a thinly veiled threat to leave the city and “go somewhere like Mountain View” if things don’t work out to his satisfaction. He talks about all the employees who would like to live near the campus, high earners who would also pay plenty of local taxes. He mentions bicycles, company buses, and all the trees planned for the new development. “Those are the kinds of things that could benefit Cupertino,” he concludes.
But Wang is unmollified. “Sure those are great things,” she admits, but goes on: “To be more specific, do we get free WiFi or something like that?”
As uncomfortable background laughter begins to rise from the audience in the room, Jobs lays out his definitive case (13:24 in the video), neatly dividing the roles of government and the private sector:
“See, I’m a simpleton,” he says. “I’ve always had this view that we pay taxes, and the city should do those things. That’s why we pay taxes. Now, if we can get out of paying taxes, I’ll be glad to put up WiFi.”
The room guffaws.
Still, to her credit, Wang presses her point one more round. But Jobs holds the line. “I think we bring a lot more than free WiFi, and … so ….” His thought trails off, but the day is clearly won.
Jobs didn’t see that Apple had a role to play as a public entity. He defined its business as making products and money. He thought the City of Cupertino should be in the business of collecting taxes and spending that money for the public good.
That was nearly a decade ago, and over time, I’ve maintained a pretty similar, old-school view of the proper roles of the public and private sectors. Note how Jobs said, “We’d like to … pay taxes.” People think the rich don’t want to pay taxes, that they’re all like Larry Ellison or Larry Page, trying to slide away from any public obligation while skating on the benefits of public infrastructure. And, truth be told, Apple has some pretty astute tax accountants on the payroll who know how to execute moves like the Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich. But there is Jobs saying, no I won’t do public works, but I will help pay for them, within reason.
Given that background, you can imagine the jaundiced eye that I cast at the barrage of press releases coming from the tech industry about all their noble public works.
For example, since January, Intel alone has told us all about how it is helping the Red Cross prepare for disaster with artificial intelligence, managing the coronavirus situation both internally and externally, putting more money into coronavirus relief, putting still more money into corona pandemic response, restoring water resources, using AI to save coral reefs, keeping its annual corporate responsibility report updated, and challenging the tech industry to collaborate on health, safety, inclusion, and environmental matters.
That’s a lot of energy spent on things other than making better silicon. At around $60, Intel’s stock is about where it was at the turn of the year — after falling as low as $43 and change during the sell-off. The cynic in me says, this do-gooder stuff is all very well, but how are you going to regain process node leadership? Intel used to lead its competitors by time measured in years. Now, it’s arguably at par or slightly behind.
And yet, and yet.
In its most recent public-spirited press release, on the heels of mass protests around the country, Intel CEO Bob Swan admonishes us all not to stay on the sidelines with respect to social justice and announces that the company is funding a Black Lives Matter outreach with $1 million and a matching fund for employees.
Now, $1 million may not sound like a whole lot for a company that spends a hundred times that much on a single machine in its most advanced factories, but Swan’s message struck a chord with the newly unburied idealist in me. Intel doesn’t have to do this stuff. It could just pay its taxes and let the government deal with social justice. And yet, the government, particularly the federal government, isn’t doing its job right now. Perhaps there is a role for corporations to lead here, via moral suasion and example.
Character matters. It’s true that social outreach doesn’t lead directly to improved silicon. But people tend to have faith in a company that does the right thing. Employees feel better, management has a clearer sense of direction, customers are inclined to believe the company’s promises, suppliers are encouraged, the public at large sees a more positive image, and even investors may be able to detect the connection between doing good and doing well. Strong culture leads to strong companies.
So, I’m going to stop rolling my eyes, at least some of the time, at corporate initiatives to make the world a better place. Goodness knows, the world needs all the help it can get. And maybe Wall Street will also see how social justice can lead to greater long-term value.