Topher Brennan is a software engineer at Google running to represent California in the US Senate in 2018. In this interview he discusses his decision to run for election, his views on current political affairs, and his stances on a variety of issues concerning Americans and Californians in particular.
(1) What made you decide to run for US Senate?
Dianne Feinstein has always been terrible on issues like technology and civil liberties. For example, she’s consistently pushed legislation that would basically ban encryption. That’s very troubling, because it endangers privacy and enables the government to harass people based on privately-expressed political opinions. Even if you don’t care about that, consider this: all online payment processors and shopping sites will encrypt your credit card information whenever you buy anything online. It’s the only reliable way to prevent hackers from stealing your credit card information. Outlawing that would destroy a huge portion of our internet-era economy overnight.
When Trump got elected, we suddenly had much bigger things to worry about than one senator having some terrible views. Then, however, Senator Feinstein made a series of totally bizarre decisions siding with Trump, for example, appointing apologists for George W. Bush’s use of torture to be the Director of the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence, backing him when he appointed unqualified cronies to cabinet-level posts, things like that. Those moves might not have been shocking for a purple-state Democrat, but out here in California, I think we can do better. That’s what made me finally decide to run.
(2) California recently changed how its primaries work. Can you talk about that, and how it affects your strategy?
It used to be that the Democratic and Republican parties would hold separate primaries to decide who their candidates would be, and then those candidates would face off in the general election. But currently, all candidates run in a single primary, regardless of party affiliation, and then the top two vote getters from the primary go on to the general election. That means that from now until the primary the thing that’s most important for me is to make sure that two Democrats go on to the general election. California is not going to send a Republican to the US Senate, so if a Republican places second in the primary, Feinstein’s re-election is more or less guaranteed. If that happens, Californians won’t be getting a real say in what kind of Senator represents them.
(3) What do you think is the most important issue facing America today?
The threat of nuclear war. I wish I were joking, but I’m serious.
The basic problem is that Trump has no idea what he’s doing. The more immediate problem is that recently, there’s been an escalation of American involvement in the Syrian civil war—which is terrifying because Assad’s government in Syria is backed by Russia. This doesn’t seem to be part of any plan on Trump’s part—he’s just blundering into it. He sees a story on TV about a gas attack, and he reacts by ordering an air-strike on Assad’s forces. He’s also delegated a lot of decision making to local commanders, who on a number of occasions have used that authority to attack Syrian forces just because they got too close to some American troops, or something like that. And now Russia has responded to American attacks on Syrian forces by threatening to shoot down American planes. So as crazy as it sounds, I think the risk of a US-Russia war is real, in a way it hadn’t been since the end of the Cold War.
This is an issue Congress can do something about. It’s also an issue where foreign policy disagreements within the Democratic party really matter. I would like to see Congress insist that, under the Constitution, the president cannot start a war with Assad’s government (or any other government) without Congressional approval, and then refuse to grant that approval in the case of Syria. But there’s also been talk that Congress could pass a resolution authorizing military force against the Syrian government. And I suspect there are many members of Congress, in both parties, who would just prefer not to take responsibility for those decisions. So the potential stakes of who’s in Congress right now are mind-boggling.
(4) You don't have any prior experience in politics. What makes you think you're qualified to represent California in the US Senate?
When you look at the people currently in Congress, and this isn't true of all of them, but it's true of a lot of them, they have tons of experience, but what they have tons of experience at is getting reelected, often by spending most of their time fundraising from big donors and special interests. I find this astonishing, but many representatives and senators manage to spend years in Congress and not seem to learn a thing about the policy issues they're making decisions about. Of course, no one can be an expert in every issue Congress has to deal with, but many people in Congress don't even seem to make an effort to consult with experts before introducing legislation.
I'm in the tech industry, and I think that gives me a perspective on technology issues that few if any current members of Congress have. That's part of why I was so shocked by Senator Feinstein's anti-encryption bill. But there are plenty of issues where I don't have that kind of first-hand expertise, and on those issues I try really hard to read what the experts are saying before forming an opinion.
Technology is not the only issue where Senator Feinstein has failed to do this. For example, recently she introduced a bill to crack down on candy-flavored methamphetamine designed to appeal to children. The problem with this bill is that there's no such thing—the idea that there are meth dealers designing methamphetamine to appeal to children is an urban legend. This is a bill that got introduced because Senator Feinstein didn't have anyone on her staff check Snopes.com before introducing major legislation. It's just embarrassing to be represented in the US Senate by someone who would do that.
(5) How do you see yourself in comparison to the other candidates challenging Feinstein?
The candidate who seems to have gotten the most media attention already is Michael Eisen, who's a biology professor at UC Berkeley and also the co-founder of Public Library of Science. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell he hasn't been very forthcoming about his positions on the issues, beyond saying he thinks we need more of the perspective of scientists in government. I agree with that as far as it goes—but it doesn't really tell you much about how he specifically thinks about public policy.
I’m trying to avoid that pitfall, because I know I get frustrated when I see politicians—sometimes at levels as high as the US House—running on feel-good photo ops and taking very few stands. So on my campaign website, I try to say at least a little bit about my views on a broad range of issues, and I plan to keep expanding that part of the site. I assume Eisen will have more to say about his views as time goes on, but already I've had a few people ask me what I think of him, and it's hard to know what to say at the moment.
The one other candidate who I've seen get some traction is David Hildebrand, who's running very clearly to the left of Feinstein. We agree on quite a bit. We both support Medicare-for-all. On foreign policy we both want the US to avoid getting involved in conflicts like Syria, but we also agree defensive alliances like NATO are valuable for preventing wars. One difference is he's more enthusiastic than I am about raising the minimum wage, which isn't much help if you can't find a job, and there's a risk that a large increase could make it harder for some people to find jobs. I'm not saying we know that for certain, but enacting a basic income guarantee would be a surer way to fight poverty. That said, I would be pretty happy to see Hildebrand face Feinstein in the general election.
(6) You recently published an article on Medium arguing for a basic income guarantee. Can you talk a bit about that?
Basic income is the policy of giving every citizen cash with no strings attached on a regular basis. This is a policy that I think would solve a lot of problems. Many of the domestic policy debates you hear about are really just about people not having enough money. So you come up with complicated ways to fix these problems—or you can just give people money.
It would also solve many problems with America’s current social safety net. Right now, we have social workers whose entire job is basically to help people navigate our welfare bureaucracy. We have people with serious disabilities who have to apply for disability insurance two or three times before the government recognizes that they’re really disabled. We have people just barely above the poverty line who know that if they take on more hours, or put in the work to land a higher paying job, then for every extra dollar they make, they’ll lose 95 cents in government benefits, which is a barrier to those people ever becoming really financially secure. A basic income would avoid all of those problems.
In the article I also do some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggesting a basic income guarantee would be a lot more affordable than many people assume. Mostly I think you could pay for it by eliminating a number of tax breaks for the rich, particularly the lower tax rate on investment income. The details are a bit complicated, because in America, we hide a lot of social policy in the tax code, including programs designed to help the poor, and that's one of the things I think we should move away from. But the goal would be to leave most people, and almost all lower-income folks, better off, and I think we can do that.
(7) What's your stance on single payer?
I’m for it. This is an example of a problem a basic income wouldn’t solve, because if someone has a chronic medical condition, treating it can be much more expensive than meeting the basic needs of a healthy person.
The key thing, in my view, is to guarantee everyone health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, while it greatly increased the number of people with health insurance, doesn’t do that. We do, however, guarantee health insurance for seniors through Medicare, and it would be straightforward to expand that to everyone.
Many people want to go further than Medicare does, right now, and completely eliminate copays and deductibles for medically necessary services. (Copays and deductibles are also called “cost-sharing”.) This is something that’s clearly doable; Canada does it, though not every developed country does. You can have universal health insurance and still have some cost-sharing.
But I’d say that if we don’t eliminate cost-sharing, then at the very least there needs to be more transparency around it. I’ll give you an example—last year, I broke my arm in a bicycle accident, went to the hospital, and even though I had good insurance, I was dealing with billing and insurance paperwork for months afterward. It wasn’t just one bill, it was the hospital fee, and the physicians’ association fee, and a separate bill from a medical device company, and so on. Some of the bills were late arriving, one bill the insurance company refused to pay at first because it wasn’t properly itemized. It was absurd.
(8) What's your take on Trump's various Russia-related scandals?
Back in April, it wasn’t entirely clear if this was going to be a Watergate-level scandal that would bring down the president, or something more like Iran-Contra, where a number of the president’s underlings would take the blame and swear he had no idea what they were up to. But firing FBI director James Comey was clear obstruction of justice, and he absolutely deserves to be impeached for it.
Many people don’t know this, but it’s a matter of debate whether Richard Nixon ordered the Watergate burglary. What brought Nixon down was not the burglary itself, but that Nixon definitely worked to cover it up. Similarly, regardless of what Trump did as a candidate, trying to obstruct the investigation as president should be enough to impeach him.
That’s not the only good reason to impeach Trump. He’s also barely hid the fact that he’s using the presidency to line his own pockets, pretty much from day one. Even without the Russia scandal that itself would be a good reason to impeach him.
I hope Trump leaves office sooner rather than later, for several reasons. Some people are worried that Vice President Pence would be an even worse president, which I admit is possible, but I like our odds better with Pence. For example, regarding Syria, maybe Pence would escalate US involvement in Syria, but I think he’d be at least a little more inclined to listen to advisors, and have at least a somewhat more coherent strategy. So it would still be very important for Congress to push back on any attempt by President Pence to go to war with the Syrian government on nothing but his own authority as president—but it would be an improvement over having Trump as president.
(9) What political issues do you think are most important to Californians, and what are your views on them?
First of all, I’m strongly pro-immigration, and that’s a very important issue for California because we have the highest proportion of immigrants in the country. According to the US Census Bureau, 27% of California’s population is foreign-born, more than twice the national average. And of course, it’s not just immigrants who are affected by the immigration policies adopted by the federal government—countless Californians have family, friends, and coworkers who are immigrants.
Now unfortunately, Senator Feinstein has been an inconsistent ally of the immigrant community. Two years ago, when Republicans in Congress were doing one of their big pushes against so-called “sanctuary cities”—really just cities where local police don’t get involved in enforcing federal immigration law because that’s not their job—Senator Feinstein’s response was to float a “lite” version of the bill. What she should have had the courage to say instead was that Republican fear-mongering about “immigrant crime” is nonsense, full stop, because it is nonsense.
Another issue that’s of special importance for California is water. I’ve proposed working at the national level to establish a water trading market similar to the one used by Australia, which I believe could greatly alleviate California’s problems with droughts. What happens right now is that farmers who are water-rights holders will use their water to grow low-value crops when their most profitable crops are out of season, because selling their excess water to people who have a better use for it is too much of a hassle. If we had a well-run water trading market, those farmers could make more money and people in cities wouldn’t have to feel guilty every time they run the dishwasher.
Follow Melody Y. Guan on Twitter @MelodyGuan.