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Andrew Yang's debate-stage announcement that he would give 10 American families $1,000 per month to test his plan for universal basic income sparked Twitter jokes, legal questions and even accusations that the tech entrepreneur-turned-presidential candidate is trying to buy votes. But Yang's risky strategy resonated with at least one group -- venture capitalists.
Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit and managing partner of the venture capital firm Initialized Capital, offered to pay the money out of his own pocket if campaign finance law prevents Yang from using campaign donations to fund the program:
Hey @AndrewYang I like this idea so much I'll do it personally for those 10 people if you can't.— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) September 13, 2019
We talk about the future of AI often at @Initialized -- our nation needs to start exploring ways to adapt to the massive automation shift that's already happening. https://t.co/Q952shkWfs
Roy Bahat, the head of venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, applauded Yang for trying this strategy to raise awareness about universal basic income.
"I think it's great that a candidate is calling for experimenting, and experimenting with something bold," Bahat, who focuses on the future of work, told me. "How else can we learn what works?"
The arguments in Silicon Valley are often far removed from what's taking place on the political debate stage during a presidential primary. But Yang's unique campaign -- which has been compared to a tech startup itself -- is acting as a bridge.
The rise of artificial intelligence has permeated almost every discussion in Silicon Valley for years, and venture capitalists have raised concerns that Washington lawmakers aren't paying enough attention to the seismic shift new forms of automation will bring to the U.S. economy and American workers. Yang is using his time on the campaign trail to put the issue directly in the national spotlight.
His announcement last night ensured the idea got some shine even when campaign moderators were not at all focused on it. Tech issues received nary a mention in last night's debate, except for a few brief references to intellectual property theft in China.
Yang has built his entire campaign around his central proposal for what he calls a "Freedom Dividend," or a universal basic income that would provide every American adult with $1,000 per month. The idea of a universal basic income has gained traction in Silicon Valley, where prominent techies like Marc Andreessen and Tim O'Reilly have expressed support for such a system. Some venture capitalists like Bahat are closely watching a pilot in Stockton, Calif., where randomly selected residents are being given $500 a month.
Yang's campaign has also drawn support from prominent Silicon Valley figures who are developing or investing in the very artificial intelligence Yang is warning could create new challenges for the U.S. economy. Elon Musk, the billionaire executive running Tesla and SpaceX, recently endorsed Yang on Twitter. Yang's campaign website has an entire page dedicated to tech entrepeneurs and executives that have donated $1,000 or more to his campaign, including former Y Combinator president Sam Altman, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin.
But while Silicon Valley may be taking Yang's proposals seriously, he faces an uphill challenge in convincing the political establishment. Last night as he unveiled his plan on the debate stage, Mayor Pete Buttigieg responded, "It’s original, I’ll give you that."
Michael Avenatti, celebrity lawyer and Trump critic, criticized the plan as a gimmick:
And just like that, Andrew Yang craters any chance he had. What is this, a lottery? A game show? #RidiculousStunt— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) September 13, 2019
And Trump ally and lawyer Rudolph Giuliani slammed the plan and raised concerns about its legality:
Dems have gone nuts. Yang wants to give people $1,000 each from his campaign funds. What? It’s illegal. This is why Progressives (Retrogressives) ruin cities almost always. The best thing you can say they have no common sense. They are too dangerous to govern.— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) September 13, 2019
The legality of Yang's plan has come under intense scrutiny as several campaign finance attorneys raised concerns about the sweepstakes-like distribution of campaign funds. Yang's spokesman told my colleagues that they consulted with an attorney who approved the plan. The payments are considered a campaign expense because they are “being made to further the goals of the campaign, he said.
But other legal experts aren't so sure. From the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center on Twitter:
“Campaign donors give their hard-earned money to fund campaign activities & the law makes clear that paying personal expenses is not a campaign activity." @CampaignLegal's @AdavNoti https://t.co/FAFydyL4YC— Campaign Legal Center (@CampaignLegal) September 13, 2019
Despite the backlash, Yang told ABC reporters after the debate that giving 10 families $1,000 a month is the "most powerful illustration of what this campaign's all about, which is putting economic resources into Americans' hands."
He told reporters voters should take him seriously because they can already see the impact automation is having in their towns, where stores are shutting down because they can't compete with Amazon. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
"I'm talking about very very serious problems and of course they going to get more serious in the days and months to come," Yang said.
BITS: The bipartisan House investigation into competition in the tech industry escalated this morning. Lawmakers asked Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to hand over key documents -- including top executives' private communications, my colleague Tony Romm reports.
House Judiciary Committee lawmakers called the companies "to share detailed information about their internal operations, including copies of key communications between top-level executives about potential merger targets and records related to 'any prior investigation' they have faced on competition grounds," Tony writes.
NIBBLES: U.S. officials, including at the FBI, are probing possible financial misconduct at venture capital firm, Mithril Capital, co-founded by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, Recode's Theodore Schleifer reports. The investigation represents a rare instance of government scrutiny into the widely unregulated world of venture capital and a potential embarrassment for Trump ally Thiel.
"This federal probe is just the latest — but most significant — problem for the firm, which has increasingly struggled with internal tensions, declining morale, and employee departures," Schleifer reports. Cambridge Associates, which directed some clients to invest in Mithril, is also looking into the firm's conduct; investors, which included the MacArthur Foundation and Temasek, have expressed concerns directly to Thiel, who has been relatively silent about the controversy.
“This is a foiled plot by a self-serving ex-employee. There are no allegations from any government agency, or any [investor.]," a Mithril spokesperson told Recode. "Nevertheless, our attorneys are in contact with government authorities in order to protect [investors], employees, and portfolio companies against any extortionate behavior.”
BYTES: Federal regulators are ordering Google to notify employees of their rights to speak out on political and workplace issues, and otherwise notify employees of a change in rules that had limited sharing of confidential information internally and with the media,” Rob Copeland at the Wall Street Journal reports.
The order settles complaints brought to the National Labor Review Board by former Google employee Kevin Cernekee that he was discriminated against and ultimately fired for his conservative viewpoints and a second, unnamed current employee. Cernekee’s claims drew attention from President Trump, who tweeted his support for the former employee and said he was “watching Google very closely.”
"The NLRB’s settlement is a victory for Google inasmuch as it doesn’t make a formal determination about whether Google was in the wrong," writes Rob. Cernekee’s request for backpay and to get his job back were not met by the settlement. Both complainants plan to challenge the settlement, Rob reports.
-- Apple has amended privacy changes that would have prevented developers who market their apps to children from displaying ads and collecting analytics on their users, my colleague Reed Albergotti reports. Developers originally lambasted the changes to The Post last month, saying they would harm businesses that already had safeguards for child privacy and demonstrated Apple's unchecked influence over the app industry.
Under the revised rules, analytics software will be permitted if it doesn't transfer any identifiable user data; advertising will have to be vetted first. The company introduced the original changes in June in response to parent concern, it says. Apple said it would reconsider the rules after the Post reported on the matter.
“We appreciate Apple listening to the kid tech community and developing policies that benefit kids while supporting the growth of responsible developers in this space," Gerald Youngbold, the developer of a kid-safe YouTube alternative Tankee, said of the changes to Reed.
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— Coming soon:
- The Senate Judiciary Committee will host an oversight hearing on the enforcement of antitrust laws Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time
- The Senate Commerce Committee will has a hearing on "Mass Violence, Extremism, and Digital Responsiblity" with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee will host a hearing to “explore issues relating to competition in technology markets and the antitrust agencies’ efforts to root out anticompetitive conduct” on September 24.