If recently leaked audio of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is any indication, Elizabeth Warren won’t be touring Facebook’s sprawling California campus any time soon. In uncharacteristically direct language, Zuckerberg slammed Warren’s call for better regulation of Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google, even threatening to sue the federal government should Warren win the White House next year.
“It’s like, we care about our country, and want to work with our government and do good things,” Zuckerberg said. “But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and fight."
For Warren, who has surged to the front of a crowded Democratic primary field in part by embracing unapologetically progressive positions, it’s hard to imagine a better campaign ad.
Zuckerberg’s argument reveals the shocking tone-deafness great wealth creates and sustains. His problem isn’t with Warren per se – Zuckerberg takes pains to express how much it would “suck” to sue the government – but with the idea that Warren isn’t interested in letting Facebook dictate the terms of its own regulation.
With nearly $66 billion to his name, Zuckerberg is the fifth richest person in the world, and he hasn’t been shy about using that money – and Facebook’s $12.6 million lobbying behemoth in Washington – to fend off previous attempts at oversight.
Sometimes those efforts work, as seen in Facebook’s successful effort to stymie state antitrust probes. But even when Facebook is punished, as it was by the FTC, who issued the company a record $5 billion fine in July 2019, the financial costs of misbehavior are a mere nuisance to a corporate titan worth nearly $500 billion.
Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.
On October 1, Warren used the media buzz surrounding Zuckerberg’s threats to announce a bold new plan to tax “excessive” corporate and foreign lobbying. Warren’s plan has the potential to cause a seismic shift in Washington power dynamics not seen since the end of the Second World War, when the trickle of lobbyist influence became a flood.
Corporate lobbying is a massive industry. According to Karl Evers-Hillstrom of the campaign finance tracking website OpenSecrets, corporations and countries spent over $3.4 billion bending the ears of legislators and government regulators in 2018, the largest spend in eight years.
Warren’s tax kicks in when a corporation spends over $500,000 annually on Washington influence campaigns, with tax rates starting at 35 per cent and increasing to 75 per cent for lobbying over $5 million. That puts Warren at odds with mammoths of Washington influence like Facebook ($12.5 million), Google ($21 million), the National Rifle Association ($5 million) and nations like Saudi Arabia, which spends $11.1 million annually on DC lobbyists.
Warren estimates that a lobbying tax would have generated over $10 billion in federal revenue over the past 10 years. And while that $10 billion is just a fraction of the federal budget, it would be enough to restore Trump administration cuts to essential social services like Meals on Wheels ($3 billion), which provides meals to homebound individuals. It would also negate Trump’s proposed $4.5 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps and nutrition assistance to children and the elderly.
While Silicon Valley plutocrats gather to decide how best to obstruct a Warren administration, there is growing evidence that her take-no-prisoners message is resonating with Democratic voters. The most recent Monmouth survey shows Warren vaulting into first place, with 28 per cent to Joe Biden’s 25 per cent. Warren also enjoys slim leads in New Hampshire (+1) and Iowa (+2).
Unlike polarized issues like Medicare-for-All, Warren’s swing at lobbyists and Soylent-chugging tech bros could garner bipartisan support. Out-of-control lobbying is one of the few issues both Republicans and Democrats condemn, but neither side has yet been willing to take decisive action. Taxing corporate lobbying becomes more appealing when that revenue is made available for legislators’ home-district pet projects.
Washington has also soured on Silicon Valley after a cascade of data breaches, potential election interference and condescension from tech’s multi-billionaire CEOs. One-time media darlings like Zuckerberg may not have the influence they believe, even with millions of dollars in corporate spin behind their arguments.
Elizabeth Warren’s battle with Mark Zuckerberg generated a raft of positive media attention for Warren and an opportunity to announce her ambitious plans to rein in runaway corporate influence. Whatever Zuckerberg’s intentions, his entitled, petty remarks only amplified press and activist attention around the massive influence wielded by tech’s unelected czars. Zuckerberg’s comments were, like so many attempts by Facebook to enter the political conversation, a spectacular backfire.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He appears on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns
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