Has Steve Jobs Sacrificed Enough Yet?

When I heard that Steve Jobs was dead, I immediately thought of my close friend Ron Morris. Ron has exactly the same kind of rare cancer as Jobs did, and is also a serial technology entrepreneur.

In fact, Ron knew Jobs and Wozniak in the early days of Apple. They both ate, breathed and (in the rare moments when they slept) slept entrepreneurship. They even looked a little alike.

When Ron was diagnosed with neuro-endocrine cancer his doctor told him that it probably had something to do with adrenaline, that liver and pancreatic cancers seem to have a connection with adrenaline. It made perfect sense to me: Ron had built a dozen businesses. He lived on adrenaline and stress. Ditto for Jobs. It seems as though it is difficult for one person to build a globally dominant business in one generation without running the risk of using up the one body we each are allotted in this life.

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera from CNBC called me a couple of weeks ago asking me if I remembered having an on-air discussion with her about President Obama saying that wealthy business people like Steve Jobs needed to pay their fair share … or some such nonsense. “Didn’t we talk about Obama saying that Steve Jobs needed to sacrifice more for society?” Michelle asked. I answered “He’s given up his pancreas for us; hasn’t he sacrificed enough already?”

We couldn’t find the video of that discussion; CNBC’s web site doesn’t archive everything. I’m not even 100% sure Obama made that comment about Jobs in particular, although his blanket call for millionaires, billionaires, private jet owners and oil company executives (henceforth MBPJOOCEs) certainly would include Steve Jobs. The point stands: MBPJOOCEs make enormous sacrifices beyond the much higher tax rates they pay, often sacrificing family and health to produce the products which we need and love.

One of my favorite Gregory Peck movies is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) which is largely about that topic. Peck is a decent man who cares about his family, his extended family and his community. He basically works nine to five on the payroll of a great institution-building entrepreneur. The entrepreneur has lost his marriage, and his daughter has become a humiliating public spectacle. He tells Peck’s character that men like him, men on the payroll, who stop working when they go home at night, don’t build great enterprises. The movie is surprisingly non-didactic. It doesn’t tell us which kind of man to be, the tycoon in the penthouse or the pay-roller in the grey flannel suit. Both have their virtues and their vices.

Jobs was not the man in the gray flannel suit. That doesn’t mean he was a good man. It just means he was a great man. He lied, denied paternity of his first daughter, humiliated and berated underlings, competitors and any other businesses he didn’t happen to like, all the while spouting New Age mumbo-jumbo cobbled together from pop-Buddhism and self-help books.

And while we’re on the subject of spirituality, if Jobs was a Buddhist, I’m a ballerina. Buddhism is based on the idea that the path to enlightenment is the realization that suffering arises from desire, and that to travel that path one must release all desires, and annihilate the ego.

Annihilate the ego? Steve Jobs? Not likely. Give up all desire and ambition? From the guy whose motto was “Stay hungry, stay foolish” and who invited his employees to come and help him to “put a dent in the universe”?  Zen Buddhism holds that a man should enter the pool and leave as few ripples behind as possible. Whatever he called himself, by that definition Jobs was anything but a Zen Buddhist.

No, Jobs’ Buddhism was basically of a piece with his trademark skinny jeans and black pullover, a fashion accessory in which he packaged his true self, a  hard-driving egoist, for public consumption. And thank God for that. His desire to make a dent in the universe dented all our universes. His need to grow his ego actually strengthened everyone else more than it strengthened him.  He put power into the palm of every man and woman in every grey flannel suit and pant suit in the developed world.

His most destructive acts were his philanthropy, at least his political philanthropy, which went overwhelmingly to politicians on the left. Money to Rahm Emmanuel doesn’t make the world a better place. Thankfully, however, Jobs was not very generous and put the vast majority of his capital, financial and otherwise, into his business.

And that business will turn out to have been a weapon of mass destruction against central planning. The state couldn’t keep up with us before the advent of graphical user interfaces, and the modern mega-state will not survive the era of hand-held broadband. It has already killed the big city newspaper, mortally wounded the network news oligopoly and is about to pop the higher education bubble.

Whether Jobs wanted a centrally controlled state like that favored by Pelosi, Emmanuel and other recipients of his largess is beside the point. The technological revolution of which Jobs was one of the prime movers is already destroying it here and abroad.