Step Up Joe, the 21st Century is Waiting

Harry Truman once famously said, “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say ‘on one hand . . . ’ then ‘but on the other . . . ‘

Watching Washington these days, I share Harry’s frustration. On one hand, we have Lina Kahn driving the ship at the Federal Trade Commission. Lina’s on a regulatory jihad to break up technology companies simply because they’re too big. On the other hand, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work (under Obama and Trump) is pushing for closer ties between tech companies and the Pentagon.

You can’t have it both ways.

Here’s the Trumanesque contradiction in a nutshell. On one hand, we have Ms. Kahn, 32, a legal scholar and professor who was appointed by President Biden to lead the FTC. At Yale law school, she wrote a paper called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” that attracted Progressives like bees to pollen. Essentially, she is arguing that even though big tech companies like Google or Apple may not be actually harming consumers, their size is suppressing competition among supply chains and the overall economy. So they must be broken up. Kahn calls her efforts part of the “New Brandeis Movement,” referring to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who crusaded against the “curse of bigness” during the early part of the 20th century. Others call her approach “hipster antitrust.”

On the other hand, we have Work, who is vice chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, created by Congress in 2018 and chaired by former Google boss Eric Schmidt, with senior representatives from Amazon, Oracle, Alphabet and other tech giants. The commission released a 756-page report which warned that the arms race has evolved into the tech race. From artificial intelligence and quantum computing to cybersecurity and the cloud, national security increasingly revolves around technology.

Guess who our primary adversary is in this new tech war? It’s a large Asian country with a single name that Donald Trump turns into two words when he pronounces it. China is gaining an advantage in AI and is rapidly applying that technology to its military, the report warned, and the U.S. needs to catch up fast.

The Defense Department, of course, has historically been a tech leader. That’s where the early technology that created GPS and the internet, for instance, was developed. But that was before the rise of Silicon Valley. Today, the private sector has clearly outpaced the government in tech innovation. And it is precisely because of their size — especially their vast resources of financial and human capital — that they are able to maintain this innovation.

So, to ruffle Harry Truman’s feathers again, on one hand we have a network of large technology companies with the technical chops to help reshape the Pentagon’s approach to national security in the 21st century. On the other hand, we have an FTC commissioner who says these tech companies should be broken up because of their potential harm to the economy (note italics).

There’s a reckoning coming.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said a sign of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still be able to function. It’s a good quote, but the global tech wars are not just an idea. They are a reality that is rapidly accelerating. Here’s just one scenario: Suppose China develops AI that can be strategically deployed to disrupt GPS signals in North America. There are a thousand other scenarios. So we’re not really talking about an “idea” here, but a functional reality that’s fraught with dangerous risks.

Part of leadership is building harmony and coherence across large systems or organizations. Coherence was sorely lacking in the Afghanistan debacle, which just seemed like a mad rush to end something. On this issue — building a military-technology complex for the 21st century through public-private partnerships — President Biden has an opportunity to provide leadership through coherence.

He can let Ms. Kahn continue to spin out her grad-school theories about the “curse of bigness” or he can become the adult in the room and declare a clear strategic imperative: To safeguard our national security in the 21st century we must build collaborative partnerships with tech companies, leveraging their innovation and ingenuity. NASA has done it in the space program. Let that be the model for the Pentagon.

Yogi Berra used to say that when you come to a fork in the road you should take it. Joe Biden should heed his advice.

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