Stanford has established itself as the epicenter of computer science, and a farm system for the tech giants. Following major scandals at Facebook, Google, and others, how is the university coming to grips with a world in which many of its students’ dream jobs are now vilified?
At Stanford University’s business school, above the stage where Elizabeth Holmes once regurgitated the myths of Silicon Valley, there now hangs a whistle splattered in blood. More than 500 people have gathered to hear the true story of Theranos, the $9 billion blood-testing company Holmes launched in 2004 as a Stanford dropout with the help of one of the school’s famed chemical engineering professors.
When Holmes was weaving the elaborate lies that ultimately led to the dissolution of her company, she leaned heavily on tech truisms that treat dogged pursuit of market domination as a virtue. “The minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed,” she said onstage in 2015. But Shultz and Cheung, who faced legal threats from Theranos for speaking out, push back against the idea of pursuing a high-minded vision at all costs. “We don’t know how to handle new technologies anymore,” Cheung says, “and we don’t know the consequences necessarily that they’ll have.”
The words resonate in the jam-packed auditorium, where students line up afterward to nab selfies with and autographs from the whistleblowers. Kendall Costello, a junior at Stanford, idolized Holmes in high school and imagined working for Theranos one day. Now she’s more interested in learning how to regulate tech than building the next product that promises to change the world. “I really aspired to kind of be like her in a sense,” Costello says. “Then two years later, in seeing her whole empire crumble around her, in addition to other scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica and all these things that are coming forward, I was just kind of disillusioned.”..But the endless barrage of negative news in tech, ranging from Facebook fueling propaganda campaigns by Russian trolls to Amazon selling surveillance software to governments, has forced Stanford to reevaluate its role in shaping the Valley’s future leaders. Students are reconsidering whether working at Google or Facebook is landing a dream job or selling out to craven corporate interests. Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.
As tech comes to dominate an ever-expanding portion of our daily lives, Stanford’s role as an educator of the industry’s engineers and a financier of its startups grows increasingly important. The school may not be responsible for creating our digital world, but it trains the architects. And right now, students are weighing tough decisions about how they plan to make a living in a world that was clearly constructed the wrong way. “To me it seemed super empowering that a line of code that I wrote could be used by millions of people the next day,” says Matthew Sun, a junior majoring in computer science and public policy, who helped organize the Theranos event. “Now we’re realizing that’s maybe not always a good thing.”
.. Because membership costs $21,000 per year, the career fairs tend to attract only the most renowned firms.
“Honestly, I think they’re horrific,” says Vicki Niu, a 2018 Stanford graduate who majored in computer science. She recalls her first career fair being as hectic as a Black Friday sale, with the put-on exclusivity of a night club. (Students must present their Stanford IDs to enter the tent.) But like other freshmen, she found herself swept up in the pursuit of an internship at a large, prestigious tech firm. “Everybody is trying to get interviews at Google and Facebook and Palantir,” she says. “There’s all this hype around them. Part of my mind-set coming in was that I wanted to learn, but I think there was definitely also this big social pressure and this desire to prove yourself and to prove to people that you’re smart.”
Stanford’s computer science department has long been revered for its graduate programs—Google was famously built as a research project by Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin—but the intense interest among undergrads is relatively new. In 2007, the school conferred more bachelor’s degrees in English (92) than computer science (70). The next year, though, Stanford revamped its CS curriculum from a one-size-fits-all education to a more flexible framework that funneled students along specialized tracks such as graphics, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. “We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn’t just sitting in a cube all day,” Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor who once worked at Google, said later.
The change in curriculum coincided with an explosion of wealth and perceived self-importance in the Valley. The iPhone opened up the potential for thousands of new businesses built around apps, and when its creator died he earned rapturous comparisons to Thomas Edison. Facebook emerged as the fastest-growing internet company of all time, and the Arab Spring made its influence seem benign rather than ominous. As the economy recovered from the recession, investors decided to park their money in startups like Uber and Airbnb that might one day become the next Google or Amazon. A 2013 video by the nonprofit Code.org featured CEOs, Chris Bosh, and will.i.am comparing computer programmers to wizards, superheroes, and rock stars.
Stanford and its students eagerly embraced this cultural shift. John Hennessy, a computer science professor who became president of the university from 2000 to 2016, served on Google’s board of directors and is now the executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. LinkedIn founder and Stanford alum Reid Hoffman introduced a new computer science course called Blitzscaling and brought in high-profile entrepreneurs to teach students how to “build massive organizations, user bases, and businesses, and to do so at a dizzyingly rapid pace.” (Elizabeth Holmes was among the speakers.) Mark Zuckerberg became an annual guest in Sahami’s popular introductory computer science class. “It just continued to emphasize how privileged Stanford students are in so many ways, that we have the CEO of Facebook taking time out of his day to come talk to us,” says Vinamrata Singal, a 2016 graduate who had Zuckerberg visit her class freshman year. “It felt really surreal and it did make me excited to want to continue studying computer science.”
In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm. Even without direct Stanford funding, the school’s proximity to wealth helped plenty of big ideas get off the ground. Evan Spiegel, who was a junior at Stanford in 2011 when he started working on Snapchat, connected with his first investor via a Stanford alumni network on Facebook. “Instead of starting a band or trying to make an independent movie or blogging, people would get into code,” says Billy Gallagher, a 2014 graduate who was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. “It was a similar idea to, ‘Here’s our band’s vinyl or our band’s tape. Come see us play.’”
..But it’s not just that coding was a creative outlet, as is often depicted in tech origin stories. Working at a big Silicon Valley company also became a path to a specific kind of upper-crust success that students at top schools are groomed for. “Why do so many really bright young kids go into consulting and banking?” asks Gallagher. “They’re prestigious so your parents can be proud of you, they pay really well, and they put you on a career path to open up new doors. Now we’re seeing that’s happening a lot with Google and Facebook.”
By the time Niu arrived in 2014, computer science had become the most popular major on campus and 90 percent of undergrads were taking at least one CS course. As a high schooler, her knowledge of Silicon Valley didn’t extend much further than The Internship, a Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy about working at Google that doubled as a promotional tool for the search giant. She soon came to realize that landing a job at one of the revered tech giants or striking it rich with an app were Stanford’s primary markers of success. Her coursework was largely technical, focusing on the process of coding and not so much on the outcomes. And in the rare instances when Niu heard ethics discussed in class, it was often framed around the concerns of tech’s super-elite, like killer robots destroying humanity in the future. “In my computer science classes and just talking to other people who were interested in technology, it didn’t seem like anybody really cared about social impact,” she says. “Or if they did, they weren’t talking about it.”
In the spring of her freshman year, Niu and two other students hosted a meeting to gauge interest in a new group focused on socially beneficial uses of technology. The computer science department provided funding for red curry and pad thai. Niu was shocked when the food ran out, as more than 100 students showed up for the event. “Everybody had the same experience: ‘I’m a computer science student. I’m doing this because I want to create an impact. I feel like I’m alone.’”
From this meeting sprang the student organization CS + Social Good. It aimed to expose students to professional opportunities that existed outside the tech giants and the hyperaggressive startups that aspired to their stature. In its first year, the group developed new courses about social-impact work, brought in speakers to discuss positive uses of technology, and offered summer fellowships to get students interning at nonprofits instead of Apple or Google. Hundreds of students and faculty engaged with the organization’s programming.
In Niu’s mind, “social good” referred mainly to the positive applications of technology. But stopping bad uses of tech is just as important as promoting good ones. That’s a lesson the entire Valley has been forced to reckon with as its benevolent reputation has unraveled. “Most of our programming had been, ‘Look at these great ways you can use technology to help kids learn math,’” Niu says. “There was this real need to not only talk about that, but to also be like, ‘It’s not just that technology is neutral. It can actually be really harmful.’”
Many students find it difficult to pinpoint a specific transgression that flipped their perception of Silicon Valley, simply because there have been so many.
- For Facebook it was not only the Russian meddling, but also last year’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, which showed the company’s carelessness with user data.
- At Uber a 2017 blog post by Susan Fowler detailed a workplace rife with sexual harassment, which only compounded growing criticism of the way the company treated drivers and local governments.
- Studies investigated how Apple’s iPhone was becoming addictive among children, causing increased risks of depression and suicide.
- Amazon’s facial recognition software was pitched for government surveillance in 2018, and at
- Microsoft, employees signed a petition protesting the company’s contract with ICE.
- At Google, 20,000 workers walked off the job last November because of the unsavory manner in which the company paid off an executive accused of sexual harassment.
The torrid pace of bad news has been jarring for students who entered school with optimistic views of tech. Nichelle Hall, a senior majoring in computer science, viewed Google as the ideal landing spot for an aspiring software engineer when she started college. “I associated it so much with success,” she says. “It’s the first thing I thought about when I thought about technology.” But when she was offered an on-site interview for a potential job at the search giant in the fall, she declined. Project Dragonfly, Google’s (reportedly abandoned) effort to bring a censored search engine to China, gave her pause. It wasn’t just that she objected to the idea on principle. She sensed that working for such a large corporation would likely put her personal morals and corporate directives in conflict. “They say don’t do evil and then they do things like that,” she says. “I wasn’t really into the big-company idea for that reason. … You don’t necessarily know what the intentions of your executives are.”
- ..Google has hardly been the most damaged brand during the techlash. (The company says it has not seen a year-over-year decline in Stanford recruits to this point.)
- Students repeatedly bring up Facebook as a company that’s fallen out of favor.
- Uber, with its cascade of controversies, now has to “fight to try and get people in,” according to junior Jose Giron.
- And Palantir, the secretive data-mining company started by Stanford alum Peter Thiel, has also lost traction due to Thiel’s ties to Trump and worries that the company could help the president develop tech to advance his draconian immigration policies. “There’s a growing concern over your personal decision where to work after graduation,” Sun says.
“There’s a lot of personal guilt around pursuing CS. If you do that, people call you a sellout or you might view yourself as a sellout. If you take a high-paying job, people might say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to work for a big tech company. All you care about is yourself.’”
Landing a job at a major tech firm is often as much about prestige as passion, which is one reason the CS major has expanded so dramatically. But a company’s tarnished reputation can transfer to its employees. Students debate whether fewer of their peers are actually taking gigs at Facebook, or whether they’re just less vocal in bragging about it. At lunch at a Burmese restaurant on campus, Hall and Sun summed up the transition succinctly. “No one’s like, ‘I got an internship at Uber!’” Sun says. Hall follows up: “They’re like, ‘I got an internship … at Uber …’”
The concerns are bigger than which companies rise or fall in the estimation of up-and-coming engineers. Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence. Sahami acknowledges that many computer science classes are designed to teach students how to solve technical problems rather than to think about the real-world issues that a solution might create. Part of the challenge comes from computer science being a young discipline compared to other engineering fields, meaning that practical examples of malpractice are emerging in real time from today’s headlines.
Vik Pattabi, a senior majoring in computer science, originally studied mechanical engineering. In those classes, students are constantly reminded of the 1940 collapse of Tacoma Narrows Bridge: A modern marvel was destroyed because its highly educated engineers did not foresee all the possible threats to their creation (in that case, the wind). Pattabi’s CS coursework hasn’t yet included a comparable example. “A lot of the second- and third-order effects that we see [in] Silicon Valley have happened in the last two or three years,” Pattabi says. “The department is trying to react as fast as it can, but they don’t have 30 years of case studies to work with.”
Another issue is the longstanding divide on campus between the engineering types—known as “techies”—and the humanities or social sciences majors, known as “fuzzies.” Though the school has focused more on interdisciplinary studies in recent years, there remains a gap in understanding that’s often filled in by stereotype. This sort of divide is a common aspect of college life, but the stakes feel higher when some of the students will one day be programming the algorithms that govern the digital world. “There’s things [said] like, ‘You can’t spell fascist without CS.’ People will tell you things like that,” Hall says. “I think people may feel antagonized.”
The school’s deep ties to the Bay Area’s corporate giants, long a much-touted recruitment tool, suddenly look different in light of the problems that the industry has created. At the January career fair, members of Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP), an activist group on campus that aims to disrupt Stanford’s “culture of apathy,” handed out flyers that urged students not to work at Amazon and Salesforce because of their commercial ties to ICE and the United States Border Patrol. (Employees at the companies have raised similar concerns.) “REFUSE to be part of the Stanford → racist tech pipeline,” the flyer reads, in part.
Two students in the group said they were asked to leave the career fair by Computer Forum officials. When the students refused to comply, they say they were escorted out by campus police under threat of arrest for disrupting a private event. A Stanford spokesperson confirmed the incident. “The protesting students were disruptive and asked by police to leave,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The students were given the option to protest outside the event or in White Plaza. They chose to leave.”
For members of SLAP, the exchange reinforced the ways in which Stanford institutionally and culturally cuts itself off from the issues occurring in the real world. “You might hear this idea of the ‘Stanford bubble,’ where Stanford students kind of just stay on campus and they just do what they need to do for their classes and their jobs,” says Kimiko Hirota, a SLAP member and junior majoring in sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, who participated in the career fair protest. She said many of the students she talked to had no idea about the tech firms’ government contracts. “To me the amount of students on campus that are politically engaged and are actively using their Stanford privilege for a greater good is extremely small.”
The computer science major includes a “technology in society” course requirement that can be fulfilled by a number of ethics classes, and teaching students about their ethical responsibilities is a component of the department’s accreditation process. CS + Social Good has expanded its footprint on campus, teaching more classes and organizing more events like the Theranos talk starring the whistleblowers. Yet the flexibility of the CS major cuts both ways. It means that students who care to take a holistic approach to the discipline can combine rigorous training in code with an education in ethics; it also means that it remains all too easy for some students to avoid engaging with the practical ramifications of their work. “You can very much come to Stanford feeling very apathetic about the impact of the technology and leave just that way without any effort,” Hall says. “I don’t feel as though we are forced to encounter the impact.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, students spill into a lobby in front of a standing-room-only auditorium in the School of Education, where Jeremy Weinstein is talking about the promise and perils of using algorithms in criminal justice. Next year Californians will vote on a bill that would replace cash bail with a computerized risk-assessment system that calculates an arrested person’s likelihood of returning for a court appearance. The idea is to give people who can’t afford to make bail another way to get out of jail through a fairer policy. But such algorithms have been found to reinforce racial biases in the criminal justice system, according to a ProPublicainvestigation. Instead of being a solution to an unfair process, poorly implemented software could create an entirely new form of systemic discrimination. Students were asked to vote on whether they supported cash bail or the algorithm. The class was evenly split. Unlike in most CS classes, Weinstein could not offer students the comfort of a “correct” answer. “We need to deconstruct these algorithms in order to help people see that technology is not just something to be trusted,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s objective and fair because it’s numerical, but it actually reflects a set of choices that people make.”
Though Weinstein is a political science professor, he’s one of three educators leading the new version of the CS department’s flagship ethics course, CS181. Teaching with him are Sahami, the computer science professor, and Rob Reich, a political science professor and philosopher. The trio devised the course structure over a series of coffee-fueled meetings as the tech backlash unfolded during the past year and a half. After discussing algorithmic bias, the class will explore privacy in the age of facial recognition, the social impacts of autonomous technology, and the responsibilities of private platforms in regard to free speech. The coursework is meant to be hands-on. During the current unit, students must build their own risk-assessment algorithm using an actual criminal history data set, then assess it for fairness. “We run it like a talk show,” Weinstein says. “There’s a lot of call-and-response, asking questions, getting people to talk in small groups.”
While Stanford’s computer science program has had an ethics component for decades, this course marks the first time that experts in other fields are so directly involved in the curriculum. About 300 students have enrolled in the course, including majors in history, philosophy, and biology. It provides an opportunity for the techies and fuzzies to learn from one another, and for professors removed from the Valley’s tech culture to contextualize the industry’s societal impacts. In the course overview materials, the moral reckoning occurring in the tech sector today is compared to the advent of the nuclear bomb.
The course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibility—when referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says...While the early years of the decade saw prominent tech executives like Holmes and Zuckerberg teaching students how to lifehack their way to success, the new ethics course will bring in guest speakers from WhatsApp, Facebook, and the NSA to answer “hard questions,” Sahami says “I wouldn’t say industry is influencing Stanford,” he says. “I would say the relationship with industry allows us to have more authentic conversations where we’re really bringing in people who are decision-makers in these areas.”.. Some of the more critical voices from within the industry are also taking on more permanent roles at Stanford. Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook, taught a “hack lab” for non-CS majors last fall, helping them understand cybersecurity threats. He’s now developing a more advanced computer science course, to be piloted later this year, that explores trust and safety issues in the era of misinformation and widespread online harassment. Stamos led Facebook’s internal investigation into Russian political interference on the platform and clashed with top executives over how much of that information should be made public. He left the company in August to join Stanford, where he hopes to impart lessons from his time battling a digital attack that was waged not through hacking, but through ad purchases, incendiary memes, and politically charged Facebook events. “One of the things we don’t teach computer science students is all of the non-technically advanced abuses of technology that cause real harm,” Stamos says. “I want to expose students to [things like], ‘These are the mistakes that were made before, these are the kinds of problems that existed, and these are the company’s reactions to those mistakes.’”
Stamos rejects the idea that ethics is the correct framework to think about addressing tech’s most pressing issues. “The problem here is not that people are making decisions that are straight-up evil,” he says. “The problem is that people are not foreseeing the outcomes of their actions. Part of that is a lack of paranoia. One of our problems in Silicon Valley is we build products to be used the right way. … It’s hard to envision all the misuses unless you understand all the things that have come before.”
While he says that Stanford bears some responsibility for the Valley’s tunnel vision, he praises the school for welcoming tech leaders with recent, relevant experiences to help students prepare for emerging threats. “When I was going to school, computers were important, but we weren’t talking about building companies that might change history,” Stamos says. “The students who come to me are really interested in the impact of what they do on society.”
Stamos regularly fields questions from students about whether to work at Facebook or Google. He tells them that they should, not in spite of the companies’ mounting issues, but because of them. “If you actually care about making communication technologies compatible with democracy, then the place to be is at one of the companies that actually has the problems,” he says. “Not working at the big places that could actually solve it does not make things better.”
The tech giants continue to consolidate power even as they face withering criticism. Facebook’s user base growth accelerated last quarter despite its scandals. Uber will go public this year at a valuation as high as $120 billion. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all planning to open large new offices around the country in the near future. And for all the optimistic talk of working at ethically minded startups among students, creation of nascent businesses is at roughly a 40-year low in the United States. Small firms that enter the terrain of the Frightful Five are typically acquired or destroyed.
It is hard to find a Stanford computer science student, even among the ethically minded set CS + Social Good has helped cultivate, who will publicly proclaim that they’ll never work for one of these dominant companies, as all of them offer opportunities for high pay, engaging individual work, and comforting job security. International students have to worry about securing work visas however they can; students on financial aid may need to make enough money to support other family members. And for many others, it’s not clear that anything that’s happened in the Valley is truly beyond the pale. In that sense, the engineers are just like us, aghast at the headlines but still clicking away inside a system that’s come to feel inescapable. “These events feel too big for most students to take into account,” says Jason He, a master’s student in electrical engineering. “At the end of the day, I think for a lot of students who have been paying a lot of money for their education, if the six-figure salary is offered, it’s pretty hard for students to turn down.”
There is still an opportunity, the thinking at Stanford goes, for every company to do good. Nichelle Hall, the senior who declined the Google interview, landed a job working on Medium’s trust and safety team. But she recognizes that she may have set her qualms aside if Google had been her only employment option. “Some of the feedback that CS + Social Good gets is, ‘Oh, the members end up working for Facebook, they end up working for Google,’” says Hall, who’s been involved with the organization since 2017. “People who care about this intersection of social impact and computer science will go to these companies and do a better job than if they weren’t interested in this stuff.”
Impact is the word that I heard more than any other while on campus. It’s how students framed their decision to go to Stanford, to pursue a career in computer science, to do good in the world after graduating. It’s a word that Hoffman used to describe his Blitzscaling class, and one Holmes used to explain to students why she dropped out of school. “I had the tools that I needed to be able to go out and begin making this impact,” she said. It’s the currency of Silicon Valley, that people spend for good and for ill.
The ability to create impact with a few lines of code has long been what separated software engineers from the rest of us, and turned the Valley into a self-proclaimed utopia of young rebels using technology to save the world from its older, antiquated self. But that’s not the image anymore. Now aspiring engineers draw a comparison between their chosen profession and investment banking. The finance industry wrecked the world a decade ago because of its misunderstanding of complex, automated systems that spun out of control—and its confidence that someone else would ultimately pay the price if things went wrong. You see this confidence in Zuckerberg’s incredulous response when anyone suggests that he resign, and in Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s initial refusal to testify before Congress. And you can see it at Stanford, where the endowment has never been higher, the fundraising has never been easier, and the career fair is still filled with slogans vowing to make the world a better place.
Perhaps this entire strip of land known as the Valley will fully calcify into a West Coast Wall Street, where the people with all the insider knowledge profit off the muppets who can’t stop using their products. If today’s young tech skeptics turn to cynics when they enter the working world, such a future is easy to imagine. But—and this is the hopeful, intoxicating, dangerous thing about technology—there’s always bright minds out there who think they can build a solution that just might fix this mess we’ve made. And people, especially young people, will always be enthralled by the romance of a new idea. “We’re creating things that haven’t necessarily existed before, and so we won’t be able to anticipate all the challenges that we have,” says Hall, who graduates in just four months. “But once we do, it’s important that we can reconcile them with grace and humility. I’m sure it will be a hard job, but it’s important that it’s hard. I’m up for the challenge.”
The central error in the popular post-crisis consensus was the idea that naive believers in the self-policing efficiency of markets led us over the precipice. Greenspan was painted as the high priestof this laissez-fairy-tale delusion, and people seized on a moment when he appeared to plead guilty: Under the pressure of congressional questioning, he confessed to a “flaw” in his pro-market ideology. What Greenspan meant was that all belief systems — whether pro-government or pro-market — are imperfect. But that subtlety was lost. Quoted and requoted without proportion or context, Greenspan’s purported mea culpa threatened to define his legacy.
.. Bestsellers by two Nobel Prize-winning behaviorists — Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler — encouraged people to see the crisis as proof that this new science had been ignored, as did contributions from the sublime storyteller Michael Lewis.
.. Contrary to myth, Greenspan himself never believed that markets were efficient. In his youth, he wrote lucidly about bubbles and crashes and regarded market inefficiencies as so obvious that he sought to exploit them by day trading
.. As Fed chairman years later, Greenspan frequently reminded his colleagues that periods of prosperity could be punctured by “irrational exuberance” in financial markets.
.. political constraints, not intellectual failures, prevented policymakers from curbing the housing mania. Nobody remembers that in 2001 the Greenspan Fed banned the most abusive subprime mortgages, for the good reason that the ban was circumvented. But why was it circumvented? The answer is that the capture of Congress by financial lobbies ensured the balkanization of regulation into an alphabet soup of agencies, many of them underfunded and ineffective.
.. Nonbank mortgage lenders, for example, came under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission, which had no resources to conduct preemptive supervision. Small wonder that the sharp practices in the industry became egregious, or that nonbanks continue to dominate today’s mortgage business.
.. The Greenspan Fed also tried to force more capital into the banks it supervised, but it soon realized that this would drive risk-taking into various “shadow banks” that lay outside its authority
.. Greenspan also pushed for tougher regulation of the Federal National Mortgage Association and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (a.k.a. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), the government-backed mortgage giants, presciently observing that they posed “a systemic risk sometime in the future.” Fannie’s lobbyists hit back with a TV ad warning Congress not to back the Greenspan plan. That buried it.
.. The important lesson of the crisis is not that markets are fallible, which every thoughtful person knew already. It is that essential regulations — the sort that the supposedly anti-regulation Greenspan actually favored — are stymied by fractured government machinery and rapacious lobbies.
.. Even today, the financial system has multiple overseers answerable to multiple congressional committees, because all this multiplying produces extra opportunities for lawmakers to extract campaign contributions.
.. Vast government subsidies still encourage Americans to take big mortgages; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still operate, despite endless talk of breaking them up. And although post-2008 regulations have ensured that banks are better capitalized, the lobbyists are pushing back. Merely a decade after the Lehman bankruptcy brought the world economy to its knees, the Trump administration is listening to them.
His dozen years on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit have been marked with dozens of votes to roll back rules and regulations. He has often concluded that agencies stretched their power too far and frequently found himself at odds with the Obama administration, including in dissents he wrote opposing net-neutrality rules and greenhouse-gas restrictions... When a divided Supreme Court in 2015 rejected the Obama administration’s rules requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions and other pollutants, the majority opinion by conservative justices drew heavily from Judge Kavanaugh.
.. The high court cited his earlier dissent when he argued that the Environmental Protection Agency had failed to consider the costs of its regulations before moving forward. The EPA, he concluded, had ignored a requirement in the Clear Air Act that the agency determine whether an electric-utility regulation is “appropriate” before imposing it... Too often, he found, judges were giving agency regulators the benefit of the doubt based on a doctrine that instructs judges to give more deference when the meaning of what Congress wrote isn’t precisely clear.That was the case, he thought, when the D.C. Circuit last year reviewed the legality of net-neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.
In a dissenting opinion, he said the FCC didn’t have the authority to classify internet providers as “telecommunications services” and ban them from splitting internet traffic into fast and slow lanes.
Federal Reserve officials told Goldman Sachs Group Inc. GS -0.72% and Morgan StanleyMS -0.56% that they were about to flunk a portion of the annual stress tests but offered them a deal to avoid an outright fail and continue paying billions to shareholders.
.. regulators told them that to fully pass the test, they would have to cut almost in half the combined $16 billion they had hoped to pay out to shareholders
.. Fed officials gave the banks an unprecedented option: If they agreed to freeze their payouts at recent levels, they would get a “conditional non-objection” grade and avoid the black eye of failure. That meant the banks could pay out a combined $13 billion, or about $5 billion more than what they would have given back to investors if they had decided to retake the test and get a passing grade.
It also will boost a profitability measure that helps determine how much Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein and Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman are paid.
.. The arrangement is the first of its kind in the eight years of the Fed’s annual tests, and one of the clearest signs to date of a significant shift in the regulatory environment for banks, which have been expecting a gentler approach from Washington ever since the election of President Donald Trump.
“New refs, new rules,” consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP wrote in a note.
This round of tests was the first graded by Trump appointee Randal Quarles, a former Wall Street lawyer and private-equity executive who last year became the Fed’s regulatory czar.
.. “This year’s stress test followed the same notification process as in past years—all firms were notified of the results and given the fixed option to reduce their capital payout plans with no negotiations,” a Fed spokesman said.
.. Fed officials said their leniency toward Goldman and Morgan Stanley was due in part to the impact of the 2017 tax law, which reduced the value of certain tax assets held by the banks and meant they entered the crisis scenario with diminished capital reserves
.. The stress tests, arguably the most visible sign of the postcrisis crackdown on Wall Street, are being changed in ways that benefit the industry. The Fed exempted three firms with less than $100 billion of assets from the test this year under the new banking law. Its treatment of Morgan Stanley and Goldman—as well as State Street Corp. , which got a pass although it also failed to clear capital requirements under the stress scenario—showed the Fed taking a more flexible approach to what had been a binary exercise.
“The Fed was very kind,” said Arthur Angulo, a managing director at Promontory Financial Group and a former Fed official. He added the Fed’s exercise of discretion on the quantitative portion of the test was “a potential slippery slope.”
.. The interim director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, has largely stopped initiating new investigations and wants the consumer-finance regulator to be less antagonistic to the businesses it regulates.
.. If Goldman had been required to rejigger its plan until its capital ratios exceeded the Fed’s minimum, the bank would have been able to seek just over $1 billion in buybacks, instead of the $5 billion that was approved
what we most need now is a new generation of social media platforms that are fundamentally different in their incentives and dedication to protecting user data. Barring a total overhaul of leadership and business model, Facebook will never be that platform.
.. In Facebook’s case, we are not speaking of a few missteps here and there, the misbehavior of a few aberrant employees. The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.
.. If we have learned anything over the last decade, it is that advertising and data-collection models are incompatible with a trustworthy social media network. The conflicts are too formidable, the pressure to amass data and promise everything to advertisers is too strong for even the well-intentioned to resist.
.. the real challenge is gaining a critical mass of users.
.. Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users, will not disappear, and it has a track record of buying or diminishing its rivals (see Instagram and Foursquare).
.. Wikipedia is a nonprofit, and it manages nearly as much traffic as Facebook, on a much smaller budget. An “alt-Facebook” could be started by Wikimedia, or by former Facebook employees, many of whom have congregated at the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit for those looking to change Silicon Valley’s culture.
.. If today’s privacy scandals lead us merely to install Facebook as a regulated monopolist, insulated from competition, we will have failed completely. The world does not need an established church of social media.
After years of allowing the world’s largest social network to police itself, Congress and federal regulators are discussing some promising reforms.
Typically, the FTC can only impose penalties if a company has violated a previous agreement with the agency.
That means Facebook may well face a fine for the Cambridge Analytica breach, assuming the FTC can show that the social network violated the 2011 settlement. In that settlement, the FTC charged Facebook with eight counts of unfair and deceptive behavior, including allowing outside apps to access data that they didn’t need—which is what Cambridge Analytica reportedly did years later. The settlement carried no financial penalties but included a clause stating that Facebook could face fines of $16,000 per violation per day.
.. “I predict that if the FTC concludes that Facebook violated the consent decree, there will be a heavy civil penalty that could well be in the amount of $1 billion or more,” he said.
.. “Facebook rejects any suggestion that it violated the consent decree,”
.. Daniel J. Weitzner, who served in the White House as the deputy chief technology officer at the time of the Facebook settlement, says that technology should be policed by something similar to the Department of Justice’s environmental-crimes unit. The unit has levied hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. Under previous administrations, it filed felony charges against people for such crimes as dumping raw sewage or killing a bald eagle. Some ended up sentenced to prison.
.. “We know how to do serious law enforcement when we think there’s a real priority, and we haven’t gotten there yet when it comes to privacy,” Weitzner said.
.. Facebook has said it will introduce a new regime of advertising transparency later this year, which will require political advertisers to submit a government-issued ID and to have an authentic mailing address. It said that political advertisers will also have to disclose which candidate or organization they represent and that all election ads will be displayed in a public archive.
.. While she was at the commission, she urged it to consider what it could do to make internet advertising contain as much disclosure as broadcast and print ads. “Do we want Vladimir Putin or drug cartels to be influencing American elections?” she presciently asked at a 2015 commission meeting.
.. Even if it does pass such a rule, the commission’s definition of election advertising is so narrow that many of the ads placed by the Russians may not have qualified for scrutiny. It’s limited to ads that mention a federal candidate and appear within 60 days prior to a general election or 30 days prior to a primary.
.. Last year, ProPublica found that Facebook was allowing advertisers to buy discriminatory ads, including ads targeting people who identified themselves as “Jew haters,” and ads for housing and employment that excluded audiences based on race, age, and other protected characteristics under civil-rights laws.
.. Facebook has claimed that it has immunity against liability for such discrimination under section 230 of the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from liability for third-party content.
.. But sentiment is growing in Washington to interpret the law more narrowly.
.. Jonathan Zittrain, wrote an article rethinking his previous support for the law and declared it has become, in effect, “a subsidy” for the tech giants, who don’t bear the costs of ensuring the content they publish is accurate and fair.
.. “Any honest account must acknowledge the collateral damage it has permitted to be visited upon real people whose reputations, privacy, and dignity have been hurt in ways that defy redress,” Zittrain wrote.
Researchers find uncertainty about economic policy is slightly higher now than during Obama’s entire tenure
During Barack Obama’s presidency, uncertainty about U.S. economic policy was much higher than it had been during the previous 25 years, according to calculations by a trio of academic economists.
You would think uncertainty would be low now, with economic expansion advanced and secure, the global economy on a stable footing, and a president in the White House focused on helping business by cutting regulation.
But it isn’t. The researchers find economic policy uncertainty is slightly higher under President Donald Trump than it was during an Obama era marked by deep recession, auto bailouts, unconventional Federal Reserve interventions into the financial system and routine brinkmanship between Democrats and Republicans on fiscal policy.
.. “Obama was president in a time when you needed extreme policy action,” said Mr. Bloom. “Trump has incredibly benign economic conditions. He should have very low levels of policy uncertainty.”
It is hard to say exactly why uncertainty is high now. Mr. Bloom said it is likely partly because of big policy changes happening in Washington—such as an aggressive new stance on trade—and partly because of the decision-making process, which he described as chaotic.
.. “It has been a gut punch to tech investors,” Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer at GBH Insights, an investment research firm, said of the Amazon and Facebook developments. “These stocks and their multiples were not factoring in increased regulation.”
.. Complicating matters, it is hard to see a comprehensive policy framework behind Mr. Trump’s interventions into the economy, making it hard to predict what might come next.
.. Some analysts have described the nation’s evolving trade approach as mercantilism, a government effort to prop up exports and restrain imports in pursuit of trade and financial surpluses. But Qualcomm, AT&T and Amazon aren’t about that. Nor is it quite industrial policy, which is government selection of certain industries over others, as Japan practiced in the 1980s and 1990s.
.. “He’s picking winners and losers,” said Matthew Slaughter, dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who also served as an economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. “But it is not obvious what the unifying strategy would be and it is not obvious what the definition of winners and losers are in these cases.”
.. “The regulatory machinery is not likely to be put into motion because the president has a grudge against Amazon,” he said.
His advice to Wall Street: “Don’t fear the Tweeter.”