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Does Mark Zuckerberg Really Deserve All That Money?

Facebook's founder is about to be worth $21 billion -- thanks to the American public. Shouldn't we get our share, too?

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Thus we remember Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone even though, among others, Elisha Gray and Antonio Meucci got there at the same time or even before him. Both Newton and Leibniz developed versions of the calculus at roughly the same time. If Bill Gates hadn’t "invented" the MS-DOS operating system, someone else would have invented a similar system—and, in fact, Gary Kildall did. Few recall that Campus Network, the social Web site of Columbia University student Adam Goldberg, predated Zuckerberg's Facebook, and in many ways was more sophisticated. Other forgotten innovations include the precursor to Siri, the latest iPhone's conversational personal assistant, CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes), which was developed by a California company called SRI International with a five-year, multimillion-dollar Pentagon grant.

At a broader level, "nearly 90 percent...of current GDP was contributed by innovation carried out since 1870," in the estimate of leading economist William Baumol. He points out that even "the steam engine, the railroad, and many other inventions of an earlier era still add to today’s GDP." Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow has calculated that nearly 90 percent of the growth in productivity in the first half of the 20th century can only be attributed to "technical change in the broadest sense," while the supply of labor and capital—what workers and employers contribute—appeared almost incidental to this massive technological "residual." It is clear that before anyone is a "talented" entrepreneur or a "menial" laborer, or anything in between, most of the economic gains that get distributed to individuals in a given year or period are derived from technological and other contributions inherited from the society of the past, not created by them in the present. 

Put another way, the current technological contributions that produce huge rewards for the fortunate few are a mere pebble placed atop a Gibraltar of historically received science and technology that makes the modern additions possible—a  mountain of knowledge often paid for by the public.

An obvious question arises from these facts: if most of what we have today is attributable to advances we inherit in common, why, specifically, should this gift of our collective history not more generously and broadly benefit all members of society? Today’s distributive realities are hard to ignore: Mark Zuckerberg is already within the highest echelon of the wealthiest 400 Americans, who collectively own more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of the country combined.

Current elites, William Gates Sr. points out, disproportionately reap the harvest of what is inherently a collective investment; he urges that their estates be taxed accordingly. The late Herbert Simon, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in economics, similarly proposed that this sort of "patrimony" be subject to large-order taxation. Particularly appropriate uses might be to support educational and research institutions that generate and pass on knowledge at all levels; to offer tuition relief; to expand opportunities for college education; and to provide much more generous underpinnings for low- and moderate-income citizens.

Gar Alperovitz , author of America Beyond Capitalism, is Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook

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