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The Strange Tale Of How Mark Zuckerberg Bought Cory Booker’s Loyalty


The race to the far left in the Democratic primaries has been a sight to behold. Socialized health care, higher taxes on the rich, reparations for the descendants of slaves, abortion on demand, packing the Supreme Court, and more: all were once fringe issues. But once one candidate raises them, the rest fall in line, leapfrogging each other on the road to Wokeville. The competition for radical votes (and donations) has been impressive, if not admirable.

But as Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, sometimes the truly curious incident is when a dog does not bark. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) called for social media companies like Facebook to be broken up as monopolies, many other Democrats barked in approval. But not all.

Sen. Kamala Harris’s objection was predictable—the internet giants are all her constituents in California. But the pushback from Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) was the most surprising.

Zuckerberg Bought Booker Early On

Or, rather, it would be surprising if we didn’t remember Booker’s history. Before the voters of New Jersey elevated him to the world’s greatest deliberative body, Booker was the mayor of Newark. Newark isn’t the usual stomping grounds for the elites of Silicon Valley, but back in 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised $100 million dollars to Newark schools.

Zuckerberg’s money was matched by an additional $100 million from other philanthropists. That money may not have done much to help Newark, but it helped elevate the mayor’s profile, buying Zuckerberg a friend for life in the Senate.

Two hundred million dollars is a lot of money, and Zuckerberg’s announcement of the donation attracted a lot of positive attention for the tech billionaire and for Newark. And the choice of Newark was no accident. While the North Jersey city is just one of many urban areas struggling to educate its children, it attracted Zuckerberg’s attention in particular because, as he said at the announcement, “I believe in these guys,” referring to Booker and Gov. Chris Christie. (He had never actually visited the city.)

Was he right to trust them? At the time, Booker was considered a school reformer. He supported charter schools and vouchers—positions considered heterodox by most national Democrats. Surprisingly, he still favors these things, even as doing so harms him in Democratic primary contests where teachers’ unions wield disproportionate power.

That might explain why $60 million of the money gathered in the Foundation for Newark’s Future nonprofit went to charter schools. A bunch more went to buy out the contracts of underperforming teachers. Neither of these is a bad idea. But, as The New Yorker reported in 2014, a lot of that money also found its way, as it usually does, to the pockets of consultants who charged a thousand dollars a day.

A weakness of big charities is that the people who run them often return a lot of the money to their own social class. While shunning local input, the foundation paid out big bucks to the usual well-heeled advisors who know a little about everything, a lot about nothing, and are definitely sure about how other people’s affairs should be organized.

Booker Was Helped, But Were Schools?

Booker was already a rising star, and he did pretty well after the Zuckerberg connection elevated his public profile. Again, quoting the New Yorker article: “Disclosure forms show [Booker earned] $1,327,190 in revenue for ninety-six speeches given between 2008 and May 2013.” Considering Newark’s plight—school funding was far from the only major local issue—it is strange that the mayor had time to take on a second job as an itinerant lecturer. But politics has both show horses and workhorses, and it was clear by then which Booker was.

The Foundation for Newark’s Future pledged to spend its money in five years, rather than sitting on it forever and becoming another self-perpetuating bureaucracy (more charities should consider this approach). As such, it wrapped up its work in 2016. But did all that money do any good?

A study at Harvard University looked at the question in 2016. Business Insider summarized the findings that same year, noting that the study “looked at school data from 2009 through 2016, and compared the achievement growth of Newark’s students to that of similar schools elsewhere in New Jersey. Its findings suggest that Newark students improved sharply in English, but made no significant progress in math.” But those math and English scores are still well below state standards in the most recent available filings.

For spending of that magnitude, there should be permanent gains. That $200 million spread out over five years, added to more than $1 billion in existing annual revenue makes about $29,000 per student per year. Compared to the 2016 national average of $11,762 and the New Jersey state average of $18,402 per student per yeas, it makes for an exceedingly well-funded school district. But the reforms parachuted in from Silicon Valley failed to make much difference.

They did make Zuckerberg a lifelong friend in Booker and gave Booker the platform to pull in big speaking fees and win himself a Senate seat. There’s a lesson in practical politics, but also one in the nature of government. Dumping money into a problem sounds great, but without reforms in a broken structure, it will all be wasted. Even when some reforms are enacted, as they were in Newark, if they are all imposed from outside, they will be ignored, if not actively resisted.

The business of self-government is hard work. That’s why so many people want to skip it altogether. Whether it is relying on courts to impose your agenda or hoping that a magical billionaire will solve your problems, the deus ex machina approach to politics cannot succeed.

It is not enough to impose rules or throw money around. Real change requires changing minds. Zuckerberg’s cash may have made a convert of Booker on some issues, but it didn’t convince anyone else, or measurably improve life for thousands of struggling kids.