Tim Wu lives in Chelsea and is running for lieutenant governor.
A law professor at Columbia University, Wu coined the phrase "net neutrality," worked as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission, and has appeared on the Colbert Report. Last week the New York Times endorsed his candidacy. Though he grew up in Toronto and has lived in Europe, his opponent, Kathy Hochul, a former congressional representative from upstate, has not made his residency an issue the same way Governor Cuomo did with Wu's running mate, Zephyr Teachout.
"It's funny, some of my policy proposals are right-wing or mainstream proposals in Canada, and here they're left-side," Wu says, referring to paid family leave. "A woman is having a baby, she needs to take some time off from work and it seems her employer should support her during that period for some lengths of time. Some countries are pretty far with it, but that's considered somewhat radical here. Kathy Hochul did not endorse paid family leave, although she's the founder of the Women's Equality Party." Wu adds with a laugh, "You could tell me what that's about."
Unlike Teachout, whose odds are slim against Cuomo's millions of dollars and name recognition [PDF], Wu could win. Hochul's name is more obscure than his, and Wu is largely seen as the more liberal candidate in a primary that is not likely to draw many casual voters. Proof of establishment Democrats' concern could be seen at a Hochul press conference earlier today, in which Progressive Mayor de Blasio claimed he hadn't heard of Progressive candidate Wu.
"The people in New York, though not everyone, are left-leaning in their views, or progressive in their views, but state politics represent something different," Wu explains. "It's keyed towards monied interests most of all. You have an entire political class who lives on payoffs and you have a business culture where to get anything done, to get started, you need to seek the favor of the government. That’s just not a good way for the state to be run."
We spoke with Wu about his libertarian streak, his ambivalence on congestion pricing, and how New York could stop the Comcast-Time Warner merger as he was leaving a campaign stop in Binghamton.
You mentioned in a recent speech that after becoming a politician, you’ve felt the pull of the “dark side” with respect to fundraising. Let’s assume you and Zephyr get elected, but you’re not able to bring about campaign finance reform. What causes would you be comfortable taking money from, and at what point do you turn yourself over to the “dark side”?
I think it’s a challenge that every single politician faces, which is to say, to what degree do you have to use the system to beat the system? If you think of the Larry Lessig Mayday PACs—he has obviously said we’re going to try to raise money to try and get money out of politics. So the question is, how do you do that without yourself becoming part of the problem?
My first order answer is, the wider the better. The more people you raise from, the more diluted the effect of feeling that you owe a particular industry or a particular constituency or a particular group. To go back to Federalist No. 10, Madison warns that the greatest enemy of the republic is factionalism. If all your support comes from real estate, or from the oil industry or Wall Street—Wall Street is a common one for Democrats—then you feel like you owe them something. If you have taken money from everyone, then you might be more balanced. It’s a second-best solution, to be sure [laughs].
Also, when I think about it, the best you can get is to raise small amounts of money from a huge class of the citizenry who believe in you because they like what you’re trying to do, not because they work at this company or that company or they’re in that industry. That’s the ideal, and it’s a second-order solution. But if elected we would we try to do what we’ve done in this campaign, which is something that Zephyr herself pioneered, which is reliance on a wide range of internet donors, may of whom we don’t know or never meet. In a weird way it’s a better way to raise money—to not know who you raise money from. It sounds crazy, but in some ways it’s much better to raise from people who you know briefly as opposed to your closest friend.
First I should say up front, that I unequivocally believe that the state can and should block the takeover of the New York cable system by Comcast. The leading reason why they should is so simple: the cost to consumers in higher prices. Every thing else to my mind is just details or the froth.
I think the most critical question is, how much does your cable bill cost? The average Time Warner customer pays $104 a month, which I think is already too much. The average Comcast customer pays $156 a month. When you multiply that by the number of New York cable subscribers, that’s $1.6 billion in higher cable fees per year. That is the clearest reason the merger should be stopped, that New Yorkers will pay more.
How can the state do it? There are many important state institutions that lie underused, among them the Public Service Commission, which according to state law, must approve the merger before it is allowed to occur. So by a vote of the Public Service Commission, the merger can be blocked in New York, though it might continue in California. I’ll add that the state anti-trust authorities could also stop the merger if they felt it is a violation of competition laws. The first step is the Public Service Commission, which has to approve that the merger is in the public’s interest. Higher prices are not in the public interest, therefore their legal duty is clear, and they must block the merger.
It seems like it would be a political no-brainer for Cuomo to block this merger and lower everyone’s cable bill. Why do you think he hasn’t come out strongly on the issue?
I’ll give you several reasons. One is that both Comcast and Time Warner have been very generous donors to Cuomo and they both want the merger to be consummated. Second, there’s a tendency to use the power to block mergers to instead extract a series of goodies. You say to the companies, OK go ahead and merge and here’s all the little things we want you to do. It’s another way for the governor to do what he likes to do best, which is to distribute little favors or piles of cash to people who have been loyal to him. There are very strong reasons for him to go the route—I guess I could call it the “Christmas tree route,” where there’s a little present for everyone who’s been loyal to him and he makes that the condition for approving a merger.
I’ll give an example. He could ask Comcast to appoint a friend of his or an ally to the board for the commission of merging. Therefore someone gets a job where you don’t have to do a lot, earn a couple hundred thousand extra a year just sitting on the board of Comcast. So there’s a lot of little presents you can pull out of a Time Warner-Comcast merger.
It’s funny, because that was a big part of the New York Times’ rationale for not endorsing Zephyr Teachout, because Cuomo’s so adept at playing this political game and you guys aren’t. He can bend lawmakers to his will, he can wheel and deal. What did you make of their refusal to endorse her?
I reject it. On the one hand, I’m happy they at least had the presence of mind not to endorse Cuomo. But I think that the case for patronage politics—and that’s what we’re talking about—is being overstated. There’s obviously a need for there to be a politician to do some things, but Cuomo takes it to a level that is so extreme that it is affecting many other parts of the state economy.
You think of upstate economic development, it has become so keyed to gaining the favor of Cuomo and his office. The handing out of tax cuts or credits or other Christmas presents, it starts to become something where people feel that if they’re not in with the governor, it’s a fixed game and they’re never going to win. Only the truly pure would say that making compromises is not part of governance. But I reject the idea that the only way that New York state is to continue is in a system, while not legally corrupt, is essentially corrupt, by doing everything that involves paying anyone along the way.
You’ve said that we need people who aren’t “creatures” to run for office, and we need regular people to go into politics. But you’re a Columbia law professor who makes a six-figure salary. You write for The New Yorker. There are plenty of people who could say you’re not a “regular” person.
I may be many things, but I’m not a political creature. What I mean by that is that I don’t look—I think what we need is people that have been successful in other fields. When I say normal people, I mean people who don’t look to politics as a form of enrichment and who do not look at government to a stepping stone to some other job.
I’ve been successful in my career outside of government, a lot of people have. I’m in one area, academia, and I’ve been in government as well, but there’s small businessmen who have been successful, there’s people who have done all kinds of lines of work and are successful, and that’s what I mean by ordinary people. People who are not into becoming professional politicians, people who do not see politics as formal payout. People who have other things to do with their lives and see going into politics as a sacrifice.
What does the lieutenant governor actually do? Are you realistic about how much power you could potentially wield even if you were elected?
I have thought a lot about this question. I have made it clear that I envisioned the role of lieutenant governor as an independent constitutional office where I would exercise an independent voice and independent power.
First of all, the lieutenant governor is president of the State Senate. The Senate is very closely divided, and the lieutenant governor casts the deciding vote so, for a number of issues that could be important to New Yorkers, whether it’s gun control, issues on the environment, immigration, the lieutenant governor is very likely a deciding vote.
But I think more fundamentally, there is not a figure in Albany who is an advocate purely for the public. I’m thinking in the same way that a Public Advocate operates in New York. I see my first responsibility to the people and I will speak out when I think things are being done that are wrong. And I’ll also support the governor or the legislature when I think they’re doing right. In our aim, the power of voice, the power of attention, is extremely powerful. I’d intend to use the role that way. That doesn’t make it all-powerful, but I think the fact that I have basically almost no duties of loyalty other than to the public puts me in a very unique position and tends to change the way the lieutenant governor is used, forever.
I should also add that I feel that the position, and our state has a range of influence, and a New York lieutenant governor position has recently been one of absolute subservience to the governor. It’s my opinion that in the current state of affairs in New York, we don’t need another lackey to the governor. I think Cuomo’s done a good job of converting enormous classes of people in to de facto lackeys, and the one thing we don’t need is to convert a constitutional position with it’s own office and its own staff to be another loyalist to the governor. Whether that’s to Teachout or Andrew Cuomo.
I asked Zephyr the same question, but could you point to the most egregious thing that you think Cuomo’s done since he’s been in office?
To my mind, it is the tampering with the Moreland Commission. It’s a symbol that—I guess I’d say broadly failing to change the culture of corruption in Albany signified by the corrupting of the anti-corruption commission. [Laughs] Which sounds like a bad joke except for it’s true.
Truth is often stranger than fiction and if you presented a novel where the governor corrupted the anti-corruption commission, it would be rejected as absurd, where it is in fact what we’ve dealt with. There’s two things that bother me. First of all, the shut-down and steering away from allies and the governor may have been a violation of state law. But the second thing that really bothers me is the governor’s effort to quiet or punish anyone who dared speak out about what he’d done and therefore achieve an almost total silence.
It is astonishing to me that the Assembly and the Senate, even the Republicans, have not seen fit to be critical of the governor, or open an investigation, try to figure out what happened here. It is a testament to the depths of corruption in the system and that is something that I personally find the most disappointing, because it reinforces this general idea that Albany is all about loyalty to the governor and if you’re in any way failing, you’ll be punished.
You’ve talked about the need to be cautious with respect to regulating new companies like Airbnb and Uber. I have friends who use Airbnb and they make money from it when they need it. I’ve also lived below two illegal hotels, and that was a nightmare, and that stemmed from the inaction of my landlord and this dearth of regulation. What would you say to someone like me who is skeptical of people like you who are less skeptical of Uber or Airbnb? [Laughs]
I don’t think it should be decided by the state for everybody in the state. In other words, I think that there are buildings who may want—I think this is the kind of thing that needs to be decided on the local level, and I mean local, like hyperlocal. Which is to say there may be buildings who think that they want Airbnb not to be in their buildings, or there may be some who realize that there is extra revenue available from Airbnb, and to some degree, they can make up their rents this way.
I am most concerned about the decision being made state-wide, and that, illegal hotels aside, there have been efforts against individuals which have been completely disproportionate to the crime being committed. This is my libertarian side, but there have been people fined almost a hundred thousand dollars for having people stay with them on Airbnb. [Ed.: more like $40,000 or so] I’m not someone to say that new technologies get a free pass, that we can imagine some kind of techno utopian future where we don’t need law at all, but I am a person to say we should focus on cases of real harm, of large-scale illegal hotels, and that we should allow buildings on a case-by-case basis to decide whether they want Airbnb or not.
As a citizen, I’m concerned about the hotel lobby, or any powerful lobby in Albany. At the same time, you see companies like Uber hiring David Plouffe; Airbnb is becoming a really powerful lobby in its own right. How do we keep these start-ups from becoming the same type of entrenched lobbies that exist now?
I’ll tell you, they will be. There’s no doubt in my mind. My approach to basically all things, I believe that everything is in a cycle. There’s no doubt in my mind, even if I defend companies on the way in, I will be critical if Airbnb and Uber grow in size and power. I will immediately turn and demand that they be placed under increasingly strict regulation.
I think the question is, is it a dynamic process? Do we let companies become established first and then regulate them or do we regulate them from the beginning? I mean, Airbnb and Uber have been successful in establishing themselves so obviously they don’t have everything to complain about. The CEOs weren’t charged with criminal conspiracy or something like that.
Amazon is a good example of a company that when they started, I was very supportive of them starting and I think they’ve saved consumers a lot of money. What they’ve been up to lately I’m much more suspicious of. But I don’t believe in any such thing of this company is a “good” company and is a good company forever or this industry is a “good” industry. I think they go through a natural cycle and we need to appreciate that and treat them differently as they progress.
What do you see happening with net neutrality? Are you optimistic, pessimistic?
I’m cautiously optimistic. I think that the unbelievable response to the FCC’s proposal was actually, I can tell you from first hand experience down in Washington that there was a sense of shell shock. The government and the White House had no expectations that this was happening. Right now I feel cautiously optimistic that by then end of the year the FCC will, possibly pushed by the White House, will come up with a rule that we can live with. I think they tried to water down aspects. I have a lot of respect for the people—I mean, almost one in three hundred Americans took the time to write the government and say, hey this is a problem.
How do you get around the city? Do you ride a bike?
Yes, I do. I have a Raleigh, the old Raleigh bicycle. I love it, it's actually the best way to get around. That’s how I get to school when the weather's good. Even on the campaign trail, it's the best way to get around.
You said you have a libertarian streak, where do you stand on congestion pricing?
That’s a city management issue. Maybe that sounds like a cop-out. I don’t have a fixed position. I don’t know. [Long pause] It’s something that I think I’m quite torn on. I wish I could say I have a clear position. As a cyclist, I want everyone else to ride bicycles as well. On the other hand, I have some hesitancy to enforce my preferences on everyone else. I’d say its something I’m undecided on, I’m sorry to put it that way.
I guess you can see my libertarian preferences are slightly more borne out of—I should be clear about what I think. I just have this sense that with something like Airbnb or Uber we’re too quick, I don’t mean you should never regulate them. I just think we should just wait and see what the actual harms are. One of the original libertarian, or frankly liberal principles of John Stuart Mill, is the Harm Principal, which is to say you regulate to prevent harm. That is my guiding light.
What about with respect to the banking industry though? We haven’t really regulated that at all.
Right, well that’s a different thing. This is how my principles manifest. My basic instinct is that I think these kind of regulations that are necessary should be exactly proportional to the power involved. I know a lot of friends who run small businesses in New York and I feel that we tend to be too tough at the bottom level with the people who are less able to defend themselves and too loose at the top. So I would invert that, those tendencies, and be tougher on the people who can take it. And I think you really need a lot of resources to be tough on them.
I’ve worked at the Federal Trade Commission which is the federal government and I’ve seen them be overwhelmed or cowed by private power, and that’s a federal agency with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. They get beat up by bigger businesses and as a result, people will often go after small businesses because they’re pushovers.
Wall Street is a great example. Wall Street has the ultimate trick which is everyone who works in financial regulation used to work for a bank. [Laughs] That’s the trick in that business. I’m shocked actually. My wife studies financial regulation, and even over telecommunications and cable industries, the financial industry is so much worse. And it goes back to the thing which is who do you hear from? Whose interests are you taking into account? And so many problems with the financial regulators is they’re bankers so they’re thinking about the health of the financial industry. It’s always on their mind. And what doesn’t enter their minds is the health of the rest of the economy. And what does this mean for everyone else? There’s a lot more to the economy than the financial industry.
One thing I’ve learned in government and it’s the one of the most challenging things about this government, is the question of, whose pain is felt? Spending a lot of my life involved in telecom regulations, I’ve noticed that the cable and phone companies are experts in making their pain be felt. Every company struggles, every individual struggles in some way. Unfortunately we have a system where the struggles that get heard most clearly tend to be, "Oh if you do this we won’t want to invest anymore, it will hurt our profits!" It's because they get hurt more and it's very hard for consumers. Cable prices are killing people, but they don’t face it, the regulators don’t see it day to day.
The real challenge of government in the 21st century is making sure we're trying to figure out how we have more people’s pain and suffering heard. How is your average person’s life being affected? It’s very hard to get that to people when every day you’re dealing with your donors or your lobbyists, who are experts in making you feel their pain.