A familiar sheen of sweat coated Mark Zuckerberg's forehead yesterday when James Bennet, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, asked the CEO of Facebook to place himself on the political spectrum. "Liberal conservative, Libertarian, Democrat, Republican, or something else?" asked Bennet.
"So um, I dunno. I think it’s hard to affiliate as being either a Democrat or Republican. I’m pro-knowledge economy," Zuckerberg replied, finally settling on the most platitudinous answer possible (around 16 minutes in).
It's hard to take issue with a #brave stance like "pro-knowledge." But before he arrived at that noncommittal response, Zuck went on a meandering diatribe that began with society's move away from an agrarian economy and then wandered into the zero-sum game of owning oil fields, before landing on a plug for his latest self-serving project, Internet.org.
Zuckerberg's personal political beliefs are important because he has invested and solicited millions of dollars for FWD.us, a secretive politically-active non-profit (sometimes called a stealth PAC) that is trying to influence the way immigration legislation is written. In fact, Zuckerberg was in Washington D.C. yesterday to meet with House Republicans about immigration reform.
But when Bennet asked him to explain why FWD.us funded political ads that went after Obamacare and promoted oil drilling, Facebook's CEO was similarly evasive. The ads were an expensive bit of back-scratching to get Republicans to back FWD's immigration crusade. However, Zuckerberg once again avoided the questions, painting FWD as an apolitical, benevolent force just trying to get government to move faster.
Just taking the Silicon Valley perspective, um, you know a senior Democrat would never want to necessarily be associated with something that was funding Republicans. And Republicans similarly. So FWD.us isn’t actually one group, it’s three groups. There’s a mother group that does the policy work and the overall advocacy, and then there’s a Republican group that’s helping to support Republicans who are pushing for immigration reform and there’s a Democrat group that’s helping to push for issues that are trying to support immigration reform. We’re doing both. And it’s interesting, you know, it’s kind of crazy to think that nothing like that has been done before. It’s a novel structure. There’s some kinks to work out.
The structure may be new, but trying to appease both sides of the aisle for your own personal gain is hardly a "novel" approach. Just look at political contributions from Microsoft, Google, or even Facebook's own PAC, established in 2011 to help avoid the anti-trust investigations from the FTC that had plagued its competitors. Russ Choma, an investigative journalist for the Center for Responsive Politics, told Valleywag:
"You do get some industries where there is a definite partisan leaning—oil/gas, for example always goes Republican, for obvious reasons. But a lot of industries and businesses try to give evenly so they can stay on everyone's good side, OR if they favor one side or another, it tends to be favoritism towards the incumbent. Wall Street, for example, bounced for a long time between Republicans and Democrats, tending to side with the people who were in power or seemed most likely to retain it. It's only recently that Wall Street has turned definitively towards Republicans. That's always a very big motivator, it seems—sticking with the people you already know."
Like we've been saying, the big difference between Wall Street and tech is turning out to be the rhetoric, not the practices.
Here's the speech leading up to Zuck's controversial "pro-knowledge economy" stance.
My view on this stuff is that we’re in the middle of this big economic transition for the world. So there’s a transition from being a primarily an agrarian or agriculture society into primarily an industrial society. And now I think we’re in the next kind of big shift towards a knowledge economy, which of course doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be industrial stuff or agriculture. I mean of course there is. It’s just the question of what is the primary mode through which most of the work and productivity that happens in society happens. So, um, the biggest difference—just if you were zooming up to the 100,000 ft. level—between an industrial or resource-based economy and a knowledge economy is that industrial and resource-based approaches are inherently more zero-sum. Right? I mean if I own an oil field, you can't own that same oil field, right? I mean like that’s a pretty fundamental thing. So you get in some countries this dynamic where the people who have all the wealth are trying to preserve that and not necessarily doing stuff that’s going to be more broadly best for everyone. Knowledge economies have the productive property, which is that me knowing something doesn’t prevent you from knowing it. So the more information that you share, the more informed everyone is, the better ideas can generally spread. If you have an idea I can benefit from that and it ends up being positive sum. So, um, in terms of where like everything that I focus on, I’m pro knowledge economy, right? So at Facebook we’re trying to solve the problem of helping people share and access more information and, um, stay connected with more people and kind of help be a better social fabric. We’re helping to push the Internet and we announced this Internet.org initiative. Surprisingly few people in the world have access to the Internet. It’s a little more than a third of the people in the world have any Internet access. I mean from the world we live in, you’d assume it was everyone, but it’s not. And, sure, there are more pressing issues for some folks, if you don't have food or water. But the internet is a backbone for the knowledge economy is going to be really important for delivering all those things over time. Then there are a bunch of things I can’t do as part of Facebook, right? So I’m tying to either do through philanthropy or I’m trying to learn about the political process to hopefully be able to influence. So education is obviously a big part of the knowledge economy. Because the currency in the knowledge economy is being able to have ideas and think. And training the next generation of folks to be able to do that is, I think, one of the most important things that we’re doing. And immigration is I think a really big issue because in order to be productive, you want to get the best folks into the country and solving those policies is I think is a big deal.
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[Image and video via The Atlantic]