Steven Jobs was a Capitalist

Maybe it’s because someone I actually knew and cared about died around the same time, but there’s something very troubling to me in much of the oupouring over Steven Jobs’s death. Not that it isn’t sad–I’m sure it’s a devastating loss to his family, friends, and Apple share-holders. But my relationship to Jobs was as a consumer, and as a consumer I had a lot of the same issues with him that I do with any other Captain of Industry who keeps prices high by ruthlessly policing his intellectual property, builds planned obsolescence into his products, and maximizes profits by offshoring as much overhead as he can. Yes, Apple’s design sense is really elegant and all, but, snob that I am, I get more excited about l’art pour l’art than l’art pour la branding. And those Mac Guy versus PC Guy commercials really got on my nerves.

Yesterday the New York Times leaked items from Isaacson’s book, about how Jobs, after initially delaying surgery for his pancreatic cancer, made himself an expert on the disease, “sparing no expense, pushing the frontiers of new treatments….studying, guiding and deciding on each treatment. Mr. Isaacson said Mr. Jobs made the final decision on each new treatment regimen.”

Then the Huffington Post described Jobs’s disdain for Bill Gates, who, Jobs said, “is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”

There’s a pretty crushing irony in the juxtaposition. At the same time that Jobs was teaching himself how to save himself from cancer, Gates was building a foundation that seeks to improve health and alleviate poverty for people all over the world–a symptom, in Jobs’s jaundiced view, of Gates’s fundamental shallowness. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if I hadn’t had to listen to everyone telling me how saintly and visionary and inspired Jobs was for the last few weeks–and how he represents America’s best hope (“we don’t need a jobs program, we need a Steve Jobs program,” Eric Cantor would have told the Wharton School yesterday, if he hadn’t cancelled for fear of Occupy Wall Street hecklers).

Not to pile on, but then there’s this, from an AP story about Isaacson’s book:

Isaacson wrote that Jobs was livid in January 2010 when HTC introduced an Android phone that boasted many of the popular features of the iPhone. Apple sued, and Jobs told Isaacson in an expletive-laced rant that Google’s actions amounted to “grand theft.”

“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs said. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

Compare that to Bill Gates, quoted in this old Fortune magazine story: “When I looked into it, it surprised me to see such a systematic failure in world health programs…. Those lives were being treated as if they weren’t valuable,” he says. “Well, when you have the resources that could make a very big impact, you can’t just say to yourself, ‘Okay, when I’m 60, I’ll get around to that. Stand by.'”

I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, really. But I don’t want to draw false lessons from a billionaire’s demise either. Jobs’s greatness was as a capitalist–he built companies and he leaves behind a company as a monument to himself–a company that stamps out pricey, high-status consumer products.

He didn’t teach us how to live; he showed us one way to make money. That’s a marvelous thing, but it’s not the only thing.


5 thoughts on “Steven Jobs was a Capitalist

  1. Interesting post Arthur. I think the thing that is so compelling about Jobs is his follow-through. He created futuristic, intuitive items that people relate to. Lots of people can think of these things, it’s another thing entirely to actually make them.

    The larger problem is that there are so few actual heroes out there that something like excellent follow-through takes on heroic proportions – it is really difficult, but heroic?

    Bill Gates on the other hand could conceivably affect more people on earth in a positive way than any other human being who ever lived but his manner just doesn’t scream “hero!”.

    When we as a society start truly valuing compassionate qualities such as helping others, building community and solving real problems, we can start to heal our political and economic systems

    I guess every society gets the heroes it deserves.

  2. I was sad to hear o fJobs’ death but not surprised. What depresses me more is the way we worship capitalists like him. I’m no Communist.

    Steve Jobs was famous for his temper and for the way he would make his subordinates feel small. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard and read, “He could be a jerk, but He Made Money!”

    Over and over again, I’ve heard this. I heard it when Jack Welch told and retold his story about taking one of his subordinate’s desk out into the parking lot and setting it on fire. I’m sure there were lots of other Jack Welch stories like that.

    To hear most tell it, it just proves what a strong, dynamic, capitalist he was!

    A few years ago, I read an article in a trade magazine about Dennis Koslowski. The reporter marvelled at what a great capitalist he was: He quit his first wait job because the restaurant, wait for it, pooled their tips.

    They pooled their tips!

    That’s Communism!

    Dennis got a new wait job where he could keep his tips, like a real capitalist.

    Dennis was a real individualist. If he wasn’t a Randian superhero, he should have been!

    He was such an individual that not only did he hold that famous party featuring that ice statue with working genitalia, he tried to get around paying sales tax for a few paintings he bought. Everyone’s heard of that by now.

    But well, everybody makes mistakes, you can’t be a capitalist without ruffling feathers, anyway.

    The rest of us who have faults, who have tempers, who get mad…just get mad, and have faults and that’s why we’re not rich!

  3. As much as the beautification of Steve Jobs over the last bit by the media bothers me the blow back responses like this one aren’t really much better. Jobs’ and Gates are giants of technology because they did what the engineers couldn’t do. They envisioned useful products and did the things necessary to bring the products into existence. Their impact on the world has been enormous.

    What Gates is doing in philanthropy is amazing and I’m pleased that he decided to take that course but my understanding is that his Foundation came at the urging of his wife and Warren Buffet. Giving his billions away wasn’t his idea. But Gates, like Jobs, knew a good thing when he saw it. Prior to that, as far I can tell, Gates sole passion was getting richer by selling as many copies of Windows as he could.

    Jobs was a capitalist because in our society that was the path to building the things he wanted to build. All of his energies were poured into that endeavour. We tend to admire these people and tolerate their eccentricities when they’re artists or academics but Jobs had actual power. He wasn’t a saint or a devil, he was a man with singular passion. That passion led to him doing reprehensible things and great things. That passion has also had a lasting impact on our society and the world.

  4. Right on. Way to go for swimming against the current. That whole scene was seriously overwrought. He was a good businessman and innovator, but comparisons to people like MLK are ridiculous. Compared to Galileo or Da Vinci, Jobs was just a normal guy. Fifty years from now his legacy might completely fade…

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