Rewired: Tim Wu’s Fantastic Foray

What happens when a leading tech theorist absorbs the rays of electoral politics?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2014
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“States can block a merger if they think it’s not good for the people,” Wu said, referring to the powers of the New York State Public Service Commission, which was to announce its decision on the merger in October. “States should have special concern for mergers that involve life’s necessities, like health care and telecom, because these affect their citizens. Telecom is clearly a utility. We need to talk openly about having an electric bill, a food bill, and an information bill. Food, housing, information, transportation, energy — these are the basics.” Wu compared the average Time Warner bill of $105 to the average Comcast bill of $156 and warned of a price hike that would cost New York cable customers $1.6 billion per year, should the merger go through. “The executive vice president of Comcast said prices will continue to rise,” said Wu. “On the other side, he says, ‘We’ll bring in innovative services.’ What I think people care about is prices. When they want excitement and innovation, they turn to the Internet, not the cable company. There’s nothing in this merger that’s of public interest, so the state should block it.”

The merger had been on Wu’s radar long before he entered the LG race — he wrote an article for the New Yorker website last February called “The Real Problem with the Comcast Merger” — and as a policy issue it flowed nicely into his conception of the LG as a position that “uses the power of the office to shine attention on important things that aren’t in the public consciousness.” As president of the state senate, the LG has a legislative function, casting the tiebreaking vote, but Wu saw an expanded, creative role. “He or she should be a policy entrepreneur, constantly trying to figure out what policies would make New York better, thinking fresh about some very old problems, and moving the entire state apparatus in the direction of policy entrepreneurship.”

Outside the Elmhurst senior center, Wu and Teachout caught a cab to their next event. Later, they would head up to Kingston to speak to the Ulster County Democratic Women, never imagining that, by the next morning, their campaign would shift into a whole other gear.

JULY 23.
The streets of Manhattan were clogged with cars, but Tim Wu bypassed the gridlock. Astride his black 1971 Raleigh racer, Wu, wearing a dark suit and helmet, pedaled past luxury high-rises, banks, chain stores, and FOR RENT signs in the windows of small businesses. On this hot day, Wu had the wind at his back.

That morning, the New York Times, on its home page, ran a long exposé titled “Cuomo’s Office Hobbled Ethics Inquiries by Moreland Commission.” The Moreland Commission was an anti-corruption panel convened by Cuomo in July 2013 and then abruptly disbanded the following March after the governor struck an ethics deal with the legislature. The Times revealed possible interference by Cuomo’s office in the panel’s probe into the campaign-finance activities of the governor’s allies, and reported that Preet Bharara ’93LAW, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York known for his aggressive prosecutions of insider traders and terrorists, was investigating the commission’s shutdown.

The story in the Times was not a shock to Wu — the Moreland affair had been percolating for months — but he understood that political manna had fallen. This development was all the more timely in that the Cuomo campaign had, the day before, initiated court proceedings to contest Teachout’s residency status. Though the outcome of the case was never in doubt, Teachout’s shoestring campaign (her war chest amounted to about 1 percent of Cuomo’s $32 million) still had to cover the legal costs, which it did through crowdfunding. It was the sort of tactic Wu had in mind whenever he compared monopolistic companies to entrenched politicians: “Both do great stuff for a while, but then there’s a turning point when a politician or a company becomes less interested in doing good things, or in improving its product, and starts to think it needs to destroy its competitors, or create enormous barriers to ever being challenged.”

Wu rode his Raleigh up to Teachout–Wu’s garment-district headquarters on Seventh Avenue. The campaign had made camp in four small, bare-bones offices of generic desks, forlorn phone jacks, and fire-resistant carpet. In one of them, Nona Farahnik ’12LAW, Wu’s former student and teaching assistant, and now his campaign manager, was on her laptop monitoring the fallout from the Times story. Another room contained a desk, a chair, and a placard of Teachout and Wu standing on a rooftop against the Midtown skyline.

Wu, a fan of science fiction and Kafka, might have appreciated these nondescript rooms as an apt setting for some secret transformation. And as the son of scientists, and as a heavy analytical thinker, he could hardly have entered politics without the curiosity of the laboratory savant sipping a brew of known effects, to see what it would do to him.

He was scheduled to meet with tech entrepreneur and liberal political mover Bill Samuels in an hour, to get some advice.

“I’m probably not going to come with you, so I can help blast things out,” Farahnik told him. As Wu began to suggest that it would be good for her to meet Samuels, Farahnik said, “Actually, I think I’ll come with you. The other thing,” she said, “is that there might be a rally at four p.m. in front of the legislative offices. Maybe you could stop by before dinner. You should, if it happens.”

The synth-pop anthem “Anything Could Happen” by Ellie Goulding shook the American-flag-draped wall and the bookcases of the Greenwich Village duplex where Tim Wu had come to speak. About thirty-five people filled the living room and the small backyard. Many of them, like John Love ’13LAW, who lived there, were Wu’s recent students, and had paid sixty dollars to eat hummus, drink beer and wine, and hear the professor. The bookcases contained red-bound law books, The World Atlas of Wine, a collection of Onion spoofs, and, on display, a copy of The Master Switch.

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