In 2012, entrepreneur Sean Parker told a South-by-Southwest audience that the tech community needed to join together to “seize control over (the political) system, quickly and stealthily, before incumbent players wake up to what’s happening.” At the time, Parker was calling for crowd-sourcing political tools that would “occupy democracy” by challenging big businesses’ ability to buy politics.
Two years later, Parker and his compatriots in Silicon Valley are making good on this promise of occupation, but the strategy is more of the same old crony capitalism, not “people of the Internet unite.” Rather than rely on innovation, entrepreneurship or a disruptive technological advance, Silicon Valley billionaires are trying to get ahead the old-fashioned way: buying political power.
Overturning the traditionally apolitical perspective of Silicon Valley’s founders, leaders in tech have been pouring tens of millions (and rising) of dollars into lobbyists and tech PACs each year in hopes of turning public policy in into tech policy. But lobbying elected officials can go only so far – with the primary for Silicon Valley’s 17th Congressional District only weeks away, Parker and other tech leaders have set their sights on electing one of their own – the politically inexperienced but tech-loyal attorney Ro Khanna, who moved to Silicon Valley in 2011 in hopes of representing the tech industry.
With the lion’s share of his more than $3 million campaign fund coming from wealthy tech elites and fundraisers hosted by tech bigwigs like Parker, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and others, Silicon Valley has made it no secret that they’re backing Khanna as someone who will champion the industry’s interests in Washington. Khanna has likewise welcomed his “tech groupie” moniker, telling The New York Times that he wears that affiliation as a “badge of honor.”
While Khanna’s campaign has made much of the “disruption” he will make by exporting a tech mentality to Congress, there has been very little real talk about what that would look like on the ground for voters in the district he now wants to represent.
Numerous sources, including the editorial boards that have declared him their candidate of choice, have noted that on the surface, Khanna’s platform doesn’t differ much from his main competition, incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, so why would so many big players in the tech sphere throw their weight into this campaign?
Is the tech industry anticipating larger political needs in light of the net neutrality debates and the impending revision of U.S. telecom laws? Does tech want to get rid of the nasty antitrust laws that Apple and Google violated in order to prevent their workers from getting better jobs? Is it lower taxes they are after? Or does Apple’s attempt to buy Beats really declare they have run out of ideas and now need public policy to protect market share and drive profits?
Courting tax breaks is not new for techies in the Bay Area – one need only look at neighboring San Francisco to see how these political favors play out: In 2011, when Twitter threatened to relocate its headquarters, the city let the company out of six years’ worth of payroll taxes – an estimated $22 million in lost tax revenue that has spurred several other tech companies to request, and receive, similar payroll tax cuts. While job creation is the oft-cited justification for industry favoritism, there’s a disconnect between what serves the district and what benefits its most influential companies and residents. The tech companies want special favors even if that hurts the city they live in.
California Congressional District 17 is an ethnically and economically diverse community that faces all the urban challenges of economic justice, quality education, gentrification, wage disparities and endemic homelessness that cannot be solved through trickle-down prosperity that many tech leaders use to justify their pursuit of self-interest.
A recent study of our 50 largest cities found, “Not surprisingly San Francisco experienced the largest increase of its ratio (of income inequality) from 2007 to 2012 … No other city saw nearly as large an increase in wealth in its rich household’s incomes.” That’s fine. But the study also points out that in the same period, earnings for low-income households went down. Issues like affordable housing and a living wage for low-income workers are not why a “tech groupie” goes to Washington.
Supporters of Khanna have likened investing in his campaign to financing a startup – taking a risk on something new and untested in hopes of big dividends – but there’s nothing new about this. Just like Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Auto and Big Health Care – Big Tech is investing in its own go-to guy. When a private interest, even tech, is bankrolling a public servant, it’s not “occupying” democracy; it’s stepping on it.
Harry Snyder is a consumer advocate and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. He is the former director for the West Coast regional office of Consumers Union.