The tech industry’s entitled attempt at owning the world

The tech industry’s high rate of activity in cities like San Francisco and New York is heralded as an economic victory, and maybe to some extent it should be, because there’s no doubt that the economy was struggling in the recession and the tech industry has been part of its revitalisation, but there’s a whole string of caveats—it’s creating an economic bubble, it’s driving the cost of living up, it’s eating into survival for the creative class, and much, much more. The industry itself may be feeding the next recession, with an increasingly baroque and bizarre culture, and a growing aspect of that culture is a sense of entitlement in the cities where it operates, something really crystallised by Airbnb’s ‘misstep‘ in San Francisco in advance of the November election.

For those who missed the drama when it happened, the company took out a series of bus shelter ads (for high visibility) congratulating itself on paying its taxes and inviting the city to express their thanks and appreciation to Airbnb for…complying with the law? The ads were a pretty transparent hit at Measure F, designed to increase regulation of vacation rentals by owner (VRBO). One ad targeting the library system attracted the attention of Martha Kenney, a fantastic human being and spectacular librarian (this endorsement is unpaid):

I’m happy to hear that you paid your taxes this year. I did too! Isn’t it awesome? However, I’ve crunched some numbers and I have some bad news for you. Out of your $12 mil of hotel tax, only 1.4% percent goes to the SF Public Libraries. So that’s $168,000. Divided by the 868 library staff, we have $193 per person. Assuming each employee works 5 days per week minus holidays, this is $0.78 per employee per day. Since that’s significantly under San Francisco minimum wage ($12.25/hr), I doubt that your hotel tax can keep the libraries open more than a minute or two later.

Her biting commentary went viral, and joined the storm of condemnation surrounding the incredibly gross advertisements, which served to underscore the company’s sense of entitlement—it should be able to do as it pleases and it will spend a substantial amount of money to tell you that, you ungrateful plebians. Realising how badly this was turning out for public relations, the company swiftly yanked the ads and apologised, but the internet didn’t forget. It’s not, however, the only instance of the tech industry trying to throw some muscle about to exert control over the areas where it plays and does business. Uber is infamous, of course, for its attacks on the taxi industry and the bitter rivalry between the company and operators who have to do things like endure regulation.

And, of course, there’s San Francisco’s much-publicised ‘Twitter tax break,’ instituted to lure tech companies to the city and promised to bring in revenue, which proved to pretty much do the opposite, actually costing the city money. Economic agreements like this one are used in cities all over the US for a variety of industries, not just tech, and while they definitely benefit corporations that want to avoid paying taxes, their benefit to the general public is pretty debatable. By and large, corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes, and consequently, society suffers.

Huge numbers of social programmes take a hit because corporate interests won’t put into the tax pot—chillingly, companies like Walmart basically force their employees onto social benefits because they pay so poorly, while also dodging taxes so they don’t pay into those programmes. The government is subsidising them twice, once with tax breaks and lenient tax regulations, and again by paying for food, housing, and other basic services for employees being paid too little to access them on their own. It’s an absurd abuse of the system, and one that goes largely beneath the radar.

With the tech industry, of course, things are a bit different, because tech employees as a general rule aren’t applying for nutrition assistance or needing subsidised housing, thanks to their considerable economic privilege. But they are benefiting from being able to work for companies that get a pass on taxes and other social obligations, and those companies act like they are entitled to these benefits, rather than being granted them as an incentive. The lack of understanding about these obligations feeds the notion that such companies don’t need to serve the community in other ways, and don’t have a responsibility to address social issues that they may be contributing to, such as displacement and homelessness — like perhaps a company benefiting from tax breaks downtown ought to be contributing to low-income housing initiatives to address the fact that their San Francisco-based employees are displacing people who can no longer afford to pay rent?

This attitude that everything should be handed to the industry on the part of many major companies — and sometimes their employees as well — is one of the many things stirring up resentment about the industry in San Francisco and beyond. For those at the bottom, and those struggling to survive, the industry’s refusal to acknowledge the benefits it gets with supports for the community in other ways rankles. And the high-handed ‘anything goes’ attitude comes with particularly disgusting implications, because companies need to get over the notion that they can buy their way to public favour and social preference. Just like the rest of us, corporations have social obligations.

Image: No Ad, Poster Boy, Flickr