One of the fascinating subplots of Kim Stanley Robinson’s great Mars trilogy — though it’s not so much a subplot as an evolving context — relates to the rise of what KSR calls the transnationals: vast international corporations that possess wealth and power exceeding that of all but a few countries. They’ve even taken over the running of many former nations. I’m thinking of the transnationals right now as I contemplate the ongoing crises in California, and the response of certain corporations to them. 

Here’s the title of an Apple news release from earlier this week: ”Apple commits $2.5 billion to combat housing crisis in California.” Wow, $2.5 billion! But let’s put this in context: How much cash on hand does Apple have? Not their investments, just the cash on hand, what they’ve tossed into that jar on the bedside table. That would be two hundred and six billion bucks. So $2.5 billion is just a drop in the bucket… or would be it better to think of it as a down payment? 

Consider this scenario: At some point in the next couple of years, Tim Cook meets behind closed doors with Governor Gavin Newsom and and a handful of other political leaders. Here’s what he says: 

“Friends, you know as well as I that this state is in a mess. The electricity in this part of the state is provided by a company whose idea of dealing with wildfires is to take away people’s power so the old and uninsulated lines won’t shoot out sparks. Many Californians have come to think it perfectly normal to step over homeless people — sometimes sick or even unconscious homeless people — on the way to work each day. Housing costs have forced thousands and thousands of people who work in our cities to live dozens of miles away, increasing the already infamous congestion on our roads. 

“And you all have played a role in this. You have constrained the budgets of PG&E because you don’t dare raise people’s taxes. You won’t support affordable-housing initiatives because you fear that the NIMBYs will vote you out of office — and you’re exactly right to fear that. You know what needs to be done to fix things; you also know that the fixes are politically impossible. You have kicked the can down the road again and again and again, but now the road has dead-ended. 

“We’re here to help. I’ve been authorized to speak on behalf of some of California’s other major tech companies, including Google, Oracle, and Intel. We’re all famous for getting things done, for innovating our way out of some very tight situations. We have massive resources of data, computing power, engineering expertise, and, above all, creativity. What we don’t have is a free hand to address the problems we see. 

“And that’s where you come in. We’re willing to work with the California State Legislature and the Governor’s office to come up with, and then promote, a plan that would turn over much of the responsibility for fixing these problems to us. We will of course need legal authorization that goes beyond what private companies have been allowed to do in the past — authorization of considerable control over the energy grid, for instance, and to, let’s say, cooperate with local police forces. But we’re not going to ask taxpayers to pay any more than they’re already paying: the rest will come out of our pockets. We’re trusted in this state — if I may be honest, trusted more than you are. Your willingness to take advantage of our public-spirited competence will surely reflect well on you. And if anyone complains about the decisions we make, well, we’ll take the heat for that. You have us to insulate you from any anger. I won’t pretend that we’ll get no benefit from this; we will. But what we’ll chiefly get is a better environment in which to live and work — and all Californians will benefit from that

“It’ll require some careful crafting of laws, and a strong PR campaign. But we’ve been working on all that, and are eager to share our ideas with you. What do you say?” 

And thus the reign of the transnationals will begin.