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"These are not startups." Elizabeth Warren is worried about big tech -- and big banks -- influencing politics

By Dennis Keohane , written on May 28, 2015

From The News Desk

This morning, Massachusetts Democratic senator and human Wall Street bullshit meter Elizabeth Warren stopped into Greentown Labs, a clean-tech hardware incubator space in Somerville — Boston's version of Brooklyn. The senator, who has continually been forwarded as a potential threat to Hilary Clinton's seemingly preordained Democratic Party presidential nomination, took a tour of the manufacturing, prototyping, and shared office space, meeting and greeting some of the startups that call the facility home.

While Warren has denied any intention of running in the 2016 Democratic primary, she has continued to gain media attention for her candid disdain toward the meddling of Wall Street banks in Washington, D.C.

Here is just one of many gems from a recent Bloomberg Business feature on Warren:

“Today I am coming to the floor not to talk about Democrats or Republicans,” Warren began her speech, “but to talk about a third group that also wields tremendous power in Washington—Citigroup.” With that, Warren turned Citi into exactly the kind of villain so many people suspect lurks in the backrooms of the Capitol.
While the big banks' influence in politics seems to be the topic of discussion in media and beyond since the bailouts of 2008, few senators have been so brazen in pointing out the problems that come when big money combines with the big ambitions of politicians.

So when I asked Senator Warren this morning, who had spoken at Re/code's Code Conference just a couple of days ago, whether or not she was concerned that some tech companies — that many may still view as startups — were gaining more influence due to their money and power, she did not hesitate in making her point.

"These are not startups, and that's the point," Warren said. "The question is, what happens when they become rich and powerful companies and what kind of policies do they follow, what do they ask for in Washington."

Referring to Greentown Labs, the senator said, "For me, this is the best of what America has to offer: opportunity. We make the investments in infrastructure, investments in research, and investments in education, and this is what it yields. It yields the people who are here in Greentown Labs, turning it into some extraordinary ideas, products, and changes for the future. That's a level playing field, and that's opportunity."

Warren went on: "My concern always is when those who have money and power start to try to influence policies in Washington," she said. "Because the tilt then is not towards the creators, the innovators, towards the startups, but the tilt is towards those that are entrenched and who want to see laws and rules to make sure startups don't threaten them, who want to see laws and rules and make sure their profits grow at the expense of opportunity for others... That's the thrust of idea: How are we going to get a level playing field, and how are we going to unleash the kind of creativity that our people are capable of?"

I also asked Warren about comments she made at the Re/code event about the growth of the on-demand workforce and their rights, especially for companies like Uber. At Code, Warren said, "Our only chance for survival is to innovate our way out of this...We’re not going to stop tech so that lots of people will work. That’s like saying, ‘Let’s get rid of heavy equipment and let people dig with a spoon.’ That won’t work.”

When an audience member at the Code Conference asked her whether on-demand contractors should be classified as workers, the senator responded by saying that work is changing in America, but also that companies are using freelance contractors in ways that were not originally intended.

"I think it's a real problem," Warren said. "I think that [the] Department of Labor is looking into this, and I think they are right to do this."

Today, I asked Senator Warren if she stood by those opinions, and her points seemed to be more specific than the general statements she made at the Re/code event.

"Everyone should follow the same rules. The same rule on safety, the same rules on insurance, the same rules that make sure that both the public are protected and that workers have rights," Warren said. "We have to recognize that the workforce is changing. That the world is changing. That the old model that someone was gonna work for a corporation and be there their entire lives is shifting in America.  And that means we need to make a lot of changes including changes in our laws and regulations... We can't stop change but we can channel it in directions that make things better for all of us."

Warren's comments hint that she is willing to draw a line in the sand between tech companies that can benefit all, and those only out to benefit their executives and VCs' personal wealth.

As she was taking a picture with the staff of Greentown Labs before heading off to her next engagement, Warren turned to Emily Reichert, the incubator's executive director, and quietly said, "What you guys are doing here will make a difference in the world."

She paused, gathered herself and the said in a louder tone to Reichert, "A positive difference."

[photo by Edward Kimmel]