Before the Tech Era really began, around 2008, I had a lot of respect for billionaires.
They earned their money. Sam Walton (right) and Bill Gates worked decades building great businesses, which brought great benefits to the American people. They understood that they weren’t doing the work alone. There were thousands of people working with them. Sam called them “associates.” These billionaires understood that their interests and those of the people working for them weren’t disconnected.
As a result of watching this over 30 years, I predicted the new politics of Barack Obama had legs. Tech is driven by trained, empowered, and free minds. It’s in the industry’s self-interest, then, to support education, infrastructure, and individual liberty. These are the things that brought people like Jensen Huang and Satya Nadella here. You can never guarantee where genius will come from, either. Male, female, black, white, gay, straight, immigrant, native-born, even disabled. There are great success stories everywhere. Enabling them is the path to any nation’s wealth today.
What has happened since 2008 is a new era of Easy Money. People can quickly become billionaires by moving assets around like pieces on a chess board. A little Founder’s stock, a little schmoozing of the right people, and any entitled dude can become a billionaire.
Getting That Easy Money
No one illustrates this better than Chamath Palihapitiya. The son of a Sri Lankan bureaucrat who later worked at a Canadian Burger King to support his education, Chamath was given the money to get a good degree, then worked as a derivatives trader for a while before joining Facebook in 2007. There, he reportedly bullied his way to power before jumping ship in 2011.
Chamath got his grubstake when Facebook came public in 2012. He founded his own venture fund, which had big wins buying into companies like Yammer, Slack, and Box. Then he found his greatest grift, Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs). As he said on CNBC, he could just “go on television and take companies public” because he had the gift of the gab. It’s true. The free money of the last decade meant equity became the best way for money to make money. It came pouring in from every side. Chamath promised an alphabet of SPACs.
In the end there were a half-dozen. None made back their IPO value. Chamath pumped them, then he sold them. He became a billionaire.
What are you going to do when you become a billionaire on the back of other people, when you’re handed enormous wealth and power without really working for it? What Chamath did with it is become a new American fascist, one of dozens now running around Silicon Valley and Texas.
It’s these jamokes who have united with religious extremists, racists, and militarists into the modern Republican Party. It’s not the Party of Trump. He’s just a vessel. It’s money, religion, and militarism that threaten America today, and will in the future.
The Battle of Our Lives
One big reason democracy is in the battle of its life because the easy money of the 2010s taught the newly wealthy that they’re Ubermenschen.
Billionaires have a duty to the rest of us, and to the system that spawned them. That is to have some respect for the rest of us, and to help keep building the system that made them rich.
Those without that respect don’t deserve their fortunes.