Thursday, 11 September 2014

Peter Thiel

Thiel is, of course, a journalist's dream. He's wealthy, successful, opinionated, interesting, better-looking than Elon Musk and he talks about flying cars. But that's not to say that he's wrong in being pessimistic about technological stagnation. I'm inclined to think he's right, largely because as a child I had the same idea. (My thesis was that the rate of technological advance had slowed since the last quarter of the 19th century. It is, I think, not too far away from Thiel's view.)

This profile is a good introduction, less fawning than many. (It is also my source for the information that Thiel is more good-looking than Musk.) Note that he is not a technology person. He was partly persuaded into becoming very wealthy by someone who wanted to be a public intellectual (which is presumably what Thiel wants to be, with knobs on). He's been pretty lucky in his timing and investments, and not so good at the hedge fund side of things. He only made US$55m from PayPal, which isn't enough to fund the Bond-villain billionaire lifestyle the papers love: it seems to be his Facebook investment has made the real money.

This is a great compilation of thought-provoking things he has said. One that struck me was not directly about technology but about money:

"Think about what happens when someone in Silicon Valley builds a successful company and sells it. What do the founders do with that money? Under indefinite optimism, it unfolds like this:
- Founder doesn’t know what to do with the money. Gives it to large bank.
- Bank doesn’t know what to do with the money. Gives it to portfolio of institutional investors in order to diversify.
- Institutional investors don’t know what to do with money. Give it to portfolio of stocks in order to diversify.
- Companies are told that they are evaluated on whether they generate money. So they try to generate free cash flows. If and when they do, the money goes back to investor on the top. And so on.
What’s odd about this dynamic is that, at all stages, no one ever knows what to do with the money.

But most of all, I would recommend this. It is a terribly interesting piece (and the source of the phrase 'indefinite optimism' in the quotation above). Summarising it is not that helpful: the piece is readable and engaging, so you should just read it. As a taster, I can tell you that he convincingly (or at least, thought-provokingly) links together why finance is so dominant in culture, why people want to teach statistics rather than calculus in schools, why physicists tend to believe in the multiverse, why John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate and why Chinese people save so much money - and all started off by thoughts about luck.

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