We like to laugh at lawmakers for their technology ignorance, like when Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked a Facebook executive if she’ll “commit to ending finsta.” But how do gaffes like these actually happen? The answer is more complicated than you’d think. In this episode, a deep investigation into the cause and effects of a political gaffe — and why it’s something that we, together, should want to fix.
Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer, and in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today and figure out where it came from, what important things we're missing, and how to be more optimistic about tomorrow.
Jason Feifer: Who doesn't love a viral video? And even better, who doesn't love a viral video featuring a politician saying something stupid? I mean, we will retweet the hell out of that because if there's one thing we love more than viral videos, I guess it's feeling superior to people in power.
Jason Feifer: But recently, as I also enjoyed, and then yes, retweeted a viral video of a politician saying something stupid, a very simple question occurred to me about why this politician said something stupid. And I realized, I don't know the answer. And in fact, I had never heard anyone actually explain it. And so I went searching and eventually I got an answer, and it made me see this video very differently. In fact, it forced me to think about politics a little differently.
Jason Feifer: So first, I want to play the video for you. And then I want to tell you the question that I asked. And then we'll get to the answer, and you can see if it makes you feel differently too. So first, the video.
Voice Clip (Senator Richard Blumenthal): Will you commit to ending Finsta?
Jason Feifer: That is Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut in September of 2021. He's at a congressional hearing about Facebook's impact on young people. And he is in the process of grilling a woman named Antigone Davis, who is Facebook's Head of Global Safety. So Blumenthal asks Davis if she will commit to ending Finsta. And Davis goes silent for five seconds, as she figures out how to reply. You can imagine what Blumenthal is thinking. He must be like, "I got her." And then she speaks.
Voice Clip (Antigone Davis): Senator, again, let me explain. We don't actually ... We don't actually do Finsta.
Jason Feifer: Because of course, Finsta is not a product. Finsta is slang for fake Instagram. It's just a word that kids use to describe a secondary account that they've opened, where they post a bunch of garbage that they don't want on their main account, which means that asking will you commit to ending Finsta is kind of like hauling Burger King's Head of Food Safety into Congress and saying, "Will you commit to ending kids sticking French fries up their noses?" Like, it just doesn't make sense. So that's what Facebook's Head of Global Safety tries to explain in a gentle and deferential way. But Blumenthal is not having it.
Voice Clip (Senator Richard Blumenthal): Well, I don't think that's an answer to my question.
Jason Feifer: Which I suppose is true. So anyway, like millions of people, I saw that video and laughed and watched it again and then retweeted it and probably even texted it to some friends. But then, well, like I told you, I had a question about it that I didn't know how to answer. And the question was this. How did a United States Senator walk into this hearing and ask a question that stupid? Like, okay, the obvious answer is because he's old. That's why the video is funny, right? Richard Blumenthal is 75. The man looks like he just learned how to use a fax machine. And now he's trying to lord his power over one of the most technologically advanced companies in the world. It is like watching a sloth try to catch a tiger.
Jason Feifer: And this understanding is backed up by great cultural expectations, which have been set by Congress itself. I mean, this is not the first time that an old man senator has asked a dumb technology question. Remember when Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah asked Mark Zuckerberg.
Voice Clip (Senator Orrin Hatch & Mark Zuckerberg): How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?
Voice Clip (Senator Orrin Hatch & Mark Zuckerberg): Senator, we run ads.
Voice Clip (Senator Orrin Hatch & Mark Zuckerberg): I see.
Jason Feifer: And of course, then all of this gets parodied in places like Saturday Night Live.
Voice Clip (Saturday Night Live): Miss Haugen, you've told us a lot of disturbing information about this so-called algorithm. I just want to clear up a few points. Where is it?
Voice Clip (Saturday Night Live): The algorithm?
Voice Clip (Saturday Night Live): Yes. Do you have it with you now?
Jason Feifer: And so the general understanding of this situation becomes simple. Richard Blumenthal asked about Finsta because he is old. End of story. But wait a second. That ... That can't be right. Can it? Does a United States Senator literally just wake up from a nap, roll into a hearing room, and say whatever pops to mind?
Jason Feifer: I mean, look, I've never worked in Washington, but I just have to assume it's more complicated than that. Senators have a staff. The staff is responsible for doing things like researching and briefing. So surely, surely a senator walks into a hearing like this full of pre-researched questions. They probably have a whole script they could stick to. And if that's the case, what exactly are we watching when we see Richard Blumenthal ask if Facebook will commit to ending Finsta? How does the word Finsta end up in front of him in the first place? Are we watching the breakdown of some process? And if so, what is that process?
Jason Feifer: Once I wondered that, I had all sorts of other questions, like what about the other side, the person from Facebook or whatever other big tech company who's getting grilled during one of these hearings? What are they trained to say when a senator asks something stupid? And for that matter, what is the point of this whole spectacle? Does it have a point at all?
Jason Feifer: I figured that the only way to answer these questions was to actually track down people who have worked on the inside with the politicians who have made embarrassing gaffes and with the people who are being interrogated by Congress. And I ... I did not know how to do that. So I decided to hire one of the best reporters I know. Then, once she reported this out, we sat down in a studio to discuss.
Jason Feifer: Woo! Boy, that popped right up. It's been two years since I was inside a studio, so I was a little rusty. Anyway.
Jason Feifer: Can you introduce yourself?
Mary Pilon: Sure. I'm Mary Pilon.
Jason Feifer: Tell me something about yourself Mary.
Mary Pilon: I'm a journalist and an author. I wrote a book about the board game monopoly. I write mostly about sports, business, and other kind of bizarre pockets of Americana.
Jason Feifer: Yeah. You tend to be good at just jumping into very deep, rich worlds and figuring out how to get people to talk to you, which is the reason I thought to call you in the first place.
Mary Pilon: I'm honored. Yeah, I like quirky subcultures. I like stories about power. I like stories about dysfunction. And you can make a career out of that turns out.
Jason Feifer: And here we have power and dysfunction.
Mary Pilon: Oh, do we? Oh, do we.
Jason Feifer: Here's what I learned. A gaffe like this is it wants everything and nothing. It is a crack in the side of a building that reveals an unsafe foundation, but it is also the thing that gets the most attention, but has the fewest actual consequences. A gaffe is like a metaphor for politics itself. And a gaffe is also something that we together should want to fix. Oh, and the lawmakers themselves, they may not say this publicly, but ...
Travis Moore: If you talk to a member of Congress in private, they will all admit they are struggling with technology and that they need better advisors and help.
Jason Feifer: That's Travis Moore, a former Hill staffer that you'll hear from more in this episode. So what is going on here? What can we learn by looking deep, deep, underneath something that seems so very unserious? And is it possible to create a smarter conversation in a place where we really, really need smarter conversations? That is what we're going to dig into on this episode of Build For Tomorrow. And it's all coming up right after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So I have turned to my old friend, the great reporter Mary Pilon to dig into the mechanics and meaning of a political gaffe. But before we get there, Mary and I started with a joyful trip down memory lane, because of course, there are so many great moments of politicians saying goofy things about technology.
Mary Pilon: So I looked in the archives a bit because rabbit holes, and let us not forget, rumors on the internets.
Voice Clip ("Internets"): Thanks. I hear there's rumors on the internets.
Mary Pilon: One of the all-time great political expressions that Bush Junior gave us. Well, he also gave us reading the Google.
Female: Do you use Google?
Voice Clip (Former President Bush Jr.): Occasionally. And one of the things I've used on the Google is to pull up maps.
Mary Pilon: Obama said Twitters.
Voice Clip (Former President Obama): During his visit to Silicon Valley this week, he visited the headquarter of Twitters.
Mary Pilon: And Joe Biden has said website numbers.
Voice Clip (President Biden): If you agree with me, go to Joe 30330 and help me in this fight.
Mary Pilon: So I don't know how you measure progress here, but we're not out of the woods, by any measure. Andrew Yang, who is very tech savvy, generally, he also has gaffes. Remember he couldn't name a Jay-Z song.
Female: What's your favorite Jay-Z song? I mean, he's a New Yorker.
Voice Clip (Andrew Yang): Yes. What is my favorite Jay-Z song?
Mary Pilon: So those aren't like tech gaffes, but even a tech-savvy person can have borderline tech gaffes.
Jason Feifer: That's right. Andrew Yang also said that his favorite neighborhood in New York was Times Square.
Jason Feifer: Sorry, slight correction, but still inexcusable. He was talking about Subway stop, not neighborhood.
Voice Clip (Andrew Yang): It's my stop. So Times Square, I've been in and out of there-
Female: You think that Subway Station is Times Square?
Mary Pilon: Which is, you have to weigh that out with Cynthia Nixon's bagel preference in terms of just like weird. What was it? It was a strawberry bagel with ...
Jason Feifer: Yeah, I don't know ...
Mary Pilon: Onion cream cheese or something, yeah.
Jason Feifer: It was so appalling that it's gone from my memory.
Jason Feifer: I looked it up after. There is no good audio of it, but for the record, it was a cinnamon raisin bagel with lox and capers.
Jason Feifer: But for our purposes today, we're really focused on the more significant lapses. These are the ones that take place in hearings or during legislative action where a politician isn't just talking off the cuff or on the campaign trail. But rather, when they are displaying their awesome power to regulate, impact, or possibly even destroy companies. And therefore, you would think, they must also display that they have the knowledge to properly wield that power. That's when these moments become especially striking, like Richard Blumenthal's Finsta and Orrin Hatch asking Facebook how it makes money. Or one more for posterity, that time, Alaska Senator Ted Steven said ...
Voice Clip (Senator Ted Stevens): The internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes.
Jason Feifer: Which happened when he was in charge of the Senate Committee responsible for regulating the internet. Those are the kinds of gaffes at the center of our investigation. How do those happen?
Jason Feifer: Did you ever talk to anybody who was involved in prepping a senator and then that senator gaffed?
Mary Pilon: Yes, but they didn't want to be named. I've talked to-
Jason Feifer: Ah-
Mary Pilon: ... two of the gaffes we have discussed already. I have talked to people with direct knowledge of. I talked to someone who had knowledge of the Ted Stevens gaffe, which I felt was like a historical moment, and someone who had knowledge of the Zuckerberg moment.
Jason Feifer: Oh my God, this is so exciting.
Mary Pilon: Oh no, no, no. I went deep. I mean, people, this is very DC. The House of Cards part is no one wants to go on the record about this stuff.
Jason Feifer: But off the record, happy to talk. And Mary did speak to people on the record too. You'll hear from some of them in a minute.
Mary Pilon: So a lot of them summarized their experiences basically like imagine you have to brief your grandfather in 15 minutes on AI or online security or even these topics that people build entire careers on becoming experts on. The visual that I kept getting was okay, we know we have a hearing. The senator or Congress person's calendar is insane. I've got this little slice to prep someone, and I'm going to hand them a binder and do this. So some of it is just time management that you're asking people to become experts on something very, very quickly. And then add on top of that, that in the 117th Congress, the average age of a lawmaker is 58.4 years and in the Senate it's 64.3 years.
Jason Feifer: This raises a whole bunch of questions. Like one, why do you only have 15 minutes to brief someone for a hearing like this? And two, if you're only getting 15 minutes to brief someone for this hearing, is the hearing actually that important? And three, who are the people doing the briefings?
Jason Feifer: So let's address them in order. First, why so little time?
Mary Pilon: You will hear constant complaints about fundraising calls or just the realities of being a lawmaker now, but then you also have hearings on national security. You have hearings on healthcare. You have hearings on the economy. You have hearings on the pandemic now. So there's just a lot that's on the plate.
Jason Feifer: The reality is politicians don't always have as much time to prepare for something as you might think. To be fair, it isn't always 15 minutes. It could be a couple of hours for truly significant events. But we, the public may not always have a good sense of what counts as significant for a member of Congress. We see a big tech hearing and we think, "Well, this must be the main event." But no, it was probably just another thing on their calendar. And also, if we're being realistic, the hearing probably also wasn't that important.
Stanley Brand: I don't want to say they're TV moments, but a lot of them are. I mean, they're scripted to dramatize as much as they are to fact find.
Jason Feifer: This is Stanley Brand, one of the people who talked to Mary on the record. He was general counsel to the House of Representatives under speaker Tip O'Neill and is now a distinguished fellow in law and government at Penn State Dickinson Law, where among other things, he teaches congressional delegations and procedure. And Stanley said, yes, sure, congressional hearings can be consequential. The Big Tobacco hearings come to mind. But generally speaking, they're like trial balloons.
Stanley Brand: I think really what the goal is, is to dramatize and put before the public the kinds of issues that will stimulate legislative action.
Jason Feifer: It's almost like the political equivalent of going to a dim sum restaurant, where carts of food keep getting wheeled by your table. But instead, here, Congress is putting issues onto a cart and wheeling them around the nation being like, "Hey voters. Interested in this? Want some more of this?" And given that, yeah, why would a busy senator spend more than 15 minutes prepping for this?
Jason Feifer: Now, next question. Who is doing the prepping? This is something that people were happy to talk about on the record.
Mary Pilon: I talked to a gentleman named Austin Carson who's a former Hill staffer.
Jason Feifer: He spent seven years on the Hill and ended as the legislative director for the then chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. He's now the founder and president of a new nonprofit advocacy organization called SeedAI, which develops AI resources for communities nationwide.
Mary Pilon: And he talked about just what it looks like behind the scenes.
Austin Carson: I mean, there's a lot of problems, right? I'll get on a list real quick.
Jason Feifer: That is Austin.
Austin Carson: First of all, for the gravity of the task, it's incredibly under-resourced. I mean, you got a bunch of 24 to 27-year-olds who are running around trying to manage their boss' participation on a significant congressional committee. It's not that they're stupid. It's just that they're young and they don't even ... Even if it was just them, they don't have time. And then moving beyond that, you just don't really have the ability and the resource. Like everything has to come to you is I guess the best way to put it.
Jason Feifer: Even if a staffer wanted to dive exceptionally deep into an issue, they often just don't have the resources to do it. Because keep in mind, from the outside, Washington may seem like a place full of puppet bastards, but from the inside, not so much.
Mary Pilon: One former staffer told me though that tonally her job is way more like Veep than House of Cards.
Jason Feifer: And honestly, I can sympathize with that. I work in media, which people often portray as a single-minded monolith. "The media is doing this. Here's what the media won't tell you." But honestly, as a guy who has spent his career in local newspapers and then national magazines, the media is actually just a bunch of under-resourced and uncoordinated people bumping into each other.
Jason Feifer: So anyway, these congressional staffers talk to who they can and read whatever they can. And then they have to distill all of that down, not just to what they believe the right message is, but instead, to what message their boss is literally able to handle, and also, what small sliver of this subject their boss' voters care about, which takes time to learn and more time to master.
Austin Carson: You learn really quick as a staffer to avoid hubris or to avoid your sense that you can somehow make somebody into something that they're not. I think a lot of people learn that too late. If the member doesn't have the comfort in talking about something technical, it's good to avoid it. But what it does mean is that you have certain priorities that you have to hit. Your boss is big on X or Y thing. And the district may really care about something, or they may have one of the big companies in their district. So you want to go and make some point about it.
Austin Carson: So I think the staff have to adapt to whatever their boss' capability level is. I bet a lot of these dumb things that you see are a staff that like tried to ... I don't want to blame the staff, I feel bad. It's possible that it's a staff that tried to give them one good thing to say, and then they bungle it. The opposite thing that can happen is sometimes you'll try to tell them a thing to avoid specifically, and then they'll do that too. Right?
Jason Feifer: Sounds like a fun job. So you your best and try to balance all the different needs and demands. And sometimes it works and other times ...
Voice Clip (Senator Richard Blumenthal): Will you commit to ending Finsta?
Jason Feifer: What is it like for the staffer when a senator goofs?
Mary Pilon: Awful. When a senator goofs it's the nightmare, right? It reflects upon you because often people have these niches, like you're Klobuchar's head of tech or you're so and so's head of healthcare or whatever. So it becomes really obvious. And DC is a very small town, right? So it'll be really obvious. It was your job, because within most staff, at least the folks I talk to, people have areas of expertise. And so certain hearings, certain committees kind of become their forte.
Jason Feifer: That's so interesting. I hadn't thought about that because I would think, well, these people are behind the scenes. The average person is going to think that Senator Blumenthal is a doofus for not knowing what Finsta is and that's stuck on him. But inside of this world where these staffers are going to apply for other jobs, being Blumenthal's head of tech or whatever the hell means that the next time that they stick their resume somewhere, someone's going to look at it and be like, "Oh, you're a Finsta."
Mary Pilon: No, because if you're applying for other jobs in this world, people also understand this happens. The Finsta hearing is a great example of like, if you go back and watch the whole hearing, he said some really insightful things. He had some really good questions that nobody picked up on. So you kind of feel for the staffers who worked really hard to get someone up to speed against all odds do. And then like one moment somebody slips up and nobody notices the insightful, thoughtful, detailed questions that evoke something useful. I think generally memory is short. The folks I talk to who are involved in the gaffes landed on their feet.
Jason Feifer: Here's the other thing I always wondered about watching a moment like this. Is the senator aware that they messed up in the moment and do they care about it afterwards?
Mary Pilon: Again, depends on the senator. Sometimes they don't know. And that leads to that moment of just you can feel the tension in the air. And it isn't until that happens. Or there's sometimes, like in some clips that we've mentioned, you can hear chuckling, you can hear it and then it kind of comes back. Or sometimes even I had some people describe like, that's when you slip the note, that's when you like ... You do kind of like the high school theater, try to save things. And often they don't care. Often they don't care because, I talk to people a lot about whether these hearings matter or not.
Jason Feifer: Yeah, I wondered that.
Mary Pilon: And a lot of times they don't, in the big scheme of things, right? It depends on whose constituents are watching them, or it depends when these hearings are happening. If it's the day before your reelection campaign, it probably does more than two or three years down the road. It's not the highest stress thing if you have a gaffe on a tech hearing, when you think about all the risks of being a lawmaker right now. There's so many flavors of scandal that could destroy your career. There's so many ways to lose elections. So in terms of the worry checklist of anyone who's in office, this isn't going to crack the top five.
Jason Feifer: So they just move on.
Mary Pilon: They just move on.
Mary Pilon: I think we also have to appreciate that these moments don't land for huge swaths of this country. And I found this stat from Pew that has fascinated me and haunted me that in 2019, they found that most adults in the United States failed a digital knowledge test. And only 23% of the folks they surveyed knew that Facebook owned WhatsApp and Instagram.
Jason Feifer: Yeah. Is fascinating and surprising and reminds you how, when you are immersed in a world, that doesn't mean that other people even have the basics of the thing that you're taking for granted. But also, it reminds me of how this shows up in so many other ways like that famous memed guy who was holding up a sign that was like, get your government hands off my Medicare or something. Right?
Mary Pilon: Yeah.
Jason Feifer: People don't know.
Mary Pilon: So we rag on Congress, but the truth is like, Congress is kind of us. Right? Someone like my dad, the Finsta thing, he wouldn't even ... It wouldn't even register him as a story. He would skip over it in the Washington Post. He just wouldn't read it or wouldn't care about it. It's very easy to be on the inside and kind of snarl on this and that. But then we all go on tweeting about something else really. So even for us, it doesn't last long. But then there's a whole chunk of people that it just never even becomes a joke for.
Jason Feifer: Right. That's true because they don't know what Finsta is, so they don't get the joke. I love the line the internet is a series of tubes.
Voice Clip (Senator Ted Stevens): It's a series of tubes.
Jason Feifer: And I think it's funny. But if you were to say to me, "Okay, smart guy. What is the internet?" I couldn't answer that question for you. I don't know.
Mary Pilon: There's rumors on the internet.
Jason Feifer: Maybe it is a series of tubes.
Mary Pilon: Yeah. In some ways, because of broadband, like that's-
Jason Feifer: It kind of is a series of tubes.
Mary Pilon: It kind of is. So I just think like, just our tech-savvy across the board is pretty low. And so, it's interesting. You could say, obviously right now, our Congress doesn't represent the demographics of this country in terms of age, gender, race, in any way you want to slice it. But from a tech literacy standpoint, we might not be as far off.
Jason Feifer: Oh. And there's one more problem that contributes to all these gaffes. Remember a minute ago when Austin said these staffers are typically very young. Here's one of the reasons why.
Mary Pilon: Just when a staffer gets into the swing of things and really gets good at their job ...
Jason Feifer: Something happens. Can you guess what it is? After the break, we're going to look beyond Congress to where these brilliant staffers go. And also, hint, hint, we'll explore what's happening on the other side of the table during a big congressional hearing when the person being grilled by a senator is asked something like, "Will you commit to ending Finsta?" And they know they are in the middle of a viral moment in the making. What do you do then? All coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So just before the break, I said Congress has trouble holding onto some of its sharpest minds. Let's pick back up there.
Mary Pilon: When folks go to work on the Hill, and a lot of people talked about this, you're not making big, crazy bucks, but you develop sources and contacts and expertise. And Politico actually had a huge story on this in October of this year, about how just when a staffer gets into the swing of things and really gets good at their job, big tech will swoop in and poach them and offer them gobs and gobs and gobs of money. And so there's a big revolving door problem. This happens elsewhere in government, right? This isn't unique to just this issue or Congress, but you can see where it creates problem with briefing because all of a sudden, you've been working with a staffer for two or three years and the lawmaker develops a rapport with them. They become an expert in a certain topic or a certain area of policy they want to own. And then poof, off they go.
Jason Feifer: So how do you solve for this problem? We're going to circle back to that at the end of the show. But for now, let's use this as a bridge, away from Congress and into the halls of big tech where a CEO or some other executive is preparing to be publicly flogged in some hearing. And you know who might be preparing them?
Mary Pilon: So one thing that I thought was a fascinating wrinkle of this is I also talk to people, former staffers who go on to become the people who advise the people who become witnesses. So you're Mark Zuckerberg and you're going before Congress. And there's this whole industry of people who prep folks for congressional hearings. And one of the things they said that I thought was so interesting is, okay, so you're on the receiving end of a Finsta question and it's absurd and you're from Facebook or Google or a big company. Just the same way we hate the media, we also hate Congress, right? There's pretty ... on either side of the isle people hate Congress as an institution.
Jason Feifer: Right. And for that reason, I kind of always wondered why these hearings aren't more combative. There's that famous moment in a 1954 McCarthy hearing when Joseph Welch says.
Voice Clip (Joseph Welch): Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator.
Voice Clip (Joseph Welch): Look ...
Voice Clip (Joseph Welch): You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
Jason Feifer: And it's seen as a turning point in McCarthyism. So today, when someone is dragged in front of a congressional hearing, they know a few things. They know that the public doesn't really like Congress. And they also know that the elected officials interrogating them are very likely to be underinformed about the subject at hand. This would seem to be a pretty advantageous position. It's like getting into a boxing ring with a drunk opponent that the crowd hates. Isn't that a great moment to strike a blow? But they never do. The person being interrogated always plays it straight. And I've always wondered why. But Mary said, that's by design.
Mary Pilon: The advice is if you are in the middle of a gaffe or you're watching someone make a gaffe, it is very bad form to correct or insult a sitting member of Congress, no matter what.
Jason Feifer: Why?
Mary Pilon: So it puts the people ... Just the optics look bad. It looks disrespectful. It doesn't play well on TV. You look smug, which is really fascinating that there's still for all of the dirt and swampiness in Washington, there's still this sense of decorum that if you were in the middle of a gaffe and you were the person from the company, you have to be very, very polite and just keep it together.
Jason Feifer: What it reminds me of in a way is you break up with somebody and then, you're like, "Ah, that person was no good for me." And then your friend is like, "That person was a bitch. I never liked." And you're like, "Fuck you." Right? There's a limit. You're allowed to hate them, but you don't have tolerance when other people hate them. And there's a similar thing, I suppose, going on here where you are allowed to hate your senator. But then, when you see someone else being disrespectful to the senator, you're like, "Oh, well, that's not a good person."
Mary Pilon: Especially with tech it just does not read well, is what people told me over and over and over again, especially because the audience that is watching a congressional hearing is very different than your VC buddies in the Bay Area. So there is like a clash of cultures that's also going on here too.
Jason Feifer: Right.
Jason Feifer: By the way, I looked it up afterwards. There's actually a name for the phenomenon of people hating Congress as an institution, but supporting their individual congressperson. It is called Fenno's paradox. And it's cited as the reason why most incumbents get reelected, even though Congress' approval ratings is in the teens. For that matter, Fenno's paradox can also explain why even very clearly insider politicians continue to portray themselves on the campaign trail as outsiders. So anyway, back to my conversation with Mary.
Jason Feifer: Which I guess makes Zuckerberg's, "Senator we sell ads," answer brilliant, because it was respectful and direct. There isn't anything else he could have said. He could have said, "Senator you idiot, we sell ads." But he didn't need to, because in that case, Orrin Hatch had set himself up for failure. And in being respectful, you also get to dunk on the senator.
Mary Pilon: Right. And he answered with facts, right? So he kept it very factual and short and brief. So I'm sure that whoever prepped him knew something like this was going to happen. That he was going to be asked about some version of this. And he followed the advice, and I think correctly, right? I mean, for all of Zuckerberg's flaws, I think that that was actually handled well, because once somebody's asking you that question, it's like, you're right. Ship is sailed. You can't save Senator Hatch at that point.
Jason Feifer: Although, here's an interesting counterpoint. This comes from Travis Moore, one of the people Mary spoke with who you heard very briefly at the beginning of the show. He worked in Congress for six years, including serving as legislative director for California representative, Henry Waxman.
Travis Moore: Mark Zuckerberg knew what Orrin Hatch was asking. And this was another failure of executes on Orrin Hatch's part. Orrin Hatch knew how Facebook made money. And Zuckerberg understood the question that he wasn't getting asked, but I think it played to his theatric benefit to play awkward. And I think you see witnesses do that quite effectively. For me, that feels more like misdirection and obfuscation than an honest, genuine attempt to undertake to answer the question that has been posed to them.
Jason Feifer: So in other words, the way to dunk on a senator is to act confused by the senator, which maybe isn't just a tactic. It is also reflective of the entire enterprise.
Mary Pilon: Put this in sports terms because that's the curse of my life. It feels like both sides are playing defense. If you're Facebook and you're brought in, you have to play defense, and you're trying to not screw up. Like that's the game. It's not like you're going to reinvent the business there. It's not like you're going to push through some regulation on the spot that's going to triple your profits or whatever.
Mary Pilon: And then if you're the staffer and you're trying to prep a lawmaker, you're trying to make them not screw up. Like at best, if you have someone who's really savvy and really into the topic and really knowledgeable, they might fact find, they might find out something interesting. They might use a hearing as a rallying cry to galvanize support around an issue that really matters. And in that sense it could have impact. But if you're a tech staffer, for example, and you just know this is not your person's forte, then it's also a defense game.
Mary Pilon: So I think that also is part of why the dynamic is so flat because football, for example, you need offense and defense to have a competition. But I mean, I would also argue that our congressional hearings maybe shouldn't be football games, right? That's maybe not the most useful dynamic. But tactically, I think that's a big part of what's going on.
Jason Feifer: So final question. Can we improve any of this? I mean, at the beginning of this episode, I wondered if the gaffe is actually the result of a process failure. And I see now that it basically is. And the failure is this. To the degree that we are willing to believe that any individual member of Congress actually wants to work in the best interests of their constituents, and I'll be honest, I am not always convinced that that's the case, but let's just assume it for a moment. Well, they are trying to do everything at once. And they are likely to be old. And tech is often not a subject that they have total fluency in, and they have very little time to prepare for things, which means that they must rely upon their staff who is usually trying their best, but is also inexperienced and overloaded.
Jason Feifer: And let us not forget, the moment that a staffer becomes more inexperienced is the moment that they might get a better job offer elsewhere. And well, this doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for intelligent governance. Does it? It sounds like a recipe for embarrassed spectacle, which is exactly what keeps popping out of the oven. So again, is there a fix here?
Jason Feifer: You might say, well, companies shouldn't be able to hire away all that great talent from the Hill. But that's not realistic. These people have bills to pay. And also, sure, you could see that situation is nefarious if you are so inclined. And maybe it is. I don't know. But of course, Congress is not the only place where you will find that dynamic.
Mary Pilon: This happens in media too, where people reach a certain point or age where they're like, "Yeah, I don't want to eat cat food anymore. And I could be doing a version of the same job for heaps more money."
Jason Feifer: That's right. And then they go into PR.
Mary Pilon: Exactly. Exactly.
Jason Feifer: I have plenty of friends who worked at a magazine and then went to work for either the publicists who pitch the magazine or the brands who want to be in the magazine. I don't fault them. Those jobs pay way better. It is not our job as individuals to carry the burden of a broken system. If a media company wants to retain talent, it should make those jobs more attractive. And same goes with Congress, which leads us to solution number one.
Mary Pilon: They recently have changed the salary caps for staffers, which will help a little bit.
Jason Feifer: Emphasis on little bit. The change happened in August when Nancy Pelosi announced that the salary cap for senior staffers in the House of Representatives would go from $174,000 to 199,300 a year. The Washington Post's Joshua McCrain had a good breakdown of this in which he wrote in short, that change doesn't impact junior staffers where the real brain drain happens and where salaries may not crack $20,000 a year. And anyway, just because the house raises its salary cap, that doesn't mean house members will actually pay their staffers more. It's up to the individual office. And today a legislative director makes an average of just $80,000 a year, a legislative director. How long is that person really going to stick around?
Jason Feifer: So here's another idea. What if we just rethink the model for congressional staffers entirely? That's actually what Travis Moore is trying to do. You heard from him just a moment ago. He's the former Hill staffer who worked with Congressman Waxman. But now he's running a nonprofit startup.
Mary Pilon: He started Tech Congress and his whole jam is recruiting tech brains to staff the Hill.
Travis Moore: Yeah. We place computer scientists, engineers, and other technologists to serve as tech policy advisors to members of Congress. So think election security, disinformation, privacy, AI. The goal is to build a pipeline for tech expertise into Congress.
Jason Feifer: Because those people who actually know a lot about tech are rarely otherwise plugged into politics.
Mary Pilon: That's kind of their idea is to embed the nerd, bring the nerd to Washington.
Jason Feifer: To do that Tech Congress creates year-long fellowships through which experienced technologists can spend a year advising a member of Congress. It is nonpartisan. The organization has placed people in offices ranging from Republican Tom Cotton to Democrat Elizabeth Warren. And this works for two reasons. One, Travis says there are a lot of people with deep technology backgrounds who want to get involved in big ideas.
Travis Moore: When you talk to our fellows, they will say point blank I wanted to work in tech because I wanted to work at problems at scale. And what I found is at a lot of these big companies, I'm just a cog in the wheel. In government, you really can work on these problems at scale. Within a year of being in Congress, you can be the senior advisor to a United States Senator or Speaker of the House. And when individuals with tech expertise can make it through the front door in Congress, their skills get put to use very quickly and very efficiently.
Jason Feifer: But what were these people going to do? Take a low-level staffer job and work their way up? They're not going to do that. So you have to frame the opportunity differently.
Mary Pilon: One of the models that folks have talked to me about is Supreme Court clerks. That it's a prestige thing. And if it's limited, then people kind of treat it differently, right? You treat it as a fellowship or something that's not a forever thing, but it's a nice line on your resume.
Jason Feifer: And by finding a way to get folks like this into the halls of Congress, Travis feels like he's addressing the real problem here.
Travis Moore: This isn't a technology problem. It's a representative government problem. And people that have the lived relevant expertise should have an opportunity to serve.
Jason Feifer: That's a line that came up a bunch in Mary's reporting from people who worked in the government. It's like, yeah, kind of a mess over here. But also, if you want it to be less of a mess, that's on all of us. We could of course elect better leaders. That would be nice, though maybe impractical. I don't know. But there aren't that many of those roles to go around anyway. There are however, an abundance of roles informing and supporting those elected leaders. And maybe we shouldn't hold our noses at that. Here is Austin Carson again, the former Hill staffer who now runs an artificial intelligence advocacy organization called SeedAI.
Austin Carson: It's really easy to think of like the government or congressional staff or members of Congress as just like kind of idiots or not worth your engagement. You know? I mean, I can't tell you the number of engineers I've talked to that are like, "Ugh, the government. Why would I talk to them?" And I'm like, "You got a real chicken and egg problem here, guys. I get that it's a bummer, but like anybody that's listening that would prefer for the government to be smarter in some way, start thinking about it as these are people, many of whom legitimately came here for the purpose of trying to make the world a better place." And a lot of times what makes people not is being treated like idiots by one party. You know what I mean?
Austin Carson: So, I don't know. I just hope that people would try to engage more and let's move past this idea of everything sucks and it's not going to get better, and be like, "Hey man, everything sucks, and it's probably going to be hard for it to get better, but we should at least try and identify at getting better as like a shared common objective."
Jason Feifer: And look, I'll admit. That comment could just as well be aimed at me because as much as I am an optimist about many things in the world, I am like many people, deeply cynical about politics. And yet, I do feel torn about it and about how my feelings do or do not actually match up against the real world.
Mary Pilon: This got very existential and patriotic in a way I wasn't expecting, but I do think it is, because I think it's really easy, especially if you're in this constant news cycle to ... There's just constant headlines about how terrible the world is. And to be fair, I think following the news is part of being a good informed citizen. But then, it can make you very passive and make you think like, "Well, there's nothing I can do." And it's like, "Yeah, there is. There's a lot that anyone can do. And if you don't like something, change it." That was one of the mantras I grew up with.
Mary Pilon: And so what does that look like? It's not as simple as like we're off to become tech staffers. I'm not saying that at all, but ...
Jason Feifer: Maybe some of us should.
Mary Pilon: Maybe some of us should. There's fellowships we can do right now. It's never too late.
Jason Feifer: But of course, ending this episode on a message about informed citizenry feels, I don't know, predictable, lame. Like, "Okay citizens, go do your thing. It's on us," which is true in theory. But also, people have their own lives to live. So instead, I want to go to this one other thing that Travis Moore said that really stuck out to me. It was ...
Travis Moore: There's not a constituency for Congress being smart. There's just not. People aren't going to write their rep to say increase staff salaries by 20% so that you can retain a smart technologist. But we get the government we demand. And so unless we're demanding that, we will have continued gaffes.
Jason Feifer: What does it mean to create a constituency for smartness? I couldn't tell you exactly, but it's an interesting idea. And maybe the answer is to support or be part of thinking about solutions that just don't seem obvious.
Jason Feifer: Like yeah, no voter is going to get excited about increasing staff salaries on the Hill. If anything, they're probably offended by it. Like, "There go more of my tax dollars," which is why the idea of reframing the very idea of a congressional staffer and turning it into a fellowship that feels more prestigious than drudgery is in a way an answer.
Jason Feifer: If we want to fix problems, we can't just keep trying to open a closed door. I think that's what makes politics so awful. It's just people repeating the same ideas over and over and over again until you hate them even more. So what if we start by just acknowledging that some things are broken and that doesn't mean they're not worth saving. What if we can hold those two ideas in our heads at the same time? Then what happens? Well, I think then we start to look at solutions differently. And maybe, just maybe after that, we want to do something about it.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. But hey, we've talked a lot about technology related political gaffes here. But in researching this episode, I learned about a classic one that everyone thinks is a gaffe, but actually wasn't. I'll tell you about it in a minute. But first, do you want to feel more optimistic about the future? Sign up for my newsletter. It's also called Build For Tomorrow and we'll deliver a regular dose of optimism and ways to become more forward-thinking. Find it by going to jasonfeifer.bulletin.com. That is J-A-S-O-N F as in Frank, E-I, F as in Frank E-R .bulletin.com. And if you want to get in touch with me directly, you can do so at my website, jasonfeifer.com, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @heyfeifer.
Jason Feifer: This episode was reported by Mary Pilon and written by me, Jason Feifer. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. We were recorded by Josh Wilcox at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help.
Jason Feifer: This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you, get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again, that is cki.org.
Jason Feifer: All right. Now, as promised, the gaffe that wasn't. As Mary and I were recalling tech gaffes from the past, we remembered this famous one.
Female: George HW Bush was blown away by a barcode scanner in a grocery store photo-op.
Jason Feifer: And a big deal was made of that at the time.
Voice Clip (Former President George HW Bush): Just like that?
Voice Clip (Narrator): The New York Times said he didn't know how an ordinary checkout counter worked.
Jason Feifer: The story took off because it just seems so true. Old rich guy is amazed by grocery store scanner because he's probably never bought groceries for himself. But as I fact checked this episode, I discovered, oh, not true. Here's what was happening. Bush was being showed a scanner that could also weigh groceries and read barcodes that had been torn or mangled. And there were two good reasons that he would express amazement at this. Number one, that was actually new technology at the time. And two, he was at a convention of the National Grocers Association where they were super excited about that technology. So he was playing along.
Jason Feifer: Now, if you read around, you will also find people who say Ted Stevens is basically right that the internet is a series of tubes and that Richard Blumenthal knew what he was talking about because they had talked about Finsta earlier in the hearing and he just inelegantly asked a question. But I guess that goes along with what we have learned so far here today. Nothing simple is really ever that simple. Anyway, thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer and let's keep building for tomorrow.
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