Franklin Foer's perceptive and dystopian book misunderstands the real threats posed by Big Tech.
Before making its unusual joint endorsement of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, The New York Times held ninety-minute, on-the-record interviews with nine candidates for President. Technically, the endorsement is only for the Democratic nomination, but the Times has not endorsed a Republican for President for over 60 years. The interviews generally were not very illuminating about the candidates. As Alex Tabarrok observed, if the Times wanted to get real insight beyond public campaign posturing, it would have been far more useful to hold off-the-record interviews. But the transcripts do reveal the worldview of the New York Times’ editorial board and, by extension, much of the elite media.
The Times’ editorial board shows that it is unconcerned with economic growth or paying for government programs. But it is obsessed with the markers of identity politics, like a candidate’s stance on reparations and the number of people of various ethnicities employed by campaigns. It is suspicious of anyone who has even briefly been associated with for-profit companies, and it particularly dislikes Facebook, the great competitor of the old media. In short, the New York Times’ vetting process projects the society its preferred policies would create: a static, zero-sum economy with divisive jockeying for position and power between identity groups. High rhetoric on behalf of the public good masks the ideological preferences, self-interest, and envy of journalists.
The Economy: Don’t Grow—Just Redistribute
Economic growth is a great social good. It raises people out of poverty and is correlated with longer life and greater happiness. Even if you believe that the state should engage in progressive redistribution of income and provide important social services, growth remains important because that growth permits more distribution and better services. And you do not have to be a libertarian to fear that some Democratic economic programs will greatly hamper the economy. Higher corporate taxes, wealth taxes, and a heavy general tax burden can threaten economic growth. So can the high levels of regulation being proposed for the financial industry and others.
Yet the board never asked any questions of any of the Democratic candidates about growth. They did not even ask Elizabeth Warren, one of their preferred candidates, about how some of her proposals resulting in over 100 percent tax rates on some incomes would affect growth, although it is certain that effort or investment taxed at 100 percent would disappear. Nor did they focus on the cost of the huge government programs many proposed.
One candidate, Tom Steyer, did spontaneously bring up the importance of economic growth, and the discussion that ensued was revealing. (Full disclosure: Steyer was a high school classmate and is a friend of mine, although we have never agreed on much). Instead of pursuing the subject and its importance at length, the board pivoted to “the levers of wealth inequality,” suggesting that finance (not coincidentally Steyer’s line of work) created inequality but contributed nothing to economic growth in the late 20th century. This proposition is obviously false, as Steyer pointed out. Whatever the excesses of finance may be, and whatever the need to control them through regulation, allocating capital remains essential to economic efficiency and growth.
Disparaging the Private Sector
The board gave a hard time to only three of the candidates about their résumés—Steyer, Buttigieg, and Yang. In all three cases, its concerns only revolved around their work with for-profit companies. Their worries about Buttigieg were particularly telling. One might well be concerned that Buttigieg’s experience of being the mayor of a city of 100,000 residents does not qualify him to be the president of a nation of 300 million people. But instead the questions about his qualifications focused on his work with McKinsey as a junior consultant right out of college. The board was concerned, for instance, that McKinsey works on consulting reports which result in cost-cutting and layoffs (as if businesses can easily thrive if they are overstaffed and inefficient).
In contrast, the board never raised any questions about the lack of business or economic experience of those who spent most of their lives on the public payroll. For the Times, being a legislator or a professor brings with it the presumption of fitness for the Presidency, but participation in business carries a presumption of unfitness.
Reparations for slavery would be the most divisive political program—in both concept and execution—that America has seen in decades. It is based on a principle that those living today are responsible for wrongs committed centuries before, even if their ancestors did not even live in United States at the time. It is also hard to think of a policy that would be better designed to create political backlash. Yet the board jumped on candidates, like Joe Biden, who have not committed to a reparations program. And it asked no hard questions of those, like Elizabeth Warren, who have.
The board’s enthusiasm for identity politics often descended from the momentous to the relatively unimportant. They quizzed Buttigieg about how many African Americans were on his campaign staff and Bernie Sanders about how many women. They wanted to quiz Steyer on his asylum policy specifically for LGBQT people, although Steyer could not even remember that he had one.
The focus on identity politics is the flip side of the board’s indifference to economic growth. Economic growth expands the pie. Identity politics in the form of reparations or employment preferences is a divisive, zero-sum game.
Attacking New Media
The board is also hostile to big tech. They even asked some candidates whether they were members of Amazon Prime, as if this were evidence of complicity in evil. But while the board focused on the possible benefits of breaking up big tech in general, Facebook was clearly the object of its greatest ire. In one interview, a Board member suggests that Facebook is a threat to democracy.
It’s much more obvious that it is threat to institutions like the New York Times. Its influence comes from letting others offer their opinions through their posts and advertisements. This mechanism for decentralized messaging undermines the hegemony of the old media—especially the influence of their political endorsements.
There are other revealing moments in the questioning. One member uses the Orwellian phrase “mandatory buybacks” to talk about gun confiscation. Another casually suggests that the death penalty “evolved out of lynching.” (I am not a general enthusiast for the death penalty, but this is certainly an ahistorical caricature.) No one questioned Elizabeth Warren about her appropriation of a false ethnic identity to advance her career. The only “constitutional right” the board seems to care about is that to abortion. But overall what is most striking is how little the Times has learned from the defeat of Hillary Clinton: it is doubling down on the policies and cultural attitudes that led to the improbable victory of Donald Trump.