Innovation in Action 3: Back To The Future…in Cleveland

In 1968, Cleveland finally had some good news: thousands were out of work, but at least the deindustrialization of its riverfront was making the Cuyahoga River less polluted. By 1969, of course, the river was on fire. So much for good news.


But Peter Thiel, who like his patron Donald Trump styles himself as alternately a Jeremiah of national doom and our prophet of deliverance, remembers it differently.

[T]his isn’t the dream we looked forward to. Back when my parents came to America looking for that dream, they found it right here in Cleveland. They brought me here as a one-year-old and this is where I became an American. Opportunity was everywhere. My dad studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University, just down the road from where we are now. Because in 1968, the world’s high tech capital wasn’t just one city: all of America was high tech.

It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon–and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless.

Now, no offense to Cleveland, and maybe Neil Armstrong was “from…Ohio,” but amidst all the nonsense in Thiel’s speech, this paean to late-60s Cleveland as the paragon of 20th-century progress was the silliest part. Despite Thiel’s loathing for what he calls identity politics and “culture wars”–which he immediately followed in this speech by mocking transgender people–he is playing desperately to the most rigid and unforgiving form of identity politics we have, white nationalism.

The old-fashioned Jetsons fantasies of mid-century American futures that Thiel loves so much–moon landings, flying cars, you know, everything you think of when someone says, “Cleveland”–are the twin to Trump and Thiel’s thunderings about “national decline.” “Stagnation” and “decline” are popular themes of Thiel’s–he talks about it constantly, sometimes denouncing Silicon Valley itself for not thinking “big” enough (“we wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters” is one of his signature witticisms). His reference point is always the mid-century America of Marty McFly, when a strong state dreamed big technological dreams.

And like most  forms of cultural nostalgia indulged by American white people, the subtext, and sometimes just the text of this talk of “national decline” is a racist identity politics. It’s a fantasy of a Cold War golden age when the only non-white people they can see are on stage doing “Earth Angel.” So when Thiel pontificates about “national decline,” by which he means the fall of U.S. empires abroad and a fragile white masculinity at home, bring on “national decline.”

Innovation in Action, Part 2: More on Clinton and the Entrepreneurs

In Denver on June 27, Hillary Clinton announced a “technology and innovation agenda” that focused in large part on education, yet another sign that for both Democratic and Republican politicians, “education” really only means “job training” for the private sector.

Her proposal included two major education subsidies: $10 billion in aid for students in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and “vetted” coding academies like Galvanize, Inc., the for-profit Denver school where she made her announcement. Even as MOOCs have come under heavy scrutiny for their shoddy pedagogy and for-profit schools for their profiteering, Clinton has proposed a huge federal investment in what her supporters often shorthand as “innovation.” (If it’s online and someone makes money on it, it’s called innovation.)

The second major subsidy is a student-loan deferment program to “entrepreneurs,” in which the federal government would defer the loans and subsidize the interest of startup founders and “their first 10 or 20 employees” during the first three years of their business. This raised hackles: why is it a “progressive” idea to make student loan debt conditional on your profession or, given the education and family connections of many startup founders, your class position? Why not defer the debt of social workers or nurses or teachers, who don’t stand to reap the financial incentives tempting tech workers? (One possible answer: social workers don’t donate as much to federal election campaigns as Silicon Valley CEOs.)

Perhaps anticipating such critiques, Clinton’s proposal including some do-gooding overtures to “young innovators” working in “distressed communities,” or those starting business that provide “measurable social impact and benefit.” As any debt-burdened English major could tell you, though, a lot depends on what “distressed,” “measurable,” and “benefit” mean.

A lot depends on what “entrepreneur” means, as well. You would expect, as often and as worshipfully as politicians throw the word around, that “entrepreneur” would have a pretty clear definition. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, first theorist of “entrepreneurship,” used it in alternately humble and grandiose ways. On the one hand, the entrepreneurial function simply “consists in getting things done,” he wrote.

Elsewhere, though, Schumpeter described entrepreneurship with a grandeur that his admiring biographer Thomas McCraw said “came near to being an allegory.” Entrepreneurs are “New Men,” the heroes of the capitalist Sturm und Drang (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are mostly just, well, regular men).

If used as a model, his classic text Business Cycles might trouble whoever is tasked with drafting a Student Debt Forgiveness for Entrepreneurs Bill in the Clinton White House: “It is not always easy to tell who the entrepreneur is in a given case,” he wrote. “Nobody ever is an entrepreneur all the time, and nobody can ever be only an entrepreneur.” The entrepreneur may be an inventor, or he may work for him; he may be an entrepreneur this quarter, but not the next. In Schumpeter’s account, it’s not a job description—it’s a practice and an ethos.

Entrepreneurship: at least it’s an ethos

And it’s obviously tricky to craft federal subsidies for an ethos. Who are the “entrepreneurs” of the tech economy whose support Clinton covets so dearly? Is it the CEO? The venture capitalist, who provides the startup investment? The customer-service rep, or just the boys that write the code? And if the answer is “everyone,” this would seem to present a problem, not only practically but politically: the federal government would not only be deferring the debt of company founders, but also subsidizing a part of their wages and benefits.

In the end, “entrepreneur” in our time, like in Schumpeter’s, means something very specific and impossibly vague. On the one hand, it either means “tech firm executives” or “small business owners.” Clinton observed in her Denver speech that “It’s not an accident that Denver and Colorado have a low unemployment rate,” suggesting that coding academies like Galvanize Inc. are responsible for the robust job market. According to the Colorado Labor Department, the state’s largest job gains over the last year have been in the hospitality, construction, and education fields. Even government employment outpaced business services, information, and finance. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife are hiring.)

In its vaguer, though no less popular sense, “entrepreneurship” is used increasingly to describe any white-collar, profit-making activity, whether financial or commercial, speculative or productive, high-tech or manufacturing. It is still not a profession, but an ethos, a calling, a heroic character in a dull, derivative plot. In our new gilded age, when wealth and its pursuit are treated with such reverence, the biggest meaning of “entrepreneur” is ideological–to celebrate the pursuit of private wealth as a public good, which the public should in turn pay for.