Cutthroat, winner-take-all capitalism threatens us all

Where I now live in San Francisco, it is obvious to all that a large group of promising young people — products of Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Yale, Harvard and other prestigious academic institutions — have converged on the Bay to pursue careers in big tech, private equity, consulting, investment banking, venture capital, and other, highly lucrative sectors of the information economy that come with high status.

Yet it’s tough to imagine an individual can produce much good when trapped in the corporate depths of X, Salesforce, Google, Meta, McKinsey & Co., Andreessen Horowitz, or Apple. 

Many of these prestigious, wildly profitable companies are currently embroiled in lawsuits and controversies bringing to light their abuses of people and the planet, including McKinsey, which has had to shell out hundreds of millions in settlements for its role in advising drug manufacturers

As I’m writing this, Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, is facing legal action from 33 different states alleging that it has knowingly exploited and endangered underage users. This comes in addition to recent and ongoing lawsuits outlining issues with underage user privacy and data collection, the Cambridge Analytica data leak, location tracking, and anti-competitive behavior

While highly lucrative at the individual level, it’s difficult to argue that some of these firms, and the people working in them, have much — if any — positive impact on society. 

As just one example of how bigger doesn’t always mean better, in the effort to reduce “inefficiencies” and “optimize” companies, large private equity firms are reducing the transparency of companies critical to everyday life, including health and long-term care for the elderly. 

Consultancies and private equity firms sell their preferred “rightsizing” (read: layoffs) strategy to executives as a way to make more money.

These firms parachute in, reduce costs by severing employees from their jobs, and look to make a tidy profit with a turnaround sale in a few short years. Their very function exacerbates the scourge of inequality and reduces trust in our economic system by prioritizing the profit of a select few individuals with the kind of decision-making power to implement their recommendations.

These firms have been prolific in the media space, with the private equity-backed media firm G/O Media alone slashing staff, introducing AI written stories, and otherwise meddling in the day-to-day operations and editorial style of Jezebel, A.V. Club, and Deadspin

Alden Global Capital has become infamous in the industry for gutting newsrooms, including the Chicago Tribute. Sadly, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers nationwide, and is not shy in its efforts to reduce costs.  

While venture capital firms take pride in placing bets on bold, burgeoning start-ups, many of the companies they fund go bust, are gobbled up by major players like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, or lose their values along the way.

Take Juul for instance. Started by two Stanford design school alums attempting to create a healthier cigarette alternative, they ended up hooking millions of teens on flashy nicotine products, reversing decades of decline in youth nicotine consumption.

But this problem is not unique to San Francisco, New York or Chicago, as this “win at all costs, winner-takes-all culture” — always with an eye towards the bottom line — permeates all professional American life from coast to coast. 

In such a corporatized world, it’s not a stretch to see how promising college graduates can become cutthroat when their only chance at the financial stability they were promised comes at the cost of outcompeting everyone else. Even if you find yourself on the winning side of this equation, it comes at the expense of others who didn’t quite make the cut.

To restore confidence in our government and civil society, we have to reverse the trend, outlined by Aden Barton in a piece for the Harvard Crimson, of elite college graduates increasingly opting for careers in consulting and finance. 

Restoring the public trust 

In an age of declining trust in our shared institutions across the board, in churches, schools and colleges, government (sitting at 16 percent in 2023, according to Pew Research), and even democracy itself, we need our best and brightest to choose careers that place them in positions to make the world materially better, as doctors and nurses, teachers and professors, local government officials, public interest lawyers, city planners, civil and environmental engineers, foreign service officers, and more. 

Faith in government across all cross-sections of Americans is down, and for many people, a well-functioning government as a concept is a joke.

That’s a serious issue that has real impacts on our cities and towns and undermines our ability to build and maintain infrastructure and tackle complex problems like housing shortages and climate change, especially when funding for many of these issues depends on the will of voters through elections and ballot initiatives.

Other countries around the world offer rays of hope — along with stronger civic life, more stable benefits, and far more significant vacation time — without sacrificing much at all in prosperity. They do so by prioritizing their workers, taxing richer folks and large corporations more, and consciously opting for a healthier life balance. We can do the same here. 

Across the Atlantic, In European countries like Sweden, Switzerland, or Germany, the best and brightest students are often recruited to be teachers — tasked with the immensely important duty of molding the minds of tomorrow. 

Here in America, however, teachers in many states are rewarded with a middling salary, public scrutiny and criticism over curriculum, and a heavy burden in the classroom that leads many to exit the profession in droves. 

Between Feb. 2020 and May 2022, more than 300,000 teachers switched careers, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Why would a high achieving person want to teach science and engineering in a public school when they could go work at a large corporation for quadruple the salary? In our consumption-obsessed society, amidst a rise in rents and ballooning cost of living — it’s not a mystery why many who have the option choose to exercise it. 

But despite these challenges, there’s responsibility on the individual side, too — particularly for those who are afforded options— to look beyond the paystubs and answer the call to public service. 

A high-functioning society requires that everyone contributes and benefits from the system — not always in equal measure, but at some fundamental level. We should all be contributing to our respective communities, particularly if you come from a background of privilege, as many college students do.  

Answering the call to service

Here in America, it’s become far too common for people to waltz from an ascending series of private schools into lucrative work in the private sector, without ever volunteering, participating in civic society, or serving their community or country in any meaningful capacity beyond paying the bare minimum in tax. 

That is not a sign of a healthy society, but one powered solely by economic engines and ripe for social collapse. 

At Western, specifically, students in the Clark Family School for Environment and Sustainability may find opportunities to serve with federal land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or U.S. Fish and Wildlife, with state agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife or the Department of Public Health and the Environment, or with small, local nonprofits like High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA).

For those studying business, service may look like opting to utilize your education in dollars and cents to work for a local chamber of commerce championing small business or hopping aboard a local business investing in the community and working to address issues like housing and climate change.

Service will look different for every person depending on their field of academic study, their talents, and their ambitions and passions.

It’s possible to benefit your community working for a nonprofit, a government entity, or a for-profit business. 

Plus, voluntary civic engagement outside of the 9 to 5 is indispensable— picking up shifts at the Gunnison Country Food Pantry, walking dogs at the Gunnison Valley Animal Welfare League, getting your hands dirty with Gunnison Trails or the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, or working as an election volunteer — these are all worthwhile endeavors that keep our community robust. 

The responsibility of restoring faith and functionality in our civic institutions, our government, and our democracy lies with all of us — and the choices we make every day concerning our jobs, our wallets, and our precious time. 

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