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Government gives Seattle a chance to purge its ‘soul’

For all of you who have been wringing your hands over Seattle’s supposed loss of its “soul,” the federal government may have an answer that’s almost too good to bear. By proposing to break up Microsoft, the Justice Department and 17 state attorneys general are offering to help the company’s hometown find at least temporary solutions to some of its most vexing physical and even spiritual problems.
We could, for example, see an easing of the notorious traffic congestion on the Evergreen Point floating bridge that connects Seattle and the Eastside, home of Microsoft and many other technology companies. Once Microsoft has been properly neutered and the 400,000 of its stockholders who live in the Northwest are persuaded to a humbler station in life, it may be possible to zip across the lake at speeds not seen since the Boeing bust of 1970.

True, local area shareholders and those with pension funds invested in the software company do not seem thrilled yet. In recent days, many have been grumbling to their elected officials about the Clinton Justice Department’s attacks on their retirement portfolios. “For the first time, some of them are seeing the connection between national policy and their personal finances,” says an aide to Sen. Slade Gorton.

But perhaps they should not dwell on such selfish matters. Instead, they should be grateful the DOJ seems poised to rescue Seattle from its recent media-centered preoccupation with the emotional toll of rampant prosperity. In a stream of newspaper articles and editorials, locals were warned this winter about the “loss of Seattle’s soul” to the temptations of Mammon. Evidence included the buying of big houses, conspicuous consumption at new techie feeding spots and a brazen sense of entitlement displayed by jaywalkers. No one has spotted any New York-style limousines in populist Seattle – except those used by kids going to their proms – but the civic watch is on.

But, don’t worry, Seattle, bad times may be just around the corner. A federal administration eager to assume command-and-control regulation of the private economy is just what we need to puncture the confidence of the high-flying tech sector that began lifting American industry above the Japanese and the rest of the world two decades ago.

It is not just Microsoft workers and stockholders whose “souls” will benefit from a dose of humility administered by Janet Reno, Joel Klein and their creative lawyers. After each new announcement of treatments planned for ending Microsoft’s record of wanton success, the stock market as a whole has swooned in admiring anticipation.

So why can’t Microsoft show some gratitude? It will not do for the management to keep responding to these efforts to disembowel their company with “anger” and “arrogance,” as even some local media describe it. Doesn’t Microsoft realize that the mutilation is for its own good?

People at the Justice Department may not know a silicon chip from a buffalo chip, an algorithm from Al Gore-without-rhythm, but they have managed to invent breathtaking legal concepts of what constitutes antitrust activity in the tech field. Administration lawyers and their friends in the trial bar are developing legal interpretations that are even better than the law itself and far superior to the U.S. Constitution.

We’ll all be uplifted by the government’s therapy. The benefits reach even Microsoft’s totally innocent and altruistic competitors. Some of these rivals have seen their own stock valuations plummet unexpectedly as the market begins to realize the wider consequences of the attack on Microsoft. Still, they – and their own stockholders – can be grateful that the government is so willing to set the business world aright. The market knows that once businesses are as efficient as government, the administration can usher in the new millennium.

Oh, it already did that, didn’t it?

The ripples of reform next will reach the rest of the tech industry that does business with Microsoft or relies on its standard platform. The government stands thus poised to liberate Microsoft suppliers and partners – a large share of them located in the Puget Sound region – from the curse of predictability.

Next, the circle of change will reach the companies that are not in the tech field but that nonetheless use computers for their activities. Increases in productivity in such businesses have propelled our economic growth. In the new legal dispensation, “competition” may mean higher prices and slower improvements for these folks, but such are small sacrifices to make in order to advance exciting new antitrust concepts.

In time, all Americans may feel Seattle’s pain. But even if they don’t, the present conditions of unseemly economic progress in the Puget Sound region demand government action to induce respect.

Take that famously vainglorious sector, charity. Thanks largely to the tech boom and Microsoft’s policy of matching its employees’ donations, the United Way of King County registered 20-percent growth last year. The amount of money flowing into charitable funds established under the community-based Seattle Foundation, according to its director, Anne Farrell, is doubling every 18 months. No wonder our souls ache.

At the apex of all this willful doing-good has been the 5-year-old Gates Foundation. Mark Dowie, an “investigative historian” writing nationally in The Chronicles of Philanthropy, has revealed that the Gates Foundation is being run by mere “amateurs,” a team that includes the father and wife of the Microsoft founder. The staff, we are warned, is much too small and needs to be “professionalized” if it is to meet national and international standards.

In that case, maybe Dowie, too, should call the Justice Department. We can’t have donors and their families involved in deciding where their own money is donated, can we? Perhaps there could be a RICO case against such amateurs as they attempt to throw away literally billions of dollars on vaccinations of children in poor countries and put computers in thousands of libraries and schools. Here in the Seattle area, the Gates Foundation has quietly contributed nearly $250 million to local charities so far, an incipient scandal if there ever was one.

There apparently is no way – yet – to stop the efforts of the $20 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest. But, thanks to the Department of Justice, the ability of Bill Gates to stake it to even greater heights probably has now been restrained by Janet Reno and Joel Klein. Just in time, too. Otherwise, who knows what the amateurs might do to show by their deeds that philanthropy sometimes can solve problems the government has failed to meet?

So, let the good times roll – to a halt. If their case succeeds, Bill and Al and Janet and Joel will have found a way at last to bring down smug Seattle’s real-estate values, limit runaway retirement-fund growth, stomp out expensive education reforms and civic building, and restrain working people from getting their share of a growing economic pie. It is simple: Take away the pie.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.