If your spokesperson says that Davos, the annual World Economic Forum gathering of wealthy elites in Switzerland, is where you get many of your ideas from, you need to be as far away from politics as possible.
Instead, Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor, is running in the 2018 California gubernatorial race.
The former two-term San Francisco mayor is one of the frontrunners for next year’s elections, after having served as second-in-line to the governor for nearly seven years.
In his attempts to expand his outreach as much as possible, Newsom is pushing himself as a politician for the the working class. In fact, he told UC Berkeley computer science students in this year’s commencement speech that the technology industry is creating wealth disparities, and encouraged them to exercise their “moral authority” in their careers.
Those are rich words coming from Newsom.
Newsom has deep links to the wealthiest individuals of the technology industry. He’s openly supported enforcing fewer regulations on start-ups like Uber, has taken massive contributions from such companies and uses his political sway to advocate for his donors’ causes. His approach when it comes to technology largely takes care of his elite tech-industry friends, not the everyday Californians he claims to represent.
Newsom needs to recognize the limits on the potential of start-ups and technology to fix California’s pressing problems, as well as their sometimes negative effects on the state, such as driving up housing prices and displacing working-class communities. Simply backing the spirit of entrepreneurship will not guarantee innovation and benefits for everyone, and taking those idealistic thoughts into the governor’s office won’t reliably deliver results for Californians.
The lieutenant governor’s philosophy toward the tech industry and entrepreneurship is that the government needs to step aside and let the industry flourish. This isn’t necessarily a wrong approach, but the specifics are hazy. In his book “Citizenville,” he explains through buzzwords how technology can give citizens more influence over governance.
This is a misunderstanding of the way technology works. As he partially conceded at Berkeley, technology can advantage those of greater socio-economic power over those without it. Companies like Airbnb and Uber, which use legal loopholes to knock competitors off the grid or exploit low-wage workers, show us this disparity. You therefore can’t expect the industry to reliably solve society’s problems on its own.
Newsom’s political record, however, shows he doesn’t understand that.
Take a look at the overambitious projects he attempted when he was mayor of San Francisco. In 2009, inspired by a trip to Paris, he launched a bike-sharing program consisting of just 50 bikes that would have cost $1 million to implement. Newsom, however, was too obsessed with the idea of the program, and ignored its blatant impracticalities. In the end, the program didn’t materialize because its corporate sponsor pulled out.
And back in 2004, he proposed a plan to establish free Wi-Fi throughout his city. The plan eventually died after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors stalled the project over accessibility and privacy concerns, and the company responsible for the rollout faced financial issues.
Clearly, tech industry companies aren’t as reliable as Newsom might claim.
Newsom’s infatuation with the tech sector also comes through in his record of pursuing donors’ interests. When officials were slow to approve a $45 million parking garage and bridge in San Diego that would destroy a historical landmark, they received a letter from Newsom asking they withdraw their comments about the project’s issues and start working on it. The backer of the project was one of telecom equipment company Qualcomm’s founders Irwin Jacobs, who donated to Newsom’s campaign a month later.
And then there’s the short-term rental service Airbnb, whose employees have donated to Newsom over the years and given him more than $200,000 for the 2018 gubernatorial race alone. In 2014, the University of California sent out a notice advising employees to avoid using services such as Airbnb and ride-hailing business Uber over concerns about such services having few consumer protections. Three days later, it clarified it was only reviewing its policy toward these services. By then, however, Newsom was already on the attack for Airbnb, criticizing the decision in a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano.
The lieutenant governor, rather than a company representative, leading the rapid response for Airbnb is disconcerting. As its operation grows in size, Airbnb could exacerbate California’s ongoing housing crisis by reducing the supply of housing significantly enough to increase rent prices. Should he become governor, Newsom would need to leave his apparent job as Airbnb’s cheerleader to impose more regulations on the company.
It would be a problem for the state if donations from tech employees and Newsom’s blind faith in the short-term employment gig-economy’s abilities to help society became factors in his decisions. Moreover, his wait-and-approach style for dealing with problems arising from companies like Uber and Airbnb ignores the problems they are creating right now in California, such as replacing low-wage workers with machinery and unseating competitors with unregulated prices.
Donations do not always translate to influence. But Newsom’s overt support of start-ups as California’s saviors appears disconnected from the reality that tech start-ups can be hit-and-miss pursuits. Technology, while useful, is hardly an irreproachable answer for everything, despite how Newsom’s airy talk makes it seem. His disregard for corporate rules and regulations seems more fit to represent Silicon Valley elites than the common man.
After all, ideas that sound great in a lavish ballroom in Davos might not be so game-changing when implemented in the real world.