For anyone who has seen ‘The Social Network‘, they surely remember the character of Peter Thiel, played by Wallace Langham of CSI fame, who invests $500,000 into Facebook and sets them up in their first office (where the confrontation between Eduardo and Mark occurs).
While he may not have such a heavy presence in the story, the true Peter Thiel is much more intriguing and outspoken than his theatrical portrayal. In fact, he is the 365th richest American living today with a constant presence on CNBC, TED, Business Insider, in speeches, politics, interviews and much more.
After co-founding Paypal and selling it to eBay for over $1.5 billion, Thiel used his experience as a securities lawyer, financial investor and venture capitalist to run several hedge funds and create his own empire of venture firms and technological companies.
Apart from being a successful investor and trader, Thiel is also a dedicated and unabashed libertarian (his own ties to the Bilderberg Group should also be recognized, however). Being a prominent advocate of free markets in business, investment and entrepreneurship, Thiel is also subject to hack jobs and character assassinations by neo-liberal journalists that cover his career and seek to delegitimize his efforts.
The latest example is the piece in Slate Magazine by Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of Slate Group and a dedicated critic of anyone opposed to statist neo-liberalism (his own ties to the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale are also recognized). As a powerful editor of a Washington Post Company outpost, Weisberg diligently drafts articles that put capitalists, libertarians, and free marketeers in the cross hairs. Therefore, the tone behind his latest article is necessarily belittling, because this is how Weisberg views others that disagree with him on the economy, individual liberties, education and the size of government.
The character-assassinating tone scorches the eyes immediately, right from the headline:
Hyper-libertarian Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel’s appalling plan to pay students to quit college.
While he clearly enjoys playing Richie Rich—various profiles have commented on his Ferrari Spyder, his $500,000 McLaren Supercar, an apartment in the San Francisco Four Seasons, and a white-jacketed butler—Thiel fancies himself more than another self-indulgent tech billionaire. He has a big vision and has lately been spending some of the millions he has made on PayPal, Facebook, and a hedge fund called Clarium trying to advance it. Thiel’s philosophy demands attention not because it is original or interesting in any way—it’s puerile libertarianism, infused with futurist fantasy—but because it epitomizes an ugly side of Silicon Valley’s politics.
This is the lead-in to the criticism of Peter Thiel’s philanthropic plan, The Thiel Fellowship, which seeks to reward young entrepreneurs with grants of up to $100,000. While any passive observer would applaud this virtuous motivation as a way to expedite technological innovation, Weisberg takes personal offence at the notion that state-funded universities would not be able to promote the same result:
Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist’s worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel’s case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel’s program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy’s version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.
Weisberg’s claim that “too many weak ideas find funding” and that an entire generation will be “diverted” is to assert that technological innovation and competition is ultimately a bad thing for society, the same society that has given rise to Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Priceline, Facebook, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Netflix, Verizon, AT&T, IBM, Cisco, Intel, Wal-Mart, Yahoo, AOL, General Electric and millions more. This anti-innovation rhetoric is not only bewildering, but it is also exactly the opposite idea that one would look to bring forth during a Great Recession, when innovation and growth is not keeping pace, unemployment is skyrocketing and overall progress is stagnating.
The Thiel Fellowship will pay would-be entrepreneurs under 20 $100,000 in cash to drop out of school. In announcing the program, Thiel made clear his contempt for American universities which, like governments, he believes, cost more than they’re worth and hinder what really matters in life, namely starting tech companies. His scholarships are meant as an escape hatch from these insufficiently capitalist institutions of higher learning.
Again, the point that Weisberg takes immediate issue with is Thiel’s “contempt for American universities”. In an age when the cost of college for an average student is beginning to tap $20,000 or more a year, Thiel simply makes the point that complete education is not fundamentally necessary for success in life.
In ‘The Social Network’, the genius of Mark Zuckerberg exists beyond Harvard, not because of it (Harvard surely did not appreciate Zuckerberg: they suspended him for “breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy”). The same goes for Bill Gates, Ted Turner and many other cutting-edge innovators of this day and age who never completed their college careers but still managed to create vast wealth and ingenuity. Weisberg is uncomfortable with the idea that innovation and development could exist without the “wonderful” and “angelic” academic institutions that have been put into place and propped-up by the state.
While the general role of higher learning should not be discounted, it is also important to note that it is not a completely obligatory tool toward new, successful ideas, as personified by the many millionaire dropouts that exist and have contributed amazingly to our society.
The boundaries of paradigm-shifting creations should be initiated and encouraged in any and all ventures and venues, not just those of the ivy-league élite and intelligentsia.