After eight years of remarkable prosperity under President Clinton's business-friendly policies, his right-wing critics are finding it difficult to fault the Democrats on economic policy. With the rise of the Internet, technological innovation and the dot-com economy falling squarely under Democratic governance, what do the conservatives have to call their own? What credit can they claim for the new economy?
Well -- if you can't beat it, appropriate it.
In his new book, "The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence," Dinesh D'Souza offers up this assertion: The new economy, the high-tech boom, all the wealth and innovation of the early 21st century owe their existence to the ideological legacy of 1980s freewheeling capitalism.
D'Souza, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, would like us to believe that capitalism itself deserves credit for the new economic model that unites technologists, entrepreneurs and investors in risky start-up ventures. "Whether by design or by luck, Reaganism produced great changes," D'Souza explained during a recent interview. "We can't understand the new shift to entrepreneurism without understanding Reaganism."
In this book-length apologia for the tremendous wealth reaped by the savvy entrepreneurs and investors of the technological revolution, D'Souza links the long evolution of capitalism -- which culminated in Reagan's supposed triumph over communism -- to the new momentum of start-ups and entrepreneurs.
This appropriation of Silicon Valley's progress is cultural warfare at its finest. Reagan had nothing to do with the Internet, and very little to do with entrepreneurs. He was, after all, the president of big business and big defense, not of the little guy. But D'Souza is untroubled by such details. Leapfrogging these other contradictions with ease, he continues on to an even more troublesome thesis: Reagan-style competition, his theory goes, is the force that drives us to wealth and, in turn, to virtue.
D'Souza originally intended to name the book "The Moral Conundrum of Success," but because of the difficulties of "conundrum" for the vocabulary-challenged, he settled on "The Virtue of Prosperity." It was an unfortunate choice, as virtue implies human effort, not a bull market. The revised title reveals D'Souza's basic fallacy: that wealth and virtue go hand in hand.
According to the dictionary, prosperity can never be virtuous because virtue infers the human qualities of "general moral excellence; right action and thinking; goodness." These are not traits subscribed to wealth in and of itself; they are the characteristics of noble human endeavor. Wealth and virtue are independent characteristics. They do not share, as D'Souza would have you believe, a relationship of cause and effect.
According to D'Souza, capitalism actually makes people more virtuous by channeling their greed through the moral conduit of entrepreneurism. "Capitalism civilizes greed in much the same way that marriage civilizes lust," he writes, adding, "Capitalism encourages empathy, consideration, and fair dealing with others." This is more than a stretch, as the media emphasis on designer sneakers certainly does not induce empathy in the kid who lacks a pair.
In fact, the struggle for money results in competition, not consideration, but D'Souza is too busy singing the praises of capitalism to address such shortfalls in logic. Quickly, he brings his premise to the dot-com world, going on to quote several 20-somethings who cannot outdo one another in the extent of their unabashed avarice. These young people openly worship at the altar of personal wealth, and so they illustrate D'Souza's point that it is OK to be greedy again, just as in the good ol' Reagan days.
This unseemly preoccupation with extreme wealth and greed is a central focus of "The Virtue of Prosperity." As D'Souza exclaims with obvious glee, "I have mentioned, but neglected to discuss, the most obvious new aspect of the new economy: money! Being filthy rich is fashionable again." To dramatize this observation, he describes the outrageously gaudy homes purchased by certain valley kingpins, including over-the-top, 40,000-square-foot mansions that mimic Italian villas and Japanese imperial palaces.
Likewise, he cheerfully notes the battle of egos among tech executives as they agonize over who can earn the highest nine-digit annual income. Indeed, D'Souza's giddiness over the fortunes amassed in Silicon Valley leaves him little time to address the actual innovations of the Internet or the growing income gap in these boom days.
D'Souza arrived in the United States from Bombay, India, as a high school exchange student in 1978, and quickly rose to prominence as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where he admired Reagan's tough-love politics and served as the bomb-throwing editor of the Dartmouth Review. The Review made national headlines for its outrageously homophobic and racist viewpoints, and conservative funders quickly sensed a good thing, propping up similar papers at 60 of the nation's most influential universities -- the first-ever chain of political newspapers on American campuses, in fact, known as the Collegiate Network.
D'Souza soon gravitated toward conservative power, joining Reagan's administration in 1987 as a senior domestic policy analyst at the decidedly junior age of 26. After Reagan left office, D'Souza transformed himself into a bestselling author, publishing "Illiberal Education" in 1991, which contributed to the national outrage over political correctness in higher education.
After so stirring up America's cultural waters, D'Souza pushed the ultimate hot button with his 1995 book, "The End of Racism." This presumptuous title summed up his disturbing contention that racial disparities had more or less disappeared and it was time to move on to more pressing matters.
Courting such controversy was good for D'Souza's career, as the book sold well and he was regaled on the talk show circuit. However, following the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, the dragging death of James Byrd and growing concerns about racial profiling by law enforcement agencies nationwide, D'Souza has not written a sequel. Instead, in 1998 he published a glowing tribute to the leadership qualities of -- surprise, surprise -- Ronald Reagan.
Now, at age 39, D'Souza has turned his attention to the edifying subject of big money to find that the age of the Internet affords yet another opportunity to be a gadfly. And, like all of his previous assertions, D'Souza shapes his contrarianism out of simplistic, reductive observations.
D'Souza's capitalist interpretation of the Internet economy comes at the expense of several other factors related to the high-tech boom. For instance, he steers clear of controversial issues such as software encryption, Internet taxation, consumer privacy and H-1B visas for high-tech workers. He fails to address growing concerns about people who work harder but enjoy life less in the frantic pace of the high-tech world. Nor does he grapple much with repeated outpourings of public concern over globalization, as demonstrated by uprisings at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and other financial summits elsewhere in the past year.
D'Souza acknowledges the existence of the digital divide, but quickly dismisses the extent of the problem. After all, he argues, even poor families can afford to buy used computers these days, and besides, there's always that Internet terminal available at the library.
D'Souza says he chose to write "a political book, not a policy book," and he focused on personal wealth because "mass affluence is a truly new phenomenon that is at once exhilarating and unnerving. It makes available to the ordinary man avenues of personal fulfillment and debauchery that were previously only available to aristocrats." Of course, such a titillating snapshot fails to capture the sprawling canvas of Silicon Valley, and D'Souza's annoying fascination with money overshadows many of the valley's most important business breakthroughs.
For starters, he completely overlooks the corporate culture unleashed by Silicon Valley -- the flattening of hierarchies, the replacement of vertical decision making by horizontal collaborations, the widening of corporate partnerships and the goal of a rugged co-opetition rather than a bloodthirsty competition.
When asked about all this, D'Souza dismisses such partnerships as veiled expressions of self-interest. But his cynicism avoids clear evidence of essential changes in Silicon Valley's approach to doing business -- namely, the elimination of adversarial collective-bargaining agreements and the implementation of more effective worker incentives such as stock options, profit sharing and lavish benefits. When was the last time you heard about a strike at a high-tech firm?
Furthermore, Silicon Valley's rejection of the traditional "necktie and wingtip" business costume -- long required by the Eastern establishment -- has broader cultural significance, suggesting a marked shift in the age-old approach to "business as usual." When the dust of recent history settles, the valley will symbolize many things to many people, but it almost certainly will not be embraced as an affirmation of old-school capitalism, as D'Souza contends.
A simplistic trope employed throughout the book is the stark dichotomy between what D'Souza defines as the Parties of Yeah and Nah. The heroic Yeahs promote cool new technologies, often at the expense of reasonable caution, while the villainous Nahs are doomsayer Chicken Littles who scream that the sky is falling every time another part of the ozone layer is ripped apart. In D'Souza's bunkered warrior mentality, there are no in-betweens.
For all of D'Souza's considerable skill in assimilating vast readings and impressive interviews, his intellectual style still reeks of his sophomoric ravings at the Dartmouth Review. The trick is to simplify complex issues, marginalize opposing viewpoints and, when necessary, resort to schoolyard name-calling.
Even his concessions to divergent views can be maddening. While granting the validity of critics, he often clouds their points with a forceful combination of facts and anecdotes and, in some cases, with blatant disparagement. He describes the Party of Nah as "this sorry bunch" and a group of "whiners."
D'Souza dismisses Jeremy Rifkin, the respected biotech critic, as "a reactionary" given to "extravagant rhetoric." Not one to refrain from tarring the opposition with a bloody brushstroke, D'Souza adds that Rifkin "has about him a touch of Robespierre." Elsewhere, D'Souza admires poet Wendell Berry for his simple, agrarian lifestyle, but promptly dismisses Berry's approach as extremist.
In another case, D'Souza describes Bill Joy -- Sun Microsystems' chief scientist, who published a famously critical assessment of cutting-edge technology in Wired -- as "an exceptional case of a technologist who has broad social and political interests." Just like that, D'Souza writes Joy off, implying that he had some ulterior motive other than human virtue for publishing his firsthand insights into the problems of evolving technologies.
D'Souza claims that those who oppose the growing disparity in wealth are driven by nothing more than old-fashioned envy. An entire chapter called "Created Unequal" diagrams his social Darwinist theory that society has evolved into a meritocracy in which the talented and strong rise to the top, while the weak are pulled upward by the great gains of the meritorious.
As for the weak, those at the bottom of D'Souza's totem pole, the author offers this consolation: "We accept these inequalities as part of life. They have been delivered to us by the god of the market" -- as if some sacred ruling had been issued from the basement of the Federal Reserve Building. "It turns out that our old categories for examining the issue are largely obsolete. We need a new way of thinking about inequality," he writes without irony.
To make his case, D'Souza relies on an old friend, Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard, who explains that inequality is a necessary requirement for free markets to flourish. That is to say, the chasm between rich and poor is an essential ingredient for a robust economy. In essence, Karlgaard argues that we should maintain enough poor people so that a select few can become extraordinarily rich.
Anyway, life at the bottom -- in D'Souza's estimation at least -- is highly underrated. D'Souza's skating analysis of inequality goes on to reveal that "everyday folk" are now hiring pet psychologists, domestic servants and cosmetic surgeons. Which is to say, practically everyone is rolling in red-carpet luxury these days. He grudgingly concedes that poverty still exists in the United States, but immediately goes on the attack again, arguing that America's conception of low-rent living cannot compare with the really offensive poverty and squalor in parts of Bombay where he grew up. Now that's poverty, he implies, going on to quote a schoolboy friend from India who admired America as that place "where the poor people are fat."
At times, such poorer-than-thou smugness can be galling, as when D'Souza concludes, "So if you live in America you've already won the lottery. You have to grow up in another country, as I did, to fully understand this."
D'Souza's fabled childhood of impoverishment left him without empathy for the poor, but with an almost religious reverence for money -- the kind of money that comes to Internet moguls, not writers. "Don't misunderstand me," he intones rapturously, "I'd rather have $50 million than $10 million. Five hundred million is too big a number for me to seriously contemplate, but I wouldn't say no. More is better."
As for virtue, according to D'Souza, wealth will suffice. D'Souza concludes his book with the contention that Internet millionaires -- like lottery winners -- have absolutely no obligation to share their riches with society at large, and no reason to feel guilty about their extraordinary fortunes. While this is true, it vastly oversimplifies the situation. Many policies exist to counteract the corrosive effects of inequality, apart from reductive wealth-sharing schemes. And it is hardly an argument for 20th century communism to suggest that Americans may ultimately choose to make top-notch public education, healthcare and child care widely available, not out of religious kindness or liberal entitlement but as an astute investment in long-term social cohesion.
As American society plunges into the vaunted "Age of Techno-Affluence," we would do well to question whether the old assumptions of the culture wars even apply anymore. Are poverty and inequality really necessary for capitalism to function properly, or is that just the voice of narrow-minded greed defending itself? Can we imagine future markets driven by self-interest but tempered by a healthy regard for environmental stewardship, social justice and human inclusiveness? Can we find ways to channel the amazing gains from newfound technologies into that most precious resource of all, human capital?
Can we look past our own greed long enough to let our minds assess the profound convergence of self-reproducing supercomputers, artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, human cloning, biotechnology and computer terrorism? Can we muster the political will to even address, let alone solve, such daunting questions? Yet solve them we must as accelerating technologies lurch still farther ahead of the public debate.
Apart from an obsequious reverence for the superrich, Dinesh D'Souza's new book about the supposed virtue of prosperity is ultimately more damaging than irritating. His unwavering insistence on the infallibility of free markets, and his appropriation of the valley's entrepreneurial spirit as a confirmation of capitalism, come off as forced intellectual contrivances -- clumsy attempts to fit the square pegs of the Old World into the concentric circles of a newly emerging geography. D'Souza's pronouncements sound like nothing so much as the dying gasps of a culture war long since eclipsed.