This Billionaire Trump Backer Is the Face of Inequality


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Association for Computational Linguistics

When we try to fathom inequality and how it affects our society, we usually turn to graphs and data. But people’s stories help, too. This week Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of Robert Mercer, “The Reclusive Hedge Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” provides a different path towards understanding the sociopolitical dysfunction that extreme inequality can cause.

Mercer is a taciturn libertarian hedge fund leader who loves guns and model trains, doesn’t believe in climate change but does believe in the gold standard, and backs crackpot research into human life extension, along with Breitbart News, in which he’s a key investor. But unlike so many others of his ilk, such as the Koch brothers, he’s not an oil man. A data scientist and expert in computational linguistics, he turned his experience in pattern-finding from language translation to equities trading in the ’90s. He’s a geek who hates the government — even though it backed some of his early research.

Renaissance, the hedge fund his code helped build, made him a billionaire. And now that we live in a post-Citizens United nation that places no limits on the influence billionaires can wield, he has used his fortune freely to reshape U.S. politics. His candidate, Mitt Romney, failed to unseat President Obama in 2012, but in 2016, after his preferred Republican, Ted Cruz, lost the primaries, he backed the Trump campaign, and by midsummer people close to him and his firebrand daughter, Rebekah Mercer, were running it — most notably, Steve Bannon. Now, they’re running the country.

Mercer’s story is a reminder that inequality is not just a statistic. It’s a dynamic force that, unchecked, reshapes institutions and conventions around the beliefs and whims of hyper-empowered individuals. The next time you hear Trump’s movement described as “populist,” remember that the people it serves first are the Mercers and their gang.

Uber President: Drop Me Off Here, Please

Uber’s travails continue: A top executive — president Jeff Jones, who joined the company from Target less than a year ago to buff its image — is leaving. And not quietly (Kara Swisher in Recode). “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber,” Jones’ statement read in part.

The departure comes on top of weeks of controversy and scandal over CEO Travis Kalanick’s closeness to the Trump administration, allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, revelations of the company’s use of a software tool to evade government oversight, and a video of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver.

Kalanick has announced he’s searching to hire a COO as a number two who can help dig him out of all this trouble. A Sunday New York Times feature also details the efforts of veteran venture investor Bill Gurley to steer the company in a safer direction. But whatever else it may be, Uber is a true platform business — and that means its fate will ultimately be decided by the millions of choices individuals make whether the company deserves their business and their labor.

How Satya Nadella Moved Microsoft’s Needle

It’s hard to transform the culture of a giant company — but it’s possible. Consider the story of Satya Nadella, who took over Microsoft as its first non-founder CEO in 2014 and has since made quite a difference there (The Economist). Windows and Office remain the company’s profit centers, but they are no longer its driving forces. Microsoft’s Azure cloud business is now a big priority, along with new hardware and artificial-intelligence investments, and decisions are no longer governed by a “does it help or hurt Windows?” calculus.

To some extent it’s a kinder, gentler Microsoft Nadella has engineered, more willing to listen to others and more open about collaborating. But it’s also true that the company had little choice in the transformation. The world was changing around Microsoft anyway, with mobile operating systems that Microsoft does not control playing an ever-more-central role in our lives.

Nadella knows that his job is to lead Microsoft safely out of the decline of its empire into a future that it must share with others. So far, he’s making a good go of battleship-turning.

Automation Makes a Good Case for the Safety Net

If automation does just some of the damage to employment that economists are predicting, we’re going to need a more effective government-funded social safety net to make sure newly unemployed workers don’t suffer or fall through the cracks (Maya Rockeymoore in NewCo Shift).

People who lose their jobs need help retraining, maybe relocating, paying their bills while they navigate that transition, and holding onto some form of healthcare insurance so they’re able to keep working when work arrives. Yet these are the very kinds of services and supports that the Trump administration’s budget proposes to cut back or eliminate. That’s not just heartless; it’s foolish.

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