opinion

Two Bills

Bill Galston and Bill Kristol’s New Center Project Takes Aim at the Tech Oligarchs

‘Not everything Elizabeth Warren stands for is wrong—nor is everything Donald Trump stands for wrong. We’re looking at the merits of ideas, not at their providence.’

It’s a big deal when two guys who have been beating each other’s brains out for almost 30 years join together in what they call the New Center Project, sponsored by the No Labels Foundation.

The “two Bills,” Bill Galston with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution and Bill Kristol, founder of the conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, looked at each other after the 2016 election “and said in so many ways we’re standing on more common ground than we ever imagined,” Galston told The Daily Beast.

It took them less than 48 hours to draft the case for a “New Center, one that does not split the difference between Left and Right but offers a principled alternative to both.” It took them almost six months to turn their collaboration into specific policy recommendations, and on Monday, Sept. 11, the duo unveils seven ideas to re-center the American economy.

Together they tackle immigration, trade, corporate concentration, and the shrinking work force, areas that raise hackles on both sides of the political divide. The fact that they could agree is remarkable considering their long history of political combat.

“Neither of us said anything we didn’t believe, but we said it together,” says Galston, who briefed The Daily Beast solo because Kristol was on The Weekly Standard’s annual post-Labor Day cruise.

Galston’s Democratic roots are deep while Kristol has long been a provocateur on the right. His strategy memos in the ’90s, part of his Project for a Republican Future, were instrumental in killing Hillary Clinton’s health care plan.

“Twenty-four years ago, I was sitting in Bill Clinton’s White House reading Bill Kristol’s memos on health care, and I was shaking my head, I was not happy, and here we are, the world has turned on its axis for almost a quarter century, and we’re comrades in arms drawn by circumstances and necessity,” says Galston.

After countless debates, they realized that “something bigger was going on,” says Galston. This election was not just one more win or loss for each team, but carried ominous implications for our democratic system.

“We can’t afford to take the stability and continuity of our political institutions for granted,” he says. A decade of gridlock has eroded trust in Washington’s ability to do the people’s business, opening the door to Trump’s “I am the one” brand of leadership, or as Galston puts it, “people willing to consider strong leadership even if it breaks the rules.”

He and Kristol talked with a range of people, including anti-trust lawyers, to help them navigate the idea that’s likely to generate the most heat—the negative effect of growing corporate concentration, especially in the tech sector. When we met over coffee last week, Galston revealed a communication he’d received that morning from a tech guy complaining about New Center calling out Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft for their “monopolistic behavior” and urging enforcement of anti-trust laws.

“You’re supposed to be the center,” the tech guy griped. “This sounds more like Elizabeth Warren.”

“Maybe it does,” Galston said he responded, “But not everything Elizabeth Warren stands for is wrong—nor is everything Donald Trump stands for wrong. In this exercise, we were looking at the merits of ideas, and not at their providence.”

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The tech industry is not going to react kindly to a project representing itself as a new center of gravity in politics saying its Big Five are altogether too big, but just look at the figures, says Galston. “John D. Rockefeller would have died for a market share like that.” Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company epitomized the excesses of last century’s robber barons.

Today, one out of every two dollars spent online goes through Amazon. Facebook and Google got 99 percent of the revenue growth from digital advertising last year. Facebook owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic.

“These are astounding figures,” says Galston. “In the old days, it would be prima facie evidence” of monopolistic behavior. Liberals generally support strong anti-trust enforcement, but for the last eight years, gave the tech industry a pass. Silicon Valley is part of the Democratic base, providing mega-donations and votes.

The New Center tackles immigration, the single most explosive issue in the 2016 campaign, “and we grasped that nettle firmly,” says Galston, pointing to their support for the idea of shifting more to immigrants’ economic contributions and away from family reunification—which is how European countries evaluate immigrants.

“We didn’t duck the explosive issues,” says Galston. “We just didn’t deal with all of them.”

On trade, another issue that helped elect Trump, they focus on China as the main culprit in “stealing the crown jewels of the U.S. economy—our intellectual property… and the theft goes well beyond pirated DVDs.” They propose a variety of solutions from getting serious about cybersecurity to resisting China’s demand that doing business in its huge consumer market means sharing key technology.

“We’re focusing on a piece of the problem and not, so to speak, on a Trumped up problem,” says Galston.

The shrinking work force is a contentious subject for the left and the right, and the numbers tell the story. For men in their prime working years, only Italy among the Western democracies has a lower share working than the United States. Economist Alan Krueger says up to 20 percent of U.S. men are sidelined by opioid addiction.

“Call laziness what it is,” the report says, arguing America “should not be bashful about criticizing individuals who are not carrying their weight.” The tough language is conservative fare, “but it’s not enough to call them lazy slobs, there have to be carrots as well as sticks,” says Galston. There are proposals for liberals to love on everything from better retraining programs and offender re-entry to paid childcare, family leave, and flexibility for stressed workers.

Reading the 70-page booklet replete with colorful charts and graphics, it’s tempting to weigh which side gave what, an assessment that Galston rejects in this new Trumpian reality. On tax reform, for example, they call for taxing capital gains and earned income the same, which would eliminate a huge tax break for the rich.

“If it was good enough for Ronald Reagan, it’s good enough for us,” says Galston. Reagan’s 1986 tax reform almost came close to equalizing the two, a distinction that eroded over time, thanks to well-paid lobbyists.  

There will be questions as to why the center covered certain issues and not others. Climate change is a big omission. Think of this as the first in a series, says Galston, with institutional and government reform next, then perhaps the energy sector, which would of necessity encompass climate change.

Twenty-four years ago, Kristol’s memos on health care undermined a Democratic president’s ambitious agenda. Now Kristol is banking on the idea that the two major political parties, each leaderless in its own way, will look at each other sometime early next year and say, “Now what do we do?”

Kristol argues forcefully that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Come February, when tax reform has either succeeded or failed, some young senators eager to distinguish themselves and make a mark will pick it up.

Ideas matter, and labels don’t. That’s the theory.