Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man: The billionaires who no one seems to hate

Two interesting news items coincided the other week

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Two interesting news items coincided the other week

Two interesting news items coincided the other week. The growing debate about the relatively light tax burden shouldered by the massively rich and the partial retirement of Steve Jobs.

One dog failed to bark in the night. No one, as far as I can see, dared name Mr Jobs as one of the people who should pay more tax. In fact, for a billionaire head of a vast, powerful US multinational, Jobs has enjoyed a special indulgence: to some people his is almost the only acceptable face of capitalism.

Will Wilkinson, blogging for the Economist, suggests people are dazzled by the beauty he has created. An urban liberal consensus has no trouble loving an egotistical, wholly unphilanthropic billionaire capitalist, provided he has great design sense. But ‘…the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ’em, the greedy bastards.’

Do read his post. It’s worth it for one sentence alone in which he describes our beloved iPads as providing ‘an escapist sense of versatile efficacy that is no less powerful for being fantasy’. Ouch. But surely our delusions aren’t confined to Apple products. Are we in fact overindulgent towards technology in general?

In the tangible world, when a large American cinema chain arrives in the UK and causes small local cinemas to close, a certain sort of person (though not me — I love a good multiplex) regards it as self-evidently bad. Yet when Amazon or iTunes jeopardises our high-street book or record shops, there is far less criticism.  

As an Americanophile libertarian nutter, I don’t often agree with this dissenting Luddite chatter — and in any case, I can barely hear it over the Dolby 7.1 surround-sound and the noise I’m making with my skip-sized bucket of popcorn and two-gallon vat of Pepsi Max. But I do think it has a value: it is healthy for a doubting voice or two to remind people there are wider consequences to the choices they make. On digital matters, however, these voices are surprisingly muted.

Why? I sometimes wonder if the technological revolution escaped critical comment because, in the eyes of journalists, economists and other social commentators, it seemed so meritocratic. Unusually, the fortunes it produced seemed to end up in the hands of people they liked.

Very rich people are often slightly nasty. But the new mill-owners of the dotcom era were different: they were bright and well educated, dressed like professors of sociology, and were likely to be pescetarian Buddhists with counterculture roots who voted Democrat. It was difficult to see their wealth as undeserved.

Just imagine a parallel universe where Silicon Valley was not run by polo-necked Californian liberals in Lennon specs but by — say — aggressively northern Yorkshire businessmen, or by the Murdochs, or by Scientologists, or by orthodox Jews, or fundamentalist Christians or simply by people who wore ties. Imagine then the level of scrutiny it would receive.

There’s a lesson here for bankers. If you want to regain public affection, start dressing like Californians. Grow beards. Light a joss-stick in your feng-shuied office. Then no one will mind how much money you make or how.

Postscript. Can I be the sole commentator to suggest David Cameron set an appalling example by returning from holiday during the riots. He set back the cause of teleworking by a decade. There is no technological reason why you cannot run a country — or anything else — seated beside a swimming pool, and it is a kind of collective popular sadism that demands a symbolic presence at home. Next year he should rent a villa with a telepresence suite — and stay there.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman

of Ogilvy Group UK.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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