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Microsoft Trial Obscures Larger Inequality Issues

October 12, 1998|GARY CHAPMAN

The Microsoft antitrust trial scheduled to begin this month will no doubt dominate high-tech industry news as an epic and historic battle between the dominant company in the Information Age and the U.S. Justice Department.

But, like most other news stories about high tech in newspapers, magazines and on the World Wide Web, this legal battle obscures deeper problems in the relationship between our high-tech companies and the country in which they operate.

No other industry is as self-absorbed, arrogant, insular or in love with itself and its products as high tech. And the real tragedy is that a great many of our best and brightest citizens, attracted to this industry because of its famous and astonishing capacity for creating millionaires, are typically lost to the nation as leaders in a more profound and noble sense of that word. The vast chasm that exists between leadership in high tech and leadership in public affairs is a significant and growing national problem. The Microsoft case is the proverbial tip of this iceberg.

Recently we've watched Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers discover the public arena, launching lobbying organizations like the Technology Network (, opening corporate offices in Washington and donating money to candidates. Microsoft contributed more than $500,000 to both Republicans and Democrats in the last year (twice as much to the former as the latter).

But in nearly every case when high tech has taken an interest in public issues, industry leaders have limited their focus to what is good for their bottom lines: protection against shareholder lawsuits, relaxation of immigrant worker quotas, education reform oriented toward the production of more high-tech workers, getting more computers in schools and increasing protections against software piracy, among other themes.

The mission statement of Technology Network, the chief bipartisan lobbying group in Silicon Valley, is "to pass federal and state laws that will benefit technology enterprises, their employees and investors and foster continued growth of the New Economy."

High-tech industry leaders and pundits have let it be known that they consider government mostly an unfortunate holdover of previous eras, one that is now ill-suited to the world that they, as pioneers of the electronic frontier, are creating.

But because it doesn't look like government is going to disappear soon, the industry has to deal with the public sector as a source of power, to be opposed in some instances and wielded as a tool in others. Thus the Microsoft case is mostly an internecine dispute between industry leaders themselves, not a landmark case for protecting the public interest.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Howard Graves, who is setting up the new--and timely--Center on Ethical Leadership at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says: "You have to ask these corporate leaders, 'Where is the vision? What are the values?' " Graves points out that enduring U.S. companies "are known for standing for something more than profits . . . . There are more stakeholders out there than just stockholders."

The main problem is that the wealth generated by the technology revolution has transformed both the individuals who have been made wealthy and the society in which they live.

Bernard Rapaport, the billionaire CEO of American Income Life Insurance Co., wrote recently in the Texas Observer that we're living in an economic era "when many of our citizens are increasingly prosperous, yet have begun to act like exalted panjandrums or titled sheiks, showing untroubled insensitivity to the large underclass all around us."

"This insensitivity--the public and often even proud indifference--is most especially cruel to the hundreds of thousands of poor and neglected American children, born with little chance of advancement in our increasingly competitive world."

But inequality appears to be of little interest to most high-tech industry leaders, as a recent article in the National Journal, on the link between technology and inequality, illustrated. Not one of the high-tech executives interviewed for the article expressed any concern about income inequality.

High-tech leaders commonly judge public officials on whether or not they "get it" about the importance of technology to the future of the United States. But does this mean that public leaders should simply accept that their chief constituency should now be the tiny minority of highly skilled workaholics who succeed in high tech, while everyone else turns invisible?

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