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Bobos around the Beltway

July 10, 2000
By Robert G. Snyder/ rsnyder283@aol.com,

Robert G. Snyder is a technology business and policy consultant who was formerly vice president of the Suburban Maryland High Technology Council.

Entrepreneurs have become almost deified in American society over the last several years. Their image has become romanticized in our culture, a kind of new American cowboy--robust, brave loners setting out to conquer the frontiers of cyberspace. The only thing missing is sex appeal. They have not quite managed to surmount their nerdy images, but, hey, a couple of billion dollars can go a long way toward overcoming sporadic hygiene and really bad taste in clothes.

The truth is, entrepreneurs come in many shapes and sizes, largely determined by their individual backgrounds and personalities. There are certainly plenty of under-30 hyperdriven MBA entrepreneurs looking to make a quick killing on the latest dot.com application. At the other extreme are more veteran, laid-back scientists and engineers who are looking to perfect technologies that they hope will have commercial value.

What is becoming increasingly important, however, are the cultural implications of our entrepreneurial society. How does it fit into our more traditional liberal and conservative politics and philosophy? Two recent books address this issue from different perspectives and come up with different answers. David Brooks, writer, editor and pundit with the conservative Weekly Standard, has written "Bobos in Paradise," which views the emergence of a merged bourgeois bohemian (hence, "Bobo") culture as a generally positive development. On the other hand, Paulina Borsook, a former contributing writer with Wired magazine, has written "Cyberselfish," a caustic view of what she sees as the predominant libertarian bent of the new entrepreneurialism.

Both writers start from a common observation -- that today's entrepreneurs represent a melding of the '60s counterculture (but not its political radicalism) with the capitalism of the '80s. For Brooks, the result is a kind of apolitical pragmatism, combining a tolerance of personal conduct (thus avoiding the moral agenda of the far right) with a benign self-fulfillment version of capitalism.

For Borsook, the result is much less sanguine. Perhaps because of her Silicon Valley perspective, she sees a much more negative political stance emerging among the new entrepreneurs that she has observed. Those politics reflect an aggressive libertarianism that largely rejects government's role in society. The broader cultural implications, for Borsook, are a rejection of most any sense of history, community or social contract. While they are also not part of the moral majority, their aggressive anti-government orientation clearly puts them in the conservative camp.

Borsook notes a divide between the old and new generations of entrepreneurs. For the old generation, who came up closely tied to government contracts or research programs, there is more of a New Deal orientation, recognizing government's long-term unifying role and, with it, a sense of shared civilization. For the new generation, history only began in the '90s with government playing a less direct role in their lives. With the frenetic pace and near-speculative nature of the Internet boom, it is little wonder that entrepreneurs think they have done it all themselves and fall into a kind of narcissistic social Darwinism. Of course, this does not always work out positively, as witnessed by the experience of Michael Saylor, our very own poster child for entrepreneurial hubris.

Neither Brooks' nor Borsook's entrepreneurs offer any reason for optimism. While Brooks' bobo entrepreneurs are amiable apolitical boobs, Borsook's are actively injurious to the common good. So far, Washington (D.C., that is) has not gone entirely the way of Silicon Valley. Perhaps it is because of the continuing importance of the federal government to so many of our high tech firms--as clients and as regulators. It may also be that we possess some of those older generation role models who combine entrepreneurship with a sense of community.

Mario Morino is our foremost role model. For entrepreneurs, his Netpreneur program has actually created a community among this isolated group by demonstrating that a more experienced generation feels responsible for passing on its wisdom to the next. And for the truly needy in our society, Morino is pioneering the concept of venture philanthropy to help build capacity in our social welfare organizations.

The jury is still out on how the new Washington entrepreneurial class will turn out. It is too soon to tell whether a vibrant entrepreneurial culture is compatible with a caring society. Will they form their own foundations and actively address societal problems, or will their generosity be limited to attending trendy fund-raisers? Will they engage in political action only around their narrow business interests, or will they lobby for better education, health and other quality of life issues?

Copyright(c) 2000 Post-Newsweek Business Information, Inc. All Rights Reserved


paulina b.

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