It’s a somewhat shocking regret. Bill Gates regrets that early on in the development of Microsoft he resisted hiring lobbyists. Apple’s Steve Jobs made no such error.
When I first heard what Gates said I immediately thought of the disparate lives and alliances of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. If you’re unfamiliar with the politics of one or both both of these men, here’s the abbreviated version.
Tesla, inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist is best known for having discovered alternating current (AC). He was backed and financed by entrepreneur George Westinghouse and Westinghouse Electric Company. Edison, inventor and businessman, is best known for inventing the light bulb and phonograph. He was backed and financed by Edison General Electric, which came into being in 1889 as a result of a merger spearheaded by J.P. Morgan’s Drexel, Morgan & Co.
What do Tesla and Edison have to so with Gates and Jobs?
While a great many people recognize the names Thomas Edison and General Electric, the same cannot be said about Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse (although Elon Musk has certainly brought “Tesla” into vogue). The reason for our “education” into the first two and not the latter is, arguably, politics.
General Electric was, and still is, a highly “political” corporation that established a relationship with the federal government that persists to this day. In case you doubt that just look at what happened in 2008. Over a period of several weeks, GE borrowed $16 billion by selling commercial paper through the Federal Reserve. While such purchases (short-term IOU’S) are not uncommon for companies like GE in order to fund daily operations, at that time the credit crisis had begun and private markets were frozen as a result. And that was just a snapshot of the collusion between GE and the government. In fact, GE did not initially even qualify for the any of the bailout programs it utilized but after lobbying by the company and assistance from then the secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, the FDIC changed the eligibility rules and GE was accepted.
(As you finished reading that last sentence you may have heard Bill Gates’s greatest regret about not having hired lobbyists echoing in your ears).
Edison and GE understood, as did Jobs and Apple, the benefits, perks and power inherent in aligning with government and using lobbyists to court and payoff politicians. Which is why the federal government’s Department of Education authorizes text books that teach about Edison not Tesla and why, in 2014, GE ranked among the Fortune 500 as the 6th-largest firms in the U.S. and the 14th most profitable. As of 2012 the company was listed the fourth-largest in the world among the Forbes Global 2000,
Oh, there is a Westinghouse Corporation of today that flourishes as a global nuclear power company; but, it was founded in 1999. George Westinghouse‘s Westinghouse Electric, founded in 1886, ceased to exist due to a series of mergers. It ceased to exist because Westinghouse didn’t play the same corrupt game as GE. As for Tesla, he believed with every fiber of his being, that energy was free and able to be extracted, or harnessed, from the very air itself. He worked toward revealing that process until his death. Imagine how freaked out the powers that be were at the thought of free energy for every citizen to access without government control or profit!
So Edison’s reputation and “celebrity” survive today as does GE’s profitability and near zero payment in federal taxes. Tesla’s notoriety and accomplishments, by comparison, are in relative obscurity but for those who self-educate and Westinghouse…well you have the picture by now.
Let’s fast forward. We’re about to elect a new President.
Even if we take the most cynical view that every one of the current candidates is an establishment politician and political insider it does not alleviate us of the responsibility to none-the-less make our choice. While certain candidates entrenchment is more patently obvious than others (Hillary Clinton more so than Donald Trump), they they have all emerged out of a broken system that is at least 150 years in the breaking.
My suggestion is that each of us voters looks beyond the self-serving labels these candidates give themselves, beyond the rhetoric and puffing and looks instead to the issues and solutions that they identify and propose. Because in the end it will still be the power brokers, in and out of government, who move and shake the economy and foreign policy. At least if we refuse to allow ourselves to be conned by such things as a bumper sticker (“Hope and Change”) or a slogan (“Make American Great Again”) and instead, pull that lever or punch that chad based upon policies and principles… we’ll have a prayer.
If enough of us refuse to play the game, if enough of us start to make informed decisions, if enough of us stop rewarding the crooks and ignoring the patriots we have a chance of creating a future where the nice guys finish first…not last.