Andrew Cuomo is leaning on tech billionaires to help New York rebuild

Andrew Cuomo and Eric Schmidt walking through a school.

Andrew Cuomo (center) and Eric Schmidt (far right) tour a school in New York in 2014. | Alejandra Villa-Pool/Getty Images

Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates are being asked to “reimagine” New York. Not everybody loves that.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is leaning on tech billionaires to rebuild New York after the coronavirus — a reminder of how the mega-rich are consolidating their power and expanding their influence even as they offer to help respond to the pandemic.

Cuomo has tapped Bill Gates’s foundation and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to “reimagine” New York’s economy, health care system, and school system, the governor said in back-to-back briefings on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been chosen to “revolutionize” online learning for the fall and was asked by Cuomo on Tuesday to develop a “blueprint” for how to do so.

And on Wednesday, Cuomo invited Schmidt to appear at his closely watched daily news conference, where Schmidt said he would focus on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband access as the chair of a new commission focused on organizing New York’s economy more around technology.

The appointments will undoubtedly give the two tech billionaires substantial influence in shaping what New York looks like a year from now. And amid a refreshed debate about the role of the ultra-wealthy in society, tapping the former Microsoft and Google CEOs will only increase the concerns raised about this plutocratic power, especially from voices in Cuomo’s own Democratic Party.

Using the word “visionary” to describe Gates and Schmidt on separate occasions, Cuomo portrayed their involvement as acts of benevolence and repeatedly thanked them for their service. And yet the two initiatives are offering a way for private citizens to reshape how 20 million people in New York will live — none of whom voted for Schmidt or Gates (neither of whom technically live in New York).

Details are scarce about exactly how much power these groups will have beyond issuing recommendations or whether their work will be public. But Gates could suddenly have the ability to recommend what types of things are taught to the state’s students in a “reimagined” system. Schmidt could encourage the state to significantly embrace remote health care services that could be controversial. While both have been successful business leaders, the concern would mirror the broader criticism of billionaire philanthropy: that this “help” offers a few wealthy people some undemocratic influence over American public policy.

Gates has burnished his reputation during the coronavirus, emerging as a ubiquitous expert in the media and earning applause for his early (and unheeded) concerns about a possible pandemic. But for all his success in public health, Gates’s record has been viewed as far more mixed when it comes to education work, which is a second pillar of the Gates Foundation’s policy agenda.

“When it comes to US education, though, we’re not yet seeing the kind of bottom-line impact we expected,” Gates candidly admitted in his annual letter earlier this year. “The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite.”

That made the decision to tap Gates more controversial. A number of teachers unions, who have fought bitterly with Gates-funded forces, voiced outrage over the announcement.

The exact scope of Gates’s work with Cuomo is unclear, beyond that the foundation would convene a group of experts to explore questions like how technology can be used for virtual learning in schools and colleges.

Cuomo has appeared drawn to tech leaders like Gates and Schmidt for their willingness to think beyond a narrow response to a defined issue. Cuomo said he is seeking to use the current crisis as an opportunity to build a stronger school system.

“His ideas and thoughts on technology and education he’s spoken about for many years,” Cuomo said of Gates. “But we now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas.”

Cuomo spoke similarly gushingly of Schmidt, calling him “the best mind in this country, if not on the globe” to incorporate technology into the economy of the future.

“Let’s look at what we just went through. Let’s anticipate a future through that lens. And tell us how we can incorporate these lessons,” Cuomo said.

That’s when Schmidt appeared via videoconference, pitching the same crisis-as-an-opportunity messaging.

“We can take this terrible disaster and accelerate all of those in ways that will make things much, much better,” Schmidt said. “My own view is that these moments are a chance to revisit things that are not getting enough attention, and we have systems that need to be updated.”

Unsurprisingly, those on the left aren’t taking kindly to the rollout of Cuomo’s kitchen cabinet. Here’s activist Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014.

Then again, the criticism of Cuomo for his ties to Schmidt isn’t new. Cuomo consulted Schmidt back in 2014 over how to deploy technology in schools, which some watchdogs saw as a potential conflict of interest for Google’s then-current CEO.

Schmidt is also a longtime Democratic powerbroker and major donor. And yet the public embrace of tech billionaires like Gates and Schmidt is particularly striking as the Democratic Party grows significantly more uncomfortable with these displays of affection toward Silicon Valley and its leaders. Cuomo has been increasingly speculated about as a future presidential candidate.


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