RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is on fire about infrastructure.
Specifically, Warren says, America needs to resume investing in projects like roads, bridges, and power grids — as well as education and basic research — that enable future innovation.
“We have all helped build the world in which others can build more,” the Massachusetts senator said today at the Code Conference, a gathering of the tech industry elite. Roads, bridges, and so forth: Past generations’ governments built these things so that people today can start and grow companies without having to lay out their own transportation networks — or police forces.
“Then some people come along and they lay down the seeds that produce success, and god bless them that they do that.”
You’d think that a rallying cry like this would go over well in a crowd whose entire existence, from computers to the Internet, was enabled in part or whole by federal government research investments.
You’d be wrong.
Although Warren bubbles over with enthusiasm when she’s talking about the need for these kinds of investments, or the need to take a closer look at fast-track trade agreements, or the need to increase (on an inflation-adjusted basis) our investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, her enthusiasm did not translate to audience engagement.
Halfway through her onstage time, a good proportion of the crowd had their noses in their white iPhone 6+s. For the last quarter hour, the sound of cocktail conversation from people who had drifted out of the auditorium grew louder and louder.
Granted, Warren clearly came with talking points, and she stuck to them: America spent much more on infrastructure in the earlier part of the 20th century, she said, and started spending less in the 1980s as the demand for tax cuts ate into government’s capability to spend money on big projects.
“This is part of what it meant to be in America: We invested in the future,” Warren said of the past. Today: Not so much.
“It seems to me that we’re just underinvesting and underinvesting and underinvesting in [infrastructure],” Warren said. “And as a result we have an infrastructure that is crumbling under our feet. We have an education system that is failing our students every day.”
But even allowing for the talking points and her evasiveness about whether she’d consider running for president, the pro-tech, pro-education message seemed to fall a bit flat with this tech-centric crowd. Even conference organizer and onstage moderator Kara Swisher noted that Warren was getting a little “wonky” for the crowd.
Silicon Valley really doesn’t have time for U.S. politicians, it seems — even when those politicians are talking about bread-and-butter issues that would deliver more investment opportunity at home.
“I do want to see more people in the tech industry engaged in government,” Warren said.
“The only way we get change in this country is if enough people say ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m fed up with this,'” and then demand that their representatives make a priority of investing in infrastructure, education, and research.
“We have to make these issues salient and not wonky,” Warren said.
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