To Make the Internet Great Again, Trump Must Smash Facebook and Its Tech Oligarch Friends

Even as many Americans look with horror on the authoritarian blusterer in the White House, we are slowly succumbing to a more pernicious, less obvious and far more lasting tech oligarchy gaining ever more control over our economy, culture and politics.

“We are certainly looking at bringing antitrust cases against Amazon, Facebook and Google,” Trump said in an interview just before the election, adding that he’s had “so many people” warning him about their overwhelming power.

Unreliable narrator though the President may be, people are indeed waking up to the tech giants’ massive and largely unchecked power, and the consequences of turning over our channels of communication to them. That includes World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who said earlier this year that he “was devastated” by how the internet has been used in recent elections, including our presidential race, and that he’s working to create a new system now that “the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places.”

We once saw the tech industry as a refreshing alternative to the staid old corporate establishment, a entrepreneurial environment where all kinds of thoughts and images would have free rein. Yet as the industry has evolved, it has become one of the most concentrated and monopolistic America has ever seen, determined to stamp out prospective rivals and expand control of both media and politics.

Amazon’s recent decision to put its two new “headquarters” operations in New York and Washington illustrates the growing collusion of tech, culture and media. From an economic or geographic point of view, other cities like Columbus, Dallas, or Indianapolis, where tech growth is greater and where lower housing and living prices are drawing more millennials, might have made more sense. But by locating in the most expensive and connected northeastern cities, Amazon and Jeff Bezos are placing themselves in the heart of the nation’s dominant media and political culture. With almost limitless cash, considerations like office or housing costs, or even taxes, that impact most normal businesses apparently mean very little.

The early phases of the digital revolution, which I witnessed in California in the 1970s and 1980s, were shaped by relentless competition between upstarts and firms that, just a few years earlier had been upstarts. Scores of companies launched their own personal computer lines, software and peripherals.

Today, a handful of companies that have colluded to keep wages down dominate the digital economy, in part by buying up any emerging competitors. Once we had bold notions of the internet helping to create an ever-expanding realm of options in the arts and journalism. In 1980, the late Alvin Toffler suggested in The Third Wave a “de-massified media.” Instead, we have Google controlling nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of American e-book sales, over forty percent of all online sales and, perhaps most important, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, Google and Apple control over 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices. Microsoft still accounts for over 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

This piece originally appeared at The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.

Homepage photo credit: From shopcatalog via Flickr, using CC License.

Lurching to a New Weimar

America seems to be heading inexorably toward a Weimar moment, a slide toward political polarization from which it could be increasingly difficult to return. Weimar — that brief, brilliant and tragic German republic of the 1920s — was replaced by Hitler’s murderous regime in 1933.

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The Golden State Won’t Glitter for Republicans

California’s Republican Party was once a force to be feared, not only in the state, but across the country. Nowadays, it’s at most a mild irritant and sometimes a convenient whipping boy for the Democratic progressives, who run the state almost entirely. Nothing is working much for the GOP this year. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, John Cox, has little charisma, no discernible local roots, and no compelling message. He sneaked into the runoff election because too many Democrats vied for the job. He’ll be thrashed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, likely by a wide margin. As governor, Newsom will probably preside over a legislative super-majority that will marginalize the Republicans even further.

Read the entire piece at City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.

Homepage photo credit: Tommy Lee Kreger (John Cox-6), under CC-BY-SA-2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

How About a Fusion Party in the Golden State?

Once upon a time, the California Republican Party was a fearsome political instrument, forging the ground for two presidents. But today the California GOP is fighting rearguard actions to save its last remaining seats in once solidly Republican strongholds as Orange, San Diego and even in inland California, potentially costing them upward of seven House seats.

The party is now so pathetic that a top party official crowed that GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox might be “within 10 points” to the inevitable winner, Gavin Newsom. No doubt the architects of the earlier glory days like Stuart Spencer, Mike Deaver or Pete Hannaford would find this situation unbearable.

What California needs is not a new Republican Party — at least at the state level — but what the late Kevin Starr called “the Party of California.” This party would target the growing independent constituency, now larger than Republicans, as well as Democrats who might be disaffected by their party’s relentless move to the left.

Roots of a one-party state

The roots of the Republican collapse lie largely in demographics: the steady loss of middle-class, middle-aged families, and the massive immigration of the 1980s and 1990s, which shifted the state’s ethnic profile. In 2012, the California electorate was barely half non-Latino white, but by 2030 it will drop closer to 40 percent. Some Republicans, including strong Asian-American candidates in Orange County, have made some breakthrough but overall this is ever more the party of aging white males.

Economic changes have also played a role. California’s growth engine now rests almost entirely on tech oligarchs, large funders and, increasingly, media enforcers for the progressive agenda — at least as far as it does not threaten their vast wealth. The parts of the California economy that once backed the GOP, such as aerospace, oil and gas and suburban homebuilding, have fallen into a long-term secular decline.

Much of the media, and virtually all progressive activists, will consider the collapse of the GOP as a positive development. Yet for Californians as a whole, one-party rule — as is usually the case — has engendered a growing disconnect between the political elites and the aspirations of electorate.

Time for a Party of California

If we had a functioning two-party system, California’s insane climate jihad — which has served to weaken most blue-collar sectors and boosted energy and home prices — would be reevaluated based on economic impacts as opposed to increasingly stepped up. Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed choo-choo would likely be abandoned or scaled back out of sheer embarrassment.

But now California’s Democratic activists face few brakes on their power. They can, and often do, impose whatever controls on people’s lives and thoughts as possible, with little concern with push-back from the impacted masses.

To stop this neo-Stalinist momentum, we need an opposition that does not carry the GOP’s toxic legacy on issues relating to gays, minorities and immigrants. Running a wealthy, carpetbagging, visionless non-entity like John Cox, who speaks mostly to the aging Reagan constituencies, seems a poor way to change perceptions.

What would the Party of California stand for?

This new party should not become some “third way” front for the super-rich and their technocratic approach to politics. It could even take some pages from Trump’s book of economic nationalism and populism, but throw away the arguably xenophobic excesses associated with the chief executive, a very unpopular figure in the state. Instead it would focus heavily on those parts of the state — pretty much everywhere outside Silicon Valley and fashionable coastal communities in Southern California — that have seen little high-wage job growth, and growing poverty under the current regime.

What would a Party of California favor? It would stand for local control, which has support from about 70 percent of voters, according to a new USC Dornsife poll, and oppose the top-down policies favored by the state’s planning clerisy. The party might allow poorer areas, particularly in the interior, to increase their competitiveness by opting out of some of the fashionable progressive lunacy imposed by the Bay Area-dominated political class.

This new party would embrace California’s obligations on the environment, but at a level congruent with policies adopted by most foreign competitors. It would seek ways to employ the very technologies developed here to make our suburbs and rural areas more sustainable. The current policy of “pack and stack,” favored by the planners, means simply higher prices and fewer residences that appeal to families.

There are some promising signs. For all the inevitability of more progressive gains, two candidates, charter school advocate Marshall Tuck for superintendent of education, and tech executive Steve Poizner, running for insurance commissioner with “No Party Preference,” seem likely to either win or get in striking distance.

These candidates, particularly should they win, could pave the way for others to consider running outside the two established parties. The GOP, hopelessly addicted to its declining base, cannot accomplish this, but an emergent Party of California might do the trick.

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.

Homepage photo credit: SCUMATT, under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

The American Republic Has Lost Adult Supervision

The ship known as the American Republic sails on, but its crew is made up of irresponsible and vicious children cast from “Lord of the Flies.” Prisoners of their own emotions, they increasingly seem impervious to the notion that their gyrations might topple their own vessel.

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Autonomous Cars Are Our Real Future

Long a hotbed of new technologies, California insists on seeing its transit future in the rear mirror. Rather than use innovative approaches to getting people around and to work, our state insists on spending billions on early 20th century technology such as streetcars and light rail that have diminishing relevance to our actual lives.

California’s roads may be among the worst in the country, but the state seems more than anxious to spend billions on transit systems that are losing market share. Despite spending over $15 billion on trains since 1990, Los Angeles transit market share and ridership have dropped. As one member of the California Transportation Commission notes, the state’s planners largely ignore the role of technologies — including home-based work, ride hailing and autonomous vehicles — that offer the best hope for resolving our transportation woes.

Part of the problem lies in geography: the state refuses to address transportation needs within the reality of continued suburbanization of jobs and people. In major metropolitan areas since 2010, more than 90 percent of the population growth in the six largest metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs and exurbs, and less than 10 percent in the urban core favored by California’s policies. As growth heads to places such as south Orange County, the Inland Empire and northern L.A. County, the relevance of traditional transit — which works largely for downtown locations — continues to weaken.

Getting beyond the transit fantasy

Rather than hop on the rails, more residents are addressing traffic woes by simply staying home. By 2015, more Los Angeles-area residents were working at home than were taking transit, something also true across the country. Since 1990, the number of people working at home increased eight times as rapidly as the number of people using the transit system. The number of people driving increased even more rapidly compared to transit.

Promoting home-based work is one way California can develop a transit future that addresses the actual needs of of our people, who overwhelmingly live and work in suburban locations. The state really has one traditional functioning downtown — San Francisco — but most residents everywhere else favor personalized transportation because they commute to dispersed and diverse location. Already the convenience of driving keeps most of us in our cars and, for those who don’t want to drive, Uber and Lyft, both California companies, have become the carrier of choice.

We need a new vision

California government justifies its policies on environmental grounds, but increasingly the state’s priority is to reduce driving in order to produce its utopia of ever more crowded, densely packed cities. Yet these policies so far have not made the state a leader in GHG reduction but, as a new Chapman report reveals, actually behind the pack of most other states.

As the state emphasizes transportation that most people won’t use, it has favored a “road diet” to keep the freeways clogged. Against all market signals, it is determined to force people into “transit-oriented” areas, even as ridership falls. This approach ignores strategies that address mobility in ways both environmentally friendly way and also in touch with human realities. They largely ignore, for example, the potential of the ultimate, low-GHG technology, which is home-based work, a mode of work access that already is more widely used in the state, including the dense Los Angeles and San Jose areas, than transit.

But the biggest change, perhaps unfolding over the next two decades, will be the autonomous vehicle. MIT’s Alan Berger suggests this new technology will free up huge amounts of space in cities that now go for wide roads and garages, while finally liberating the overwhelmingly suburban majority from dependence on traditional cars. These new vehicles, Berger suggests, could be powered by solar power, stored in special garages, and be on call when needed. They will also likely drive a new dispersion to the outer suburbs as commutes become more tolerable, according to recent Bain study.

Streetcars, bullet trains and other waste needs to stop

Intoxicated with their transit obsession, our political leaders continue to fund ill-conceived projects such as Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail system with costs that have more than doubled since initial planning. Despite considerable scaling back, it is more than 10 years behind schedule. As many as two-thirds of Californians no longer want to fund it.

Possibly even more boneheaded are streetcar lines, which almost everywhere in the county are performing well below projections and losing riders. The construction of a 4.5-mile, $400 million trolley between Santa Ana and Garden Grove follows a route that promises few riders and seems doomed to a long money-losing career. Atlanta’s disastrously under-performing trolley has been nicknamed by some locals “a streetcar named undesirable.” Maybe we can do the same for the Santa Ana line — how does “a streetcar named stupidity” sound?

All this is all the more unconscionable at a time when more efficient, less costly technologies — electric cars, work at home and autonomous vehicles — all beckon with promise of better environmental results and greater mobility and efficiency. California may have developed many of these technologies, but our leaders have been maddeningly slow to even consider how to adopt them.

This article first appeared in The Orange County Register.

Photo: Ed and Eddie, via Flickr, using CC License.

America Keeps Winning Regardless of Who is President

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, many of our leading academic voices, like Paul Krugman, predicted everything from a stock market crash to a global recession. Slow growth, mainstream economists like Larry Summers, argued, was in the cards no matter who is in charge. That was then. Now the United States stands as by far the most dynamic high-income economy in the world. Read more

America is Moving Toward an Oligarchical Socialism

Where do we go after Trump? This question becomes more pertinent as the soap opera administration seeks its own dramatic demise. Yet before they can seize power from the president and his now subservient party, the Democrats need to agree on what will replace Trumpism.

Conventional wisdom implies an endless battle between pragmatic, corporate Clintonites on one side, and Democratic socialists of the Bernie brand. Yet this conflict could resolve itself in a new, innovative approach that could be best described as oligarchal socialism.

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Restoring Localism

Americans are increasingly prisoners of ideology, and our society is paying the price. We are divided along partisan lines to an extent that some are calling it a “soft civil war.” In the end, this benefits only ideological warriors and their funders.

One key source of this deepening division is the relentless centralization that has overtaken both our economy and our politics. Leaders of both parties have sat by while the forces of capital and government have centralized power and authority in ever fewer hands. Read more

The Triumph of Trumpism Will Outlast Trump

Given the endless scandals swarming around him, Donald Trump’s presidency may prove, to quote Thomas Hobbes, to be “nasty, brutish and short.” But even if Trump ends up out of office sooner than planned, we will continue to live in a world shaped by him for years to come.

He retains surprisingly high ratings for the economy and keeping the country safe. His perceived successes have allowed him, in a way matched only by Ronald Reagan, to alter American politics, and policy, in ways that could well persist well after he has returned to the gold-plated garishness of the Trump Tower.

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