The Boy Who Cried “Regulation”

Recently Facebook’s billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that called for “a more active role for governments and regulators” to establish “new rules” for the internet.  The op-ed has provoked lots of comment.

facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-testifies-before-us-congress-highlightsZuckerberg’s op-ed piece begins:  “Technology is a major part of our lives, and companies such as Facebook have immense responsibilities. Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone.”  He says he agrees with people who say Facebook has “too much power over speech” and argues that government regulation is needed in four area — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.  Zuckerberg adds:  “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Zuckerberg’s article, while couched as a call for regulation, reads like a PR piece for Facebook; it argues, among other things, that Facebook has developed “advanced systems for finding harmful content, stopping election interference and making ads more transparent” and has taken other steps in the four areas.

It’s safe to say that Zuckerberg’s clarion call has been viewed with significant skepticism in the United States and abroad.  An article in The Hill says that “[r]egulators, lawmakers and activists who have grown wary of Facebook saw Zuckerberg’s move less as a mea culpa and more as an effort to shape future regulations in his favor,” and quotes, for example, a UK regulator who says that if Zuckerberg really believes what he has written he can start by dropping an appeal of a $560,000 fine the UK imposed for Facebook’s activities in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  Others are leery of inviting the government to regulate on-line speech, and believe that Facebook — having thrived and made millions in a regulation-free environment — now wants to see regulations imposed in order to complicate and thwart efforts by new competitors to grab some of Facebook’s social media market share.

The reaction to Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece illustrates what happens when you have frittered away your credibility.  Facebook’s history doesn’t exactly fill people with confidence that the company has users’ privacy and best interests at heart; too often, the company appears to have placed generating revenue above user concerns and data protection.  I’m inherently dubious of any governmental action that touches free speech, and large-scale regulatory efforts often impose staggering costs without providing much benefit — but even if you think such efforts are a good idea, Zuckerberg is exactly the wrong person to float such proposals.  He’s like the boy who cried wolf.

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Considering “Universal Basic Income”

Mark Zuckerberg is the latest of the Silicon Valley quadzillionaires to espouse the concept of “universal basic income.”

mark-zuckerberg-harvard-speech-01-480x270In a commencement speech at Harvard last week, the founder of Facebook called for the creation of “a new social contract.”  “We should have a society that measures progress not by economic metrics like GDP but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” Zuckerberg said.  Zuckerberg noted that, because he personally had a safety net to fall back on, he had the confidence to try projects like Facebook, and he thinks everyone should have the same financial wherewithal.

For some, like Zuckerberg, universal basic income has become the Great White Whale.  It’s not fair, they think, that only people who come from families that have financial resources can experiment in pursuit of their dreams.  Proponents of UBI believe that, if only everyone had guaranteed funding irrespective of whether they worked or not, all people would have the freedom to follow their dreams, invent new things, and experience personal fulfillment.  Why, the outpouring of creativity and innovation would promote the flourishing of art, literature, music, technological development, and human interaction that undoubtedly would lead to a new Renaissance!

Or, people who got the money would sit around in their place of residence all day, watching TV and enjoying the recreational drug or adult beverage of their choice.

Look, who am I to disagree with Mark Zuckerberg?  But let’s lay aside the gnarly issue of how we could possibly pay for a basic stipend sufficient for every American to live on without working.  (Taxpayers, hang on to your wallets!)  My experience teaches that having a job is a good thing.  Working brings structure to lives.  It allows people to become self-sufficient and to learn the value of a dollar.  It promotes the development of responsibility, punctuality, responsiveness, planning, and other positive personal attributes.  And the labor of every worker also helps to fund things like national defense, Social Security, health care, national parks, and a bunch of other things that might not be as amply supported if the funds are going to pay basic living expenses for a bunch of people who are happily contemplating their navels.  And, if you really think your job sucks, maybe that will motivate you to go out on your own, become an entrepreneur, and follow your dream with the benefit of the real-life experience you’ve acquired.

And don’t call it “universal basic income,” either.  In my book, “income” should be reserved for something that you earn, through work or investment, not something that is handed to you.

So let me respectfully disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg.  If he wants to really help to create a “new social contract,” let him and the other mega-tycoons enter into some actual contracts — with employees working for the new ventures that Zuckerberg and the other filthy rich are in a position to establish and fund with their wealth.  Let’s help more people learn the value of actual work.