Even for an industry known for their technical ineptitude, the Iowa caucus last night was a failure of epic proportions. Heck, I wouldn’t trust any company crazy enough to bid for a project that would so obviously be the subject of intense scrutiny (and in all likelihood, attack from state-sponsored actors). But the decision to hand this contact – which, without much exaggeration, would handle a process that will change the course of world history – to Shadow is incredibly negligent. According to this tweet, the engineering expertise of Shadow is astoundingly weak. For non-technical people, the closest analogy I can come up with is if you trusted a bunch of Boy Scouts with an automative repair merit badge to be your NASCAR pit crew for the Daytona 500. I don’t want to pile on Shadow’s engineers as they were doomed to fail. Instead, I want to focus on the Charlie Brown of political parties – the Democratic Party.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the past 24 hours about what went wrong and how this reflects the technical incompetence of the Democratic party (if you want a quick primer, the full thread from which the tweet above was excerpted is fantastic). But despite what you read, the reality all this doomsday talk is misplaced. Despite what the pundits say, there is in fact someone within the Democratic party that understands world-class technology systems, how to build it, and is actively doing something about. That person is Michael Bloomberg.
Now for a very, very important disclaimer: I interviewed for Hawkfish shortly after Bloomberg announced (which is commonly referred to as “Bloomberg’s tech organization”). I did not get the job.
Late last year, I started to hear rumblings about a new organization called Hawkfish. At the time, all I knew was that a new group was spinning up to build a data repository, the likes of which had never been seen before. They were hiring really, really good people and they had a lot of money. All the same, it still didn’t register. I had heard this same story after almost every single election over the past few years and I didn’t think that this effort would be anything different. It wasn’t until much later that it was revealed that Hawkfish was being funded entirely by Bloomberg and, following his entry into the race, that they were working exclusively for his campaign.
There is a very, very big difference between a bunch of engineers who just graduated from a coding bootcamp and the folks working for Bloomberg. Bloomberg has poached people who have spent years building state-of-the-art data infrastructure systems that process mind-boggling amounts of data extremely quickly. Think: quant firms, hedge funds, the Facebook ad platform, etc. These engineers know what they’re doing. They can get it done. But more importantly in my mind is the person behind it all: Bloomberg. Let’s not forget that he became the world’s 14th richest man by building a company that delivers real-time financial data to clients who make money only when they receive perfectly correct information as fast as humanly possible. There is no person in politics who understands the importance of large, high-quality datasets more than Bloomberg. While the establishment is focusing on his unorthodox strategy (which I think is fascinating and also Very Good) and how he’s faring in the polls, Bloomberg is building a Ferrari. Meanwhile, his competitors are duct-taping together soap-box derby cars.
Which brings me to my next point. I’ve heard a lot of people, especially around the time I interviewed at Hawkfish, complain about how nobody should “be able to buy” their way into an election. Setting aside the fact that politics is quite obviously a business and has been for a long time, I think Bloomberg is one of the best candidates that anyone could ask for. To understand why, I highly recommend this speech by Václav Havel (President of Czechoslovakia). In it, Havel explains three reasons why people crave political power and relentlessly cling to it once they have obtained it 1:
- People have ideas on how the world can be better and want to turn those ideas into reality. Politics is often the best way to do it.
- Politics is a way to validate your intellect, importance, social standing, and world view.
- Being a politican bestows many perks, even in democratic countries, that are hard to give up. Just imagine never being in traffic ever again. Whenever you pick up the phone and call someone, they answer. This is very rational! Politicans’ time is much better spent doing Important Things than sitting in traffic.
Looking back on my own political experiences, I found this to be very true. Quite often in rural parts of North Carolina, state legislators on both sides of the aisle are the most important and powerful people for miles and miles, setting aside the fact that the perks are amazing for how little work most do. I think the three axioms posited by Havel are true for 99.999% of people in the population. But Bloomberg is in the 0.001% 2. As the 14th-richest person on Earth, elected office gives him absolutely nothing he doesn’t already posess. He can change the trajectories of entire sectors with the stroke of a pen. Arguably, he is more powerful than many heads of state. So why is he running for the Presidency? At least for me, Bloomberg’s background indicates a greater ideological purity than candidates like Buttigieg or Booker, people who have plotted their careers and life decisions entirely around one day becoming President. And as I indicated my previous post, I believe idelogical purity to be an extremely undervalued trait in our current political system. It will be interesting to how the narrative around Bloomberg shifts later in the cycle.
I am at a loss for how to combat this problem, especially for an extremely powerful nation like the United States. My first thought was to draft our leaders to eliminate the self-selection problem that comes with deciding to run for office. However, should the draft pool be limited to only qualified candidates, and if so, what criteria would be used to determine competency? If Havel’s axioms are true, should we simply reject anyone who wants to lead such that draftees would see serving as a burden rather than an honor? (Interstingly enough, this last concept is explored by the Wallfacer Luo Ji in Lui Cixin’s The Dark Forest) ↩
As is another billionaire candidate, Tom Steyer. I’m focusing on Bloomberg due to his expertise with world-class computerized data systems. ↩