Regulatory Hackers Aren’t Fixing Society. They’re Getting Rich

Recently I was invited to join a panel to discuss Regulatory Hacking: A Playbook for Startups, a new book by venture capitalist Evan Burfield. The book is sort of a guide for new companies looking for a win-win—doing good by doing well—in highly regulated sectors like health and education. It argues that startups have the opportunity to make trillions of dollars solving global challenges that, in the past, would have been addressed by governments or nonprofits.

Burfield sat at the center of our semicircle of five speakers, all female save for him. He’s a large-framed, confidence-radiating man with a light English accent—an earlier generation might have called him “clubbable.” His message was one of intelligent cooperation by startups with government, He urged the small crowd of students to “map power dynamics” when they launch their businesses. The book’s introduction says it “provides a history of Elon Musk as the ultimate regulatory hacker,” but Musk’s name didn’t come up—maybe because the Musk news of late hasn’t been that adulatory.

The panel discussion took place on sunny afternoon, in a high-floor classroom that looked east over the towers of upper Manhattan. Burfield spoke easily and and length, and as he did I watched a large private helicopter loop lazily toward its landing pad by the East River.

Once the event petered to a close, he ran off to catch a plane. He’s a busy, successful person, a family man as well, with a daughter named Endeavour. (She makes an appearance in the first sentence of the book, asking Alexa to play a song for her.)

Two other speakers on that panel were women with experience as New York City employees—one current, one former— who talked about weaving startups into the workings of government in various ways. They too were confident and competent, as was the woman entrepreneur who, with me, rounded out the panel. We were all appropriately deferential to Burfield; it was his book, after all. (The New York Times, in its review of Regulatory Hacking, called it “chock-full of checklists, matrices, diagrams and jargon all of uneven usefulness.”)

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But the talk and the helicopter darkened my mood. It’s tough to find moments of clarity in the calamitous, disorienting era we’re in, but for me that afternoon stands out. Something was off.

By temperament and by training, I am optimistic most of the time. In that room, though, I sensed the assumptions of our age operating in high, silent gear: Business is the most important agent of change in society; government exists to “cooperate” and is mostly incapable and toothless (while simultaneously, if ineptly, threatening); nothing is going to be done about the harrowing, multiple, structural unfairnesses of our time; women who want to survive and be invited to future panel discussions need to be appropriately deferential; and our destiny as a society is being charted by people who never use public transportation. Or fly commercial.

I did speak up, politely, that afternoon. I said many things are profoundly wrong with the way we live in America, and that what we really need to do is make sure government has the capacity and resources to ensure—using technology as a tool, but mostly through sound policy—that everyone with a belly button can lead a thriving life. I urged the students in the audience to spend some time working in government themselves, so that they could see how many people at City Hall are doing their best against impossible odds. I smiled as I spoke; I don’t like sounding like a crank. But it was both saddening and alarming.

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