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Zuckerberg, FWD.us and Cynical Civic Psychobabble

Monday, June 10th, 2013

zuckerberg1Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, a youthful Calbuzzer was on hand when Democratic Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton emerged from a meeting at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose to announce that John Young of Hewlett Packard, John Sculley of Apple, John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins and other Republican-leaning high-tech executives were supporting his bid for president.

As news, it was a classic man-bites-dog story. Even high-tech executives were then (and likely now) businessmen first. And business, as everyone knew, was supporting the re-election of Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

But many tech guys had bolted: “Bill Clinton gets it,” they said. Bubba understood not only the evolving information and internet economy, they argued, but capital gains taxes, research and development credits and immigration policies as they affected Silicon Valley as well.

flintstonesjetsonsIn that race, which boiled down to a brawl between the Flintstones and the Jetsons (with Ross Perot as I.M. Weasel), a number of high-profile high-tech leaders stood with the guy who wouldn’t stop Thinking About Tomorrow. They understood clearly that politics is an endeavor in which competing interests push, pull and struggle over issues until one side – albeit often after compromise – wins.

Facebook’s frictionless fatuousness: Fast forward to today, as tech leaders led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and fellow travelers, who have formed a group called FWD.us, keep yammering about “frictionless politics.” To them, that notion reflects the perfect app, which as George Packer of the New Yorker put it in a recent must-read, is “so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances and grievances have been smoothed out of existence.”

In other words, “frictionless” politics is a self-absorbed conceit or, in technical terms, utter bullshit.

“The ideal of a frictionless world, in which technology is a force for progress as well as a source of wealth, leaves out the fact that politics inevitably means clashing interests, with winners and losers.” Packer writes.

2375-small_josh-cohenAs Joshua Cohen, founder of Stanford’s Program on Global Justice, told him:

“There is this complete horseshit attitude out here, that if it’s new and different it must be really good, and there must be some new way of solving problems that avoids the old limitations, the roadblocks. And with a soupcon of, ‘We’re smarter than everybody else.’ It’s total nonsense.”

The hoodie billionaire masquerade: Zuckerberg, with his hoodie and his billions, turns out to be an old-fashioned self-important cynic, masquerading as new-wave civic altruist.

“In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our society,” he wrote in his op-ed in the Washington Post announcing FWD.us. “A knowledge economy can scale further, create better jobs, and provide a higher quality of living for everyone in our nation.”

His announced goals – in pursuit of the best workforce he and his fellow executives in Silicon Valley hope to utilize – sound grand:

● Comprehensive immigration reform that begins with effective border security, allows a path to citizenship and lets us attract the most talented and hardest-working people, no matter where they were born.

● Higher standards and accountability in schools, support for good teachers and a much greater focus on learning about science, technology, engineering and math.

● Investment in breakthrough discoveries in scientific research and assurance that the benefits of the inventions belong to the public and not just to the few.

jesmerHigh tech old school hacks: But after hiring a coven of veteran Washington political consultants, including campaign manager Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, FWD.us put up TV ads praising GOP immigration-reform allies Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for opposing Obamacare, and Mark Begich of Alaska for supporting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In other words, Zuckerberg is so tunnel-visioned about immigration reform (especially H-1B visas for foreign-born engineers), he is willing to say or do damn near anything to support those he thinks will help him on the issue. Which caused venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to tweet: “Will FVD.us prostitute climate destruction and other values to get a few engineers hired & get immigration reform?”

logocopyright1 The notion that Zuckerberg’s organization represents a new maturity in Silicon Valley’s approach to politics ignores years of history. Silicon Valley firms have been taking sides in political contests for more than two decades.

After all, it was the late Sen. Alan Cranston, the liberal lion, who carried water for the late David Packard’s attack on capital gains taxes back in 1989 – nearly a quarter century ago. And former U.S. Reps. Ed Zschau and Tom Campbell were fierce advocates for Silicon Valley interests in Congress.

Not to mention that in the decades since the microchip was invented, congressmen and senators representing states from Colorado to Connecticut, Maryland to Massachusetts and New Jersey to North Carolina have battled over sweetheart tax breaks, subsidies and government contracts for tech interests in their own districts.

Bottom line: But all of them did so with no illusions about frictionless politics. Good old-fashioned self-interest is a lot more honest than the kind of political and moral relativism that Zuckerbeg’s outfit is engaged in. The suggestion of politics without conflict ultimately is nothing more than civic psychobabble.