The author of new book The Upstarts on how the new breed of tech startups changed the rules of the game
• Read an extract from The Upstarts
It’s really not the sharing economy at all, though that phrase has been a useful one for the companies
At the start of the book you note that the dictionary definition of an upstart is either “a newly successful person” or “someone who does not show proper respect to the established way of doing things”…
I wanted to frame the defining question of the book for the reader. Are these brilliant entrepreneurs who have built tremendous businesses through sheer creativity and ingenuity? Or are they renegades that grew in large part through contempt for the status quo? There’s an ambivalence that surrounds companies like Uber and Airbnb, and I think this question over their identity – and the dual meanings of the word “upstart” – gets to the heart of it. My own squishy answer, of course, is that they are a little bit of both.
Overcompensated, corrupt and, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, enticingly dangerous, bankers make the perfect baddies. Is it time we looked beyond the stereotypes?
Before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I used the business section of the newspaper to clean my windows. So it was quite a surprise to find that economics had grown as nailbiting as the Bourne trilogy, as apocalyptic as On the Beach. Recent non-fiction titles, such as Endgame by John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper and Paper Money Collapse by Detlev Schlichter, are every bit as horrifying as grim dystopian classics such as Nineteen Eight-Four.
I have become at once fascinated and dismayed by the fiscal world and, in this, I have company. My new novel is an economic dystopia seen through the eyes of one American family. Joe McGuinness’s harrowing novel Carousel Court, due out in August, describes surreal neighbourhoods in California, where homeowners trapped in negative equity burn their furniture, kill their dogs, and camp out in tents in the front yard with shotguns. For an Irish version, try Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know (2012), about the crazed development binge when the whole country got caught up in buying and flipping properties – until the music stopped, and the Irish were left with dumpy pebbledashes and scrub farmland for which they’d paid astronomical prices with borrowed money. Kilroy’s protagonist is an alcoholic; by inference, the Celtic Tiger’s gorging on property was also an addiction.
The French economist, whose book on inequality became a bestseller, tells Owen Jones about his extraordinary year – including his sudden rise to stardom and his battles to defend his ideas
For a man with the unlikely description of “rock-star economist”, there is nothing rock’n’roll about Thomas Piketty’s cramped, book-lined office in a nondescript Parisian office block. By his feet are scattered various foreign translations of his publishing sensation, Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Greek, German, Japanese, and so on. There are 20 foreign editions already published, he tells me with evident pride, and another 37 to come. It must be rather surreal, I suggest: one doesn’t normally expect a French economist to become a global superstar. “Is there something particular with being French, or economists in general?” he jokes in a thick Parisian accent, effecting a faux wounded Gallic pride.
Piketty’s book is surely the most influential published by an economist in a generation, infuriating the right as much as it delighted an intellectually starved left. Using a mass of data, the book sought to expose why modern capitalism is an engine of exploding inequality: the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate at which the economy grows, he argues, and wealth is becoming ever more concentrated at the top of society.