The Beggar Barons

The rise of the trillionaire beggars.

By Zed A. Shaw

The Beggar Barons

When you think think of the word "robber" what comes to your mind? Do you imagine this guy?

J.D. Rockefeller

No, of course not. You imagine someone low class, poor, desperate, or crazy. Someone who needs money so bad they're willing to risk getting killed robbing another person. We don't associate the word "robber" with billionaires because the wealthy have had millennia to cement the association of wealth with class. If a 10th Century king invaded a city and ransacked it we'd call him a conqueror, even though he's actually just robbing that city. In our minds the words "robber" and "wealth" simply don't go together.

In the late 1800s John D. Rockefeller devised an ingenious plan for Standard Oil. He had Standard Oil open gas stations in towns with competition, and Standard Oil would sell its products at a significant loss. This was fine for Rockefeller because he was worth billions of dollars, so Standard Oil could easily eat the losses. These lower prices would bankrupt the local competitors because they couldn't lower their prices and survive. After all of the competition was wiped out Standard Oil would buy up the dead competitors, turn them into Standard Oil stations, and then raise the prices far beyond the real market price because Standard Oil now had a monopoly in that area.

Rockefeller didn't make his money through innovation. He didn't invent gasoline, cars, natural gas, processing methods, shipping, or anything else that would justify his wealth. Rockefeller basically stole his wealth through unfair business practices designed to gouge consumers, robbing them through economic force. He was a Robber Baron. A late 18th century businessman who used monopoly, dirty politics, bribes, and unscrupulous practices to rob the unfortunate of their money. We eventually passed laws to outlaw these practices, namely the Sherman Anti-trust Act which outlaws "every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade."

At the time these Robber Barons proclaimed they were just better at business than everyone else, and they were justified in "earning" that money. They didn't steal from anyone. They sold superior products. They were geniuses.

Obviously they weren't geniuses or sold better products, but they had to maintain that facade to hide the Robber part of "Robber Baron." If they admitted they were thieves then everyone would have revolted sooner. Instead the Robber Barons put forward this visage of being "Industrialists." Men of great action and ideas carving a path through the world using industry. No, they weren't Robbers.

Baron von Apple

I'm on a phone call with four employees from Apple. They were trying to include Ruby on Rails in their next release of OSX and they wanted me to make "just one change" to my webserver Mongrel to support some crazy feature in OSX. I remember it was a guy with a British accent making the case for me to accept this 4 line patch.

At the time (probably late 2006) I was fairly poor trying to live off limited consulting dollars and barely making ends meet. I was hoping that Apple would offer to hire me to make this change they needed. It was a change specific to their OS, and hiring me would mean my webserver would work the best on OSX. It's a fairly simple thing for them to do given they're trillionaire capitalists, and capitalism is all about an exchange of money for labor.

But, they did no such thing. They sent me the patch, and it would have broken Mongrel for everyone else, so these 4 lines would require hours and hours of work to implement. They expected to drop these 4 lines on me and have me work for Apple for free, but what was weird about the call is they were begging me to do this. There was a pleading, begging, hands clasped together, with all these reasons why I should do it for them. "Please, it's such a small change. It'll really help us out. Can't you just spare a few hours of your time and help us poor Trillionaires out this one time Zed?"

Marquess du Microsoft

I'd been fielding complaints from students about the Windows Subsystem for Linux documentation for months. They said it was confusing and they couldn't install it, so I had to go look. I'd originally told them "just follow the docs" because normally Microsoft's documentation is top notch, but this time I was dead wrong.

The WSL documentation was terrible. It was completely out of order, as if the author had just dumped whatever step randomly popped into her head at whatever random step she was currently writing. There were important instructions hidden inside paragraphs about unrelated topics. For example, you needed to enable certain system settings before installing WSL, but the docs didn't tell you to do this until the end.

I eventually had to create a video that showed the real process, and figured out everything people had to do, then I told someone on Twitter that these docs "fucking suck," because they did. They were so bad they caused numerous beginners to simply give up on running Linux...hmmm I wonder why Microsoft wouldn't want new entrants to learn Linux.

A few days later some "Docs Guy" storms into my mentions claiming the docs are perfect. I point out missing information, "Oh that's inside this paragraph." The information was so hidden in the paragraph I swear it wasn't there or that they changed it. Nope, it was just poorly written and embedded inside a trash paragraph at the wrong point of the documentation. Finally, at the end of our brawl this docs White Knight retorts:

Well feel free to submit a Pull Request.

Wait, what? Microsoft is worth TRILLIONS of dollars. Why are they begging me to write docs for them? That's actually my real profession, so why would I work for a TRILLIONAIRE for free? What in the hell is going on?

This also isn't the only time I've seen Microsoft employees beg for free work. They've become masters of pretending to be woke fighters for socialist ideals through open source but seemingly only as a means of begging for free labor from others.

Microsoft having trillions of dollars should mean they never ask someone to work on their projects without compensation. Instead what we get is:

Oh please Mister, won't you please just spare a little of your time rewriting our documentation? We're only poor Trillionaires with nothing to our names but our trillion dollar businesses. Won't you think of the starving trillionaires?

Begging vs. Robbing

I believe we are in the era of the Beggar Barons. Just like the Robber Barons before, these are fabulously wealthy companies that built their empires by (directly or indirectly) begging for free labor from open source developers.

The Beggar Barons aren't stealing this labor though, they're just using unscrupulous business practices and social manipulation to beg for free labor. Robbing would be more what Amazon does when it outright steals open source without crediting the author, or straight up just steals Elastic Search's trademark.

No, this begging is particularly different because it capitalizes on the good will of open source developers. Microsoft, Apple, and Google are standing on the internet in their trillion dollar business suits with a sign that reads "Starving and homeless. Any free labor will help." They aren't holding people up at gun point. Rather they hold out their Rolex encrusted hand and beg, plead, and shame open source developers until they get free labor.

Once they get this free labor they rarely give credit. They're ungrateful beggars that take their donated work hours, jump in their Teslas, and ride off to make more trillions proclaiming, "Haha! That open source idiot just gave me 10 hours of free labor. What a loser."

Baron of Microsoft Upon Ads

I get a call from a friend who works at Microsoft saying his manager is really keen on hiring me. I find that odd since usually programmers have to beg for their jobs, but I'm curious so I take the interview. His manager facetimes with me and we start talking about how I could work on Azure as an engineer, but he keeps asking me about

"So how much traffic does your site get a month?" I'm kind of puzzled but tell him. His eyes sparkle at the numbers. "How did you make the site? Is it your own code or..." I tell him it's my own code...then I ask him, why is he asking me about my website?

"Oh I'm just thinking about how we can put ads on it."

I'm floored. What do you mean, "put ads on it?"

"Yeah, after you start working here we'll want to put ads on to monitize it."

Yes, you read that right, Microsoft thought that hiring me as an employee magically transferred all of my copyrighted material and existing products to them without requiring them to pay me at all. At that point I just wound the conversation down and politely told my friend I'm not interested.

But, I couldn't figure out why they didn't just offer to buy it until I kept running into Microsoft employees begging for free labor online. Once I saw repeated demands for "pull requests" I realized they're a Beggar Baron, and they'll avoid paying for something if they think they can get it for free.

The Beggar Barons will never admit that 90% of their business runs on free labor from open source. If they did then investors might start asking hard questions like, "So, why don't that project your entire company is based on?" Nope, the Beggar Barons have to pretend that their business is successful because of their immense business acumen and advanced innovation prowess (cough).

Never mind that their "innovation" is a rebranded copy of some poor sucker's hobby project or a couple thousand lines of Go that just runs Linux containers off etcd. They are Innovators, not Beggars. Sound familiar? The Robber Barrons were just "Industrialists", not Robbers.

With trillions of dollars it'd be trivial for a company like Microsoft to buy up open source projects, but this never occurs to them. They can get the project's labor for free, so why would they want to buy it? They'll buy Github, but not Gitlab, even though Gitlab eventually made more money than Github ever will. Why? Because Gitlab is open source, so they don't see its value as a product.

To the Beggar Baron, open source's value is its free donation. You would never stand on the street and offer to buy the wallets off people who are about to donate a few dollars to you. That'd be stupid. They're giving you their money for free. Take it and run.

Not Beggar Barons

Programmers are notorious abusers of the fallacy of false equivalence. I think it's because we spend all day dealing in abstractions upon abstractions, so when it comes to any other topic we easily can abstract everything to be the same as anything. To a programmer a Cat and a Shark both descend from the same part of the taxonomic ranking system so therefore they are exactly the same.

To them when I say, "Microsoft begging for pull requests makes them a Beggar Baron" they read it as "Any project asking for pull requests is exactly the same as a company worth 2 trillion dollars begging for pull requests." No, a small project run by a few people in their spare time is not exactly the same as a trillionaire company with its hand out begging for free labor.

Or, if someone criticizes an open source project they'll claim the critic is, "Being a Beggar Baron demanding free labor from a project." They think me saying, "Wow this project's docs suuuuck" is exactly the same as trillionaire Apple saying "C'mon Zed, just spend a week implementing these 4 lines of code for us." No, a lone individual critizing a project is not the same as a trillionaire begging them to do free work.

I define the Beggar Barons as this:

  1. A company that is worth more than a billion dollars,
  2. that claims to support open source, but really only as a facade to
  3. (directly or indirectly)
  4. beg for free labor from other open source developers
  5. even though the company could easily pay for that labor.

The companies I wouldn't consider Beggar Barons are the small companies that simply use open source according to its license. If you say, "Pull requests welcome" and a small company sends you one, then they might or might not be "begging", but they definitely are not Barons. You need a lot of money to gain that title.

We can easily put Microsoft in this category, as well as Google, Apple, and possibly some parts of Amazon (although I'd say Amazon is much more a classic Robber Baron). I predict there will be many, many more in the future, because it's so lucrative and that's the era we live in now.

We live in the era of the Beggar Barons. Enjoy!

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