The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories
Ever since Bill Clinton tapped Al Gore to “reinvent government” along business-savvy lines, every new administration has ritually announced the same kind of effort: We will form a commission, and it will tap the collective genius of the American corporate world, and we will use that know-how to modernize the public sector’s backward bureaucracies!
Now it’s Donald Trump’s turn. His son-in-law, real-estate heir Jared Kushner, will lead the new White House Office of American Innovation (The Washington Post). It will be “a SWAT team of strategic consultants…staffed by former business executives and designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements.” The list of the office’s advisers is tech-heavy, including names like Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Mark Benioff, and Elon Musk, and the work is expected to focus on privatization of services and functions now performed directly by the government.
Most people with business experience hear “SWAT team of strategic consultants” and run for the hills. They know it usually means expensive outsiders with little “domain expertise” (that is, they don’t know much about the actual business) brought in to cut costs, outsource functions, and slash payrolls.
In the case of the new White House office, that kind of ignorance seems to be embedded in the operation from the start. “The government should be run like a great American company,” Kusher said in the office’s announcement. “Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”
On Twitter, a million exasperated citizens pointed out that, when it comes to government, we citizens are more like the board or the shareholders than the customers. Kushner, Trump, and company work for us — or at least, they’re supposed to — even if we only get the chance to fire them every four years.
Yes, the federal government does spend a boatload on information technology — $90 billion a year — and there’s tons of waste in those budgets waiting to be rooted out. But as any big corporation that’s been bruised by consultants can tell you, the people who are best suited to efficiently modernize infotech systems are those who already understand them and know how to improve processes without breaking them.
Ironically, this is the approach already underway in the work of the tech brain trust assembled by the Obama administration in organizations like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. Let’s hope the industry leaders summoned to Trump’s table keep reminding Kushner that these groups exist — and already have a lot of reinvention under their belts.
Unions Find More Interest in Silicon Valley
The Trump administration’s policies may have achieved something once thought impossible: made unions look attractive to Silicon Valley’s workers (Michael Coren in Quartz). Unions have already made some headway in organizing small online media companies. But mostly, the tech industry has hung on to a “no unions” attitude that it has long credited for keeping its operations nimble and its costs down as it evolved from chip factories to personal computers to internet startups and cloud services.
The union movement originally emerged to give powerless workers a voice in manufacturing, agriculture and other industries that treated them as a disposable commodity. Many tech workers already enjoy more leverage and freedom within their companies, thanks to their own in-demand skills, the prevalence of equity-sharing programs, and the startup world’s dislike of hierarchy.
But the movement to oppose tech companies’ collaboration with President Trump, on initiatives like his Muslim-targeted travel bans or his border wall, has awakened a new labor consciousness in Silicon Valley that could outlive today’s headlines. Unlike its historic predecessors, a union movement in tech would be less focused on raising pay than on raising ethical standards — holding companies accountable to employees’ ideals. Already, Quartz notes, “Professional unions are now the fastest growing segment of the AFL-CIO.”
Douthat to Cities: Drop Dead
The last governments to try emptying the cities of their argumentative populations and send them out to the countryside were Asian Communist parties led by Mao and Pol Pot. So it’s a little strange to see this idea refloated as a trial balloon on the American right as it contemplates how to break the growing power of progressive-minded urban populations in the U.S.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that our big cities have become homogeneously rich enclaves of cloistered, government-subsidized malcontents. In a piece that Douthat admits is “implausible, perhaps even ridiculous” but that he has nonetheless published, he writes: “We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good.”
It’s a too-clever-by-half argument that takes some real concerns about inequality and smothers them in a pile of distortions and hyperbole. (E.g.: the subsidies Douthat says we should withdraw from cities already flow the other way, from rich liberal states and cities to the rural heartland.) Douthat proposes spreading out the federal government from Washington to “poorer states and cities that need revitalization.” Well, sure — but isn’t that just a different way of expanding the public payroll, which conservatives hate? He wants to use tax incentives to drive nonprofits, the media, and universities away from New York and San Francisco and toward places like Michigan and Mississippi. It’s unclear what happens to the organizations and schools that are already there.)
Maybe the whole piece is intended as a kind of Swiftian “Modest Proposal” satire of liberal programs? The debate on the right has become so convoluted it’s impossible to tell.