More investment in tech infrastructure for innovation, global competition, is Biden's "North Star"

In a CES 2021 session, the National Economic Council Director-Designate Brian Deese also discussed global alliances, partnering with the private sector, jobs, and the push toward a low-carbon economy.

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Investing in internal infrastructure and the US economy so the middle class can have "economic dignity" and be able to achieve their economic objectives will be President-Elect Joe Biden's "North Star," according to National Economic Council Director-Designate Brian Deese, speaking at CES Tuesday morning.

Deese spoke with Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, on how the new administration will approach technology, innovation, and competitiveness issues.

Deese, who previously worked in the Obama administration and then as global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, said the government has underinvested in many areas in recent years, including in research and development and manufacturing. He said the Biden administration will look to partner with the private sector more closely. 

His appointment to the NEC is a cabinet-level position and Deese said he will help shape economic policy decisions.

SEE: CES 2021: The big trends for business (ZDNet)

Shapiro asked Deese about the role the tech industry should play in helping to revive the economy. Deese said the COVID-19 vaccine is "a testament to technology and science," but added that the operational challenge of "getting the vaccines into people's arms will be one of the most costly and complex issues in our country's history."

He said tech companies can help with the public health response and make sure they are providing information.

"The president-elect has talked about reopening schools safely and it's incredibly important to our economy and kids," Deese said. "That's a place where broadband and bridging the digital divide are very important."

Facilitating innovation, jobs, decarbonization

More than once, Deese referred to opportunities for the government to partner with both the private sector and the nation's allies. He also stressed that the inequities that exist in the US economy have to be addressed even in an economic crisis because they have "held back the economy's potential."

"We want to address those to build back resiliency and grow infrastructure and jobs and put ourselves on track to address a low-carbon economy," Deese said. "This crisis is disproportionately hitting Black and Brown businesses." 

Investments need to be made in a way that builds more of a "runway" for such businesses to access capital to create more innovation in our domestic economy, he said.

He reiterated that Biden's "North Star is one in which growth is broadly shared."

Responding to a question from Shapiro about how the administration will aim toward that North Star, Deese said officials will "challenge ourselves to do things differently" to address the climate crisis and racial equity.

Deese said it is important to "meet people where they are" and that a "lot of policies fail not in design, but execution," and the goal is to get training programs to workers who need them through tools and technology.

He also said that Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty on climate change. Not only will the US rejoin, but it will "engage multilaterally with allies across the world" to work together on climate issues. China is a big part of that, Deese added.

Shapiro asked Deese about the future of trade with China and tariffs. Deese replied that the US will work with its closest allies to identify issues where they can work together, "such as putting pressure on Beijing," he said.

The council will look at how to "deploy tools in the toolbox in a way we haven't" in the past few years, Deese said.

Acceleration of the decarbonization of the economy requires moving large amounts of private capital toward investments in low carbon initiatives, he said.

In terms of advancing technology, the Trump administration pretty much followed the Obama administration when it came to the continuation of policies and areas such as AI and self-driving cars, Deese said.

The Biden administration will "absolutely focus" on building out skills for workers, particularly those coming out of secondary schools to help them see what their options are in this economy, he said.

This will include increasing apprenticeships and working in tandem with labor unions to get people the skills they need prior to starting those apprenticeships.

To enhance the ability for US companies to stay innovative and competitive, Deese said the US government "can play an ongoing role—by investing in research and development," which he said lay the groundwork for a lot of innovation.

There is not just an opportunity but also an obligation on companies to be more thoughtful in how they are treating both their workforce and the data they're working with, Deese said. There needs to be "a recognition that there are stakeholders other than shareholders that are essential for their long-term profitability and license to operate," he said.

Another view on tech under the new administration

Matthew Heiman, general counsel for Waystar Health, who is also a legal expert with the Regulatory Transparency Project, agreed that the new administration and new Congress "will continue the scrutiny of tech that we saw from the previous Congress and outgoing administration."

Members of both parties have questioned protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and protecting the freedom of expression and innovation on the internet, and called for greater antitrust enforcement, Heiman said.

"They may also seek to revisit questions around net neutrality," said Heiman, who is also a senior fellow at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School.

He said the Biden administration may seek federal data privacy legislation of some kind. "I also expect [the administration] will elevate the role of cybersecurity leaders within executive agencies and the White House."  

Yet, in terms of what the overall approach to tech policy will look like, Heiman sounded less optimistic.

"Biden has never been a big fan of Silicon Valley, so I expect relations between the administration and the tech sector to be tense, and I expect regulation to increase,'' he said. "The challenge will be that the tech sector contributes tremendous growth and innovation to the American and global economy."

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By Esther Shein

Esther Shein is a longtime freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in several online and print publications. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Datamation, a managing editor at BYTE, and a senior writer at eWeek (formerly PC Week)...