Eric Schmidt and the great revolving door

From Google to government and back

Last year, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, gave an interview to Tyler Cowen, who runs the long-standing contrarian economics blog Marginal Revolution. (Fun fact: In the very early days of blogging, when the blogosphere was small, I wrote to Tyler asking if I could have a copy of one of his books for review, and he sent me an ARC. That was cool.)

Eric Schmidt was, for a long time, one of the adults in the room at Google. In fact, that’s probably what people know most about him - that Larry and Sergey hired him to run the company while they got to do fun engineering stuff:

SCHMIDT: They had actually been interviewing for two years. They took the money from Connor Perkins and Sequoia, and part of the condition was they had to bring in somebody to run the company, and Larry and Sergei were okay with this as long as they liked that person.

So they interviewed many people, and what they would do is give them a test. It usually involved hanging out with them and going skiing with them, or something like that. And they typically failed.

COWEN: Because they couldn’t ski or they weren’t relaxed enough?

[laughter]

SCHMIDT: I don’t know. But when we met, I had had the same professors as they had. I was just an older version of their experience, and we clicked. So they didn’t take me skiing. We had dinner a couple of times. I wrote a lengthy memo of everything we would do together, and then it was obvious that we should work together.

SCHMIDT: It’s important to establish that Larry and Sergei were the technological and strategic brilliant minds here. My job was to keep everything organized, and I had — and have — a bunch of rules in my mind about how you should run things.

In listening to the interview, the guy comes off as competent leader, and, what’s more a skilled speaker.

He gives a bunch of solid, competent soundbites in the interview, about how he handled staffing, leadership, the rise of YouTube, and plenty of other things that belong inside a management book.

But Cowen didn’t question him on any of the actually interesting things he did, like colluding with Apple to keep salaries low, his interest in the Chinese government’s business, or this, all the way from 2010:

"The average American doesn't realize how much of the laws are written by lobbyists" to protect incumbent interests, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Atlantic editor James Bennet at the Washington Ideas Forum. "It's shocking how the system actually works."

There’s a lot more where that came from. There’s also a bunch of stuff about his personal life that is not verified but certainly does give one pause.

Since he left Google, and the Google board, he’s been busy, most recently as the “chairman of the US Department of Defense’s Innovation Advisory Board:

The Defense Innovation Advisory Board will "provide advice on the best and latest practices in innovation that the department can emulate," according to a Pentagon release. More specifically, the board will serve as a direct conduit for innovative voices outside the Pentagon to reach Carter.

It’s shocking how the system works, that the most powerful people from tech make their way swiftly into the government.

What’s scary about that is that it’s clear that Schmidt has been in power for a long time, has very, very many inside connections to everybody and everything, and has completely lost touch with what the average person thinks is acceptable.

He’s even said,

“I will defend the company and the way it works for a very long time."

Which is why it was unsurprising for me to see these tweets from Rachel Thomas (one of the co-founders of Fast.ai) from a recent conference at Standford about AI:

But, ok. Let’s assume you know Eric Schmidt is the reason Google removed its don’t be evil slogan. He ignored China, colluded with Steve Jobs, and had a secret Instagram account for all the parties he went to. He’s bad news bears all around.

And, as it should have been, his appearance at the conference was protested from the get-go.

But what about the other people involved? Why didn’t they stop this from happening, and why didn’t they challenge anything?

Well, let’s take a look at who was involved in the conference: first, former CEO LinkedIn Reid Hoffman, the same dude who invested in OpenAI, and Dr. Fei-Fei Li, who featured in the Google Maven project scandal last year, and is now back at Standford. And, what’s more, the event took place at the Hoover Institution, a public policy institute affiliated with Stanford, where George Schultz and Henry Kissinger are board members. Why is THAT important? They, among with other people from the institute, were convinced by Elizabeth Holmes to join the board of Theranos.

It was all going so well. Ms. Holmes – whose intensity and black turtleneck uniform have brought comparisons with Steve Jobs – persuaded a clutch of bigwigs to join her board, tapping six members from the roster of the Hoover Institution, a Stanford University research firm. Two of them are former secretaries of state, 94-year-old George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, who is 92.

It seems like, if you dig even a little bit into anything, you’ll find that all the people driving negative developments in Silicon Valley are only a stone’s throw - or, rather, a Google search - away from each other.

It’s fantastic news because it means I’ll have content for at least another year, even if no one plans another conference again.

It’s very, very sad news for tech and the state of our country.

Art: Open Door, Brittany, Henri Matisse, 1896

What I’m reading lately

  1. Airbnb is less and less appealing to me lately, precisely because of stories like this.

  2. A well-earned retirement for Guido. 💚


About the Author and Newsletter

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about tech topics I don’t see covered in the media. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

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