Silicon Valley’s Biden Beef and Zuckerberg’s Hired Gun

Mark Zuckerberg
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
December 20, 2021

Mark Zuckerberg’s political interests are, understandably, the subject of intense scrutiny. Liberals have long suspected that he is a hostage of the right, if not a Republican sympathizer, given the extensive aid that Facebook provided Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and Zuckerberg’s subsequent reluctance to boot him from the platform. Conservatives presume he is a hostage of his woke employees, if not a card-carrying progressive himself, given that he did eventually deplatform Trump. 

That’s why I was intrigued to hear from a source that Zuckerberg recently hired Brian Baker, a longtime Republican strategist, for a new political project. Baker, as Washington insiders will know, is the well-respected political right hand to the billionaire Ricketts family—which includes Todd Ricketts, the co-owner of the Chicago Cubs and until recently the G.O.P. finance chair, and Pete Ricketts, the Republican governor of Nebraska—as well as a key player in the high-dollar G.O.P. fundraising world more broadly. Baker has run outside groups and super PACs that devised vicious attacks on Barack Obama and was one of the few big-money players to support Trump in 2016. Zuckerberg and the Ricketts family are probably as far apart as any two donors could be.

Hiring Baker doesn’t make Zuckerberg a Republican. What it does make Zuckerberg, however, is smart. The Facebook founder is a fairly conventional Silicon Valley liberal—pro-success, pro-innovation, anti-partisanship—even if his primary political concern is Facebook itself. He takes advice from David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager who used to guide the political work of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and his personal political check-writing tends to fund broad, middle-of-the-road issues like criminal justice and immigration reform. Pretty anodyne stuff.

Of course, that’s not how Zuckerberg is perceived by many Republicans these days—which is why he needs Baker. Zuckerberg is now entering his second year of a controversy that just will not die: In the middle of the presidential election last summer, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated a whopping $450 million to the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, in order to bolster election offices amid the coronavirus pandemic. Conservative media and politicians cried foul, accusing the CTCL and Zuckerberg of a thinly-veiled plot to boost voter turnout in predominantly Democratic counties. In fact, it appears the opposite happened: Zuckerberg and Chan also hired Michael Toner, a former F.E.C. commissioner and now a top G.O.P. campaign-finance lawyer, who did an analysis of the public data showing that it was actually Republican-leaning jurisdictions that accounted for the majority of CTCL grants, even if Democratic counties, by dint of their larger populations, ultimately received the greater number of “Zuckerbucks.”

Zuckerberg’s team would certainly like to neutralize the “Zuckerbucks” narrative, which has resulted in Republican governors passing laws forbidding private philanthropies from funding election administration in the future. Hence the need to add Toner and Baker to balance out a communications team headed by former Obama press secretary Ben LaBolt, who, despite his White House experience, does not have as much credibility with the Murdoch outlets that have covered the CTCL storyline religiously.

It’s a savvy move. It also reveals how Zuckerberg increasingly is operating his personal fief using the same political strategies employed by Facebook, which has Democratic power brokers like Sheryl Sandberg working alongside Republican lobbyists like Joel Kaplan. As is true for any highly-polarizing mega-donor, you need everyone on retainer, metaphorical or otherwise, because you never know what crises will emerge.

The Effective Altruists End Run Around Washington

This past summer, I reported on what I thought was a strategic mistake by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest philanthropists. So-called “effective altruists,” including Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and crypto entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, lean on randomized controlled trials and academic literature to maximize the social impact of every dollar they donate. Both men, for instance, decided it was of utmost importance for Congress to set aside a bunch of money in the Build Back Better reconciliation bill for preventing future pandemics. And yet neither of them appeared willing to use their considerable political influence, as some of the country’s top Democratic donors, to get their desired earmarks. 

Congress eventually set aside just $10 billion of the $30 billion that Moskovitz and Bankman-Fried called for. Moreover, the bill still isn’t law. Still, I had a feeling that would hardly be the last time that the abstract ideals of effective altruism would collide with the rough-and-tumble reality of politics and the art of the possible.

Now it appears Moskovitz and Bankman-Fried are making an end run of sorts around Washington, or at least a back-up plan. Accord to new filings, both of their families are the anchor donors behind a new California ballot initiative that would raise $500 million to $1.5 billion a year in taxes on high-earners for their home state to create a new anti-pandemic outfit focusing on genomic sequencing and K-12 schools safety. (If you’re interested, the full text is here.) Moskovitz’s wife, Cari Tuna, is investing $5 million to support the campaign through their joint philanthropy, Open Phil; another $5 million comes from an LLC affiliated with Bankman-Fried. (The ballot initiative itself was introduced by two politically engaged tech entrepreneurs, Max Henderson and Anna Maybach.)

Funding this sort of campaign is more familiar ground for Moskovitz and Bankman-Fried than the murky and very uncertain world of Washington lobbying. (Moskovitz spent over $50 million in the 2020 cycle; Bankman-Fried about $10 million.) And getting enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the California ballot is largely a question of financing, whereas inducing Congress to include something in a bill requires not just money and hired guns but a healthy splash of luck. The $10 million from the data darlings to qualify it for the California ballot probably is just the beginning of their commitment to getting this passed—and, more broadly, in getting California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, to step up where D.C. has taken a step back. “Can confirm I’m strongly against pandemics,” Moskovitz had to say.

Patrick Collison

One of the most interesting and star-studded philanthropic projects to emerge from the pandemic was a commitment called Fast Grants, a rapid-fire funding program for scientists working on Covid research. It was started by influential economist Tyler Cowen and Stripe C.E.O. and founder Patrick Collison with backing from a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley donors who thought they could move faster than the U.S. government.

Fast Grants has been described to me as a real success, or at least a compelling model—Cowen and Collison credited the program with funding a number of critical Covid-19 interventions that might not have received attention otherwise. Now, a successor Silicon Valley effort is hoping to build on the learnings from Fast Grants with a new research foundation called the Arc Institute. Launched last week with a mission to provide multi-year, project-based grants to researchers—obviating the slower, more piecemeal grant-making process required by government bureaucracies—Arc is partly Collison’s brainchild. Stripe may be a fairly boring payments company, but the Stripe founder is one of Silicon Valley’s most complex, intellectual and policy-oriented entrepreneurs. 

He’s a potent operator, too: The group says he’s already helped raise $650 million for Arc from venture capitalist (and Stripe board member) Mike Moritz, Silicon Valley Angel investor Ron Conway, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, and Moskovitz, among others. Pulling together those names gives Arc instant credibility, and shows just how much respect Collison has in the industry at the age of 33.