Silicon Valley ambition seen as antidote to do-nothing Washington

By Janine Zacharia | October 21, 2013

It doesn’t matter that an 11th-hour deal was struck Wednesday night to end the government shutdown and extend the government’s borrowing power. These are short-term fixes, and we’ll be right back on the brink in a few weeks when government financing expires and borrowing authority runs out.

What’s plain from this depressing charade, one that will be revived in the coming months, is that Washington is broken. The nation’s politicians can’t get the most basic things done, and the more ambitious priorities on President Obama’s agenda – from immigration reform to reducing greenhouse gases – are going nowhere.

The redistricting that ushered in this new era of politically polarized lunacy has incapacitated our capital. Washington isn’t innovating. It isn’t evolving. It isn’t carrying out strategic thinking on how the U.S. economy is going to counterbalance the Chinese or how we are going to save our schools or how America is going to remain the world’s top cop or how – or if – we are going to save the planet.

Luckily, in a dramatic shift westward, Silicon Valley, our most prosperous and innovative region, is trying to fill some of the void.

Some successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are trying to effect change from within the system – either by running for office or lobbying in Washington. They’ve all reluctantly ramped up their D.C. presence over the past five years, knowing that they need to be there to protect their business interests.

What’s more interesting is the ways in which Silicon Valley is trying to leapfrog Washington, and the extent to which it can supplant the nation’s capital in arenas that have traditionally been within the federal government’s purview.

It’s not just that Silicon Valley innovators are using technology to create better delivery systems of information. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs-turned-policymakers are thinking through ways to curb guns and teach computer science, combat greenhouse gases and modernize our outdated modes of transportation.

“Something new has come about,” said Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission turned technology consultant. “The new generation of leaders in the valley is much more interested in public policy than their predecessors.”

Hundt, who lives in Bethesda, Md., just outside the Washington Beltway, has logged 2 million United Airlines miles shuttling between Washington and Palo Alto over the past two decades. He has a standing room at the Stanford Park Hotel.

“A generation ago, every CEO would have said, ‘Washington is taking care of itself. I don’t want anything to do with them, and I don’t want them to have anything to do with me,’ ” Hundt said. “Today they are saying: ‘I’m going to try to do the right thing in my company. But I also have opinions about the right things for the country.’ And they’re willing to speak them out loud. People are much more forthright, much more creative, much more willing to use the skills that make them a business success to be leaders in society.”

As anyone who lives here knows, people can sometimes speak of their capabilities and ambitions in messianic terms. Google executive Megan Smith, in a recent talk, likened valley entrepreneurs to 1960s civil rights leaders.

Skeptics in Washington, if they take note at all, regard this as egotistical idealism or naive hubris. As a former Obama administration official told me, “Underlying that belief, ‘I’m successful, I should be able to fix this,’ is that everyone else who has worked on that problem for 30 years is stupid.”

I echo some of the cynicism. I’m a Washington creature, a political junkie with a passionate interest in foreign affairs, which, when I moved to California not long ago, few seemed to share. The mantra seemed to be: I don’t even want to know how Washington works because it’s too slow.

But, after the most recent display of damaging government ineptitude, I’m being converted. Even the sharpest cynic can’t ignore the valley’s record of success. The ambitions here are too bold to ignore, the resources too significant to discount.

In 2012, Silicon Valley became No. 1 in presidential fundraising, outraising Los Angeles and New York. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is the largest community foundation by total giving nationwide. Today, I feel like rooting for innovation and success more than retrograde, paralyzing, Tea Party-driven division. In a nod to the latter, a demonstrator hoisted a Confederate flag outside the White House during the shutdown. As Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz said during a visit to Stanford University, Washington hasn’t been this polarized since post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Of course, frustration with Washington bureaucracy didn’t start now. Lots of dynamic techies threw up their hands long before the current cataclysm. Kim Scott, a former senior policy adviser at the Federal Communications Commission, now working as a management consultant for Twitter, is one example. “I can’t work in government,” she said. “I’ve got to do stuff.”

As a result, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has a hard time convincing her public policy students at UC Berkeley to go into public service. “Why,” they ask her, “would we go and try to get a job in D.C., where nothing is getting done or worse-than-nothing is getting done, when the action is in the private sector? These are the people who are making a difference in people’s lives.’ ”

Washington, she said, “is becoming completely irrelevant.”

The obstructionist wing of the Republican Party, she continued, has “held Washington captive and caused the private sector and local government to ascend.” “Governors are trying to become very creative in the same way that the private sector is filling a lot of the gap.”

It is perhaps not surprising that California’s governor is the shining example. Just look at how many bills Jerry Brown has signed to help undocumented immigrants in the state. “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said. “I’m not waiting.”

If there’s one area where you’d think Washington would still have a lock on things, it would be foreign affairs. World leaders still visit Washington, obviously. But a state visit is just not what it used to be. And today, a visit to Silicon Valley can be just as important. As a result of its global rise, the valley, it seems, has felt empowered to engage in diplomacy, too.

“Good evening, President. Are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted to@HassanRouhani, Iran’s new president, earlier this month as the White House was still debating how deeply to engage with the new leader who demonstrated an odd penchant for tweeting during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

Later that day,@HassanRouhani replied to@Jack: “my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.” Dorsey retweeted Rouhani’s reply, thanked him, and asked him to “Please let us know how we can help to make it a reality.”

In June, as Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Los Angeles, it was Jerry Brown who greeted him at the airport. President Obama, at that moment, was dashing between fundraisers with entrepreneurs in Palo Alto.

Three months later, Brown and China’s top climate negotiator signed the first agreement between a U.S. state and China to jointly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Washington paralysis has stymied meaningful federal progress on climate change. Obama had to cancel a crucial trip to Asia because of the federal government shutdown. And the Chinese state-run news service, Xinhua, has called for “the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”

Obviously, Silicon Valley cannot supplant the federal government, nor should we want it to. And despite the Tea Party’s ardent efforts, government is not going away. Silicon Valley might be able to design an app to streamline food inspections, but we still need a Food and Drug Administration to administer them. We still need someone to collect taxes, man an army and pay our national debts. Libertarianism, whether the Tea Party variety or the liberal-minded Silicon Valley kind, has its limits in the real world.

But these entrepreneurs turned policymakers have the means to effect change. As they’ve revolutionized the way people communicate, they can develop fresh ideas to solve society’s most pernicious ills, ones Washington has proven, sadly, it can’t fix because of political divisions. Silicon Valley giants have, in some ways, more potential power than Washington just from their revered status in our tech-obsessed consumer society. Imagine a poll: “Which is doing a better job at satisfying your needs as a citizen, your iPad or Congress?”

The big question isn’t what can be accomplished here. It’s how long are Silicon Valley’s leaders willing to stick with their newfound public service mission, and how far are they willing to go?

Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post reporter, teaches journalism at Stanford University.