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Does Big Tech have more influence on the economy than the president?

Molly Wood Oct 17, 2018
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DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

Each year, Marketplace partners with polling firm Edison Research to ask Americans how they’re feeling about the economy. This year, Edison found that 78 percent of Americans believe big tech companies like Amazon, Apple or Google have a “good amount” or “great deal” of influence on the economy. What’s surprising is that fewer Americans, about 68 percent, think the president of the United States or Congress has that much influence over the economy. Molly Wood talks about the findings with Larry Rosin, co-founder and president of Edison Research. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Larry Rosin: I remember a survey from the 1990s that asked the question, “Who gets more credit for the good economy: Bill Clinton or Bill Gates?” And Bill Gates won strongly. I think the American public definitely thinks the president has some influence on the economy, definitely blames the president if the economy does badly. But I think they’re savvy enough to understand that it’s really companies, entities outside of our government, that make our economy good or bad. Go back to the auto companies of the early parts of the 20th century or any other sort of emerging kind of technology that changed things — electrification, etc. For the last 25 years, it’s been the tech companies.

Molly Wood: This is the first time Edison and Marketplace have asked this question specifically. What prompted that? Is it related to the kind of conversations we’re having right now about the influence of these companies?

Rosin: Well, not just these companies. We asked about a lot of the different things that affect the economy to get a sense for what people think is really responsible for changes in the economy. People were very likely to say large financial institutions, as well, have an influence on the economy. Obviously, people saw what happened during the global financial crisis about 10 years ago, and so they can see the influence that those kinds of companies have on the economy. And in general, they saw that all kinds of businesses have more influence than politicians or Congress or the president or many other things that we looked at, too.

Wood: And then obviously politics is very polarizing and divisive right now. And yet the 78 percent who said tech companies and banks had a lot of influence cross political, age and gender lines. What does that tell you? Are the numbers unifying in a positive way?

Rosin: Well, I think it’s important that we clarify that the fact that people say they have a lot of influence on the economy doesn’t necessarily mean they think it’s a good influence. They just see that the influence is there. And yeah, this was absolutely one of the few areas in our poll where there’s almost no difference between Republicans and Democrats in the way they see these things. So I think it’s just a generalized awareness of what really does drive our economy, and that seems to be big companies.


And here’s some more tech news that we’re following:

  • The Wired25 Summit celebrating the 25th anniversary of Wired wrapped up in San Francisco earlier this week. One notable interview was with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who confirmed internal testing of a censored search engine designed for China and said it’s been very promising. Pichai said he realized that it was a tough call to think about going back to the Chinese market where Google would likely have to censor terms like human rights, or Nobel prize, or even democracy, autonomous and candle (if past lists of banned words are any guide).
  • A piece in the South China Morning Post from Monday says despite Google’s internal uproar over a return to China, ordinary Chinese citizens are excited by the possibility because China’s dominant search engine, Baidu, is not only more censored, but its search results are often paid placements and therefore not very helpful.
  • On the other side (of the business argument, at least) is a piece in Vice News from late last week. Vice talked with Kai-Fu Lee, who ran Google’s operations in China between 2005 and 2009, before the company left over, appropriately enough, censorship concerns. He said it would be a pointless exercise for Google to go back into that market because “China has evolved into a parallel universe.” And any American company will have a hard time unseating the home-grown incumbents. He said Google would have had an easier time if it had stayed in China, but now the hill is too high to climb.
  • And finally, there is a New York Times editorial from Tuesday about how the internet is increasingly likely to split into three internets: one led by China, one led by the United States and one led by Europe, which has been enforcing its own strong rules around privacy and copyright. Talk about parallel universes.

 

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