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Peter Thiel, Paypal co-founder, on How New Technologies Thwart Government and Promote Freedom
I enjoyed tonight’s talk by Peter Thiel at NYC Junto, on "How New Technologies Thwart Government and Promote Freedom". Junto is a libertarian-focused discussion group organized by Victor Niederhoffer. I’ve been following Peter’s writing for a while, since we overlap directly in our interests in investing and in online networks. Peter is President of Clarium Capital Management, an investor in both LinkedIn and Facebook, and was co-founder and former CEO of Paypal.
Peter started with two questions:
1) Let’s assume libertarian view is correct. Why aren’t more people libertarian?
2) What do we do about it? How do we make the world more libertarian?
Answers to question 1
– maybe libertarianism is not in peoples’ interest
But as he got older, he saw this is very hard to do.
(highlight of the evening: Victor Niederhoffer’s toddler son wanders around Peter’s legs at this point)
An IQ test for libertarians: ask them how optimistic they are. The more pessimistic they are, the smarter they are.
One solution: move control of money from the government to individuals. But you cant do this via plebiscite. If there was a form of money that government couldn’t measure or track, you’d have a powerful alternative. This insight was genesis of Paypal in late 1990s.
In mid 90s, several companies were creating alternative currencies: Cybercash, Digicash, etc. All of the initial attempts were going out of business. Money has a network-like aspect. How do you create a new currency when no one else is using it?
All these efforts had run aground against this rock. So Paypal started by leveraging against existing systems: credit cards, checks. Send money to anyone with an email address. Started with 24 employees at Paypal. Preloaded accounts with $10. Started to spread. We grew at 5-7% compounded daily.
Einstein, "Compound interest is so miraculous it could only be created by G-d".
Initial theory was very idealistic. In reality we ran up against many obstacles, the first of which were customers. Massive amounts of emails/customer service inquiries.
Spring/summer 2000: discovered bad people are out there. Whole wave of fraud, including Russian mobsters, tried to exploit Paypal. Someone threatened Peter’s mother unless PayPal unfroze his account. Then that person ended up shot dead.
Found dystopian website in Former Soviet Union: "Carders World". A carder is someone who steals financial information on people. This was a marketplace for personal financial information. They had a manifesto saying that they were going to take down the capitalist system. Paypal information was there.
2001 period: next obstacle was government. Initial Paypal strategy was to ignore government regulations—’we are not a bank’; ‘ none of these laws apply to us’. If we rolled this out quickly enough, the government couldn’t stop us. "If you have a world where everyone is a criminal, you have to change the law."
Visa/Mastercard tried to come up with rules to prohibit Paypal from using their service. Government was even slower. Radical technological change must be fast.
In 2001/02, when company went public, things really hit the wall. The person investigating their S-1 thought that his job was to stop companies from going public. "He was demoted in government, which is a really extraordinary thing to happen."
Businessweek article said that state of Louisiana hadn’t quite signed off on this. SEC investigator told Paypal management that state of Louisiana was going to shut this down. So in middle of roadshow, Peter had to track down government regulators in Louisana and convince them that Louisana did not want to get reputation as a particularly backward place. "So within 2 days, we managed to get that stopped. At the time we had 100,000 Louisana users."
"We are now in 100 countries. 3rd largest payment brand after Visa/Mastercard in the world. "
How successful were we? Paypal currency is still denominated in national currencies. If you only have one form of currency, you’re beholden to the issuer of that currency. Our initial vision inspired in part by Argentinean economic turmoil. If you can force competition between governments, you’ll have stabler currencies.
Early 1980s: high inflation rates all over the world. Since then, it’s gone down almost everywhere. Forms and symbols can persist well after the substance is gone, e.g., Queen’s face is still on UK currency. Technology has been a very powerful force for decentralizing things.
1960s Time magazine cover: picture of 1 big computer that could run the world. Cf. Hal 2001. Computers as a force for centralization is a classic image. In the 90s, power shifted to individuals.
Famous early example: Soros distributing fax machines throughout Eastern bloc.
If everyone becomes a currency dealer thru Paypal, it changes the world.
So much has changed. For example in 1971: it was illegal to own gold and other currencies in the US. 1971 Treasury Secretary said, "It’s our money—we can print as much as we want and it’s the rest of the world’s problem". You can’t imagine Hank Paulson saying something similar today.
Power is shifting ineluctably away. Will technology continue to be a force for decentralization?
Why did 1960s vision of centralized computer not happen?
Peoples’ ability to process information is flat, but the amount of information has gone up dramatically. So the only solution is decentralization. This is also why Moscow can’t set the price of potatoes in Vladivostock.
You may be able to approximate information processing to a problem solveable in polynomial time—and then you have AI, and the 1960s vision of a centralized computer processing everything.
By 2050, we could have thousands of different countries. We have 10-20 years to push as hard and far as we can in direction of more liberty.
Q: How do you prevent Paypal from being used as electronic hawalla—form of terrorist financing?
A: We have protections in place—abide by Patriot Act.
2002: first year number of printed checks in US went down.
A: The problem with gold is that when you really need it, it’s not there. In 1933 the government confiscated all the gold bullion in the US.
Q; How do you promote libertarianism?
A: When I was young I tried to reduce the demand side (demand for regulation), but then I saw it was much too hard. So now I focus on the supply side. If I expand the supply side (e.g., more options for currencies), I reduce the amount of government in the system.
I want to promote change without being obliged to go through an election or plebiscite.
Governments are losing power to inflate because of technology. The risks are now tilted to deflation, not inflation. A deflationary environment is hard to invest in, because you can’t just lever up and pay things off in cheaper dollars. Private equity and real estate are bad ideas in a deflationary environment. Donald Trump’s argument is that you should be short dollars by going long real estate, is disastrous.
Q: How does Facebook promote libertarianism?
A: Facebook will be the dominant next media company . Since the old media companies are non-libertarian, this in itself is good.
Hedge funds are a way to bet against stupidity of governments.
Q: Could you comment on US visa policies and their impact on competitiveness.
He commented that once a tipping point happens, it’s impossible to go back. Once the camel’s back is broken, it can’t be healed. Right now the marginal tax rate in NY is ~50%. In London it’s 0%. So it’s compelling for a hedge fund to set up shop in London, not NY.
There’s a definite shifting of centers of quality overseas. It’s happening faster in finance than in technology, but it is happening. (Audience member mentioned that Microsoft is setting up research centers in Canada and elsewhere specifically because they cant bring the researchers they hire into the US.)