Until a recent episode, the most memorable scene in HBO's Silicon Valley occurred when researchers at the show's fictional tech giant, Hooli, created a prosthetic arm for a monkey.

What the monkey uses his new arm for cannot be printed here, but as spectacular as it was, that scene (for me, anyway) was eclipsed in the season-5 episode "Initial Coin Offering," which featured a one-scene devastating commentary on the way some corporations view American communities and workers.

In the episode, Hooli's Machiavellian CEO Gavin Belson is searching for a factory to build the company's signature hardware, known as the "Gavin Belson Signature Box III." After a deal with a Chinese manufacturer falls through--due to the Chinese CEO's insistence on treating factory workers humanely--Belson searches for a new location, eventually deciding, despite initial hesitation, on a small town in North Carolina with excess manufacturing capacity due to a recently closed plant.

Belson visits the town and makes an incredibly hypocritical, quasi-political speech about the American worker before disparaging the town's mayor in front of a group of previously laid-off workers.

The scene that eclipses the genius of Season 2's monkey episode comes when Belson arrives back at the town's small airport after his speech. Prior to exiting his limo, Belson gives the mayor his list of demands, noting that without the town meeting the demands, Hooli can't afford to do business in the town.

Belson then exits the limo and walks down a red carpet before being a handed a glass of champagne and boarding his private plane, failing to notice a group of hopeful workers waving signs and cheering.

Hooli and Gavin Belson exists within the fictional world of Silicon Valley--but Amazon and Jeff Bezos are very real. Bezos has a personal net worth of $132 billion. If you took the nominal GDP of five Icelands and added them together, they still wouldn't be as rich as Jeff Bezos. Amazon, with its market cap of nearly $800 billion, is worth 31 Icelands.

Or 2 Israels.

Or 330 Liberias.

Or 3 of my home state, Missouri, which aggressively pursued Amazon HQ2 and offered billions of dollars in cash, tax abatements, and other incentives.  

These incentives came despite the fact that like Hooli, the civic responsibility Amazon feels toward the communities it operates in appears to be nonexistent. The company halted construction on the expansion of its headquarters in Seattle after the city council proposed a tax that would help address a local affordable housing crisis. In many states Amazon fulfillment centers pay so little that full-time workers have to rely on food stamps. And, the competition for HQ2 pitted 238 cities against each other to see which could hand over the most money to one of the world's most valuable companies, headed by the world's richest man.

Amazon isn't the only company that takes an extractive view toward American cities and communities, and the Silicon Valley episode wasn't just a commentary on Bezos and crew.

However, the HQ2 beauty contest and the reaction to the Seattle tax demonstrate that Amazon is the most glaring real-life example of the Silicon Valley scene. Of course, Amazon (and other corporations) couldn't make ridiculous demands if cities and states didn't play along and engage in a constantly escalating contest to see how much money they can hand over.

This isn't an issue that fits neatly within our polarized political climate. Handing over cash to corporations should offend both liberals and conservatives. Belson's demands in Silicon Valley and Bezos' demands in real life amount to corporate welfare, a poor use of taxpayer money, and a massive market distortion.

As Silicon Valley points out through subtle mockery, it's time to reject the idea that companies can only operate profitable businesses in communities that are willing to pay a ransom.

Published on: May 11, 2018