Might this guy sell more books if Washington weren’t so billionaire-friendly? Actually, yes—authors like John Grisham might well benefit from smarter fiscal policies such as the end of the top-tier tax cuts and other measures that have enriched multimillionaires at the expense of the rest of us. Let me explain. TechCrunch recently asked whether technology might be a destroyer rather than a creator. I say that it’s more of a destroyer today than earlier, not because of the bits and bytes themselves but because of Washington’s all-too-fallible humans. In the past, through fiscal policies and otherwise, a higher percentage of the tech-created windfalls of the few would have been spread around—thereby encouraging more consumption in the best Keynesian tradition, including purchases of Grisham’s works.
Not quite so much today. I, of all people, am not anti-tech, but I intensely dislike the way elites in the U.S. and elsewhere are hogging the benefits that so often are the results of sheer luck, not talent or hard work. The real rewards of the new order have gone not to bright young software engineers from Stanford, but rather to the proverbial one percent. Not every computer-science major ends up a Brin or Page. “The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976,” as noted by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. And the 1 percent’s share of America’s wealth? About 43 percent. Seymour Solomon and the other wealthy greedsters in The Solomon Scandals are pikers compared to the Koch Brothers.
Why should the average American love automation if, thanks to corrupt or somnolent politicians, we’re increasingly a banana republic dominated more and more by tech-wealthy corporations? Although income and wealth disparities in the U.S. are old news, the current extent of the inequalities is not. And tech has accelerated this. Thanks to anti-union sentiments among fat-cat campaign donors, for example, our politicians have negotiated trade agreements that let sweatshop wages go on in those countries benefiting from the international trade which the Internet has turbocharged. Technology as a destroyer in such cases? Definitely, unless you’re rich and well-situated enough. Electrons are neutral; Washington’s pro-billionaire policies are not.
Yes, this is disconcertingly relevant to us book people and other content creators who care about purchases from the nonelite; here’s just one example. Older people pirate less, and maybe part of it is that they are not as proficient with technology. But could another part be that they are less cash-strapped than the oft-unemployed young and are more open to one-click convenience at Amazon? Think about it. Might fairer distribution of the rewards of tech be one of the best anti-pirate measures? Perhaps the publishers and others should worry less about 20-somethings downloading illicit files of John Grisham or Lady Gaga‘s works, and more about the Koch Brothers exploiting technology to ship jobs abroad. Just how many copies of The Litigators can Random House sell to the one percent? No anti-rich sentiments here, just anti-greed ones. Grisham if anything is a job-creator, a draw for customers of online and offline bookstores alike, and I’ll not begrudge him his wealth. While Grisham is a multimillionaire, keep in mind that he’s reliant on the masses for revenue and presumably isn’t in the same tax bracket as the Koch Brothers.
I’d love to hear from other book people, both small-fry and big-fry. Do you really think the money is in overpriced publications for the elite or in mass sales? And if Random House and friends want to thrive in the mass market—and not see people so fixated on pirated or econo-priced fiction—shouldn’t they care about the regressive redistribution of wealth and income that technology has helped make possible?