The banality of election cynicism
Jeffrey Bleich: The former US Ambassador on what's really happening in Silicon Valley
There is a closed circle of thinking in the tech community that gets exasperated at every single thing that government does. If only the government would get out of the way, this clichéd thinking goes, we could get shit done.
This is not a new phenomenon, although you hear it most often among the startup tribes. But it’s the same consistent drumbeat of banal “government is hopeless” complaints we’ve heard for decades from the tech sector.
It is worth calling this out, as we enter the final, inevitably negative phase of this long federal election campaign. The issue of good government – of strong civic governance – is a relative thing.
I came across an excellent recent podcast interview with former US Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich. Mr Bleich is very well respected in this country (Paul Keating famously called him the best US envoy ever sent to Australia), and certainly he is incredibly well-liked.
In this podcast posted by the US Embassy in Canberra, Mr Bleich deconstructs this sometimes braindead tech sector mantra about government getting in the way of everything.
The reality is that a lot of things need to go right for an Australian tech company – or any technology company for that matter – to succeed. The mystical ecosystem is just that. It’s a system. Changes to or an evolution in one part of the system will have an impact on another part of the system, for better or for worse.
Jeff Bleich nails it when he says many people think of Silicon Valley as representing the closest thing to a perfect version of capitalism. The mythology says that in Silicon Valley you don’t need government.
The thinking is that if you bring together the smartest people in the country and just leave them to their own devices, then they will inevitably come up with something innovative and brilliant.
Mr Bleich, who is now based in San Francisco and has had a whole other career in Silicon Valley, says that while there is a lot of truth in this entrepreneurial story, there is a whole lot more that gets ignored (including the basic evolutionary history of Silicon Valley.)
So while the success of the valley is certainly due in part to the combination of great technologists coupled with great and visionary investors, these are only two parts of the story.
You have to add the research institutions of Berkeley and Stanford, and of course, you have to add the role of government programs. It is these programs that set the priorities that created many of the things that became Silicon Valley (think DARPA, NASA etc).
And that’s before you start talking about all that other annoying government stuff like education, the rule of law, transparency in the justice system, freedom of speech, freedom of movement and the billion other things that a society constructs through their government.
Because all that mundane stuff has to be in place before you get rich enough to even think about putting resources toward a space program, or sequencing the genome, or finding a cure for cancer.
These are the four propellers of innovation success, Mr Bleich says, the great technologists, the visionary investors, the world class research institutions, and of course the active involvement of government.
Just in case there is confusion, yelling at “The Government” to get out of the way is dumb. And it should not be confused with an actual contribution to policy debate.
And this is the annoying truth about this Jeff Bleich podcast, and something that should be kept in mind as the Australian election goes negative: The reality is that “good governance is not an accident.”
He talks about two examples of countries with populations of about 23 million, both with beautiful beaches and both rich in natural resources. One is Australia and one is Yemen. And assuming Yemeni mums and dads want the best for their children just like we do, then the difference between the countries is in its public institutions, its governance.
“We tend to underestimate the importance of good government in countries that are well governed,” he said. “In fact, all we can talk about is how bad they are.”
It is simply a fact that government plays a huge role in helping enable people to achieve their goals, to aspire to higher things, and the build the life they want for themselves.
“You see that in the US and you see that in Australia. But in a lot of countries around the world you don’t see it at all,” he said.
Mr Bleich clearly has a fondness for Australia and has built deep links here. He is on the board of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue.
It is a stretch too far to talk about political parallels between Australia and the US, but certainly there is an understanding of some of the common forces driving the politics of both.
There are some great insights in this interview into the very real anxieties among working people in the US, and a good summary of how those anxieties are expressing themselves in the current election cycle (despite the US economy having picked up.)
Mr Bleich is now based in San Francisco and was recently appointed Group CEO and Partner at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm.