Where are the billionaire tech innovators when we need them?
America’s health security has to be rebuilt from the ground up. We’re in a war for survival. The skills and systems essential to win that war are known.
It’s no use looking to the White House to grasp this reality. Trump has no concept of what a wartime grand strategy looks like. He can never see beyond the daily news cycle.
And we really do need a long-term grand strategy to beat this virus. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is warning that the second wave of the virus will be far more deadly than the first. In an interview with The Washington Post, he said that after the first wave has passed the following months should be used to prepare our defenses for a deadly winter.
America needs to rediscover how big things get done fast. And to do this we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
When America entered World War II it called on people like William S. Knudsen, the president of General Motors, to put industry on a war footing. Knudsen stepped up to the plate, taking a government salary of one dollar a year, and led a team that turned America into the world’s greatest military power at astonishing speed.
The needs of now are far less demanding than that. But they are urgent.
The most scientifically endowed nation in the world is floundering with a jerry-rigged medical supply system. It’s too late to upgrade it for today’s crisis but there has to be a sweeping and permanent reconstruction of it in time to suppress a second wave, and to build out beyond that a standing line of defense against future contagions.
Invoking the Defense Production Act to shift manufacturing priorities is pointless without also appointing people able to direct and manage the effort. We need a Knudsen-like task force. And we are lucky. There are three tech billionaires with precisely the talents that fit the moment. All three have overturned traditional ways of doing business in a way that now needs to be repeated. They should be summoned and given Knudsen-like powers.
Number one, there is a logistical nightmare to solve. Front line health workers are desperate for basic supplies. Hospitals compete with one another for life-saving equipment that has had to be rationed.
Acquiring from multiple sources thousands of essential items and delivering them precisely where and when they are needed is one of the most complex industrial challenges in the world. But there is already an answer to that. It’s called Amazon.
So step up Jeff Bezos.
What has the world’s richest man done for us so far? He’s donated $100 million to Feeding America that operates 200 food banks around the country. He’s hired 175,000 more workers to keep up with the demand for home delivery created by the pandemic.
The surge in demand has made Bezos even richer—according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index he has added another $24 billion to his fortune, bringing his personal pile to $138 billion. So donating $100 million is chump change to him.
Sometimes Bezos behaves like a John D. Rockefeller type of plutocrat. He employs more than 53,000 people in the Seattle area but crushed an attempt by Seattle City Council to impose a 1.7 percent payroll tax on him and other large employers to fund affordable housing. A group of U.S. senators, led by Cory Booker, are now demanding more action over complaints about worker safety standards at his warehouses. His ownership of The Washington Post gives him a more enlightened image, but any real audit of his social values remains elusive.
In any event, this isn’t a call for philanthropy, it’s a call to civic duty—to donate his unique experience and skill set in the service of those who helped to make him so rich.
Bezos should join the task force with the responsibility to identify all the choke points in the medical supply chain. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for one, clearly needs a blow torch applied. Supply chains need to be shortened and, if necessary, repatriated to this country. Most of all, we need a free technology transfer from Amazon to the crucial logistics of the nation.
Number two, there has to be a massive scaling up of how critical equipment like ventilators are produced. Right now that industry is scaled for pre-pandemic demand. One of the biggest manufacturers, the Swiss company Hamilton Medical, was making just 220 machines a week. Stare Engineering in Italy was making 160 a month.
So step up Elon Musk.
Musk, to be sure, generates wildly different responses in people. He made a bad call at the start of this crisis, echoing Trump that lockdowns were a stupid overreaction and that more people would die from car crashes. That was, to say the least, bizarre coming from a guy who likes to be seen as a prophet of science. He’s also (unlike Bezos) a blatant self-promoter.
But he has real chops when it comes to industrial scale innovation. With Tesla he gatecrashed the auto industry with audacity. After nearly foundering, as the rest of the industry hoped he would, Musk mastered the mass production of a revolutionary electric car technology and forced the others to follow.
He took on the sclerotic state-funded space business with SpaceX and has so impressed NASA that he’s set to provide American astronauts with their first ride to the International Space Station in an American capsule after decades of dependence on the Russian Soyuz—while the rival Boeing capsule is grounded because of dangerous flaws. He has pioneered re-usable launch rockets, an amazing feat.
Space-X provides a large hunk of Musk’s wealth. It’s the fifth ranked of the world’s unicorns (private companies worth more than a billion), valued at $33 billion.
Musk’s engineers are now reverse-engineering a ventilator. Where they can, they are substituting or adapting parts already used in Tesla cars, like the suspension system and the infotainment screen.
Rockets and space capsules are not mass produced, they use some of the most expensive and exquisitely manufactured technology in the world, but SpaceX workers have been producing face shields and a hand sanitizer for hospitals near their California plant.
Thus there is nobody better equipped to scale up production of a finely engineered piece of life-saving equipment like a ventilator than Musk. Moreover, there is nobody more likely to enjoy the halo effect of being called upon to do so.
The distinctive executive skills of Bezos and Musk should be balanced by someone of a different temperament.
So step up Bill Gates.
Gates has emerged as the elder statesman of the tech plutocrats in this crisis. He can also claim to be the man who saw all this coming long before others.
During a 2015 TED talk he said, “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war—not missiles but microbes.”
Gates and his wife Melinda’s foundation have spent years tracking epidemics like Ebola in Africa. He’s already committed $100 million to help fight the spread of the coronavirus and has shown a realistic grasp of what is needed to produce an effective vaccine. (Ultra-right conspiracy theorists, along with Fox nut jobs like Laura Ingraham, claimed that Gates was using the pandemic to gain control of the global health system.)
He’s also been uncharacteristically blunt about Trump’s decision to stop American funding of the World Health Organization—an act that he says is “as dangerous as it sounds… their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them.” (Last year the Gates’ gave $531 million to the WHO.)
Writing in The Economist last week, Gates delivered a succinct master class in prioritizing the essentials of the crisis: “Humanity will beat this pandemic, but only when most of the population is vaccinated,” he said. “Over the next year, medical researchers will be among the most important people in the world… By the second half of 2021 facilities around the world will be manufacturing a vaccine… the fastest humankind has ever gone from recognizing a new disease to immunizing against it.”
Gates would be an impressive chairman for the task force. While he has been directing his foundation’s work and proselytizing for higher standards of health care in the developing world he has acquired diplomatic finesse—a voice that world leaders of various stripes seem ready to hear.
Of course, there is one world leader who listens to nobody who is not first prepared to genuflect to him. And, without doubt, the obstacle to the establishment of this task force with three such brilliant innovators is the ego of Donald J. Trump, a president always fearful of any hint of competence in his own staff.
So here’s the way forward: Make such a pandemic task force a commitment for the Joe Biden campaign.
The Democrats need to show they can grasp the new reality of national security which, as Gates said, is not any longer about more multi-million-dollar missiles. Without health security there is no economic security. Without economic security there is a failed state.
And it’s time for those who have gotten rich by shaping this century’s world to lead the way in saving it.