The presidential election doesn’t come up often in Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley doesn’t come up often in the election.
Throughout this campaign year, I haven’t had a single conversation with anyone in these parts about the presidential race—not a friendly chat about the horserace, not a serious conversation about the issues. Meanwhile, to the extent that the candidates think of the tech industry, it’s as marketing—Obama’s doing great things with Twitter!—and as an ATM: Both candidates have raised hundreds of millions online, and they both make frequent visits to the Valley to hoover up this industry’s cash hordes. It’s no surprise that the educated blue-coasters who make up the tech business have given more of their money to Obama than to Romney, but other than the money and some now-faded bumper stickers, you don’t hear much passion from techies for either candidate.
This is all in keeping with the tech industry’s psychic distance from Washington. Part of the story is technologists’ well-known libertarian bent (see Paul Carr for more on this). But the larger problem is that politics, compared to tech, is just so messy. To folks in the Valley, the political class represents an alien world—a place of irrationality and unpredictability, where science is mocked and anecdotes are considered just as important as data.
Most importantly, Washington seems to be a place where talking is more valuable than doing. For entrepreneurs, especially those whose expertise is software, the most thrilling thing in the world is thinking up an idea and then getting started. That’s not the story in Washington; in politics, doing comes last. See how Steve Jobs became disillusioned with Obama: Whenever Jobs relayed an idea for reform (for instance, that teachers should be hired and fired according to merit, and that schools stay open for 11 months of the year), the President inevitably followed up with a list of reasons that the fix couldn’t be made.
But it’s time the tech industry got over itself. Yes, politics is slow, it’s often distasteful, and most of the time it’s pretty uninspiring and pessimistic. But the tech business is hurting only itself by disarming from politics.
I don’t mean that tech companies should get better lobbying shops—all the big guys are pretty deeply invested in lobbying for their own narrow causes. I’m talking about the larger issues in this election: taxes, healthcare, education, immigration, energy and the role of the federal government in the economy, especially in the innovation economy that’s important to the tech industry. The presidential candidates harbor profound disagreements on these issues, and depending on what happens Tuesday, we could see massive changes in these policies that will affect how the tech industry operates. Yet other than hosting or attending fundraisers—Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates for Obama; Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, and Scott McNealy for Romney—tech leaders aren’t active in these elections. And their silence isn’t doing them any favors.
Let me be more specific (and more controversial): Mitt Romney’s policies are terrible for the tech industry. The factors that the industry depends on—a skilled workforce, federal support for basic research, easier immigration for foreign tech workers and entrepreneurs, and healthcare policy that makes it easier for individuals (that is, people who start companies) to get coverage—would be imperiled by a Romney win. And while Obama’s reelection won’t guarantee that all of these areas improve—politics, again, is messy—there’s a far better chance we’ll get better policies for tech under Obama than under Romney. Tech leaders ought to be making that case to the rest of the country, especially to people who argue that Romney is “better” for business.
Let’s look at the issues. Romney’s budget proposal has a couple core components: He wants to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, and he wants to repeal Obama’s health law. These policies will be awful for the tech industry. Setting a cap on federal spending would necessitate huge cuts in education, both to public schools and research universities across the country. Starving education would set up a long-term catastrophe for tech; the industry’s fortunes are in many ways a function of the skills of our workforce, and if schools and universities are driven to austerity, the skills of the workforce will necessarily suffer.
Repealing or underfunding Obamacare is also a bad plan for tech. The start-up economy thrives on flexibility—on the ease with which people can quit their jobs and uproot their lives to pursue a low-probability chance of hitting it big. Obamacare supports this flexibility in several ways. It allows young people to remain on the parent’s health insurance plan until they’re 26: In other words, people who are the same age Mark Zuckerberg was when he was starting Facebook can now get health coverage even if they’re starting up something new rather than settling for a job because they like the idea of going to the doctor when they’re ill.
Obamacare also prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions. This is also pivotal for start-ups. Say you’re a young woman who works at Google, but you’ve got a great idea for your own company. If you’ve got a husband and kids who depend on your health insurance, you might have been wary of leaving your job, and your insurance, to purse that start-up. Now that you can buy your own coverage—now that insurance companies can’t deny you coverage because you once had acne—you might be more willing to launch your dream.
Finally, Romney’s healthcare plan will also significantly reduce spending on biomedical research, and there’s a good chance his cap on discretionary spending will translate into reduced spending on all other kinds of research, including for the National Academies. Over the long run, these cuts would devastate the tech business: Most of the basic technologies that make today’s devices great—from the microprocessor to advanced batteries to the Internet itself—were first developed at university labs with support from federal and military grants. If that spending dries up, so will American tech innovation.
On immigration, both candidates claim to support “comprehensive reform,” which includes loosening access to H1-B visas, a policy that all major tech firms relish. But only the Democratic platform supports the idea of a start-up visa—which grants residency to entrepreneurs who start firms in the United States—and it’s Democrats who’ve been championing a comprehensive plan for immigration reform in Congress, while Republicans have mainly been pushing to shut the borders. If you remember that some of the Valley’s most storied firms were founded by immigrants, the Republican party’s bluster against immigration should worry you.
I’ve no doubt that tech leaders understand how these policy differences will affect their companies. There’s a good reason, after all, that Obama’s supporters in tech are of higher caliber than Romney’s (and that’s despite the fact that Romney’s tax policies will be much better for rich techies than Obama’s). But I’m surprised how muted they’ve been in making their case. Romney isn’t a bad guy, but his policies would be disastrous for the industry, and his party has become the standard bearer of the anti-science, anti-rational wing of America. They stand in opposition to everything that makes Silicon Valley great. Why aren’t people in the tech industry more worried?