May 8, 2020 - Technology

Reopening debate opens tech rift

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The debate over reopening the economy splits Silicon Valley, like every other community in the U.S., in two. But in place of the usual blue state/red state, Democrat/Republican divide, tech's argument is between technocrats and libertarians.

Why it matters: The pandemic has only amplified tech giants’ power, ensuring their mindset and choices will play an outsize role in shaping how the U.S. reopens its economy. Nailing or bungling that process could save or cost the nation thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

The big picture: Tech's most influential companies and leaders were among the first to send workers home when the pandemic hit, and the industry's "trust the data" mindset has shaped their response.

  • Big tech CEOs like Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella have presented measured positions on how and when a careful return to work makes sense, consistently leading their peers in other industries in pushing back estimated reopening dates.

A leading voice throughout the crisis has been industry icon Bill Gates, who has devoted much of his philanthropic career to public health and long warned of the dangers of a pandemic.

  • In talks and articles, Gates has urged Americans to trust scientific experts and proceed with caution.
  • Gates recently wrote: "Ultimately, leaders at the national, state, and local levels will need to make trade-offs based on the risks and benefits of opening various parts of the economy. In the United States it will be tricky if one state opens up too fast and starts to see lots of infections."

Yes, but: As the weeks of shutdown drag on and the economic price of the coronavirus crisis soars, a dissenting tech faction has coalesced around a "damn the virus, full speed ahead" sentiment.

  • Elon Musk led the charge with an expletive-punctuated tirade labeling shelter-in-place orders as unconstitutional and a "forcible imprisoning of people in their homes" during a Tesla earnings call last week.
  • He said: "To say they cannot leave their house and that they will be arrested if they do, that's fascist....Give people back their goddamn freedom."
  • Musk's position set off sympathetic echoes among some well-known venture capitalists, including Adam Draper ("time to free us for the sake of progress") and Jason Calacanis.
  • Thursday on the Joe Rogan podcast, Musk doubled down on his stance: "We should not give up our liberties too easily. I think we did that, actually.... If you are at risk and wish to take a risk with your life, you should have the right to do that."
  • Reality check: Individual risk-taking during a pandemic often puts others at risk, too.

Between the lines: CEOs of companies that deal in physical goods (like Musk's Tesla) are feeling sharper pressure to reopen fast than those who run software empires that can operate more smoothly and safely by remote.

  • Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon straddles these two worlds, has mostly laid low in this debate.

Our thought bubble: Musk's "free America now" argument is a corollary of the industry's cult of the founder, which celebrates the visionary individual who bets on a personal vision.

  • Libertarianism — an ideology that runs deep in parts of the tech world — stresses individual rights over community responsibility. That puts it at odds with public health practices for fighting epidemics, which lose effectiveness unless broadly followed.

The bottom line: Founders and VCs are gamblers and risk-takers, but most people are not. Laws and customs usually aim to balance individual rights with group needs. Most tech CEOs share the public consensus to give our collective needs some extra priority right now.

Go deeper

Notre Dame president: Science alone "cannot provide the answer" to reopening

The Main Administration Building and Golden Dome on the campus of University of Notre Dame before a football game in 2018. Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins wrote in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday that science alone "cannot provide the answer" regarding the school's decision to bring students back to campus for its fall semester.

The state of play: Jenkins said that the decision also hinged on "moral value," arguing that "the mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young. Also worthy of risk is the research that can enable us to deal with the challenges we do and will face."

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

California became the fourth state with at least 100,000 reported cases of the coronavirus, along with Illinois, New Jersey and New York.

By the numbers: More than 99,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus and over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Nearly 385,000 Americans have recovered and more than 14.9 million tests have been conducted.

House Republicans to sue Nancy Pelosi in effort to block proxy voting

Photo: Michael Brochstein / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

20 House Republicans plan to file a lawsuit late Tuesday against Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an effort to block the chamber's new proxy voting system amid the coronavirus pandemic, three congressional sources tell Axios.

The big picture: The lawsuit, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, alleges the rules are unconstitutional because the Constitution requires a quorum, or a majority, of lawmakers to be physically present in order to conduct business. The lawsuit was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.