MICHAEL BARONE: Are the Silicon Valley fraudsters today’s robber barons?

Are these Silicon Valley scammers the second coming of the robber barons? Maybe, but you should remember that the so-called robber barons were christened and criticized by turn-of-the-century muckrakers with axes to grind and twentieth-century Marxists who regarded all capitalists as criminals.

While some business titans of yore profited from frauds, most benefited society by transforming great technological advances — the greatest ever, tech historian Vaclav Smil argues in his book, Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact — into workable industrial processes producing goods and services of near-universal benefit.

Andrew Carnegie’s steel built civil and transportation infrastructure. John D. Rockefeller’s kerosene saved the whales, and his gasoline fueled the auto revolution. J. P. Morgan’s financing created the industrial might that Alan Greenspan would later hyperbolically claim won World War II.

They didn’t amass fortunes by robbing people. And indeed, they gave back, too. Carnegie’s libraries helped educate generations; Rockefeller created modern research hospitals; Morgan set an example of fine arts connoisseurship. Silicon Valley’s billionaires have yet to match these examples.

The “Robber Barons” gave us steel, railroads, electricity, etc. This generation gave us Facebook, and a bunch of even worse products. We should be so lucky as to have robber barons again.