By Audrey Stienon, Analyst, Reimagining Capitalism

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Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP

Over the coming weeks, Omidyar Network will expand on our theory of change around ideas, rules, and power and connect it to the five pillars outlined in our recently released Point of View on Reimagining Capitalism, and the work being done by our grantees. This is the first contribution to that series.

Democracy & Capitalism
This week, Joseph R. Biden was inaugurated as America’s 46th president, standing on the West Front of the US Capitol that was attacked earlier this month. With that picture still vivid in the minds of many, President Biden swore an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. In that moment, people across the country let out a sigh of relief; though our democracy has been bruised and battered, it continues. And so too can the American people continue to pursue a more perfect union.

At Omidyar Network, we recognize that the strength of our democracy is deeply entwined with the strength of our economy. We believe that we all have a collective responsibility to defend our democracy, and we are recommitting ourselves to ensuring that our economy supports our democratic society in providing opportunity, dignity, and security to all.

Democracy and capitalism have long stood as twin pillars under-girding American society. Their modern incarnations were both born in 1776 out of the same intellectual movement, and advance the same vision: for decision-making power to rest with the people. Just as we are united, as Americans by a common faith in the democratic values of equality, justice, and liberty, we value the capitalist promise that those who innovate, compete, and take risks will be fairly rewarded. Ultimately, capitalism is what has made possible American democracy, with its promise of shared prosperity and opportunity.

A key debate across American history has been of how to balance the competing rights and freedoms guaranteed in each system. Adjusting this balance has allowed our government and economy to adapt to the changes in our values across centuries. However, it is clear to so many of us that the balance between democracy and capitalism is now in a dangerously precarious position.

For years, we have prioritized the protection of capitalist rights to seek growth and profit at the expense of democratic commitment to general welfare, as enshrined in our Constitution alongside liberty and prosperity. We now find ourselves with an economy that is obviously structured in ways that exacerbate inequalities at every level. Despite a soaring stock market and rising GDP, the fundamentals of our economy are as broken as the windows smashed by the angry mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6th. Already profound gaps in income, wealth, and opportunity are widening, especially between white and Black families.

Most of us are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, yet feel that we lack the power to change our circumstances. This powerlessness is fundamentally undemocratic and, by extension, un-American. We must change it.

Omidyar Network has called for a reimagining of capitalism so that we can once again strike a balance between our democratic and capitalist systems that creates an economy grounded in democratic values. Our goal is to achieve systemic change so that our society is centered on the well-being of individuals and communities, and allows for full economic, democratic, and social participation for all. Our strategy is to transform how economic systems support our society by investing in organizations and individuals working to reshape economic ideas, rules, and power.

Replacing Old Ideas
Throughout America’s history, we have lived in accordance with a variety of ideas that reflected society’s values at the time — many of which were rightfully discarded as our values evolved. Over the last 50 years, a set of ideas based on individual liberty, the primacy of markets, and a limited role for government have guided our economic policies, and our views of what is possible. Those ideas were built on an even longer history of economic thinking that has perpetually excluded and devalued people because of their race, class, gender, or disability. They are not only outdated, but demonstrably false.

We have entered a period of great uncertainty and change, in which ideas and the values that inform them are shifting toward a re-balancing of markets, government, and communities. Our New Economic Paradigm work is experimenting with new ways of thinking and talking about the economy, while seeking to align stakeholders around a coherent new vision for equitable, inclusive, and sustainable capitalism.

Rewriting the Rules
At its core, our capitalist economy and the ideas that shape it are a reflection of our common values. These ideas are translated into rules which give the economy structure and which govern who can participate in markets, and how. These rules include laws and regulations, as well as norms that govern everything from contracts and property rights, to competition, to employer-employee relationships. Ultimately, the rules that govern and shape markets matter, and they desperately need a rewrite.

Our democracy, policies, politics, and markets must be protected and shielded from manipulation and capture by those with the most money,. These rules must be rewritten to direct capitalism toward greater societal outcomes, not the interests of economic or political elites. To that end, we are also exploring ways to rewrite the rules that shape economic structures so that they can support the well-being of everyone in our society. As part of that work, we are looking at opportunities to strengthen market infrastructure, financial systems, and corporate governance norms so that companies and investors can account for their impact on people, communities, and the planet.

Reshaping Power
Ideas and rules are important, but they become concrete with power. Those who wield power are most likely to see their ideas reflected in the world, to design the economic and social norms governing markets and society, and determine which rules are enforced. This is why democracy, and its ideal of equal power, is so crucial to a capitalist society. Capitalism can certainly exist without democracy, but cannot, alone, guarantee that everyone will have access to opportunities to build a dignified life. We see this around the world, and increasingly in the United States: capitalist, oligopolistic markets are manipulated by the powerful to enrich themselves while exploiting the powerless. Democracy is the critical factor that allows all people equal rights and power to have a say in how capitalism impacts their lives and, more importantly, is the only system ensuring that any person can advocate for change when the capitalist economy is not delivering the basic well-being that is their right.

Any true reimagining of capitalism must include checks to balance the power between markets, government, and civil society. So, Omidyar Network is working to reshape how power is distributed across society and the economy. One of our key priorities is to increase worker power and strengthen grassroots movements, since we believe that the economy will only increase the well-being of everyone — businesses, working people, and communities — when working people have individual and collective agency and voice. On the flip side, we are working to ensure that those who have benefited from existing economic structures do not use their economic power to distort either markets or democratic processes. To this end, we are working to curb concentrated corporate power and monopolies, especially in the tech sector, and are exploring strategies to counter corporate influence in our government. …

By Sarah Drinkwater, Director, Responsible Technology and Tracy Williams, Director, Reimagining Capitalism

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Photo by Jeenah Moon, Reuters

In less than three weeks, nearly 6,000 workers at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama will begin voting on whether or not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. If they vote yes, they will make history as the first American union in Amazon’s history.

The tech giant, which employs more than 1.1 million people around the world, has so far thwarted all attempts to unionize workers in the United States. The results? “The working conditions are horrible is all I’m willing to say,” said one Bessemer employee. …

By Simone Hill, Senior Manager, Omidyar Network

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Illustration by Tiffany Hughes.

In June, Omidyar Network committed $500,000 to organizations fighting on the frontlines for racial justice because we firmly believe that this work is core to our ability to create inclusive, equitable societies. While the funding is an essential step toward our vision, the way we invested was also critical to developing thoughtful partnerships with organizations already building or scaling innovations.

What does it mean to invest in justice? It begins with a clear-eyed recognition of the systemic racism that manifests within all of our systems to undermine the safety of Black and Brown people. Investing in justice means attacking the many resulting symptoms of white supremacy at their root by finding organizations working to innovate and advance holistic ways to create lasting change. It means being strategic and careful about ensuring that while we are looking for ways to address the wrongs that pervade our societies, we are not inadvertently causing more harm. With that, an awareness of our own limitations as a funder is required –– financial investments are a step at the beginning of a long-term journey towards holistic, strategic action. Finally, investing in justice means continuing to integrate racial justice with our firm-wide focus to reimagine systems: building an economy that works for all — an anti-racist economy is a key pillar of our point of view; realizing the promise of responsible technology; and fostering a more pluralistic society. …

How do we build a world we’ve never seen before? We must change who drives the future.

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Illustration by Superside

By Eshanthi Ranasinghe and David Hsu, Exploration & Future Sensing, Omidyar Network

Every day we take steps which carry our attitudes and assumptions about the future. Our steps can be fearful and cautious. They can also be bold leaps made out of clear-eyed hope and raw necessity.

In this year of concurrent crises and collapses, when many ways forward seem possible, the challenge is to critically discern between pathways which wind up leading back to a broken “normal” and pathways which lead us into a future we have never seen before — one that is more equitable, just, and beautiful.

At Omidyar Network, this kind of discernment is vital to our mission of reimagining systems that shape our daily lives: building an economy that works for all, realizing the promise of responsible technology, and fostering a more pluralistic society. We launched the Exploration & Future Sensing unit in 2019 to help achieve this mission. Building upon years of prior experimentation, the unit peers beyond what we know and see today by scanning for signals of change, investigating emerging trends, using scenarios to shake old patterns of thinking, and activating new collaborations.

Much of our exploration revolves around the question: When uncertainty abounds, how do we move beyond our own biases and blind spots to build a world we’ve never seen before?

The short answer is that we turn to community. We must center people with experience living in between worlds, or on the margins, who have honed an extraordinary capacity for imagining and building futures that are more beautiful and resilient. They’re people who have crossed cultures, borders, and identities. …

By Subhashish Bhadra, Principal, Omidyar Network

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Regulators, governments, and courts have struggled to catch up with today’s rapid technological progress. That’s why Omidyar Network is exploring what it takes to reimagine our institutions.

Circa 2011, the internet was hailed as a bastion of freedom. A man in Egypt even named his newborn daughter “Facebook,” in honor of the pivotal role the social media company played in the Arab Spring.

Today, countries in the Global South have a litany of complaints against tech companies: privacy breaches, domestic tax evasion, inadequate content moderation, lack of free speech online, data extraction to outside the country, and much more. So, what’s changed since 2011? …

By Wafa-Ben Hassine, Principal, Omidyar Network

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I believe it can. And it must. As a human rights attorney, I come at this issue thinking about people first.

Whether its messaging a family member asking them to bring home a loaf of bread, or discussing next year’s business strategy with a colleague, secure encryption ensures we can have private conversations and guarantees the integrity of our communication. Users’ quick adoption of encrypted, private messaging speaks volumes of its importance: billions of users worldwide use encrypted messaging on a daily basis as an indispensable tool in their livelihoods.

While the examples above are innocuous, we know that encrypted messaging platforms can also be used for more nefarious purposes. And with these platforms’ breadth, reach, and the undetectable nature of the content of conversations, we are deeply concerned about the harms that their deployment creates. Examples include lynch mobs in India, widespread disinformation on the coronavirus pandemic in Mexico and the US, swaying election results in Brazil, facilitating global child abuse, and providing white supremacists the channels needed to spread Nazi propaganda in Germany and the US. …

By Mike Kubzansky, CEO, Omidyar Network

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2020 has challenged and consumed us — as individuals and as a society. From the pandemic to politics, to the severe economic downturn and the desperate cries for Black lives to matter; too many across the country and around the globe are struggling — financially, physically, and mentally.

We are at times scared, or angry, or resigned, and a pervasive sense of helplessness underpins so much of current daily life, across whole swathes of society. Yet so many people have remained remarkably resilient and resolute. We have donned our masks and taken to the streets to peacefully protest, help at food banks, or simply serve as poll watchers. We have prayed, meditated, eaten (and then tried to exercise) our way through this year of chaos and uncertainty. …

By Jesús Salas, Associate, Omidyar Network

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American consumers are increasingly concerned about privacy and data security when purchasing new products and services, which may be of a competitive advantage to companies that take action towards these consumer values, a new Consumer Reports (CR) study finds.

The new study, “Privacy Front and Center: Meeting the Commercial Opportunity to Support Consumers Rights,” from CR’s Digital Lab with support from Omidyar Network, looks at the commercial benefits for companies that differentiate their products based on privacy and data security.

The report lays out a succinct timeline for the evolution of consumer attitudes toward privacy that culminates with a clear call to action for innovators. Through their comprehensive research methodologies, CR has been able to draw out the nuance around when, why, and how much privacy and security features matter for individuals looking to use and buy security cameras, connected cars, smart speakers, and other products. The report also contextualizes the role that both rule-making through regulation and the supply of better products can have to meet the growing market demand. …

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Today marks a new chapter in the long history of US enforcement of antitrust law. The filing of this lawsuit is recognition that digital platforms, namely Google, have used illegal and improper means to maintain their dominance.

Over many years, Google has exercised tremendous control over the marketplace of online search. This complaint makes a strong case for how Google manipulated the online search market by paying billions to secure default positions on browsers and mobile handsets to exclude rivals, by denying interoperability to challengers, and by preferencing its own products and services in search results.

The DOJ did not sue Google because it has grown large or successful. Rather, the investigation yielded sufficient evidence to show Google has violated US antitrust law — a set of rules that apply to everyone, and are designed to make sure all of us benefit from free markets and fair competition. …

By Sarah Drinkwater, Director, Omidyar Network

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Today our grantee, WaitWhat, launched the second season of Should This Exist?, which earlier this year was nominated by the prestigious Webby Awards for best tech podcast in the world.

We put Should this Exist? on the “must listen” list! It stretches your understanding about radically new technology and its implications on our lives — both the promising and perilous. The storytelling is riveting, the topics are supremely well chosen, and the show’s host — Internet serial entrepreneur and investor Caterina Fake — masterfully guides listeners on unforgettable journeys alongside the inventors of our times. In each episode, Caterina engages with a groundbreaking technology — from contact tracing, to a robot caregiving, to deepfake video production — to ask the important questions. …


Omidyar Network

Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.

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