Bezos, the Koch Brothers, and the Waltons want to save the Rust Belt, but only on their terms

2017-12-13T10:58:47+00:00 December 6th, 2017|

By Elizabeth Catte

In JD Vance’s latest chapter as champion of America’s forgotten heartland, the Hillbilly Elegy author yesterday announced the creation of a new fund meant to foster entrepreneurship in the Rust Belt and other economically distressed regions in flyover country.

Vance established the fund, called Rise of the Rest, with AOL-cofounder Steve Case, who helped Vance secure investments from the Waltons, the Koch Brothers, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, and other titans of American industry.

You cannot be both the robber and the victim advocate, and you should not pat yourself on the back for throwing small change at the problems that you created.

As both an instrument of venture capital and a living network of corporate leaders, Rise of the Rest aims to “curate interesting companies” among the “undervalued businesses in the heartland” in order to “generate top returns.” In other words, Rise of the Rest will be searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack among middle America’s so-called brain drain and if the right fit is found then financial support and mentorship will follow from some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, leading to mutually beneficial business arrangements. The seed money assembled and disclosed by Rise of the Rest is relatively puny by Silicon Valley standards at $150 million, but investors are offering something they feel is far more valuable: connections. Networking as an all-encompassing gateway to social mobility is the current trendy paradigm in Silicon Valley. Why can’t economically unstable people get ahead? They just don’t do networking, of course.

Corporate leaders often scout emerging talent for investment potential, but Rise of the Rest is not so common. Rather, the project and its investors see their actions as poised to generate enormous social impact by salvaging businesses and even communities from economic oblivion. Case’s recruitment of Vance, for example, rested on his belief that Rise of the Rest — originally a manic bus tour that saw Case and Vance hosting pitch competitions for budding entrepreneurs across the heartland — would generate solutions to the social problems Vance described in his memoir, including addiction and widespread economic insecurity. According to founders, Rise of the Rest is not simply an incubator for the next big thing but the portal to complete social transformation.

“Responsibility for changing this dynamic,” remarked Case of the nation’s economic woes in a USA Today column, “starts with Silicon Valley’s and New York’s technology leaders and venture capitalists. These giants must redeploy capital to the other 48 states.” Of course, Case goes on to argue that America’s business leaders would only be enabled to redeploy their capital — what ordinary people refer to as paying taxes — through a series of “new regulations” (read: deregulation) and “tax incentives” (read: tax breaks). In other words, Americans in the heartland put to suffering by the spectre of a plundering tax plan that serves only the rich and their corporate interests can surely now relax — the captains of industry are coming to save us, but only on their own terms.

I have a modest idea for these giants who want to make a positive social impact — how about paying equitable taxes on corporate profits and ensuring that your employees earn a living wage and have the benefit of safe working conditions?

I’m not sure about you, but I’m fairly certain that I’ve already witnessed the social transformation wrought by titans like the Waltons, Jeff Bezos, and the Koch Brothers. I already live in the world of their making. It’s inhabited by 70-year-old grandmothers stocking shelves for $8.00 an hour, spending what could be their last holiday ringing up Wal-Mart doorbusters while investors suck up resources from struggling communities. My world is filled with back braces and wrist wraps and time is measured out in double shifts and mandatory unpaid overtime. It’s a world where workers nurse life-long injuries after their supervisors force them to lift heavy boxes while pregnant. It’s a world where elderly adjunct instructors sleep in their cars in the shadow of Google’s corporate headquarters. It’s a world where people who have already burned down the barn think they should be trusted to poke around in the hay.

The only thing many of Rise of the Rest’s funders would hate more than living in my world is, ironically, living in a world where ordinary people can actually rise up. From the Waltons and Jeff Bezos’s union-busting to the Koch Brothers-orchestrated suppression of minimum wage laws, what we find is that the magic of Silicon Valley is not so much transforming society but transforming a host of rank people and professions — glorified landlords, grifters, and loan sharks — into innovators and “third way” thinkers. Venture capitalist and Rise of the Rest funder John Doerr told The New York Times that Silicon Valley is now poised to be “a state of mind that can be anywhere, for everyone,” an idea that doesn’t seem to have halted the rapid displacement of thousands of low-income residents in the gentrified tech capital.

I have a modest idea for these giants who want to make a positive social impact — how about paying equitable taxes on corporate profits and ensuring that your employees earn a living wage and have the benefit of safe working conditions? This is not an original idea, the kind that Rise of the Rest might forage for among underserved startup ecosystems, but it is a tad more straight forward. You cannot be both the robber and the victim advocate, and you should not pat yourself on the back for throwing small change at the problems that you created. It is impossible to be a force for good if you are the owner of a warehouse where paramedics camp out in your parking lot treating exhausted workers. If you want to transform society, start with your employees forced to sell plasma to survive, start with all the local businesses shuttered by your monopolistic greed. You are not Andrew Carnegie and we don’t need your gospel of wealth.


Elizabeth Catte is a writer and historian from East Tennessee and is the author of the forthcoming What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, February 2018). She holds a PhD in public history and is the co-owner of Passel, a historical consulting and community development firm.

Banner photo by Matt Hamilton/Flickr

2 Comments

  1. Athenae December 6, 2017 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    THIS IS MAGNIFICENT AND RIGHTEOUS AND SHOULD BE REQUIRED READING IN EVERY POLITE SUBURBAN LADIES’ BOOK CLUB THAT INHALED VANCE’S NONSENSE.

    A.

  2. E.J. December 9, 2017 at 4:03 am - Reply

    The Kochs will die before they change their ways. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too long off in the making as their are both already well-advanced in age. Vance and Case will probably be with us a while longer, though. America never seems to get enough of such hucksters.

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