Paul Graham is Still Asking to be Eaten
An Obviously Critical Response to “Economic Inequality” by Paul Graham
I’ve been asked by a bunch of people today to comment on this essay “Economic Inequality,”penned by self-described “essayist” Paul Graham, the subject of a poem I recently wrote entitled, “Paul Graham is Asking to be Eaten.”
When my friend Danilo asked me to respond to this, I said that it’s too vapid and lacking in substance to critique. I can distill the essence of the entire argument to: “Don’t hate the player, but don’t hate the game either. Hate yourselves, stupid poors, for not getting VC funding to start a company.”
Danilo then offered to pay me $500. And I said that I would think about it.
And then the day wore on and more people wanted to know why this essay infuriated them so much.
So I said, Oh hell.
Paul Graham is one of those plutocrats whose thirst to be recognized as a thoughtleader among his peers is obvious. For Paul Graham, Silicon Valley Ideology is the ideology America should run on, and ergo, being a puppet of Silicon Valley Ideology, Paul Graham thinks himself a political genius.
Right. Yes. OF COURSE.
About 80% of his essay about economic inequality is a thinly veiled condemnation of poors who Paul Graham thinks are too stupid to understand why the rich are wealthy. They are stupid, he says, because they demand wealth redistribution as a means of addressing poverty rather than attacking poverty itself. Sillies!
He offers these hopeless poors a corrective, modeling himself as a legitimate wealth producer different from those dirty Wall-Street rent-seekers.
Which is half true.
Wall Street is full of dirty rent-seekers whose recklessness has destroyed the American economy over and over again ever since Reagan deregulated Wall Street. The comic wealth that came as a result of that deregulation has allowed Wall Street to chokehold politicians in campaign finance and squeeze out from them financial policies that can only be fairly described as federal handjobs.
For all the money Gates, Thiel, Musk and Zuckerberg personally have to fuck around with, even collectively they could not come close to achieving the kind of economic and political havoc on par with the handjobs demanded by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America.
Not even close.
So I will throw Paul Graham a bone for recognizing that in terms of scale and impact on the American economy, Wall Street is definitely the bigger concern.
But my guess is that what probably infuriates you about Paul Graham’s essay is his tacit contention that startups create wealth.
This is not true.
First of all, over 95% of startups fail. Every venture capitalist knows this. Those pesky things, for the most part, just eat money and more often than not actually destroy wealth.
But the second reason why you should not allow yourself to think that startups create wealth is because of how they are funded.
What actually happens is wealthy people like Paul Graham fund startups because they think these things are valuable. Through venture funding, rich people legitimate startups. Thus, they confer value upon the startup. They then use their ridiculous money and connections to “advise” and “mentor” those they deemed worthy of capital so that they can use this capital to build a future people like Paul Graham expect to see.
What Paul Graham never dissects in his essay is that people like Paul Graham simply take it for granted that they’ll be the ones to decide where capital goes.
The rest of us poors are just along for the ride.
In his singular defense of Silicon Valley Ideology, hammer, nail, nail, Paul Graham would have you believe our entire economy should run on startups. I think Paul Graham believes this is democracy. This ability to start up a company, he assumes, is equally accessible to everyone; this presumed equality of opportunity legitimates for Graham gross wealth inequality. If some people are rich, it’s because they were driven to do what you are too lazy to do.
I’m pretty sure that’s the logic train Paul Graham is running through bullshit.
Never mind if you don’t actually want to run a startup because you’re a nurse and you believe saving lives and caring for people adds value to society. Screw you, really.
Graham never addresses how a startup economy would put men like Paul Graham in positions of plutocratic authority, since the majority of us are deprived of startup capital without first submitting ourselves to the judgment of people like Paul Graham. It might not be overtly rent-seeking, but it’s definitely not democratic.
We should worry about an American future that would first have to pass through the judgment filter of men like Paul Graham.
Grown men who think like this:
Obviously, inequality is bad because it it makes men like Paul Graham think they’re geniuses.
Just like inequality is bad because it allows Donald Trump to think he knows how to head a sovereign state with unparalleled nuclear weapon capacity.
Inequality is bad because it allows men like Paul Graham to read a Joseph Stiglitz book and think at the end of it he has our whole mess sorted out.
The solution to poverty is as transparent as starting Google, you stupid poors. Come on! Figure Google 2 out already, you idiots.
We, as a people, determine what is and is not of value mostly through what we believe to be legitimate and worthy of significance. And in late capitalism, we have all basically agreed to allow the market to dictate what is and is not of legitimate value. (This is what social critics recognize as Neoliberalism.)
But what the market deems valuable is not necessarily aligned with what is ultimately good for us as a society or even what we want. Because under conditions of extreme inequality, the market is biased towards people who have lots of money, at the expense of virtually everyone else.
And no where has this axiom been proven true to such a comical degree as in Silicon Valley.
Most of us outside of Palo Alto have no idea how a product as fucking stupid as Peeple gets valued at $7.6 million while a 4th grade teacher can’t pay off her student loans and pay rent at the same time. But according to Paul Graham, those creepy Peeple women created value where that school teacher is just a stupid loser.
Ask a nurse who saved, like, three lives today what her salary is and then go ask what the guy who made Candy Crush Saga what he got paid for it.
Wealth creation is legitimately contested in America. We don’t all agree that Candy Crush Saga has added anything of value to our society. Some of us might even argue that Candy Crush Saga took value away from America.
In fact, that’s exactly what I’m arguing.
But man that Candy Crush guy got off with a lot of value, didn’t he?
Candy Crush Saga was valorized at over $7 billion. According to that same market, a human life is only valorized at $129,000.
Meaning Candy Crush Saga is worth more to society than the combined value of 54,264 human lives.
Yeah, this logic is fine. Legitimate wealth creation.
Because that’s where this stupid game gets you. You end up going to absurd lengths to rationalize mediocre ideas because they happen to make tons of money instead of questioning the legitimacy of a system that confers so much value on to stupid things. To stay consistent, you have to defend the logic that the creepy women who founded Peeple contribute more value to society than literally thousands of 4th grade teachers.
That is not the future I want so I really have no choice but to insist that we resist and come to terms with the fact that the Market we call god is a sick and twisted god, indeed.
In essays like this, men like Paul Graham are trying to impose their warped interpretation of value upon the rest of us. With their reach considerable larger than any college professor, men like Paul Graham ape expertise in an effort to get us to believe that the best society is one where men like him determine legitimacy.
He assumes people who are not rich are not driven, and so he ignores in this odd little essay the probability that the poors are poor because they are busy being driven at enterprises people like Paul Graham think are valueless.
Like childcare. Or science. Or academia. Or education. Or really any industry Paul Graham says shouldn’t have unions because they should be crushed beneath the black boot of market efficiency to create value for people like Paul Graham.
For him, a better future is one where a team of 8 guys makes billions of dollars replacing thousands of people with automation who right now are earning livable wages. If those people lose their jobs, they’re just collateral that got in the way of progress and deserve to suffer for having been so stupid as to invest their livelihood in such an inefficient industry.
This is a bizarre way of saying that the only thing keeping people poor is their inability to capitalize on their future obsolescence.
Yes, sitting down to predict one’s own demise is a lot to ask the vast majority of struggling Americans who just want to get through their workday so they can feed their kids and maybe afford rent.
And yet, a millionaire is asking this.
Because he needs to legitimate his wealth inequality.
People don’t all agree that people like Paul Graham actually add any value to our society. Market-based legitimacy is contested by those of us who think it absurd that Candy Crush Saga is thought more valuable a contribution to the world than the combined value of eight African nations.
I’m fairly confident the future people like Paul Graham are trying to build with their money is not the one most of us would all vote for if the future were held up for democratic election.
But we don’t get to hold a market-based future up for democratic election.
People like Paul Graham need to write essays like this so you don’t question how undemocratic a market system is under conditions of extreme wealth inequality. They need to win the legitimacy contest so that Americans don’t vote to tax the shit out of them if for no better reason than they come from the same system of fuckery that has inflicted upon the world Candy Crush Saga.
And so they write essays with the implicit premise that we are one nation under market and that all their wealth, coming from the market, is thus earned and legitimate.
Hammer, nail, nail.
As a cultural Sociologist, I can’t agree any harder with Paul Graham when he says: “If we want to fix the world behind the statistics, we have to understand it, and focus our efforts where they’ll do the most good.” But as a cultural sociologist, I also find it laughable that Paul Graham thinks startup cultists like him should be excused from our scrutiny of the inequality engine.
As if venture capitalism isn’t still capitalism.
If we have learned anything from Trump it’s that Plutocrats who expend serious effort to court public opinion offer a fascinating spectacle of political absurdity.
But Plutocrats who write vapid essays about inequality to stave off a symbolic guillotine?
Spectacle hammer, allow me to introduce you to spectacle axe.
Men like Paul Graham need to be heard, desperately, because they know better than anyone that their legitimacy depends on being seen as smart, perceptive and insightful by a lot of people. There’s no other reason why massively wealthy men like Paul Graham dedicate the time and effort that they do to write salvos like this.
They measure their legitimacy by the number of people who slavishly retweet every opinion they jack off into the world and how quickly they can get other wealthy people to rally the wagons in their defense every time they say something shallow and problematic.
They know they need to keep their own myth machines humming.
Because determining value is how plutocrats “create” value.
This is their business.
For now, it works. There are millions of damaged people in America who agree with Paul Graham that the only thing worth pursuing in life is profit and that the market is a fair indicator of value and worth. And thousands of them are Zuckerberg-hopefuls reading this stuff, getting baked on naked neoliberal ideology, without ever so much as a rebuttal.
Because money determines legitimacy and don’t we all know it.
And so on this basis of having lots of money, Graham has allowed himself to believe he is a thoughtleader.
A thoughtleader who thinks he’s pulling some epic Jedi mindfuckery in saying the Silicon Valley is not the inequality we are looking for.
I agreed with Graham at the start of this meandering essay that finance deregulation is definitely driving the poverty machine. If Silicon Valley is Venus in the universe of inequality, then Wall Street is the fucking sun. But that’s not to say we should just ignore Venus because the sun is bigger.
Because what I love about Silicon Valley is that it’s always at risk of exploding spectacularly.
The overnight ascent of a single Left-wing billionaire hellbent on being as thunderously loud as Graham could blow apart his legitimacy campaign in an instant because his flatulent essays are just this facile.
Yes, for now Silicon Valley hums on the Soylent-libertarianism of a cabal of rich, white guys who write essays about how women should never have gotten the right to vote but that’s not to say that the next person who makes billions inventing the next do-hicky that irrevocably fucks up our lives might not have a completely different perspective on how the future should work.
They might not agree, for example, that a startup economy is the basis of democracy.
They might believe market success is a fairly ridiculous barometer for measuring societal value.
Instead of calling their army of capital-jockeys to go out and crush unions, their tweets might look something more like this:
If X causes suffering for the majority, then X is what the majority of us should be addressing. Anything else is a stupid waste of time.
They might point out that people like Paul Graham defend their wealth by insisting that they can see value where others see none because they are good at convincing people there is no value in anything except in what they are funding.
This person might then choose to use their market-based influence to disrupt the legitimacy contest, if only to point out what a complete circus of fraudery all capitalism is really anyway. They might simply delight in reminding people like Paul Graham that the people’s symbolic guillotine is always close at hand.
They might — just for the fuck of it — write an essay like this one simply because they find it insulting for a Plutocrat who fancies himself an essayist to think “attack poverty” is a sound policy edict and not just the clear testament of a rich guy’s mediocre talent for thought leadership.
So in sum, I find myself exhausted, having ruminated far too long once again on the subject of plutocratic arrogance. But his essay only reconfirms my previously held suspicion that Paul Graham desires muchly to have his nose wiped in this shit. And so on this note, I humbly resolve that Paul Graham is still asking to be eaten.