What a herky-jerky mess our federal government is. What a bumbling klutz. It can’t manage health care. It can’t master infrastructure. It can’t fund itself for more than tiny increments of time. It can barely stay open. It shut down briefly Friday for the second time in three weeks. Maybe it should just stay closed for good.
Let corporations pick up the slack! In fact they’re doing that already, with an innovation and can-do ambition sorely absent in Washington.
Three days before the latest shutdown, Elon Musk borrowed a launchpad previously used by NASA’s trailblazing astronauts to send his own rocket into space. It was the first time that a vessel of such might and majesty was thrust heavenward by a private company rather than a government agency.
It was also a roaring, blazing sign of our times, in which the gaudy dreams and grand experiments belong to the private sector, not the public one, and in which the likes of Musk or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos chart a future for our species beyond our stressed-out planet. NASA no longer leads the way.
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Speaking of Amazon, it joined two other corporate giants, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, to announce two weeks ago that they would form their own health care provider and try to solve the riddle that continues to stump lawmakers: dependable service at affordable prices.
Amazon also recently stole a high-profile educator from Stanford University, Candace Thille. Her hiring suggests that the company is poised to expand employee training to a point where Amazon is essentially filling in for public and private universities and grooming its own workforce.
And Musk is not only reaching for the stars but also tunneling under the earth. A new venture of his, the Boring Co., is a response to the inability of public officials in Los Angeles to ease the region’s paralyzing traffic. Musk envisions a futuristic network of subterranean chutes. The first one is already under construction.
We Americans are living a paradox. We’re keenly suspicious of big corporations – just look at how many voters thrilled to Bernie Sanders’ jeremiads about a corrupt oligarchy, or at polls that show a growing antipathy to capitalism – and yet we’re ever more reliant on them. They’re in turn bolder, egged on by the ineptness and inertia of Washington.
“When there’s a vacuum, there are going to be entities that step into it,” Chris Lehane told me. “This is an example of that.” Lehane is the head of global policy for Airbnb, which ran a commercial this month that alluded (without profanity) to Trump’s “shithole countries” remark and promoted those very places as travel destinations. It spoke to another vacuum – a moral one – being filled by companies, many of which are more high-minded, forward-thinking and solutions-oriented than the federal government on immigration, LGBT rights, climate change and more.
Lehane noted that democratic governments are designed to proceed with caution, but the pace of change in a digital world of automation and, now, artificial intelligence is brisker than ever. The nimbleness of corporations gives them an edge over hoary, complacent institutions, including those in higher education. Corporations’ creep into that sphere is looking more and more like a sprint.
“They are very frustrated with what they’re getting from our educational institutions,” said Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor who collaborated with corporate leaders like Howard Schultz of Starbucks on a 2015 report titled “America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age.” “The American labor market is dysfunctional and broke.”
In an effort to make sure that employees have up-to-the-minute technical skills – or are simply adept at critical thinking and creative problem solving – more companies have developed academies of their own. That’s likely to accelerate.
“I think enterprises like Amazon and Google are going to build universities that teach coding and things the nation needs,” Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina System, recently told me. Spellings was education secretary under President George W. Bush.
Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has mulled the same possibility. Speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, she recalled a conversation with the Israeli ambassador: “He was baffled as to why America’s businesses haven’t simply stepped in to create their own education programs to equip individuals with the necessary skills, instead of relying on others to get it right for them.” Some businesses have done precisely that, though DeVos was obviously wondering whether that effort was enough. She said that there were 6 million job openings in America and suggested that schools weren’t graduating students with the know-how to fill them.
Corporations have long been engines of innovation, sources of philanthropy and even laboratories for social policy. But the situation feels increasingly lopsided these days. I’m struck, for example, by the intensity of conversation over the last year about what Facebook and its algorithms should do to stanch the destructive tribalism in American life. It’s true that Mark Zuckerberg’s monster has badly aggravated that dynamic, in part by allowing its platform to be manipulated by bad actors. But so has Washington, and we seem less hopeful that it’s redeemable and likely to shepherd us to a healthier place.
Although government spending has hardly dried up – the budget deal signed by Trump on Friday attests to that – and the federal debt continues to metastasize, there’s a questionable commitment to scientific research, leaving private actors to call many of the shots.
But companies’ primary concern isn’t public welfare. It’s the bottom line. I say that not to besmirch them but to state the obvious. Their actions will never deviate too far from their proprietary interests, and while tapping their genius and money is essential, outsourcing too much to them is an abdication of government’s singular role. What’s best for Amazon and what’s best for humanity aren’t one and the same.
Lawrence Summers, the economist and former Treasury secretary, says that corporations might see no point in teaching Shakespeare. But shouldn’t Shakespeare be taught? Corporations might find cunning answers to the transportation woes of their own employees. But would that necessarily improve the lot of people working and living elsewhere?
“Whether they do it in the collective interest or in their own is very much in question,” Summers told me. “I use as a parable for a lot of things what happens in developing countries, where the urban electric system doesn’t work well, and therefore the businesses start building their own generators to take care of themselves, and therefore there’s no longer a constituency or pressure to fix the existing electricity system, and meanwhile the society is falling apart.”
There may be something for all of us in Musk’s rocket launch. But there’s definitely a whole lot more in it for Musk.