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Op-Ed | American Prospect | September 9, 2020

Biden Stiff-Arming Big Tech Would Be Good Politics, Policy

2020 Election/TransitionTech

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“You wouldn’t want to fill the government entirely with people who came from ivory tower institutions that are detached from the mechanics of Washington.” So gasped James Rubin to a New York Times reporter early last month. He was parroting a familiar complaint that capital-E Elites have made since Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential primary and progressives set out to influence the selection of his policy team. Lifelong political operatives accustomed to revolving back and forth between corporate lobbying jobs and the halls of power have fumed at the suggestion that this career path might breed some unlikable, or even undemocratic, professional incentives.

They’ve even tried to claim, bizarrely, that it’s impossible to hire a diverse Cabinet without dipping into Wall Street or industry lobbyist talent pools, as if these are the only professions for qualified Black and Latino policy experts, or big banks don’t disclose that Black people make up single-digit percentages of their executive teams, when they disclose diversity stats at all. At least Rubin—a former assistant secretary of state turned chairman of the Trump-connected lobbying firm Ballard Partners—held off from that absurd line of reasoning.

Rubin merely said out loud what many a politico thinks: that enacting policy and leading the nation requires familiarity with “the mechanics of Washington.” This begs the question: What are those mechanics? Simple: corruption, back-scratching, glad-handing, ol’ boys clubs … all of the things non-politicos hate about American politics. If Biden, should he be elected, chooses not to fill his administration with the usual former industry executives, lawyers, and lobbyists, he will likely be making one of the most universally popular choices of any president in recent history.

There’s a perfect place for Biden to start, which would send a message that his administration-to-be will not operate like the horrifying cash grab of the Trump administration. Biden should commit to closing perhaps the most prominent revolving door of his former boss Barack Obama’s administration, that from the White House to Silicon Valley.

The politics of the tech industry have changed from the days when nearly 250 individuals flitted back and forth between employment at Google and the White House. Silicon Valley is despised today by both sides of the aisle, leading to nearly unprecedented interest in breaking up these modern-day tycoons. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust’s explosive confrontation with Big Tech CEOs last month drew out countless examples of the anti-competitive abuses built into each corporation’s business model, and set the recent high-water mark for how Congress can hold drivers of economic consolidation to account.

A future Biden administration has the opportunity to capitalize on this fervor. But naturally, the operatives who thought themselves safely ensconced in Silicon Valley after leaving the Obama White House aren’t so keen on their old boss causing problems for their new ones.

The New York Times exposed Big Tech’s infiltration of Biden’s transition teams last month, where at least eight employees from Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple are now “seeking to co-opt a potential Biden administration.” These include executives like Anant Raut, who investigated corporate mergers at both the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice before cashing in at the most notoriously merger-driven firm of our time, Facebook. Going from scrutinizing corporate consolidation to furthering it as Facebook’s global head of competition policy might seem unsavory to your average voter, but such people are just “detached from the mechanics of Washington.”

The Revolving Door Project has uncovered a pattern of former antitrust officials leaving public service for corporate gigs, and Raut’s trajectory is no different. While Facebook policy claims Raut advises the campaign on his own time, his employer is obviously poised to influence Biden’s future tech and antitrust policies in its own favor. And what makes Raut qualified to offer tech-focused antitrust advice to the campaign in the first place? The fact that he runs Facebook’s competition department, of course. Any attempts to extricate Raut from his employer are facile, just like any suggestion that Raut or others might be willing, in good faith, to consider the breakup of their own firms.

More recently, Politico reported that full-time staff on the Biden transition team, which will hold influence on much of the hiring in a future administration, include a couple of Big Tech luminaries. Jessica Hertz, a veteran of Obama’s Justice Department, worked as a director and associate general counsel for Facebook. And Cynthia Hogan, a top adviser for Biden’s vice-presidential search, was Apple’s lead lobbyist since 2016.

WilmerHale, the law and lobbying outfit that counts both Facebook and Apple as clients, also reportedly helped vet Biden’s potential vice-presidential candidates; employees at the firm contributed $160,255 to Biden’s presidential campaign this cycle, far more than for any other candidates, per Open Secrets. As we know, that VP search yielded Kamala Harris, whose Big Tech ties have been documented. Silicon Valley enthused at Harris’s selection.

Of course, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Biden’s campaign should heed progressives’ call to not appoint individuals with corporate conflicts of interest, including those from the tech sector. The Biden campaign, and a future administration, should enforce the idea that crafting public policy is a role for those who have an established loyalty to public good, not to the corporate interests that stuff their wallets between rounds of public service. There is no right to be an appointed official. The wealthy lobbyists of Silicon Valley will be just fine without prestigious government appointments—and Americans will be all the better for it.

2020 Election/TransitionTech

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