Lobbyists are–at best–a heart-breakingly necessary evil for the modern company. I’m certainly no fan of their role in influencing public policy at any level, and the modern process–especially when you factor in post-government cushy jobs, like the one given to ex-Homeland Security honcho Michael Chertoff–is just about as damaging as it gets for keeping government as a citizenry-first entity.
But it works. Lobbying is effective.
Last year, Facebook spent about $1.35 million on lobbying in D.C., as well as fleshing out their Washington office to over a dozen employees.
Last week, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, bringing on board 13 employees and a few tens of million social network users.
So let’s call lobbying an attempt to influence the behavior or nature of government using money. And let’s call selling a social photography app a way to make money. There’s something interesting there from a business standpoint for Facebook: either it’s incredibly cheap to influence government (which to my knowledge is true) and/or there isn’t that much change that Facebook needs to affect in government. Instagram is, as far as Facebook’s priorities are reflected in their spending, roughly a thousand times more important to them than influencing the government.
(There’s lots of ways this idea falls apart, so don’t think about it too long. You don’t “acquire” government; you influence it, for one.)
I started looking at these numbers today after trying to figure out why the Instagram acquisition seemed to upset so many people I know, if there was more to it than simple jealousy. If there was more to it than just the uncomfortable feeling that comes with the attempt to reckon something as ephemeral and unproven as a social media network (as a business) being worth a billion dollars.
And while I shouldn’t speak for everyone, for some reason this morning while standing in front of the mirror shaving the fuzz off my neck, I had a very simple thought: it bums me out that so many clever folk are going into technology to try to make their fortune. And worse, that it’s a completely rational decision for any individual to make. 13 people worked a year-and-a-half to make an iPhone app–one I actually like and use nearly every day–and made a billion dollars. Arguably they earned it, or certainly didn’t not earn it by the metric by which the market seems to be judging success. I’m not worried about work being rewarded.
Yet by the mechanism of our current society, those Instagram developers aren’t just rich: they’re now somewhat immune to the reach of government. Here the Facebook lobbying numbers perhaps do correlate: if government can be directed by such relatively small amount of money, it’s a more reasonable decision for smart, clever, hard-working people to make a lot of money to shield themselves from the effects of government–less fear of arrest or prosecution; less taxes–than it is for them to try to reform the government in a way that would benefit everyone.
Which brings to mind another question, the (pardon me) hipster corollary to its geeky cousin: Why isn’t government reform–systemic, fundamental change to the way people interact with their nation and its collective power–imbued with the same inherent hipness as other back-to-basics reinventions? Why does everybody in the country think it’s cool to apply a modern sensibility to, say, bee keeping, but government reform is still something for pariahs and idealists for whom money isn’t a primary concern? (Beyond civic-level reform, that is, which seems like it’s more socially acceptable among the youngbloods. So that’s another thing to think about.)
Anyway, thoughts. Effort, attention, resources–these aren’t all zero sum. Building an economy around information technology, though ephemeral and potentially perilous to privacy, isn’t inherently bad. Also, my perspective is skewed; my peer group is seeped in tech and media.
But for some reason I keep thinking of the first part of the only line of Ginsberg I know:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix…
Negro streets at dawn! I think I have that filter on my Instagram. #nailedthekicker