Silicon Valley’s deep-pocketed lobbyists and outspoken netizens are conspicuously absent from the debate over a government shutdown that could cripple the U.S. economy. Activists from the tech industry fight for immigrants, startups, gay rights, voter turnout, scientific funding, education, presidential hopefuls and national disaster victims. So, why not get involved in the shutdown fight? Because, the U.S. Congress is a train wreck and there are no innovative solutions to partisanship.
The very nature of Congress is a two-player, zero-sum game. There’s little incentive for both parties to work collaboratively on novel ideas, since it could potentially help the other side win more seats. Moreover, members of the House of Representatives have methodically carved out hyper-partisan districts that re-elect incumbents more than 80 percent of the time.
There are radical system-wide changes that could make Congress as collaborative as some western European governments (“consensus democracies“). But, barring a complete overhaul, the government will continue to descend into increased partisanship and poor productivity.
Activists from the Silicon Valley area tend to get all politically hot and bothered under two conditions: policy impacts innovation and there’s a novel technical solution.
For instance, Silicon Valley lobbyists were largely absent from the surveillance-happy cyber security bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). CISPA threatened the Fourth Amendment, but not innovation, so there was little uproar.
In areas where clever hackers can come up with an innovative idea, Silicon Valley folks rush to center stage. Google’s Eric Schmidt helped Obama think about his digital strategy, Change.org rallied tech people for gay marriage with online petitions. Wikipedia blacked out its site over piracy legislation and Google created maps to help natural-disaster victims. All of these ideas worked splendidly.
But, there are no innovative solutions to partisanship, because it’s the system itself that’s the problem. And, as Lydia Depillis from the Washington Post found, since angel investors aren’t impacted by short-term economic shocks, shuttering the government for a few weeks doesn’t raise any hairs.
Moreover, even the most powerful Silicon Valley players aren’t terribly good at lobbying without the force of a novel technical solution, especially against House Republicans. Mark Zuckerberg has personally made the rounds in D.C. to advance his pet political project of comprehensive immigration reform, but the issue hasn’t progressed an inch. Silicon Valley has a poor track record (recently) of influencing nationally salient legislation through brute-force lobbying alone.
Techies like to use their brains. But the shutdown is a shouting match; Silicon Valley has nothing to add.