Marco Rubio Wants to Be The Tech Industry’s Savior
Joe the Plumber is so 2008.
This election season, tech startups are in. Specifically, startups that are part of the sharing economy or the on-demand economy or the gig economy. Whatever you call them, they’re being name-checked by presidential candidates on a regular basis, but few have given this industry more attention than Marco Rubio, whose book includes a chapter on “Making America Safe for Uber.”
That was the topic of conversation today when Rubio took the stage at New York City’s Civic Hall, a co-working space for civic-minded startups. There, he talked at length about how, as president, he would fight to reduce the regulatory and financial battles startups like Uber and Airbnb face.
Rubio isn’t the only candidate who’s been courting the tech set over the last few months. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have made visits to Silicon Valley. But it’s Rubio perhaps more than any other candidate who’s been telling them precisely what they want to hear, from his thoughts on deregulating the sharing economy to his stance on immigration.
Speaking before a group of entrepreneurs, Rubio likened this moment in time to the Industrial Revolution, another point in history when the United States faced new questions on regulations and worker rights thanks to a wave of innovation. “We’re not experiencing an economic downturn. We’re experiencing a massive economic restructuring,” Rubio told the audience, which included the CEO of Handy, an on-demand cleaning service based in New York City.
Rubio spoke at length about Handy, holding it up as an example of the thorny worker classification issues the on-demand economy is facing. Rubio blamed the United States tax code for requiring these companies to either classify these workers as full-time W2 employees or 1099 independent contractors.
“Neither makes perfect sense,” Rubio noted, adding that as 1099 contractors, these workers often don’t enjoy the benefits they should. Rubio stopped short of proposing a solution to this problem, as so many other candidates have done, but he did point to Germany’s third classification—the dependent contractor—as one answer. This category, he said, “allows professionals to work for a single company, receive benefits and protections, and yet still retain control over their own work.”
Rubio also acknowledged the role that incumbents like the taxi industry often play in pushing back against businesses like Uber. “They find some kind of public safety argument, and they use it to create a roadblock,” Rubio said, adding that it’s important the public elects a candidate “who won’t fall for that.”
That was refreshing to hear, says Andrew Rasiej, founder and CEO of Civic Hall, who hosted the event. “He doesn’t seem to want to protect incumbent interests who are using their political influence to prevent innovations,” Rasiej says. “He was also aware that these innovations create new monopolies and present new problems.”
Immigration at Issue
Rubio went on to lay out his immigration platform, pushing for an increase in H1B visas for skilled workers, an issue that tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg have been actively lobbying for. (Zuckerberg has also been a financial backer to Rubio in the past.) But the Senator went even farther than the H1B visa issue, also calling for broader reforms to the legal immigration system, including “a merit-based system” that gives people a path to citizenship. “My argument is if you’re the best at what you do on this planet, I don’t want you here temporarily,” he said. “I want you here permanently. I want you to become American.”
This is precisely the type of thing the tech industry likes to hear. And yet, Rasiej says, that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to follow through. On the topic of immigration, Rasiej points out, the biggest issue is not whether skilled workers are allowed into the country. It’s whether or not they’ll be able to become voting citizens. That’s an issue on which most Republicans and Democrats fundamentally disagree. Until that issue is resolved, Rasiej says, the topic of immigration reform is nothing but a political “piñata.”
“He’s pandering to the tech community,” Rasiej says regarding Rubio’s H1B visa stance. “It’s easy to say, and he’ll get [the tech] vote, but he can’t do anything about it, no matter if he asks for one million visas or one.”
Promises to Keep
Rubio’s immigration platform wasn’t the only one that technologists gathered took issue with. On stage, Rubio also talked about reigning in the federal safety net and why he doesn’t support raising the minimum wage. “I don’t want to make people more expensive than machines,” Rubio said.
For Martin Roeck, a member of Civic Hall, who’s originally from Germany, this answer fell flat. “Millions of Americans are working 40 to 50 hours a day and they barely survive,” he said. “As a government, you have to provide enough of a safety net and a minimum wage for people to be happy.”
Rubio did concede that finding ways to retrain workers through alternative education would be crucial to ensuring that the people who are displaced by this new economy can still make a living in the new one. And yet, Rasiej says, Rubio’s approach to education—that is, to leave it in the hands of state and local governments—means Rubio doesn’t have a clear plan for training more computer and math teachers, which the country desperately needs to train these people.
“He says leave it to states,” Rasiej says, “But what if the states cut all the budgets?”
That said, it is encouraging to see Rubio lay out any sort of tech platform in a campaign season that has, so far, been high on hype and light on detail. As the campaign season continues, we’ll no doubt begin to see more candidates’ tech policies take shape. Like Rubio, they’ll position themselves as advocates for the industry, and along the way, they may propose some worthy solutions. Technologists, so used to being at odds with the government, will likely welcome these commitments. And yet, as the tech industry becomes an ever more important base for these candidates, it will be crucial for the leaders of the industry to weigh the appeal of these promises against the likelihood that candidates can actually keep them.
“The first rule of public speaking is know your audience,” Rasiej says. “So, to that degree, Rubio’s doing his job.”