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Chris Hughes

Thursday, November 7, 2019
7:30pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 01/05/2020, 01/07/2020, 01/08/2020

This event appeared in the series
Cultural Studies

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In 2002, Chris Hughes met Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, in his freshman year, and the two co-founded what would become Facebook. In 2007, Hughes left Facebook to volunteer for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and went on to found his own non-profit social network organization, Jumo. He later purchased a majority stake in The New Republic and became editor-in-chief of the magazine. In May of 2019, Hughes published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, entitled “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook,” calling for government regulation of the platform, and reflecting on the troubling directions that he believed Facebook to have moved since his departure. Hughes is also the author of Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality, an exhortative book arguing for a guaranteed income for working people, to be paid for by one percenters like himself.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream. She is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and has collaborated with a wide range of organizations, including TED, The Aspen Institute, and the Obama Foundation. She won the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and holds an honorary doctorate from ArtCenter College of Design.

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Courtney E. Martin: Hello. So wonderful to see all of you. It’s such an honor to interview someone whose life, the way I see it, sort of intersects with some of the most important political, economic, technological questions of our time. And he’s done it really in sort of the Aristotle-style examined life way, which he outlines in this really good book, “Fair Shot.” 

He is the co-founder of  Facebook, a site some of you might’ve heard of. He is also the co-founder of the Economic Security Project. He was one of the architects of the digital strategy that got Barack Obama elected. Please welcome to the stage, Chris Hughes.

Chris Hughes: Hi.

Courtney E. Martin: All right. 

Chris Hughes: Hey hey.

Courtney E. Martin: So we’re going to get into a bunch of the meaty, interesting, kind of intellectual and political issues that you work on. But I want to start right from the beginning, because you do actually in this book as well, start in the beginning, which is your childhood. You grew up in North Carolina. Son of a public school teacher and a paper salesman. You give the detail that you went out to dinner one Saturday night a month when you were growing up, which, I really loved that fact. 

Chris Hughes: Often at Outback. 

Courtney E. Martin: At Outback steakhouse.

Chris Hughes:  My favorite. When I got to choose, that’s what I chose. Bloomin’ onion.

Courtney E. Martin: Love it. The bloomin’ onion, bold choice. 

Chris Hughes: Sydney Simple Sundae.

Courtney E. Martin: Okay. And you had some really formative experiences that shaped how you thought about economics back then. You probably didn’t have that language for it, but about race and class, and one of the things you talked about in the book was the two contrasting churches you went to growing up, which I thought was such an interesting window into some of what formed your early way of thinking about this stuff. Would you mind talking a little bit about that? 

Chris Hughes: I’m happy to. You weren’t kidding–going all the way back to the beginning. Yeah, the first church. So we did go to two different churches growing up. The first one was called new Jerusalem Lutheran, and it was in the middle of the country. And we went there probably until I was about seven or eight, and I remember it being very familial, very relaxed. I think it’s, the book has been out for over a year, but I talked in the book about how I remember running between the skirts of women in their Sunday dresses and the suits  as a little kid. And it was a community where it felt like everyone took care of one another.

And then the second church we went to, my parents moved, and we moved downtown in Hickory, North Carolina. And we lived two blocks from what is still a very beautiful small town, Southern street. The mansions go up and down the main avenue, there are beautiful big trees, and there’s a church that sits on the corner of eighth street drive, Northwest, and Sixth Avenue, called Holy Trinity.

And that church was really different. There we were at the lowest end of the totem pole. We still had all kinds of privilege in our lives, but we were at the lowest end of the totem pole. And I became very aware of class, and specifically the tools that a lot of the people who went to that church used to ensure that my family knew that we were at the lowest end of the totem pole.

So I felt very sensitized to that at that time. And then that grew as my own life continued and I went to a fancy boarding school and then went to Harvard on financial aid. And that awareness, I think, of those class divisions is still what drives me today, even though my own life has changed dramatically since then.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. Another one of the things you write about that really put you in proximity to difference was the afterschool program you went to, and you talked about being like one of the only white kids, and we were just talking backstage about that. I’m thinking about that a lot these days myself. Can you talk a little bit about how those early friendships, like who were those friendships with and how did they form you? Do you still remember the guys and girls you used to hang out with back then? 

Chris Hughes: Yeah, I remember the faces. I don’t remember all the names. My closest friend was named Richard and he was black. He was, I was a small kid. He was a bigger kid and we became really close. In some ways I felt like he was my both playmate and protector.

And it was a close relationship, but at the same time it was also clear that there were some kids that it was okay to spend, you know, to go over and spend a Friday night with, and then other places where it wasn’t okay. And that was some, it was unclear, is that my parents, is that society, is that school, what is it? But those divisions were really clear to me even then. 

And so, you know, I talk about in the book that as much as we were, you know, middle class, and that did very much color my own upbringing, at the same time, I had all kinds of privilege as a white kid in that afterschool program. I still was treated differently than the other kids who were there and had all kinds of opportunities that they didn’t.

So it was a different experience though, because most of the day I was tracked with the academically gifted kids, being taught all kinds of things, and then all of those kids got picked up right when the bell rang and my parents were working. And so then I moved into a very different sphere, and then on the weekends still another. So, I’d like to think that that’s part of, you know, small town life in a lot of places, but I think it’s increasingly segregated, unfortunately. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. Well, and also an interesting early opportunity for you to shapeshift and experience all these different places that your life has now led you to be a part of.

Chris Hughes: Yeah, you don’t realize it as a kid, you’re just going to after school care…

Courtney E. Martin: Right. 

Chris Hughes: But absolutely. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. So then I love the fact that you basically researched, on the very early internet, so the internet has like been a part of your life from the beginning, about private schools, like private boarding schools. And you applied to a bunch of them, it sounds like really much from your own volition. This was not like your parents telling you about this. 

Chris Hughes: I was ready to go. No, no, it was the opposite.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. And then when Andover offered you a financial aid package that wasn’t enough, you called the admissions officer and explained the situation, prompting them to give you nearly a full ride. 

Chris Hughes: Which I don’t think they like, that I disclosed that now, that you can negotiate.

Courtney E. Martin: Oh really, yeah, exactly. Now everyone’s like, all right. But like, tell me about that 14 year old Chris, I’m assuming you were about 14. Like when you look back on him, are you just like, wow, I mean, where did you get the chutzpah to do that? 

Chris Hughes: It wasn’t chutzpah, it was loneliness. I was really, you know, I did well in school. I was a little, I was nerdy. I liked classical music. I was gay and was not out at the time. And, I think I was also just scared of putting myself out there, particularly with other boys, but to make a lot of the friendships that you need, we can talk all day about what I was scared of. I’m not sure I know everything it was, even in retrospect, but that loneliness made me dream of a place where things would be better.

The grass is always greener on the other side, or one dreams. And so that restlessness got combined with parents who were like, you can always, you can do whatever you want, just go out there and be ambitious. And so I did. There was no Google. So I Yahoo searched best high schools in America, got some catalogs, applied to them, and without having ever seen them, ended up getting financial aid and heading off.

And it was in many ways the most transformative experience of my life and not a particularly easy one. The first year I was in boarding school was, if I thought I was lonely before I went, it was even worse. I arrived with this thick Southern accent. I was still very much closeted. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be and really didn’t make friends at all, but was determined not to go back and didn’t know how to go forward. 

And like a lot of teenagers, was depressed, suffered from depression, and I channeled all of that energy into books. Books became then a refuge for me, and they still are. Books, ideas. And also a drive, to be clear to, you know, be, if not one of the, if not the best, one of the best, in classes. And so I did get good grades. I did do well, and that served me well in that period of my life. But it was a, it was a rockier time. 

Courtney E. Martin: It was a hard time. And that refuge in books–do you remember as a teenager, one of the books that meant the most to you? Like….

Chris Hughes: Just one? 

Courtney E. Martin: One or two?

Chris Hughes: Gosh. “Giovanni’s Room,” I read sometime in that period, the Baldwin book. “Tender is the Night” was a book that really struck me. And I had, I, you know, I…

Courtney E. Martin: Were those for classes or was that your reading outside of– 

Chris Hughes: Those were for classes. Yeah. As much as I think they’re, the private school and boarding school world in the United States is very problematic, it was also a place where I did have really high quality instruction. A dozen people in a class, really curious other students for the most part, and teachers who really wanted to invest. And so that was a kind of environment in which I flourished. 

Courtney E. Martin: That’s awesome. So then you went to this place called Harvard, and ended up with a roommate, that people here have heard of. Mark Zuckerberg.

But before we go down that path, which obviously is a well known one, I was wondering, what–before you ever got that roommate assignment before sort of your life took that direction–what did you think you were going to Harvard to become? Like, did you have an idea in your mind of you were going to be a professor or… 

Chris Hughes: No, I had no idea. I probably would have dreamed of being a novelist and settled for a lawyer or something like that. I dunno. That would’ve been, that would’ve been the orientation.

 I mean, I knew that I needed to, and wanted to, do well. I mean, I was the first, I was an only child, but I was the first in my family to ever get a chance to go to a place like Harvard. I was on financial aid. This was not an opportunity to balk at. And I’d worked hard to get there. And so you know, we founded Facebook in February of 2004. And Mark and Dustin didn’t come back to school that fall semester. And it occurred to me not to come back to school, but I also thought that was a little crazy.

The idea of dropping out to work on a startup, no matter how promising it may seem, wasn’t, not only wasn’t wise, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be at school. I wanted, at the time, I also wanted to work on Facebook and I believed in its potential. But, I didn’t have the same–I had a rare opportunity and I needed to use it.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. I asked that question in part because I was thinking about that you’ve had such an extraordinary life and like so many extraordinary opportunities, but they’ve come with a tremendous amount of scrutiny and pressure, and I wondered, do you ever wish you were like a lawyer, novelist…. 

Chris Hughes: Mm-mm. No offense to either. I tried to write a novel, I think sometime in my late twenties. I got like 10 pages in and. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. 

Chris Hughes: Called it a day. But… 

Courtney E. Martin: You never know. 

Chris Hughes: No, I don’t. I don’t. I’m, as much as my life has had a lot of weird twists and turns, I don’t–I really love what I’m doing now. I love being an activist. I love the work, although it did take me some time to find that calm in professional endeavors. Now that I have it, it’s really fulfilling. 

Courtney E. Martin: That’s awesome. So you were kind of unusual in the founding crew cause you were the communications and marketing guy, not the tech guy. And there’s been a lot written, and I think even you’ve referenced, that there were moments where Mark’s, you know, he was convinced that this could be this massive thing. And at times it was like, can this really be this massive thing? It was like, it bordered on delusional in some people’s minds because it wasn’t what it was now. Do you remember a moment when you were like, “Oh, I actually do think this is going to be a massive thing?” Was it a slow unfolding, or was there like a key moment when…? 

Chris Hughes: It was both. The field goals always kept moving, in the sense that, you know, we started Facebook in February, 2004, it’s just for college students. Most of you know the story, and it exploded at Harvard within a few weeks, and it was initially just an experiment to see, you know, how people would connect with one another.

And then a few other schools came on, a few others, the college market was saturated. Then it became bigger. It became open to other Americans, then it became  global. And  the field goals just kept moving. I do–there was one moment maybe, I dunno, two years in, something like that, where Mark and I were having pizza in downtown Palo Alto, at Pizza My Heart, and he began comparing Facebook to sort of, to Google and the next kind of big platform on the internet. And I remember thinking to myself, “is this guy crazy? Is it getting really be that big and how much would that, is that possible?” 

But at the same time feeling like, because those field goals, because the goal, it had been shifting so often, why not? You know? I mean, maybe. And it would, but even at that moment, throughout that period, it was hard for me to understand why I just didn’t feel it as much as he, or as much as many of the other employees, because in theory, you know, it was an immense opportunity. There was, so many people were signing up. There was, it was so exciting. 

But for him, at least it was, it was a mission. You know, the idea of connecting people to one another was good in and of itself. And I could understand that. And at the time I leaned in that direction and agreed with it, but I also was a bit skeptical of the idea that connection alone was necessarily gonna transform the world. I, the missionary bent to it, it sounded a little bit too much like a lot of the very religious people that I grew up with who were almost blinded by a faith, so much that you couldn’t think about some of the problematic effects of religion or anything else. 

So I stayed, as I talked about in the book for three years, and then went on to something I did feel a mission, and which was to work for then-Senator Obama. 

Courtney E. Martin: Staying just in those early years at Facebook for another minute, I,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           you know, part of what your work now has been about is grappling with the ethics of what you helped create. Right? And so it made me wonder, I mean, you know, I tried to think of myself at like 19 and 20 and 21 and what my ethical quandaries were–it’s like, did you guys have moments as a crew where you would sort of pause and be like, “alright, we are creat–if this thing is as big as it feels like it’s going to be, are we pausing to ask ethical questions along the way,” or was it just, you know, hit the next mark?

Chris Hughes: No. And that, that was a problem. Yeah. And while I think that they’re grappling with that more, I do diverge on a whole host of places where he and the Facebook leadership team have landed, as I’ve been public about. But there wasn’t a lot of of talk about the ethical implications.

I mean, it’s so easy to highlight the positive stories, but you naturally gravitate away from the negative ones. There were customer service features, there were PR, some privacy issues. There were some safety issues, and those things began to be built and built in over time. So there was awareness of the fact that the platform could be used in a negative or destructive way. But, no. There was a faith that, on balance, this was going to be good for the world. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. 

Chris Hughes: Full stop. 

Courtney E. Martin: We will return to that. I want to go to your role in the Obama campaign. You were one of the people who sort of created the whole digital strategy, and you write about in the book, which I thought was really interesting, that people largely chalk that up to, here’s this Facebook guy, he knows tech, he figured out how to create a technological solution to campaigning, when in fact, what you felt like was really different about what you did had little to do with tech and much more to do with something else. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re most proud of around that work?

Chris Hughes: Yeah, the tech in the 2008 campaign was not anything particularly slick, let’s say. I mean, it was helpful to have some tools that have been built, the remnants out of the Dean campaign in 2004, a company called Blue State Digital had built some tools that the Obama campaign was able to contract and buy.

So the tech was helpful and we were able to do things because of the tech. But the real magic of that era was the fact that we had a candidate who asked people to believe again. And to combat the cynicism that was pervasive then, I think has gotten even worse now, and then when he asked people to believe again, there was an opportunity to then say, okay, yeah, I can do something. And for people to raise their hand, certainly to give some money, of course, but also to go and say, actually, you know, organize an event on Saturday. 

And our role as online organizers was yes, to build the tool, to make it easy to like set a time and recruit people to come, but also to say, well, what are you going to do at the event? What’s the agenda? And how are we going to make sure that that work is actually going to help elect Obama as president? So, you know, instead of just talking about how great he is, let’s talk about who are friends who we can recruit, the doors that we can go knock on, the phone calls that we can make in a local field office. That kind of infrastructure building. 

And because that primary was so extended between Obama and Hillary Clinton, what it meant is that as the states became increasingly important, in each state there was an infrastructure, or grassroots infrastructure, that had been at work largely through digital connections for months, if not for years.

And so Obama kept winning in these States like Idaho and Oklahoma and, and unexpected places for, particularly for a black American, like Obama, to be winning with these big margins. And I think a piece of that was the fact that we had the technology that had enabled people to self organize for quite some time. And, but the much bigger force obviously was the candidate who was asking them to believe again in the first place. 

Courtney E. Martin: And did you have any mentorship in organizing? Like how did you make that leap from Facebook to a campaign like that? 

Chris Hughes: We had a great set of organizers on that campaign. Buffy Wicks who’s now, in the, an elected, here in the Bay Area was one of the field leaders. There were leaders in each of the states who were focused on it. And so there was a big network. I tryied to learn as quickly as I could. Fortunately, we had a long primary. I started in February of seven, of 2007, and the first caucus I think was a full year later. So, that was helpful. There was some time to put the plane together at least a little bit before it started down the runway. 

Courtney E. Martin: Do you remember your first time seeing Barack Obama speak and like being aware of him as a candidate? 

Chris Hughes: The first time. I think I met him in the Chicago office for the first time. I had seen him give speeches on television and digitally, and read his books. But I met him for the first time in the office. But I think that’s–I don’t think I’d been to a rally. 

Courtney E. Martin: It’s a little like, as I’m asking, I’m like, I feel like there’s a little bit of a Forrest Gump quality to your life, cause it’s like you like encounter Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, and then you’re encountering Barack Obama in Chicago, and it’s like you’re at every one of the like major moments of our….

Chris Hughes: Well I don’t know if you want to go, you get there, but this is a big part of what I talk about in the book. This was also a problem for me because I had, because Facebook was such a breakout success, and then obviously the Obama campaign, not just won, but we won in a certain kind of way where technology was critical to it. I got very convinced that I could, like, you know, what’s next? I can, you know, I felt like I had the Midas touch, which I was totally wrong about. I had done some smart things, but I had gotten very lucky in multiple moments in my life. And so some of those experiences though, problematically turned into hubris, which, you know, led to all kinds of failures in the period. 

Courtney E. Martin: Well, let’s go there. So then you… 

Chris Hughes: Okay, great. Well, I sort of, teed it up.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah, exactly. Let’s go to the good learning, because that is a really important part of, not just your story, but every, you know, 20 something year old story of you know, coming up against your own limitations and your own worldview.

So you bought the New Republic, famously, and you know, this hundred year old print magazine, I’m sure many of you are familiar, and you had this vision for…

Chris Hughes: Right, to save journalism.

Courtney E. Martin: Bringing it into the 21st century, fixing this business model of journalism, which of course I know all too well is so broken. And it didn’t work. It failed and it failed at a very high monetary cost, but also to some extent, reputational costs for you and feeling like… 

Chris Hughes: Well and for the magazine. 

Courtney E. Martin: And for the magazine. And you’ve said that that was a real turning point for you, which you just started to hint at. But can you talk a little bit about the texture of that turning point? What was the learning there? 

Chris Hughes: Yeah, I mean, it was so as, as you were saying, I bought the New Republic in 2012. You know, it was in a period right around when Facebook went public.  I had money and wanted to do something that was good for the world. I had always been interested in journalism and really believe in its importance in democracy, and I particularly loved the long form kind of journalism. I was, you know, particularly then, you know, a subscriber to the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New Republic, occasionally off and on, the Nation, like I was in many ways, I just couldn’t get enough of this stuff. And the fact that so many of these publications, but particularly the New Republic, was what felt to me like at that point really struggling to make it work, felt like an opportunity. 

And that’s where the hubris came in. I mean, I really did believe that with some smarts, elbow grease and capital, and investment, we could find a silver bullet. We could find some way, not necessarily to make it a super profitable endeavor, but one that would be break even, and I was, yeah, the last person in the world to learn that a lot of these publications had never been break even. They were effectively, essentially, public goods. 

And I spent multiple years trying to apply a kind of market world logic. That well, these things have to be a business for them to work in the longterm, not missing what was right there directly visible to, in retrospect, it felt like everybody but me, which is that these things were public institutions. They were public goods. They were never going to make money, and they were probably going to lose money. They happened to be incorporated as for-profits a hundred years ago, but they’re effectively not-for-profits and just naming that and taking that on as a responsibility. But I had too much, too much ambition, too much, too much optimism.

So I pushed and invested quite a bit of money and pushed particularly in the digital direction because as much as I wanted to hold on to print, I also wanted to bring in new audiences. And then, made some pretty  fundamental management errors. I brought in a CEO who wanted to let go of the editor. It got very messy and the editor at the time and a dozen senior editors left en masse. And we had a, you know, a moment where we had to stop printing for a couple of months. We restaffed, we grew back, but there was no question that the institution was weakened because of that experience, because of my failure. 

But I also think that, in the long term, the New Republic–I sold it a year later, it’s still going–and it’s one of a very special, small set of institutions in American public discourse, which I hope will, you know, stay strong for a long time. 

Courtney E. Martin: How did you get through that? Like how did you, after all of the successes, having that failure? Like did you eat a lot of ice cream and watch a lot of television? Did you have like an awesome therapist? Like how does one? 

Chris Hughes: I had started therapy a little bit before that. That helped a little. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. Did you go home to North Carolina and like hide out for awhile? 

Chris Hughes: No, that was not my style. 

Courtney E. Martin: Okay. 

Chris Hughes: No, I slowed down. You know, I had just been moving it so fast and felt like I needed to like take on everything right now because you know, you’re gonna die soon. That became like some kind of justification for rushing through things and moving very fast. And I was wrong to do that. So the biggest thing, if I think about the time before that and the time after that–so I slowed down and I was more patient with myself, and also hopefully created more realistic expectations, in the long term.

And I also stopped worrying–the other thing that changed for me–was I stopped worrying about what people wanted me to say. And that, I’m still experiencing as a kind of liberation, now, I mean five years later, the Facebook piece in the spring was like, you know, another chapter of that same learning.

 I stopped worrying about all the things I should be doing and instead tried to do what I felt was right. What I wanted to do. And to trust that what I wanted to do was, in the longterm, the right thing. And so exhaling a bit and following that compass is what eventually led me to my work on a guaranteed income and anti-monopoly work and the economic justice work and some of the debates that I’ve gotten myself involved in around Facebook and tech now. And so that has felt much, much better since that experience. I still don’t think though that that’s– I think there would’ve been much better ways to learn those lessons that would have been better for a lot of people. So I do regret a lot of those mistakes on a very personal level.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. I just wanna read–this book is so beautifully written. You may have not liked your novel that you started, but this is actually a beautifully written book. And I wanted to read a little section that you wrote there. You said about this turning point: “it confirmed my suspicion that the superficial praise that I had received for years had more to do with what people wanted me to be rather than who I was.” Echoing, I think, a little bit about what you were just saying. 

“People believed me to be a genius because co-founder of Facebook followed my name. Fast Company once put me on the cover with the headline, ‘the kid who made Obama president,’ as if I single-handedly was responsible. As soon as the house of cards collapsed, people zeroed in on the power of chance in my story and discounted everything else. I went overnight from a wunderkind to the hapless, lucky roommate of Mark Zuckerberg. The truth is somewhere in between.” 

And I thought that was so beautiful and on, you know–we’ve been talking about what a wild Forrest Gump-like life you’ve lived–but also on some existential level, like that is such a universal thing of trying to locate yourself accurately within other people’s perceptions. And kind of explaining our own success and failure in life. And, you know, did we work hard or did we not work hard enough? Was it luck? Was it circumstance? All these things that happened to us. How do you locate yourself within all of that these days? Like, do you think of yourself as lucky plus hardworking? I mean, what, how do you locate yourself in that in between? 

Chris Hughes: Well, very lucky. I do, I do work hard, but I’ve grown to believe that that may not be as virtuous as I thought when I was younger. And I think of that whole section, the words, a couple of years after having written it, that ring the most true is just being aware that so much of social esteem is about what people want you to be.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. 

Chris Hughes: You know, people really want to believe in the myth of an entrepreneur in the United States today, that, you know, that a kid can just go into a garage and do a little coding and become a billionaire because that confirms a myth of American meritocracy. And you know, that we know from the facts that that’s not true, that entrepreneurial-ism is down. And that while there are a few cases of that, for the most part, social mobility in the United States is actually frozen or going backwards. People are more and more stuck in place. But we want to believe the wunderkind story. 

Or similarly, you know, there’s, Graydon Carter once said to me that there’s–the only thing more delicious than a story about the rise of a wunderkind, this was before my own, is the story about her fall or his fall. In other words, like, there’s something about people who’ve been very successful being brought back down to earth, to be told to get into line. And even today, I think we can see all of these dynamics playing out with Mark Zuckerberg and with Facebook and with other people… 

And so I think it’s important that we’re just aware of the roles that all of this is playing. And you know, for me personally, I’ve tried to cultivate, to the extent it’s possible, some healthy distance, and just reminding myself that a lot of the commentary tends to be about what people want to see than what’s there. It’s somewhere in between the two, obviously. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. So let’s segue into your current obsession. You and your husband, Sean, have decided to give away the majority of your wealth while you’re still alive, and you’ve been thinking a lot about the most impactful way to do that. And when you think deeply–I think probably people have already gotten this from what you’ve said–but it’s not like chat with a financial advisor guy who knows like a little bit about philanthropy. It’s like, when you think deeply, it’s like you researched the most like historic policy wonk nerdiness possible. So tell us about falling in nerdy love with guaranteed income. What was that like for you to like discover it and what did you read and who did you talk to and like? 

Chris Hughes: I’ll give you the cliff notes, the cliff notes version, because the research can get dry real fast. That was the challenge in writing the book. But you know, the cliff notes version is, there are so many problems in the world, in the United States, in New York, where I live, in the Bay area, that it’s overwhelming. Even if you can spend a lot of money and all your time working on things, you’re still not going to be able to take on everything.

So no matter what, you have to ask yourself, and I had to ask myself, “okay, well what piece of this puzzle do you want to work on?” And I started with an international development context, and was really, at the time taken by a lot of the research that had been done on what are the development interventions that cause the most change, that help people the most? 

And there’s a good amount of evidence now and the, you know, two economists just won the Nobel Prize this year for pioneering this approach. And one of the things that you see, counterintuitively–and this is, I started internationally, but this is also true domestically, as I talk about in the book,–is that when you give people money, consistently health outcomes improve, education outcomes improve, people are happier. 

And when I talk about giving people money, I am not talking about a thousand dollars to everyone, including Bill Gates, like the universal basic income that Andrew Yang and others talk about that have a cost of $3 trillion.

Instead, what I’m talking about is a guaranteed income. This is what Dr. King and Black Panthers and others have talked about, which is a floor. So that no one in America ever again lives in poverty. And that cash, just giving people money, is a guaranteed way to ensure that that is true.

And so the reason that it was surprising to me, and it’s surprising to most people, because we have, and we’ve been taught, to have a trust deficit in this country. “What do you mean, I just can’t give poor people money. They’re gonna spend it on alcohol, or they’re going to spend it on cigarettes.”

If you look at the empirical research, that fundamentally is not true. That’s not to say that everybody always uses it brilliantly, but we’re seeing right now, with a guaranteed income pilot in Stockton, California, that people are using it to pay for gas, to get to work. They’re, you know, supplementing food and meals for their kids. They’re moving into housing, into safe neighborhoods, all of which increase their overall welfare. 

So I became really, a big believer in cash, not only because of this, all this empirical evidence, but also just the fundamental challenge that I think cash continues, and cash benefits and a guaranteed income continue to pose to market world. In other words, it specifically asks, “why can’t you trust the poor?”

Courtney E. Martin: Right. 

Chris Hughes: And when you ask that question, you begin a whole different conversation in this country about how we need to structure our economy, our markets, and our political system to ensure that it works for everyone. 

The one last thing that I’ll say is that it’s very important to me, when I talk about a guaranteed income, I do not believe that it should replace any of the other safety nets. I don’t think that that makes any sense. And I also don’t think that on its own it’s gonna create the kind of economically just country that we want to live in. We still have to deal with housing policy and healthcare policy and think about good schools. This is not an or statement. It’s an and statement. And I think it’s part of a broader project of rethinking the American economy and restructuring it so that it actually works for the people who need the most help. 

Courtney E. Martin: And it’s not new, right? I mean, you mentioned King and others. I mean, there have been 200 studies on 56 different kinds of pilots. You were working in Stockton. You did this amazing work in Jackson with Aisha Nyandoro that we’ve talked about. But, so it’s not new, and yet it does feel like it’s really gaining some momentum, in no small part thanks to the Economic Security Project, which you’ve cofounded. You know, what is that momentum like? Are you feeling really hopeful? Are you feeling, I mean, I know you’re a bit in a bubble cause this is something you like live and breathe, but has the traction surprised you since, cause you all founded Economic Security Project three years ago?

Chris Hughes: Yeah, three years ago. 

Courtney E. Martin: Have you been surprised at the pace at which the conversation has become mainstream and it’s taken off?

Chris Hughes: Yeah, it’s taken off in a way that I think is generally good, I think. Unfortunately for the country and the big picture, Trump’s election, I mean, my view is well known, has been disastrous for the United States, but I think the silver lining of it is that it opened up an entire new paradigm in American political discourse where people felt more empowered to say what they think and to stop, you know, worrying about if a message is poll tested for the center, and ask fundamental questions. If that guy can be in the White House, then you know, a lot of other people should be able to say their piece and build some momentum. And I think we’re seeing that with the fact that, you know, nearly a majority of  Iowa caucus-goers right now are supporting either Warren or Sanders and their ideas are increasingly mainstream, these big ideas around restructuring the economy. 

So with guaranteed income, it has, yeah, it’s taken off. I mean the news coverage has taken off, and the Stockton experiment, I think, is a big reason why. I think it asks these fundamental questions about the economy and what we owe one another. We still have a lot of work to do. But I do feel very optimistic actually. 

Courtney E. Martin: Well, and you know, one of the things you all often talk about is, as it turns out, the United States already actually runs the biggest cash transfer program in the world, called the Earned Income Tax Credit. Will you talk a little bit about that to help folks understand the connection?

Chris Hughes: Yeah, I mean before eyes glaze over, I’m only going to talk about taxes for two minutes, I promise. But in the American tax code, we have this thing, the earned income tax credit, which has been submerged into the tax code, unfortunately. But the good news is, is that it lifts millions out of poverty every year. More people than unemployment, insurance, food stamps, and housing vouchers combined. It’s a very powerful benefit. And the way it’s experienced for the millions of Americans who get it, is they get a check, for cash, no strings attached. And they can use it in whatever way they see fit. 

Now it’s tied to earnings. So the more you earn, the more you get, which is different than a guaranteed income. But there are ways to structure it so that it could create a floor, more like a negative income tax. And then as people make more money, slowly phase out over time. So it’s a very popular program. It’s very effective program. It’s been studied quite a bit. And virtually all of the democratic candidates for president this go-around have some kind of program to significantly expand it and refashion it. 

The specific policy though that I think is the most promising, is not by presidential candidates, it’s by Rashida Tlaib. It’s called a BOOST act. And it’s the most ambitious of the group and the closest to what I think is needed. 

Courtney E. Martin: So we’re running out of time, and I really want to talk a little bit about this very new work that you’ve been doing, which started with–well, I’m sure it started well before this–but publicly started with this kind of, what many perceived as sort of a bombshell of an article in the spring, where you called for the breakup of Facebook and really took on Mark, who has been a friend, and as you say in the article, like you were at his wedding and you have a personal relationship with, and said, you know, this needs to happen. What led you to decide to publish that? 

Chris Hughes: It was a long time coming. You know, I, after the 2016 election and in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I, like a lot of Americans started paying a lot more attention to not just the missteps of Facebook, but the power. The power that Mark Zuckerberg had, but also the CEOs of a whole host of companies across our economy.

So, as we were talking about with the guaranteed income, the work of the Economic Security Project is about fighting from big ideas that make the case for restructuring the economy to a way that makes it more just, and one of the biggest problems in our economy is the concentration of corporate powers. 

Not just in tech. Three quarters of industries in America have grown more concentrated in the past 20 years. Pharma, agriculture, healthcare, you know, finance–we can go through a long list. And as we started to work on those problems, I knew that I had to, just for me, really wrestle with, iron out my own positions on Facebook as a company. Not only because I wanted to work on this work, but because of all of these increasingly public problems and scandals that were happening. And so…

Courtney E. Martin: Can I ask you a quick question? Do you have a personal feeling, like a personal relationship with Facebook still? Like when you’re using it or Instagram, does it feel like “I created, like, this is kind of partly my Frankenstein?” Or it’s like this separate thing?

Chris Hughes: Yeah, it feels so…

Courtney E. Martin: Cause it was so long ago. 

Chris Hughes: Yeah. To be honest, I don’t really use Facebook at all. I’ve gotten less sheepish about saying that this year, but it’s been a few years since I’ve used it in any kind of, I’ve logged in once, I think, in the past month or so. In fact, all the time, if you go to my, the communications people I work with are like, “why don’t you use social media?” I’m like, “I don’t really like social media.” They say yes, and I say no. So…

Courtney E. Martin: So you’re probably not aware that Facebook has this week rebranded itself as “FACEBOOK,” with all capital letters. 

Chris Hughes: Caps lock. I did see that.

Courtney E. Martin: How’d you feel about that? 

Chris Hughes: I doubt that’s gonna change a lot of their problems. 

Courtney E. Martin: Somehow…. 

Chris Hughes: We’ll see. Anyway, I started writing the piece in January, just not knowing what it was going to be. I thought it was, I didn’t know if I was going to write a speech to give somewhere or a blog post. But it just kept…

Courtney E. Martin: But you knew it would be public. 

Chris Hughes: …coming. Yeah. I knew I wanted to say something. 

Courtney E. Martin: It wasn’t like, let me see if this is a journal entry or an… 

Chris Hughes: I knew I wanted to say something, yeah. And I had been doing some postgraduate work in economics at the New School. And so had been thinking about antitrust and anti-monopoly and doing all the graphs and the modeling and the HHI index and thinking about it in social networking, which is always important to me to feel like I have the confidence to really, you know, not just say, “Oh, I believe this thing,” but actually it’s the right thing to do.

So that had been going on in the background for some time, and I just started writing and it just kept coming, like it was one of those–I’m not a writer. Really I don’t think of myself as a writer, although it turns out, I guess I write more often than I realize, but it was just, it just kept coming.

And so I ended up getting 10,000 words out on paper and feeling good about it. And then I knew that I wanted to publish it somewhere. And ended up getting in touch with the New York Times and they were interested. And so we spent six weeks taking it down to something like 6,000 words and it was still long. But it was just important to me to be able to say what I thought.

And it’s been, and it’s been really liberating, is the only, you know, only way I can put it. It’s been, you know, I haven’t talked to Mark since the piece. I doubt that I will. That’s always the question that people want to know, so I’ll spare you having to ask it. But I also feel like there are some things that are bigger than friendships and that Facebook’s role in the world…

Courtney E. Martin: But can I ask you, how do you feel about that?

Chris Hughes: I feel sad about it, but it feels okay. Facebook’s role in the world has become so problematic. If I did not speak out, then I would by default be effectively supporting the company. And I was speaking out here and there on panels. I had said some things that I know he, and others had told me, that he didn’t like. But it’s one thing to sort of quibble with this, quibble with that. And it’s another to just say what I think. So that has been important to me. And, it’s been liberating and hopefully a good thing for the world. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s, well, it’s both the actual policy, I mean the courage to say like, we need to talk about breaking up these companies is an incredible model, but also I think people with the kind of wealth that you have standing up to their peers is something we don’t see very often. 

Chris Hughes: I know, but also like if I’m not going to do it, who’s going to do it? You know? I have all this privilege in my own life–and I feel the same way about the guaranteed income work. I have all this privilege in my own life. And so, it’s pretty, relatively, in the grand scheme of things, it’s an easy thing to say. It’s even harder–I mean, I have a lot of respect for those 250 Facebook employees that just a couple of weeks ago signed an internal letter saying this exactly, that this policy of allowing political lies to, you know, that that courage is even more difficult, because their jobs are on the line. They have to think about rent and childcare, and quite a lot in a way that, childcare costs in a way that I don’t. And so I think that’s very courageous. 

Courtney E. Martin: So now you all at the Economic Security Project and a bunch of other funders, interestingly and importantly, have come together to create this anti-monopoly fund. And can you talk a little bit about how you see that functioning and why you feel like that’s gonna make a difference? 

Chris Hughes: Yeah, so the idea is to zoom out a notch from Facebook and even tech, honestly, and take stock of the problem, you know. And just to say it in a sentence or two, the concentration and the bigness is not a problem just because big is bad, but because there’s a direct correlation–and there are reams of research on it–to stalled productivity, fewer small business starts and startups, which I know may be hard to imagine here, but actually rates of entrepreneurship in the United States are near an all time low, wages are significantly lower because of the concentration of corporate power. And then, probably most problematically, is the role that corporations have in political discourse. Right? You know, there is just an outsized power. And it is a power that they have to shape the political narrative in this country. And that may be changing at this moment, or it may not. We will see. So these are very real problems. 

And so what we’ve done is–so Economic Security Project and several other funders, so, Pierre Omidyar, so Omidyar network, the Ford Foundation, Open Society, the Hewlett Foundation, Nathan Cummings, a few others, have put together this $10 million, and what we want to do is move it, over the next year and a half, into organizing and activism, research and academia, and storytellers, all on the theme of concentration of corporate power, to advance it. 

Cause right now what’s happening is there are, it’s like there’s an ocean of people coming into this space. Everyone is saying “yeah, that is a problem. I am interested in that. What should we do about Google? What can we do about Monsanto? How does finance fit into this picture?” And what we want to do is be able to provide the financial and social capital to as many people as we can to further that research and further that activism and organizing, believing that this particular moment is a really powerful one.

We’re not gonna solve the anti-monopoly problem in 18 months. That is not the idea. It’s to specifically say, you know, this kind of field building is what’s needed now and we want to be a catalyst in this moment. And then at the start of 2021, evaluate what the next steps are, because this is going to be, you know, a multi-decade kind of fight. It’s taken us, you know, 50 years to get into the problem. It’s going to take us, hopefully not 50, but several decades to get out of it. 

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah, and can you speak a little to, I saw some reaction to your initial piece and some of just the anti-monopoly work generally saying, are we overemphasizing that breaking up these companies would actually create more ethical tech when we also need federal oversight, and et cetera, which I thought your article actually said both things. 

Chris Hughes: It did. That’s what I say all the time. It’s just like what gets covered is break them up. Cause that’s a more, I mean that is the most aggressive of the things that I call for. 

I think we in some cases do need to unwind these mergers. As I’ve said, in Facebook’s case, I think it’s very straight forward what we need to do, but at the same time, we need a new, we need new regulation. And I think the creation of a new agency, I don’t know if it’s inside the FTC or an independent digital authority, but a new agency to regulate tech.

We have it for the airlines with the FAA. We have it for pharmaceuticals. We have it for finance with the SEC and the CFPB. Across these industries, we’ve come to a consensus in the United States that, yeah, we want market-based competition for the most part, but we want that competition to be fair, and we want it to be dynamic and we want to protect Americans from the overreach.

So at the same time as we need the companies to actually compete against one another, we also need a framework that ensures that there’s a level playing field and it’s not an or, like that’s where a lot of the conversation is today. Like, do we need regulation or should we break them up? It is an and statement.

And what’s more is that regulation–it’s got a lot of ands in it too. Cause we got to deal with privacy. We have to deal with speech concerns specifically around political ads and what have you, we have to deal with interoperability and data portability. There’s a lot that needs to be done. And unfortunately, we just haven’t been paying attention in a really, any meaningful way since the mid nineties to these problems. And so it’s going to take some time to work out. But I’m optimistic that we as a people can do it. 

Courtney E. Martin: Such exciting work, and like the guaranteed income work it feels like something that is just gaining momentum in this way that–I mean, I know the opposition is also gearing up for that momentum. 

Chris Hughes: Americans are there though. The vast majority of Americans want more competition amongst these big tech companies. They’re very, it’s very clear. It’s not, I was at a breakfast yesterday, at a conference in New York, and there was a CEO of a company who was saying that, “Oh, these extreme views of Warren and others are just like, not really going to gain traction in the longterm.”

But what you see is that, you know, certainly on the left, but also in the center and on the center right there is a pretty broad consensus that we need antitrust scrutiny of tech…I mean, just the Attorney Generals, 50 Attorney Generals–fifty!–are investigating Google, and I think it’s 47 for Facebook. That means just about every Republican and Democrat attorney general in the United States. And they can’t agree on what to have for lunch, and yet they can agree that we need more oversight. 

And so that’s what makes me really confident that these are not extreme positions. And we’ve done this before with other companies. We had oversight of AT&T,  IBM,  Microsoft, and we can and need and should apply that oversight again. 

Courtney E. Martin: So I’m going to ask one more question, then I’m going to go to the audience. So you all be thinking about what you want to ask. 

Another sentence I loved that you wrote, you said, “in my work today, I purposely choose more modest means to accomplish otherwise idealistic and ambitious goals.” That this is one of the lessons of the New Republic, and sort of the path you’ve traveled is you know, holding on to some idealism and obviously some ambition around what you can do with the wealth that you’ve accumulated and sort of the political knowhow you’ve accumulated, but also choosing to be modest.

And I was thinking about that this balance between modest and ambitious  is a, just like a balance that a lot of guys with your pedigree do not get right. Like I would say this…

Chris Hughes:  Well it’s still a work in progress here. I don’t know. I mean breaking up Facebook is not a modest idea. 

Courtney E. Martin: Right. But I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about that, like do you have a faith tradition? Is it more about some way that you’re able to ground yourself and sort of checking, you know, being able to have these big ideas and this ambition and have this activist heart that you obviously have, but also check in with other people? Like what is your practice of finding that balance between modesty and ambition?

Chris Hughes: I think it’s a couple of things. I think I do have these very dueling impulses of idealism and pragmatism based inside me. I mean, you can even see in the book, there are other people who’ve written books about how we need a UBI that is at the cost of $3 trillion a year. And that that’s possible. And I don’t think that that is possible or desirable. 

And so, you know, some of the reviews of the book were like, “this is not nearly ambitious enough. Like this guy is going to go out there and talk about these policies and yet he’s coming up with such a modestly sized one.”  But I think that like what we talk about with a guaranteed income is doable today in the United States. We can afford it and we could eradicate poverty if we develop the political will to do it. 

And it’s really important to me to, you know, have done the research and have done the math and be sure that what we’re talking about is not just a dream, but is a possibility and a reality.

And believe it or not, I think the same thing is true in the anti-monopoly space. We have had a aggressive oversight action and a long tradition of doing that in the United States. There’s a great new book out called “Goliath” by a friend, Matt Stoller, that goes into it for over the past hundred years. And what feels today, I think this is truly the biggest innovation, quote unquote, of market world thinking, is for ideas that today, like breaking up a monopoly or creating more fair rules of the road, for people to say, “God, that is awfully ambitious.” That’s what they want us to think, because that makes it less likely to actually happen.

And it is important to me to, you know, have done the homework, think about the solutions. And yes, be idealist and be ambitious, but also to be confident that the things that I advocate for are things that can be done in a two to five year kind of time horizon and not the kinds of things that we can only dream about in a hundred years or later.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Questions from you all? There are people in the audience. Looks like we’re turning up the lights a little bit. We’ve got a mic issue. I could repeat the question if that…

City Arts & Lectures: We will go to the center back here and we’ll get the other mic working. Hold on a moment. Question from the center. 

Audience Member 1: Thank you. Very interesting what you were seeing about the monopolies and the power of the economic and social effects it has. I’m not an American. I come out of Europe. The most striking thing about America to me is that Big Corporate can buy its politicians and it can legally do that. 

Now, when you talk about the activism, all the things you’re addressing, how do you think about that? Cause I don’t see a lot activism happening in that area, because that would be already a big step to change the political scene and get the possibility of the things that you want to change, that haven’t changed, because the people who don’t want change just buy the politicians that don’t want to change it. So can you say a few words about that please? 

Chris Hughes: Absolutely, I mean, I think public, I think campaign  finance reform is a critical piece of what’s gonna make our political system work today. There is far too much money in politics in general, and I agree that those who are writing a lot of the checks definitely get their phone calls taken. And I mean, to be clear, that’s also a problematic part of my work is, you know, I talk to politicians too, and I’m aware that I write checks to them  and they take my phone calls, and I try to use that for good. 

But the system is in many ways broken, from a campaign finance perspective. So what I would love to see, and my husband has actually worked on this quite a bit, is public financing of all elections. And a kind of match. In New York City, we have a six to one match. So in other words–and a cap, I think it’s $250. If you give a candidate a hundred bucks, then public dollars, they get $600 to fund their campaign. And what it does is it makes it, it creates a dynamic where politicians are still, you know, responsive to people who are giving small dollar donations and there’s some, you know, return for that in the campaign finance dollars. So I think that that’s a key piece of the puzzle that we’re going to have to get right. And most of those battles are at the state and city level at this point.

City Arts & Lectures: This is from the center. 

Audience Member 2: Hey, Randy, here. Thank you for coming out tonight. I was aware of some, many of the topics that you talked about tonight, but not all of them. And I appreciate the range and the depth of what you delivered tonight. And  you’ve been, you’ve made me feel something. So I guess… 

Chris Hughes: Hopefully something good. I don’t know. 

Audience Member 2: But my question is, how would you advise anybody that hears your message to use the feeling that you’ve inspired in people? What would be, I’m just, I mean, I just feel like a normal guy in the world. What would you advise us to do? 

Chris Hughes: I mean, there are all kinds of very specific things, which we can talk about. But I think that the biggest thing is combating the cynicism. Particularly around the political system and government. I mean, I think that, I mean, I grew up in small, in, as we were talking about, small town in North Carolina in the 80s, and everybody voted Republican. And, but more importantly, there was just this permeating view that government was not the answer. It was prone to capture and failure. And the markets are pretty much gonna solve our problems. They’re naturally self-regulating in theory, this and that. And I pretty much think all of that was wrong.

And now we have a responsibility, I think, to make the case for a broader, socially cohesive society and for a government that works for us. But that’s particularly difficult when government has been captured by a lot of private interests in a lot of cases. I mean, you can look at it with the FAA right now, you know, the Boeing crashes are tragic and horrible, and there’s a couple ways to respond. We can just give up on government regulation, or we can say that, no, we need the FAA, we just need it to not be captured by Boeing and the private airlines. 

And so I’m using that example because I think, again and again, it’s very hard to believe in these big ideas, to believe in the possibility of antitrust, of the possibility of a guaranteed income, or a green new deal, or we can go through a whole, or Medicare for all. But that is again, a very purposeful strategy of those who want to demolish government. 

So I would hope that in a very practical way, feeling that hope and holding onto it and also knowing that it’s going to be challenged, because government does fail in many places because it has been captured in many instances, and yet saying it does, and it can be better. And having that resiliency I think is really important, because I think what you’ll find, or what I found, is that it very quickly colors how you think about all of these political issues. And so from there you can find all kinds of very practical things to get involved in. But that’s the thing that I think is the most important. 

Courtney E. Martin: And that the double standard around how we talk about failure in the government realm versus private market realm. It’s like, of course government fails at a lot of things, because they’re doing really hard, complicated work. And then you have, you know, the, WeWorks of the world or other situations, where like failure, you can fail up and…

Chris Hughes: Oh failure’s celebrated. It’s a great, you know, particularly in Silicon Valley, it’s, we celebrate it, right? Because it shows, it shows risk-taking. I mean, it’s not an excuse for government failure by any means, but it is true that complex systems, you know, are difficult to manage in whatever form. And, the idea that government is somehow immune to that, is, you know, it’s just never going to be true.

Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. Other questions? I think we have a woman up here, I see. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question is to your right. 

Courtney E. Martin: Oh great. 

Audience Member 3: Hi. You’ve talked about breaking Facebook up. Can you explain how Facebook would be broken up? 

Chris Hughes: Certainly. 

Courtney E. Martin: He’s like, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Chris Hughes: It’s actually pretty simple. So the FTC and the DOJ are the two major regulatory authorities who oversee mergers in the United States. And the FTC–talk about government making mistake–erroneously, in my view, approved the Facebook acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. 

By the way, the FTC has been massively underfunded for 20 years. And, you talked to any of the commissioners and they can barely do the kinds of research that they need to see. And they’ve been frightened in many cases for taking the kind of action that they should have taken. And several of the of the commissioners have said that they made the wrong decision in those approvals. But they did approve it.

There is some precedent for unwinding those. Until earlier this year, Facebook’s core product, the blue product, was administered separately from Instagram and from WhatsApp. And we still know that it’s possible to do that. The Germans have an injunction that requires them to operate them separately. Even though right now Facebook is rushing to try to combine them more thoroughly. 

So if we were to break up Facebook, what that would practically mean is unwinding those acquisitions. And you’d have an Instagram, it’d probably be publicly traded. You’d have a WhatsApp, which would probably be publicly traded. Each one of those companies would have their own CEO. They would compete against one another. And again, we’ve done this in the United States several times. It’s hard, but we do lots of hard things and it’s very possible to do it. Does that answer your question? Sorry, I can’t hear.

Audience Member 3: …What we’re trying to achieve? 

Chris Hughes: Fair competition. So when there is a single company, a monopoly in a space, you see a lot of problems. Because they don’t have to compete, they tend to invest less in R&D and innovation. They certainly invest less in security. And as we’ve seen with the constant privacy scandals with Facebook and with WhatsApp, they don’t have to compete with workers as much for wages. And so you see, again and again, when you have a single company that has a monopoly, the quality declines, and in some cases prices can rise. That’s not really the problem right now with Facebook. 

But you can see–look at airlines. There are three major airlines right now. And just 15 years ago, there were several more. Airlines right now have some of their lowest levels of customer satisfaction, the rates are very high, and you can measure the economic exploitation, the extraction of the economic rents as a result.

So the competition that would come from a world where Facebook would compete with Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, I think would be a much better world economically. And importantly, we would still need the kind of regulation to ensure that consumers are protected in a basic way from their privacy rights.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from your left. 

Audience Member 4: Hi. When you look at trying to address like income justice and trying to look at obviously not equality, cause we realize that that’s probably not, again, a reasonable thing in this lifetime, how does your program look at addressing, when we look at systemic racism in this country, especially things around our prison system, for example, and all of the things that are factors of that, when people come out and deal with difficulty in finding housing and finding jobs and all of those factors. How does your program take into account those factors when addressing income equality? 

Chris Hughes: I think the biggest, or one of the biggest, barriers when it comes to economic justice work is the systemic racism that continues to exist in the United States. And the way that it crops up for us the most is in the conversations around trust. You know, you see it all over the place, unfortunately, and it’s often lightly coded. Like, you know, “if you gave me the money, I would use it well, you know, I would, you know, pay for my kids’ books at school, but those other people, the other people might be on welfare, for instance. You just really can’t trust them because, you know, they do a lot of the drugs or something.” You know, like, it’s very lightly coded in my view, this idea that we can’t trust the other, and specifically black and brown people.

And that has been a, again, a very specific ideology that emerged after the civil rights movement in the 1970s and moved forward. And it’s been a wedge that we’re still seeing driven between poor or working class whites  and communities of color so that they don’t organize together in order to fight for economic justice and the abolition of of systemic racism.

So I think we have to talk about race. And I think Mayor Tubbs, for those of you who haven’t tuned into what he’s doing in Stockton, California, I mean, he is able to do it in a way that is really unlike any other leader that I’ve seen, because he talks about what it’s like to struggle and to not be trusted and to have to overcome that deficit day in and day out, but in a way that makes sense to Stocktonians, whether they’re African American, Latinx, or white, because it makes the case that you know, the economic injustice is something that people are experiencing across the board. Even if it’s also true that black and brown people are experiencing it in a more extreme way. So he is, and other leaders too, are able to make the case for this as an and statement.

And I think that that’s what we have to do. I think you see Elizabeth Warren doing this when she talks about black maternal health challenges in a way that is really inspiring. Cory Booker has spent time talking about it. Anyway, there’s real leadership on this.

So I’m hopeful that we’re turning a corner, but gosh, this has been, you know, this is at the core of the American project in a problematic way. And so it’s gonna take a very long time… 

Audience Member 3: But more specifically, like are people, because people who have been incarcerated are so often, like they lose the right to vote, they lose their right for housing, they lose their right for jobs. So are they people who are prohibited from participating in these types of programs, or are they…? 

Chris Hughes: No, no. It’s inclusive. It’s inclusive of. It must be. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back and center. 

Audience Member 4: Hi, Chris. My name is Chris.

Chris Hughes: Hi Chris. 

Audience Member 4: Little context for my question. I work in higher education here in the Bay Area and I have some personal interest in research and digital behavior, online identity, digital literacy. And hearing your story about your role, or excuse me, that education played in your life and curious–conversation we’re having here tonight, are complex issues around digital literacy and technology and what role it plays in our life. Curious of your opinions about the role education has in society and technology and digital literacy. 

Chris Hughes: Courtney’s writing a book on this, so… Maybe not the digital literacy piece, but… 

Courtney E. Martin: Certainly the role of education, but you are a incredibly studied person. I mean, I think that that is part of what I think you’re speaking to, is your ability to like read and absorb and research and now you’re back at the New School. And like, you know, I think a lot of folks, I mean we often talk about low income folks who aren’t informed, but actually I think a lot of people with the amount of wealth you have don’t spend the time you spend understanding these issues and reading these kinds of books and… 

Chris Hughes: Yeah, but I mean, I love learning, but let’s be clear. Like, I love learning because I was lonely as a teenager and like practiced it and really got into it. So it’s hard to, you know, I think it’s also important not to overly fetishize education in particular as, certainly as a tool for social mobility in the United States, or, you know, something that leads us to the tyranny of experts. I think that it can be over done. So I think we need a better, stronger education system, particularly in the early years with universal pre-K and a much more equitable system at the elementary and middle school level.

And a lot of that starts with teachers. I mean, my mom was a public school teacher, as we were talking about at the top of the hour, and making sure that not only that they’re getting you know, paid well, but also have the resources and support to keep learning themselves and to have that be contagious.

So I’m generally somewhat–this might not make me very popular in your world. I’m generally somewhat skeptical of a lot of the digital learning  innovations. I still read print books, I like it that way. But I do think that digital literacy is critically important, so that people can tell the difference between what’s fake news and what’s not.

I think the responsibility starts with the platform. Let’s just not have fake news. And, let’s make sure that kids  are educated so that they can understand the difference. So I think that’s, I do think that’s quite important. 

Courtney E. Martin: Take one more question and then I have a final question.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is from your left at the back.

Audience Member 5: When you talk about breaking up Facebook, you only mention breaking up the way it was. Are there any thoughts about breaking up Facebook itself into more than one company? 

Chris Hughes: There had been some, you know, a lot of that conversation. There’s some folks who think about Messenger, but I haven’t seen a viable plan that seems possible to me, in the short term, for the blue product, for the But you know, there are a lot of people working on this and part of what we’re doing is trying to make this conversation robust. So in principle, I’m not necessarily opposed to it, but I haven’t yet seen a way forward.

And I should say too, just so you don’t leave thinking that I just want to break up every tech company that’s out there. I think that there, let’s be clear, there are a lot of other behavioral remedies which are important and have, you know, again, we’ve used in the past. So you could take Google, you know, we could require Google to adopt a nondiscrimination policy so that it doesn’t prioritize its own products, like Maps or Reviews or what have you, in search results. It’s more or less what we did with the Microsoft settlement 15 years ago. You can own the operating system, but you got to allow Netscape to come on there with Internet Explorer. You can’t make it the default. So those kinds of structures are incredibly important as well. And I think are particularly applicable in the case of Google, or we could talk about Amazon, or some of the other companies. 

Courtney E. Martin: I want to end with a little piece of the end of your book. You have become  a father. You have a two year old son and one on the way as well. And you wrote about your son, “when he is older I will tell him that I was part of the early stages of a great company that revolutionized how billions of people communicate, and a campaign that elected America’s first African American president. 

I will be honest about my mistakes. I will tell him that my ambition got the best of me at times, and I will encourage him to feel no shame about embracing modest means to achieve idealistic ends. He will hear the story of where and how his grandparents grew up, how hard they worked to provide for me, and the values they pass down. I hope he will learn to appreciate their work ethic and commitment to leaving the world a better place than they found it. 

And I will tell him what I know to be true in my own life: I got lucky. That the reason that we are wealthy is not because of a gift of brilliance or decades of my own hard work, but because a new economy at the start of the 21st century created massive financial windfalls for a select few, like us, overnight. I will tell him that the same forces that make our fortune possible make it very difficult for the rest of America to get ahead.

My hope is that I will also be able to tell him that I spent the rest of my life helping to give others a fair shot.” 

I think that’s so beautiful, and I wondered if you would talk a little bit more about the ways in which you’re thinking about your children and the legacy and sort of that balance between luck and legacy that you’ve lived and how you’re going to talk about that with them.

Chris Hughes: One day at a time. It’s the hardest, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done, and in many ways it’s the hardest thing I’ve done. You know, I, before my husband and I decided to have a family, we thought a lot about what does it mean? I mean, our kids are going to grow up in this fancy house and have all these resources and this is not how we grew up, and what are the ethical implications of that? What kind of responsibility do we need to teach them? And what happens if they, you know, don’t turn out so well? And it’s definitely possible. You don’t have control over these things entirely, maybe a little bit. 

And the short answer is, I still don’t know. I mean the guiding lights are trying to spend as much time with my, I mean, my son’s only two now, but with him as possible. I want him to go to the public school in our neighborhood in New York. I want him to understand where he came from. 

And I most importantly want him to understand what it means to be a part of a community. That he is not in it on his own. That a lot of people are working, have worked in the past, and are still working everyday to take care of him, and he has a responsibility to take care of others. And so my hope is that if I can create that kind of foundation, that foundational set of values, that he can take it from there, but we’ll see. 

Courtney E. Martin: Can’t wait to see what that guy becomes.

Chris Hughes: Me too.

Courtney E. Martin: Thank you so much. This has been such a wonderful conversation. 

Chris Hughes: Thank you, Courtney. Thank you so much. Really nice to be here.