Commentary Magazine


Topic: technology

A Digital Milestone

Today was a bittersweet day for me. After decreasing the frequency of print newspaper delivery to weekends only, I finally cut the print umbilical cord altogether. I have gone all-digital with my subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times.

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Today was a bittersweet day for me. After decreasing the frequency of print newspaper delivery to weekends only, I finally cut the print umbilical cord altogether. I have gone all-digital with my subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times.

As a former newspaperman who once worked at the Los Angeles Times (as an intern, stringer, and later columnist), the Christian Science Monitor (as an assistant national editor), and the Wall Street Journal (as op-ed editor and editorial writer), I never thought I would see the day when a big block of newsprint was no longer delivered to my doorstep every morning. I grew up in the 1980s when the romance of print journalism–cue His Girl Friday and All the Presidents Men and The Paper–still existed, indeed when it was still strong.

This was the era when big news at night meant a call to “stop the presses!”–and that wasn’t just metaphorical. More likely, in reality, the presses kept rolling (stopping them and pulping the papers already printed was costly) but later editions were adjusted with the latest news. But in any case, and despite the advent of television with its nightly newscasts and an upstart all-news channel called CNN, there was still an inseparable relationship between “news” and “print.” I remember going to see the giant printing presses of my hometown Los Angeles Times and thrilling at their speed and power–giant industrial age dynamos pumping out countless millions of newsprint pages every night with a mighty thwack-thwack-thwack.

On a lesser scale, at Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, where I was the editor of both the official school newspaper and the “underground” (i.e., unofficial) newspaper, I remember pasting up pages, taking them to the print shop, and distributing the paper copies myself. My relationship to print was visceral and passionate.

So what happened? In a word, the iPad. Blame or credit Steve Jobs: I have found that it’s simply easier to read newspaper on my iPad, rather than slogging downstairs to pick up the print copy–if it’s there. Often it isn’t–either not delivered or stolen. Or sometimes it’s there and wet. No matter what, there is a hassle involved with a print subscription which only multiplies when you go out of town–you have to remember to suspend delivery.

Once upon a time, when I was traveling (which I do a fair amount), I would have to hunt down a print paper; in Europe, that usually meant finding an International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times), with its day-old news. The iPad (or any other tablet for that matter) removes all that inconvenience. It not only allows you to get exactly the same newspaper in Kathmandu that you get in New York, it actually delivers stories during the day and at night; so you no longer have to wait until the next morning to find out what happened.

And, no, this isn’t a paid message from Apple. This is an admission wrung out of me almost despite myself.

It is a bittersweet moment for me going all-digital, but in leaving print behind I am decidedly not abandoning my newspaper reading habit. I am merely transferring it to another medium. I continue to believe that what the big newspapers do is essential, even if their newsgathering has now been complemented by numerous online news services from Twitter to the Huffington Post.

But so much of what occurs online is merely passing on the reporting of others; it is a giant self-referential loop. Someone still has to do the essential reporting–to gather the facts, often at great expense and inconvenience. Only mighty news organizations with a tradition of quality journalism have the wherewithal to continue providing this service. I am happy to pay for their product, whether online or in print, and hope they will continue to thrive.

Print may be dying but the news business should live on. I hope.

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Income Inequality and the Buffett Rule

In his post this morning on Liberals, Conservatives, and Tax Fairness, Peter Wehner writes,

Liberals are correct about this: income inequality has increased over recent decades. The task of conservatives is to give a full and fair picture of income gaps in America, to explain what is behind it, and to point out the injustice of the left’s remedies and the degree to which their proposals represent a radical departure from America’s ideals.

I could hardly agree more, and agree that his excellent article in National Affairs, “How to Think About Inequality,” is a great place to start.

I would add one more reason why income inequality has grown in recent decades, and it’s not a small one: technology. Whenever a major new technology develops, it causes a marked and sudden inflorescence of new fortunes that greatly exceed the old fortunes. This happened with railroads (Vanderbilt, Gould, Harriman, Hill, etc.), steel (Carnegie, Phipps, Frick, Schwab, etc.), automobiles (Ford, Dodge, Sloan, Kettering, Mott, etc.), petroleum (Rockefeller, Flagler, Archbold, etc.) For each of those megafortunes, there were hundreds of others whose possessors were merely very rich, not Forbes-400 rich.

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In his post this morning on Liberals, Conservatives, and Tax Fairness, Peter Wehner writes,

Liberals are correct about this: income inequality has increased over recent decades. The task of conservatives is to give a full and fair picture of income gaps in America, to explain what is behind it, and to point out the injustice of the left’s remedies and the degree to which their proposals represent a radical departure from America’s ideals.

I could hardly agree more, and agree that his excellent article in National Affairs, “How to Think About Inequality,” is a great place to start.

I would add one more reason why income inequality has grown in recent decades, and it’s not a small one: technology. Whenever a major new technology develops, it causes a marked and sudden inflorescence of new fortunes that greatly exceed the old fortunes. This happened with railroads (Vanderbilt, Gould, Harriman, Hill, etc.), steel (Carnegie, Phipps, Frick, Schwab, etc.), automobiles (Ford, Dodge, Sloan, Kettering, Mott, etc.), petroleum (Rockefeller, Flagler, Archbold, etc.) For each of those megafortunes, there were hundreds of others whose possessors were merely very rich, not Forbes-400 rich.

The microprocessor is the most profound technology since the steam engine and has, therefore, created an inflorescence of fortunes such as has never been seen before. Of the 400 people on the Forbes List for 2011, no fewer than 48 of them are categorized as having fortunes based on “technology.” Many other fortunes on the list, such as those of the Walton family, which founded Walmart, would not have been possible without the microprocessor. And again, for every one of these billion dollar new fortunes, there are dozens of multi-million dollar ones and million dollar ones. The wealth creation caused by the microprocessor is astonishing.

And these new fortunes can arise with amazing speed. Instagram, which developed a photo-sharing technology, was founded in October 2010, and was bought this month for $1 billion. The buyer was Facebook, which was founded in 2004. Facebook’s principal stockholder, Mark Zuckerberg, who is all of 27 years old, is worth $17.5 billion, according to Forbes. He will be a lot richer still when Facebook’s IPO launches soon.

This process, inevitably, causes income inequality to widen. To suppress the process, i.e., to prevent the creation of these great new fortunes, would be to suppress wealth creation itself, economic idiocy of the highest order. No one is one dime the poorer because the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Dell have become multi-billionaires in the last few years. We are all richer thanks to them. (That includes me, who is writing this on a brand new Dell computer that works great. Thanks, Mike!)

And while we should certainly take the issue of income equality seriously, I’m not at all sure we should take President Obama’s remedy du jour—the Buffett Rule—seriously at all. It’s nothing but an attempt to double the tax on capital gains in the name of “fairness,” the most subjective term in the American political vocabulary. I like John Hinderaker’s suggestion on Powerline:

So how about if the GOP responds to any legislation incorporating the Buffett Rule by seeing the Democrats their demagoguery and raising them with a couple of demagogic proposals of their own, in the form of proposed amendments? The Republicans could say, sure, we’ll go along with the Buffett Rule if you Democrats will agree to the Reynolds Tax, a 50 percent surtax on the increased incomes of former government officials when they move into the private sector, working for the same companies they once regulated. Or Republicans could offer an amendment incorporating the Clooney Rule, based on the fact that actors and actresses are such advocates of higher taxes: a new, 80 percent tax rate on all income in excess of $1 million earned by acting in any film or theatrical production. Or they could counter with the K Street Rule, an 80 percent tax on all income in excess of $1 million earned by lobbying. Or the Ambulance Chaser Tax, an 80 percent levy on all lawyer contingent fee income in excess of 10 percent of a recovery. (That one would provoke howling from coast to coast, from one of the Democrats’ prime constituencies.)

Conservatives should treat the Buffett Rule with the contempt it deserves.

 

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