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6 May, 2020 20:22

Government by billionaires? Cuomo names former Google CEO to join Gates & Bloomberg in drafting post-pandemic ‘reforms’

Government by billionaires? Cuomo names former Google CEO to join Gates & Bloomberg in drafting post-pandemic ‘reforms’

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt to lead a panel on post-pandemic “reform” of health and education systems, despite criticism for taking other billionaires with conflicts of interest on board.

Schmidt will head a ‘Blue Ribbon Commission’ tasked with “reimagining” New York's existing systems of healthcare and education, Cuomo announced on Wednesday during his daily coronavirus briefing. The decision to place such power in the hands of another unelected billionaire has riled critics already uneasy about the governor's post-Covid-19 plans.

The panel's initial priorities will be “tele-health, remote learning and broadband,” Schmidt announced, dropping into Cuomo's broadcast. The former Google exec still receives a paycheck from parent company Alphabet in an advisory capacity, raising questions of conflict of interest given Google's leading role in developing a digital contact-tracing platform for Covid-19. While Cuomo confirmed in the same presser that the state is partnering with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg – another billionaire – in building a human contact-tracing network, any digital component will likely involve the participation of Google. At the same time, the tech giant's insatiable hunger for health data, as evinced by initiatives like Project Nightingale and Google's acquisition of Fitbit, is unlikely to sit well with New Yorkers concerned about the company's privacy record.

Cuomo was previously deluged by criticism after announcing on Tuesday that he would place the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in charge of developing a “blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal,” praising former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates as a “visionary” and calling for state schools to be “revolutionized.” Public schooling groups slammed the billionaire, accusing him of promoting “one failed educational initiative after another, causing huge disaffection in districts throughout the state.” 

The Gates Foundation poured nearly half a billion dollars of its own money into the notorious Common Core program, which while pitched as a way to improve floundering educational performance in mathematics has actually caused the US to drop even lower in international rankings since its nationwide implementation in 2013. After steering over $4 trillion of taxpayer dollars into the government-funded program, the Foundation tacitly admitted failure in 2016, acknowledging in a letter to donors that it had “underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement [Common Core].”

Cuomo himself has landed in hot water in the past for his efforts to unilaterally refashion New York's admittedly dilapidated public school system. In 2015, he was accused of “unconstitutional interference in education policy” by New York State Allies for Public Education, which highlighted his “cozy relationships” with charter school advocates and education technology businesses. One of those education technology businesses was Google. In 2014, Schmidt, then the company's executive chairman, was appointed to a three-person commission to advise on a ‘Smart Schools’ bond issue, setting off alarm bells among consumer advocates who pointed out that Google would directly benefit from system-wide adoption of Google Apps and Chromebook laptops. 

The New York governor's history with his state's healthcare system is equally checkered, marked by a long string of budget cuts, hospital consolidations, and layoffs, and his pledge to “revolutionize” the chronically strapped system has already gotten off on a bad foot. On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that out-of-state nurses who had come to New York to help out with the coronavirus epidemic would be required to pay state income tax on whatever compensation they had received, even if they were being paid by companies located in their home state.

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Cuomo's decision to appoint private equity bigwigs, including Bill Mulrow of Blackstone Group and Steven Cohen of MacAndrews & Forbes, to the economic advisory team charged with reopening New York has also come in for criticism, given that private equity firms often benefit from the same bankruptcies the state's businesses are hoping to avoid.

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