2007-02-25

 

Competition vs. Stealth Money-grabbing

Scientists and computer geeks are supposed to be the most rational of people, but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly they drop factual rationality for computer platform evangelising. Nothing bores me more than hearing people I admire go on and on about the superiority of Apple computers versus PCs, Linux over Windows, etc. For the record, I have used (and still do) all of those platforms. They are tools that serve often different purposes. Since I don't evangelize about hammers and refrigerators, I tend not do it about computers either.

Beyond bored, I get disappointed when intelligent people spend so much time and effort criticizing Bill Gates. True, I think Steve Jobs is much more evil than Gates--- much more more secretive, competitive, scheming, childish, and much less generous, etc. But that is not why I get disappointed.

All these IT leaders---Gates, Jobs, Page, Brin, Bezos, Ellison, Berners-Lee, Torvalds, Zennstroem and the like---have transformed our lives in creative ways. They have produced amazing technology and visions that have transformed humanity in very positive ways, for the most part. That they are highly competitive, we should not be surprised. What propels them is probably a heavy dose of competition and creativity, but this is what should be at the core of healthy capitalist democracies.

What makes me angry is that while people, intelligent people, discuss these guys ad nauseum, the truly evil characters go about their stealth business without competing or inventing anything memorable or even useful. Indeed, their business model is simply to pocket as much of our tax-payer money as possible by infiltrating relevant government agencies---without much accountability at all. According to Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele on a recent Vanity Fair article, the taxes of those making less than 100K$ in the US (90% of American tax payers) go straight to contractors! Moreover, now that we seem to have reached the pinnacle of the era of the military-industrial(-counterterrorism) complex, many if not most of the huge government contracts are not subject to any competitive bidding (see also this NY Times Editorial).

Indeed, when we realize that the budget of a company like Lockheed Martin, which abandoned most of its competitive private sector business for government contracts, is larger than that of the department of Energy or Justice, or that the budget of SAIC, which does nothing but government contracts, is "larger than that of the departments of Labor, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development combined", we see that a huge amount of the US economy has nothing to do with competition. These gigantic government contractors don't get contracts because they create something innovative or create any industrial innovation. No, they get rich via an insidious inbreeding between government agencies and companies. They are stealth operators that do not even attempt to compete with their products on a global scale or contribute to technological creativity.

Without competition and creativity, evolution stops. So does a true capitalist democracy. So what I want to know is why do intelligent people spend so much time discussing genuinely creative and competitive people like Jobs and Gates, and no one ever hears about the masters of the stealth business? Why not discuss the CEO's of SAIC, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, CACI, and the like instead? After all, unlike Apple or Microsoft, the business model of government contractors (especially the "behemoths that are doing 90 or 95 percent of their business with the government") is simply to take in as much tax-payer money as possible---so we should care much more. Moreover, as their role in the build-up to the war attests, their business interests are not necessarily in tune with our security. Who cares about Vista and OS X?

In the age of the military-industrial-counterterrorism complex, anti-trust laws seem so 20th century. What we need now are anti-leech laws. We should start with a law forbidding companies from making more than 50% of their revenue from the government. If this is a capitalist society, let them compete---in the free market of products and services, not on government lobbies.




Further Reading:
Washington's $8 Billion Shadow by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Vanity Fair.

In Washington, Contractors Take On Biggest Role Ever by SCOTT SHANE AND RON NIXON, NY Times.

Government Inside Out, NY Times.

Addendum: Why Have So Many U.S. Attorneys Been Fired? It Looks a Lot Like Politics

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