Stop the Thiel | Crooked Media
SUBSCRIBE TO FRIENDS OF THE POD FOR EXCLUSIVE SHOWS FROM DAN PFEIFFER & MORE. SUBSCRIBE TO FRIENDS OF THE POD FOR EXCLUSIVE SHOWS FROM DAN PFEIFFER & MORE.
June 30, 2023
Positively Dreadful
Stop the Thiel

In This Episode

Shortly after the Coast Guard kicked off its rescue mission to find the OceanGate submarine, one of the company’s founding advisers posted the following message online: “I hope to get a few hours of sleep, wake up and see very positive responses from the U.S. government in my Inbox. If I don’t, the whole world will know the names of the people who did not do their jobs.” It’s the latest example of powerful “disruptors” who got rich touting high-minded libertarian principles about innovation and deregulation, then blaming the government when everything predictably goes wrong. As with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Silicon Valley Bank debacle, the taxpayers foot the bill for the cleanup, while the supposed visionaries get a slap on the wrist. Host Brian Beutler is joined by Crooked contributor Max Fisher, whose book The Chaos Machine examines the mass-scale wrecking Silicon Valley has done to our society. They talk about how American industry got here, the psychology and origin story of the disruptor class, and how the path from idealism to nihilism is shorter than Elon Musk’s temper.

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful with me your host, Brian Beutler. I promise this isn’t going to be an episode about the Titanic tourist submersible, which I assume you’re all sick of hearing about. But I do want to start there because I noticed something gross, but also kind of depressingly familiar when there was still a faint glimmer of hope that the five passengers aboard the Titan could be rescued. It started with the people most responsible for the tragedy. Who probably at that point knew that all was lost. Nevertheless, trying to lay the blame at the feet of the U.S. government, one of the founding firms advisors posted this message online. He wrote, I hope to get a few hours sleep, wake up and see very positive responses from the U.S. government in my inbox. If I don’t, the whole world will know the names of the people who did not do their jobs. To be clear, the job, such as there was a market for it, was to build a submersible that did not implode. And they started passing the buck the instant they knew they had failed wrecked their business most likely possibly wrecked other adventure tourism businesses. They also probably suspected that there’d be demand and an echo chamber for lies and conspiracy theories about the U.S. government’s role in the search. And that was a safe bet. I’m just guessing about this, but I would bet that fewer people in America could name the company that built the submersible. It’s called Ocean Gate, for the record, then could recite some bogus claim about what actually happened. One of those claims promoted by Dan Crenshaw, the Republican congressman from Texas, is that the government just didn’t act fast enough. He said, quote, “It begs the question, could this have been resolved differently if leadership had just acted sooner and actually put options on the table instead of just assuming, well, it doesn’t matter because they’re dead.” The more popular and somehow much dumber theory is that Joe Biden knew the Titan had imploded but dispatched the Coast Guard to search for it anyhow to distract attention from the fact that his son Hunter entered a guilty plea with federal prosecutors. Like I said, very dumb. And as I kind of alluded to at the top, I think the submersible story, or at least our media’s fixation on it, is, is also pretty dumb. It’s just not that big a deal in the scheme of things. But it did kind of tidily showcase this breed of dishonest buck passing, which I think I would have once chalked up to desperation and weakness, but increasingly see as a strategy that a lot of powerful people in different roles have consciously adopted. You appeal to high minded libertarian principles at the outset when you’re soliciting investment or trying to slip the constraints of regulation, then blame everything on the government and insist we, the public, clean up when something goes wrong. And it isn’t hard to see how and why a certain kind of cynic might see the appeal there. You’ve probably heard the term disruptors. If you’re anything like me, your eyes spin out of your head when anyone uses that term in earnest. But the innocent version of the concept is that progress should progress. Builders should build. People should improve on the status quo unapologetically, even if what they come up with, quote unquote, disrupts certain comfortable arrangements. And we can’t know who embraces that philosophy earnestly and who embraces it out of a kind of convenience. But it’s not hard to see how it can drift into something more nefarious. You might build a website that works like a kind of constantly updating yearbook and Rolodex and feel proud of the fact that you’ve made it easier for people to reconnect with each other or stay connected. If that same technology happens to make classified advertisements and thus regional newspapers obsolete, you might say, well, that’s just disruption. Things are better overall now, but if evil people exploit the same technology to perpetuate a genocide, well, at that point, all you can say is, sorry, we were disrupting. We’ll tweak our program and terms of service and hope that doesn’t happen again. Also, we’re just a company. It’s up to governments and diplomats to stop human rights atrocities. Here’s another example. Maybe it seems like healthy disruption or healthy competition to allow people to turn their homes into unregulated inns, hotels, beds and breakfasts. And if a Hilton closes somewhere in America, it’s just not that big a deal. But if the same, innovation infects the whole housing market like a kind of virus. Well, oops, sorry. Who could have known? We’re here begging forgiveness, but don’t expect us to ask permission next time. But if there are no consequences for the people responsible for the harms of disruption or worse, if those harms make the disruptors very rich, well, why wouldn’t worst people see it as an invitation to take a bunch of shortcuts on their way to making a bunch of money and then slough off responsibility onto the rest of us? Why wouldn’t they further make common cause with the right wing, which has an ideological fondness for this kind of grab what you can approach to the world. It’s easy to see the disrupter philosophy as one that can bleed into something more like wrecking as a way of life. We saw this recently with Silicon Valley Bank. The story there is that a bunch of powerful rich people lobbied relentlessly to lift post-financial crisis regulations on regional banks. Then some of those banks, like Silicon Valley Bank, made a bunch of risky bets and collapsed. Then the greedy venture capitalists who supported the deregulation and parked huge uninsured deposits at SVB started screaming at the government for a bailout. They told anyone who would listen that the whole banking system would collapse if they weren’t made 100% whole on the assumption that the government would blink under the threat of a nationwide run on the banks. And it worked. They got what they wanted basically every step of the way. But even that wasn’t enough because now the ringleaders of that fiasco are using their considerable influence to help raise the profile of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He’s the anti modernity vaccine conspiracist. And they’re doing that because he’s running for president in the Democratic primary, and they think his candidacy might weaken Joe Biden in the general election. So they’re pumping yet more anti-vax poison into the civic bloodstream in the hope of reelecting Donald Trump. So it’s like the ne plus ultra of wrecking. And what bugs me most about all this isn’t the possibility that their schemes might might work. These are mostly just some very rich trolls, but that they dance through the raindrops every time they do this. There aren’t many or maybe any mechanisms in place to chasten wreckers, and nobody in a high level politics has put much thought into imposing them. So it’s always just on to the next scheme. So how did we end up here, particularly in the tech and startup world, but really across much of American industry? And what could we, the royal we do to discourage this kind of antisocial elite behavior? Last year, my colleague Max Fisher published a book called The Chaos Machine about the mass scale wrecking Silicon Valley has done to our brains. So he knows the short path from idealism to nihilism well, and we’re here to try to answer some of these questions. Max, welcome to your inaugural, Positively Dreadful. 

 

Max Fisher: Thanks, Brian. 

 

Brian Beutler: I’m glad to have a chance to talk about this with you. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, pleasure to be on. 

 

Brian Beutler: So infuriating stuff. Unless you think I got some of it wrong. 

 

Max Fisher: No, I think you got the gist of it. Yeah. Corporate power wielded for weird and unsavory ends. Welcome to America. [laughter]

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. Yeah, in a way, I feel like, you know, this is a show about newish trends that are troubling. And in some ways, this is, like, the oldest one. But I think it’s it it feels new because it’s coming from a place that very recently we had associated with a kind of progressivism and an idealism. And and now they’ve done a big heel turn in the last ten or 15 years. 

 

Max Fisher: I think you’re right that something has changed. And I think you’re right about the timing that the change has come in the last ten or 15 years. And to me, I think what’s really significant here is that, like on the one hand, there is kind of nothing new about corporations self-interestedly wielding their power to limit regulations where it suits them, to enhance regulations, where it suits them to see tax cuts or tax breaks, and to try to get the help of government to further their own ends. I mean, you think about oil companies. These are industries that are absolutely reliant on American power and on the power of the state, but also seeking to deregulate it in ways that serve them. And there’s nothing mysterious about that. Right? They’re just looking to maximize their dollar, even if it comes at everyone else’s expense. But what I think is different about what’s happening now is something that really comes out of Silicon Valley specifically and the tech world specifically and has kind of infected the broader corporate culture in America over the last ten or 15 years, which has been the big rise of Silicon Valley, where there is this really sincere ideological belief, not just that they should have this like kind of cynical, you know, rent seeking, profit seeking interaction with the state, but that they should outright replace the state, that the idea of a state or the government is obsolete and needs. I mean, you use the word disrupted and that like they need to do for the whole existence of government what Uber did for taxis. [laughter] And it’s easy to hear it and think like, oh, they’re just they’re just drinking their own Kool-Aid. But they have really I mean, if you look at the discourse within the Valley, the way that they speak to themselves, they have been following this line for decades. I mean, I think about this manifesto, I think was called the the manifesto for cyberspace that got circulated in the early nineties and is still considered this like foundational biblical text in Silicon Valley that said a declaration of independence of cyberspace. That’s what it was addressed to the governments of the industrialized world. It says you have no sovereignty. Where we gather and went on and on for pages about how they were creating a civilization of the mind that would be ruled by the total, unstructured, ungoverned, anarchistic utopia of technology that would be free from governments. They’ve really tried to pursue this in all of their aims. But of course, what we know now, because we see the Silicon Valley economy collapsing, is that the whole time they were writing on kind of low interest rates, they were building it all on government grounds, which they didn’t acknowledge. And the the conceit behind all of it is now collapsing under their feet, which has been embodied by Silicon Valley Bank. But we’re seeing in the entire system. 

 

Brian Beutler: Can we put a pin in that? I want to, A, I want to, like, stress test this idea that what the— 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: —the the zeitgeist in Silicon Valley is, is sort of novel. And I also want to talk a little bit about what the economic turmoil happening with Silicon Valley, how it’s contributing to all this. But before we do that, I want to talk a little bit about how we got to today. First, from from just your personal perspective, like as you were reporting your book or doing research about the history of all this stuff, did you happen upon I mean, I know in a sense your book is about the grand reckoning that that Silicon Valley has done by like hoovering up all of our attention. But, you know, did you happen upon maybe smaller scale examples of the phenomenon I’m talking about that maybe haven’t gotten as much attention as the Silicon Valley Bank thing did, but that just kind of illustrate the same basic dynamic. 

 

Max Fisher: I mean, I one that I think of that didn’t get the same attention and is is small scale in one sense, but maybe very large scale in another is that frequently internationally you would see Facebook in particular, but sometimes other social media platforms spinning huge amounts of hate speech and racist conspiracies and incitements to violence that were getting artificially promoted by these systems, algorithms to a huge extent and would lead to a lot of real world violence. And something happened a few times. For example, in Sri Lanka, which is a country I have reported from, is that this would lead not entirely out of nowhere, but like pretty close to out of nowhere, because it would be like a stray rumor that the system would promote over and over again, and then people’s responses would get promoted over and over again, would lead to like a village getting burned down. And what would have to happen is the government would have to step in, you know, try to stop the violence, you know, block access to Facebook, put police in the streets to try to stop the rioting. And that Facebook would basically do nothing about it because their goal was just to maximize their eyeballs and impressions from any given country to try to get as much money as possible and that kind of negative externalities, as we say, where someone else’s problem, where a government’s problem to clean up. But at the same time, Facebook would position itself in these countries, much as it does in the United States. As you know, we’re here to help you bypass the evil governments and the restrictions of the state, and we’re here to help you have a totally free society. But of course, what they were actually creating was a version of reality that served their profit by generating as much attention and excitement online as possible, even if it meant people’s homes getting burned down and people getting killed. So that is a pattern that we saw over and over again with the social media platforms in the developing world. And then, of course, started to see in the United States not too long ago where it’s it’s an analogy that I’ve heard some people use, is that living in a world influenced by Silicon Valley is like living downriver from a giant polluting factory where the factory is insisting that it’s actually not creating any pollution at all, where it’s, you know, it’s putting candy and lollipops in the water. So why are people complaining? 

 

Brian Beutler: Which is. Like a great metaphor and also I think gets to a way in which the new curdled Silicon Valley is a lot more like. The big polluting industries that, you know, we’ve known the problems with for decades and decades and decades. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: Then, like something novel. How did tech industry leaders evolve from the from the sort of OG like? In my mind, it’s Bill Gates [laughter] who wasn’t even from Silicon— Uh to like the coding nerds. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: Into this sort of reactionary class of venture capitalists who seem to want to just hoover up as much money as possible tear everything down and place, like J.D. Vance in charge of everything. [laughs]

 

Max Fisher: So they’ve always I mean, before even the Internet era, before even the personal computer era, there’s always been this ideology going back to like the seventies and eighties in Silicon Valley that says we want to tear it all down and replace it with a pure technological civilization. And that was kind of harmless when it was the era of, like personal computers and early Internet. It was always a little weird, like it was rooted in this Silicon Valley. We forget that it used to be the frontier. I mean, it started it was like orange groves. And I think peach canneries was was everything that was out there. And it really rose up with this mindset of like we, the developers and the inventors and the engineers were really more akin to the like hippie homesteaders than to traditional corporations. And there’s not a ton of truth to that. I mean, there’s some cultural affiliation, but this belief that, like we’re out here in the frontier creating a new society free from governments, and this is going to be the new utopia, but it’s this ideology of like, we’re going to tear everything down and replace it with the new technological order starts to become more dangerous with the social media companies, partly because there’s just so much bigger they have so much greater market power, and also because they go from saying we want to replace society’s as kind of an abstract goal for guiding a guiding principle for like we should invent a lot of computers that are easy to connect to without going through government servers so they can connect directly, which is like a nice idea. They’re like we actually need to replace the gatekeepers of society. We need to replace the mainstream media, we need to replace government. We need to kind of displace their power to regulate speech and society. And then you see this also happening with the venture capital economy around the same time where you have you know, you alluded to it, disruptors like Uber is going to replace the taxi industry. Airbnb is going to replace the short term rental industry. And this idea that you are going to have. New, unregulated startups that are kind of free from any of these old rules or systems that are free from labor unions, that are free from any of the kind of traditional market practices that will, just by being unregulated, will inherently be better and will inherently liberate us. And then injected into all of this is the very specific like PayPal. Peter Thiel, Stanford alumni world, which it’s a really small number of people. So it’s it’s it’s easy to think like, well, how influential could these like ten or 12 guys who started PayPal made their fortune there, you know, most of them went to Stanford and worked at the Stanford Review, which is the like weird conservative paper there. How influential could they really be? Thing about Silicon Valley is it’s really small. It is really, really small, especially the investor class, which it’s not. When we think about Silicon Valley, we think about like the founders, the Mark Zuckerberg’s, but the really powerful people, the people who set the culture are the Peter Thiel’s. It’s the venture capitalists, it’s the investors. They are the ones who pick the companies. They’re the ones who staff the companies. Early on, they pick the board of directors in these companies. So they are really determining what products Silicon Valley makes and what the culture is in individual companies in the Valley overall. And the Peter Thiel, Gen X sorry to of, you know, shots fired at Gen X, the Gen X like leaders [laughter] who came up themselves in the nineties but then became really influential in the 2000s just as Silicon Valley was really exploding and turning into what we know now who were bringing this ideology that combined this old Silicon Valley a little bit diluted, like back to the land hippie homesteader, frontiersman with this like arch conservative contrarian like, hate affirmative action, hate diversity, worldview that came out of like nineties campus culture wars and then put it at the center of Silicon Valley, like, I don’t know. Have you read any of like, Peter Thiel’s books? They’re truly, truly insane. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, I’ve not like sat down, read one cover to cover, but I’ve familiarized myself with his batty ideology. 

 

Max Fisher: Let me let me read you a Peter Thiel quote. 

 

Brian Beutler: See if I let’s see if I’ve read it before. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. [laughs] Yeah. Some of them are well known. 2009. He said, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yep. 

 

Max Fisher: He said that society could no longer be trusted to the unthinking demos that guides so-called social democracy. And he said that only companies like Facebook could safeguard liberty, but by protecting them from, quote, politics, which he used to mean regulation and public accountability and also the law. 

 

Brian Beutler: Three things jumped to mind as you were as you were laying all that out. First is I’m a proud geriatric millennial. And so we can slag Gen Xers all we want here. [laughter]

 

Max Fisher: Are you? What year were you born? I think you might be— 

 

Brian Beutler: ’82. ’82. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, you’re on the line—

 

Brian Beutler: Like cusper. 

 

Max Fisher: I agree. Millennial. Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: The second thing is, you know, you say ten guys now, but even if you take their channels of influence away from them, like the ones where they’re appointing the boards and picking the companies, like they’re worth like what like a quarter trillion dollars combined or some something. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: You give me a quarter trillion dollars like one person. I feel like I could make a pretty big imprint on [laughter] how people think about the world. And, and the third thing is that what you read from Peter Thiel, I’m super familiar with that. And on the one hand is it’s like obviously, I think kind of crazy. And he’s trying to put it in action in all kinds of subversive ways that I find very troubling. On the other hand, it’s also kind of like bog standard movement conservative ideology. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Reagan and starve the beast. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, and also, like, you know, they’re they’re members of the Senate and serving today who have said democracy isn’t the goal. Freedom is the goal. They believe this whole thing. 

 

Max Fisher: I like it. 

 

Brian Beutler: Where like if you have too much democracy, people will redistribute money to themselves and until there’s no more money. And do they think that they’re singing from a different hymnal than the Vanguard leaders of the conservative movement? Do they think that there’s. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: Some novel insights there? 

 

Max Fisher: I think they really do. And I think that’s why even though now, because, you know, political polarization has reached everywhere, including Silicon Valley. So the people who identify as Republican or Democrat have been pushed further apart in the places where they disagree. But not so long ago, you really did see a lot of acknowledgment within Silicon Valley of the overlap between people who we consider Republicans like Peter Thiel and people we consider Democrats like Mark Zuckerberg, where there really was this belief that there was a common mission to not just to, like, break away from the populist will, because people can’t be trusted and not just to break away from regulations because onerous regulations are business, but this like weird utopianism that we are creating a new society. Like Peter Thiel had all of these plans for like colonizing space and floating cities and like Mark Zuckerberg had very similar ideas where he would constantly talk about rewiring civilization from the ground up. These, like in 1990s manifesto writers are always talking about a new civilization that would be free of government, that would be self-governed. So I really do think and I think you see this in Silicon Valley Bank, too, where they really they don’t see themselves as just kind of cynically trying to maneuver and navigate and manipulate the system to their own ends. They really think that they are such geniuses because it comes out of this engineering culture that we have math and the raw power of math will give us wisdom that no one else can access, that they exist beyond the remit of, you know, foolish regulators or politicians or or voters. 

 

Brian Beutler: I guess, you know, and like, who knows what direction it runs. And for some of them, it’s probably like ideology in the in the purest sense. And some of it is probably just like backfill. But like. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: The distinction is that when you hear when you hear a Ted Cruz or a Mike Lee. 

 

Max Fisher: Mmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Or some conservative movement leader talking about the problems with democracy and we’re a republic and the objective is freedom, and that means lower taxes and blah, blah, blah. Like they’re just they’re thinking about who gets what money. Like, do we help poor people? Is like, is is money earnings, wealth? Is it like reflective of some value. And the Silicon Valley people are. Like embracing the same basic ideology, but it’s because they think that they’re going to make people live forever and colonize outer space. And and so there’s like this fantasy element layered on top of it that if you if you if you take it at face value for them, at least it’s it redeems the whole idea that now like democracy is this obstacle to true human flourishing. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. And there’s I mean there’s always been a tension in democratic governance in the United States and in every country between representative rule versus democratic rule. I mean, that really is, I think, a significant and meaningful thing that every democracy has had to navigate. I mean, you know, the line is always that if we had pure, direct popular rule over every policy, then there would be, you know, public hangings in the square every day because people like that stuff. [laughter] I mean, you know, I moved to California recently and they have a lot of referendums, and that has not worked out very well for governance. So I think that there is you see politicians universally using that tension to push back on policies they don’t like. And, you know, I think in the case of like the Mike Lee’s and the Ted Cruz’s, whenever they say that, oh, you know, we can’t defer too much to a raw popular will, when it comes to public spending. To me, that is just an aversion to public spending, searching for a justification rather than an inherent disregard for democracy and itself, although we do certainly see that in  there support for, you know, for example, the January 6th insurrection. [music plays]

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Brian Beutler: What were the radicalizing moments? Like for all I know, and I think I know Peter Thiel kind of came that way. [laughter] 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: But but like, but like to the extent that this he found. Like an audience and willing partners. Like, I’ve heard people speculate that it was like fairly smooth sailing ideologically in Silicon Valley. Most of the leaders there were like bog standard Democrats. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm, mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Until the 2016 election. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: Around which time people started. Noticing that the social media had contributed to the poisoning of the public sphere. Also, I think people like me, like specifically me went from realizing that the Internet had once been this really fascinating, cool place to hang out to be, was this horribly toxic place to hang out and and realizing that Silicon Valley was the reason. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm. 

 

Brian Beutler: I’ve also heard, you know, Biden, Joe Biden’s support for labor unions was a big contributor to two tech world radicalization, particularly vis a vis Elon Musk, because he doesn’t want his car company— [laughs] 

 

Max Fisher: Right right. 

 

Brian Beutler: But these are just like the impressions that I picked up by osmosis. I wonder if there’s like a real documented history of how they went from. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: From like we’re you know, we’re building computers that talk to each other and we think that good stuff [laughter] will come of that. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: And also we like all people and diversity and all that and to to like this. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, but I hadn’t heard that about Biden’s support for unionization as a that’s interesting. I definitely buy that because the Valley is not a place that loves labor unions, which actually extends to a lot of the workforce. But as I think it’s very slowly starting to change with all the layoffs. But to answer your question, I think you’re absolutely right that the 2016 election was a big turning point for a few reasons. One of it was that and I shared the same reaction that you did, which is that there was a sense of shock after the election. How did this happen? And a like vague awareness that, you know, I had and I think a lot of people had that social media had something to do with this and something about like what social media was promoting and the like ideas it was pushing and the amount of misinformation on it. And the fact that Russian hackers were on it seemed bad and all these fake news sites, but it didn’t really have a super clear sense of what the connection was. And I think that kicked off a process of inquiry among journalists. You know, and Congress obviously started to see regulators started to get interested and any like general like in Washington and in New York, media like what is going on with these social media platforms that people at the companies really, really took because they have this ideology that says we’re a pure force for good. We’re not just a company, we are really elevating the human race that they said, well, it can’t be true that we’re responsible for anything bad. So it must be the case that, you know, the media hates us because we’re so successful. The politicians are just trying to blame us for their failures of governance. And so the more evidence that accrued in the subsequent, like two or three or four years, that actually social media is pretty bad for us and it does do a lot of really harmful things. The more that people, not just the social media companies, but at Silicon Valley broadly, although it’s of course dominated by the social media, companies started to think we are under siege by hostile forces and we have to ignore all criticism. And there was this book that was written by Ben Horowitz where he talked about, I remember wartime CEO was this line that he had. He said that when your company is under siege, when times are hard, you have to become a wartime CEO. And there’s this very funny story that I think about a lot because it’s classic Mark Zuckerberg, where he walked into a meeting with all the senior managers, cited this book and he said, I’m a wartime CEO now [laughter] just imagining him in his like, cyborg boy voice. Yeah, exactly right—

 

Brian Beutler: Well, also, like unknowingly, like adopting the language of the mafia to talk about how he was going to, like, proceed from here. 

 

Max Fisher: Well, Ben Horowitz very specifically said he he brought that in from The Godfather because he, like a lot of VCs, thinks of himself as a he compares themselves to a gangster rapper and to a member of The Godfather crime family. [laughter] Yeah, it’s actually it’s extraordinarily cringe. Yeah. And he he would for a long time he would go to conferences, tech conferences, and he would wear a t shirt with the face of I can’t remember his name, but the leader of the Haitian Revolution, the Haitian slave revolt. And he would make this comparison to say, tech venture capitalists are like the leaders of the Haitian Revolution and the Haitian slave revolt against French colonialism and the people who don’t like us and don’t like tech companies have, quote, “slave mentality.” Which boy is that problematic coming from a white guy, tech investor? [laughter] But anyway, this is this like a whole period over two or three years after 2016 that starts to lead to this real backlash in the valley and to say that it’s it’s us versus them. It’s us versus everyone else. Everyone is acting in bad faith. We’re the only good pure actors out there. And because Washington is so bad and because the media is bad and because they’re all liars, we have to get dirty, too. And that’s when you start seeing them being really cynical about their lobbying, about constantly lying to the media about what they’re doing and what they’re finding. And another reason that we started to become more aware of it in 2016, just to give you and I a little bit of credit for taking that long to get around to it is that the [laughter] the platforms really did get much worse around then they the like AI got much more sophisticated so the effects the platforms were much more pronounced and therefore much more noticeable. But I think Silicon Valley Bank was the moment where it felt to me like you really saw the backlash among both parties and among the public to Silicon Valley, which has been revered for so long in our society and for so long in our politics just totally cement. We’re just like people have just had it. We will were just really had it with these people and. Silicon Valley is starting to see that, too. There was this blog post by a guy named Michael Solana, who is at Peter Thiel’s Venture Capital Fund. It all comes back to Peter Thiel, where he wrote something after the Silicon Valley bailout, which made depositors whole but not investors which that was the thing that they’re like All-In podcast boys were really pushing for as they wanted the investors to be bailed out, which they weren’t. He wrote “Tech is in the most vulnerable position it has ever been and political war is coming. The populist left and right will have to be appeased by both parties and have unprotected the nation’s most important engine of progress and prosperity.” By which he meant Silicon Valley will be devoured. So the siege mentality there is really it’s it’s a big like it’s a big martyr complex for sure. 

 

Brian Beutler: I knew that Mark Zuckerberg quote, I just I had never until you put it this way, like thought of it as like, like bleep, bleep, bloop. You know, I have been radicalized. [laughter] Red pill protocol initiated. That’s so funny. I’m glad you think that that the SVB thing was actually like that in hindsight. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: It was sort of like it was an accountability moment for this group of dudes, basically, because that wasn’t the impression I was left with. And I and, and maybe that’s just because, like, I kind of feel like they’re always getting away with everything. 

 

Max Fisher: Fair. Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: But I hadn’t really scrutinized what had happened. So I want to I want to get back to that in a minute. When we talk about like what would like a better system for ostracizing this philosophy look like. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: But first, let’s talk about about what I already alluded to before. This idea that the ideology in Silicon Valley is is is sort of novel like relative to other—

 

Max Fisher: Sure. 

 

Brian Beutler: —industrial leadership cabals. So here’s the theory I want to run by you, and I think you’ll disagree [laughter] but I think you can see the tech world is having reached the industrial equivalent of like middle age. 

 

Max Fisher: Hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Which is when we all become reactionary and insufferable. 

 

Max Fisher: I’m on my way. [laughter]

 

Brian Beutler: And so it starts at this like as this hub of optimism and like relative innocence, like it’s based in the Bay Area. So the people are, on average, I think, pretty progressive. They do genuinely innovative stuff and. But eventually that like, you know, the low hanging fruit is plucked and they become kind of sclerotic and they’re not changing the world anymore, at least not in the ways they were. And to the extent they still are, it’s like it’s in these very troubling ways. But their their identity is still wrapped up in the myths and the glory days of just a couple of decades ago. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: They, they internalize all that stuff. But suddenly they’re confronted with with critics and they hit the brick wall of higher interest rates. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: So there’s much less speculative investment happening. And, you know, it feels like the walls are kind of caving in on them. But instead of regrouping or moving on, they’re raging against. The forces that want to constrain them. And in a way that’s sort of no different than big oil or Wall Street or the tobacco industry or any other like hub of wealth and power faced with blowback. And so that the Thiel-ite ideology, even if he had it all along, it has become appealing because it tells them the story they want to believe about themselves. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. I think that’s true. And I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s a really sharp comparison that much as you know, when people reach middle age and they start to have more financial assets, they have a house, they have savings, they tend to become much more conservative because their worldview becomes about protecting what they have at all costs, rather than thinking about the kind of like broader world of possibility. I mean, I really I think it’s something I have been really struck by in the last couple of years is how there have been so many efforts to rein in Silicon Valley and its its disruptiveness, its power that have really struggled. You know, regulation hasn’t worked especially well. These, you know, huge S.E.C. antitrust fines for billions of dollars have no effect because they just make that money back in three days time. All of this backlash from both parties has had very little effect on the platforms of this media scrutiny and public accountability hasn’t done much. But interest rates go up and the whole thing collapses. It has been really, really stunning to see. Let me read you a couple of numbers and then we can talk about like why the entire model is as like, as you put it, hit a brick wall under interest rates since rates the first year in which rates went up. So. I mean, interest rates were basically zero since the financial crisis, of course. And then they ticked up a little bit before COVID, but then after COVID to try to tamp down on inflation over like basically the last year, year and a half, they have gone up to be quite high again for the first time in, you know, 20 years. Tech valuations are half have halved just in the last year. The overall investment in tech has also been cut by half than the number of tech companies to raise $100 million, which used to be very common for tech companies, has fallen by three quarters. So it’s basically disappeared. And the number of startups that have cleared this very important in tech investing threshold where they are valued at $1,000,000,000 or more, they’re called unicorns. And it’s like the engine of Silicon Valley has dropped to 14% of what it was just a year ago. So has basically completely disappeared. And if you talk to people who work in Silicon Valley, who work in tech, whether they’re on the investing side or they’re trying to do a startup, the entire model has just crashed is just completely ended. You can’t get money anymore. You can’t launch a startup. And that is because no one wanted to acknowledge it when it was happening, because they all wanted to credit themselves and say, oh, it’s just because of our incredible, unique genius. But it turned out that just having zero interest rates made that it was incredibly easy to get money to launch these big startups that you need to take public and make a ton of money. And without that, the system doesn’t work. And so you see I mean, you see Silicon Valley Bank collapsing as a direct result of this. And you see people in the valley who are suddenly losing everything or are seeing the future prospects for business collapse. I should say they still have a lot of money, are freaking the fuck out and looking for somebody to blame and looking for a way to thrash around and fight back against what they think is this big conspiracy against them. But it’s just that their free meal ticket is disintegrating. 

 

Brian Beutler: Right. And it part part of the story they’re telling. I mean, it doesn’t really matter that there’s a big tension here, is that they’re under attack, specifically them. The other story they’re telling is, wait, the economy must be in recession because things are going really bad in Silicon Valley. [laughter] And so like the government, jobs numbers must be fake. 

 

Max Fisher: Right, right, right. 

 

Brian Beutler: In a sense, like this, very like Trumpy. Just say what you what feels good and and believe what is flattering to yourself and like you can kind of fake your way through it. 

 

Max Fisher: If reality doesn’t affirm my incredibly inflated self-image, the problem must be real, right? 

 

Brian Beutler: I still want to like a clear sense of why. Why you think that there’s something more than just old school cynical capitalism happening in the in the mindset of these Silicon Valley execs. Because, like, if you go talk to I mean, I haven’t really done this, so I’m just assuming if you listen to oil execs or coal execs, like, I think you’ll find that that they’ve embraced some fairly reactionary politics, too. 

 

Max Fisher: Sure.

 

Brian Beutler: And and part of me thinks it’s just easier for us to shrug that off as kind of obvious because they’re not from San Francisco. And and resource extraction is this, like zero sum business, and it attracts these authoritarian types. And so we’re like, oh, yeah, obviously robber barons all over, all over that. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: Those sectors of the economy. Why is Silicon Valley different from that? Other than that, like there’s this woo woo element to it because of—

 

Max Fisher: Right. Well, so if you were to read, for example, like Steve Call’s book on ExxonMobil, something that he makes very clear and that a lot of people looked into the energy industry and made very clear is that the leaders in the industry and I’m just using an example here to illustrate the point, understand the science of climate change and know that it is real and understand how their industry contributes to it and made a cynical choice to give a lot of money to organizations that would undermine public understanding or political support for the science of climate change, because that would be better for their business model. And that was just a cynical profit maximization at the expense of the rest of us, but clear eyed. And if you talk to people in Silicon Valley, I don’t think that they have a clear eyed understanding of how they fit into the world, because I think that they really do think and they’re like interest rates is I think is a great example of this. Nobody in Silicon Valley saw the collapse that is happening across their industry coming from rising interest rates. We had years of warning that interest rates were going to go up. And if the people in Silicon Valley had a clear eyed understanding of how their economic model worked, they would have said, okay, interest rates are going to go up. It’s going to be devastating for our energy. So we need to bunker down. But instead, what they did is they bulked up enormously in the year or two before interest rates went up. They did some of the biggest hiring sprees. They did some of their biggest investing sprees because they could not acknowledge to themselves the actual basis of their industry is low interest rates. They had to believe it was their own incredible genius because they were, you know, elevating us to a new plane of humanity. You see the same thing in these Silicon Valley bank run, where you have this very small number of people, the investors who are the real lords of Silicon Valley on these texts threads, which we know about, because they themselves publish the texts threads because they thought it was exonerating somehow telling each other to do a bank run. [laughs] They just they thought, we are so smart. We’re so much smarter than banking regulators who set these rules were so much smarter than the banking system that we are going to know better what’s best for our own deposits, what’s best for our own bank, destroyed their own bank, and then had to go ask the government to bail them out, which is not something that I think you would see. For example, the energy industry do so at the amount of self-delusion that happens in Silicon Valley. I the reason that I believe it is because you see how self-destructive it is. You see the enormous cost they are imposing on themselves by following it. 

 

Brian Beutler: So I think it may have worked on me, too, because I entered this conversation thinking, you know, they’ve done all this damage. But like, you know, they’re still the richest people in the world. They control media outlets and they—

 

Max Fisher: Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: —you know, they they spread these crazy ideas sort of unfettered. 

 

Max Fisher: Hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: And like, I have the sense that there’s still, like, big pools of respect for them, if not in the general public, then among among the elite. But like. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, I don’t think so. 

 

Brian Beutler: You think, you like that’s over? Like—

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. I really think that politicals I mean the it’s happened for a lot of reasons and on the Republican side it’s it’s quite cynical because so much of it was like Donald Trump trying to undermine the social media companies to blame them for, you know, Russian disinformation or to shift blame for Russian disinformation boosting him in 2016. But the political support that used to be so deep in both parties in Washington for Silicon Valley has, I think, just completely evaporated on both sides. 

 

Brian Beutler: Well, so, yes, like like there’s like tongue lashing from Congress and like some real, I think, like policy consequences for them. But like but like, if you know who goes to Davos, who goes to the— 

 

Max Fisher: That’s true. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s true. 

 

Brian Beutler: —still welcome there. Do people still like when they say stuff? Do people think that’s the rantings of some self-obsessed egomaniac or do they think, wow, you know, that’s coming from Silicon Valley where they invented the Internet and that must be there must be wisdom there. Like you hear Jared Kushner say something like, I think this might be verbatim. We’re either going to be the last generation to die or the first generation to live forever. Like that came from some Silicon Valley idiot. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s very it’s very— 

 

Brian Beutler: I mean, obviously, like, you know, their ideas are still intercepting people who then like, it’s true, you know, go go and run the world. So like I look at it from from that angle or that’s how I started. 

 

Max Fisher: Sure. 

 

Brian Beutler: Just like they’ve done all this damage. They remain the richest people in the world. There are still very powerful people who want to hear what they have to say, want their money, like at least pretend to take them seriously. From another perspective, their industry is contracting badly because of it’s like it was built on a bubble yet again. Like for the second time in 30 years. They’re they’re being you know, they’re under much more scrutiny from from Congress than ever before. And, you know, I just I guess I am beginning to appreciate that. It’s not that that these guys have just like like figured out a way to cheat the system and they’re just wrecking making money off it, starting again. 

 

Max Fisher: Sure. 

 

Brian Beutler: Like the consequences are actually happening and is if that’s the case, then. Does anything? Should something change with how like we society treat people who act that way or do we just like, accept it? Like, okay, they’re full of shit and eventually they’re they’re their sandcastle will collapse on itself because it’s not built on anything. 

 

Max Fisher: I mean, I think that the I think there’s a couple of ideas and everyone is the like cultural power that we give these people, right? And I feel like I this maybe this is just my sense. I really feel like that’s been collapsing under its own weight the last few years. And you’re absolutely right that they are still huge incumbents with an enormous amount of market power that brings political and cultural power with it. I’m sure they will be hanging out at Davos for a long time. I do feel like the public and political deference to Silicon Valley tech leaders is well it hasn’t totally ended. We’re definitely on its way to ending the question of like the ultimate question is about their market power, though. That’s that’s where they get their the amount of money they have and the enormous companies that they control. That’s the real source of their power. And, you know, it’s been a long running question in American life, in American politics, about what is the appropriate way to limit where needed or to put into check that corporate power, because, you know, too much corporate power is not good for the public interest because corporate interests are very, very narrow and don’t align with the public good. And I think the how you want to limit that really depends on specifically where you think the problem is. And, you know, is it in the power of social media platforms? And then do you want regulations that will limit the power of those platforms? Is the problem generally money in politics and that, you know, that’s then a whole bigger, whole separate conversation or is the power just that comes from a few of these companies having a lot of cultural power and then you know how you limit Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s power over the culture? That’s a really hard one because then you do start getting into free speech protections. [music plays]

 

Brian Beutler: Do you think that a tobacco company like accountability moment is possible or that we’re we’re heading in that direction for for tech? Or do you think that the industries are just too different and that the stakeholders are too different for that to ever really happen? 

 

Max Fisher: It’s so funny that you mentioned cigarette companies because that is actually a comparison that I have been hearing more and more in in a different sense, but in the sense of regulation where people raise it on the one hand as a promising possibility for or promising model for how to regulate social media because the argument being that social media is just bad for you and it’s always going to be bad for you, much like cigarettes are just bad for you. 

 

Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.

 

Max Fisher: And so we have to think about what are the ways that we can limit the harms of social media taking and the assumption that it’s bad as we did with cigarettes. And that’s been very successful in the sense that there have been a lot of regulations and a lot of that did come out of like you’re saying, like a big public accountability moment and the big, you know, seven dwarfs congressional hearings where all the heads of the tobacco companies had to get up and talk about or were confronted with evidence that they knew that their product was addictive and harmful, and that that led the way for a lot of regulations that have really limited the amount of smoking in the United States and saved a huge number of lives. But at the same time, cigarette companies still sell a product that they know addicts and kill people and they still make a ton of money doing it and they still have an enormous amount, not as much power as they used to, but an enormous amount of power. And it’s just a fact of life that we know, which is kind of crazy to me. There are these huge companies out there that just produce something. That’s all they do is they produce something that kills you and turns your own drives and psychological needs against you so that they can make some money. And we’ve just kind of accepted that because, you know, the limits of are the the intersection of corporate freedom and corporate responsibility dictates that we limit access to cigarettes, but don’t ban them entirely. And so I always thought it was very telling that that is the kind of model that a lot of the people who are most critical of Silicon Valley have started to settle on, where we say we accept that their power will exist, we accept that they will continue to be a force in our lives. But how can we limit that by interrupting their ability to reach consumers. 

 

Brian Beutler: Right. And look like I think in theory and I probably wouldn’t object to it, you could ban cigarettes outright, just like they’re they’re not legal to sell. You couldn’t do that, I don’t think with social media companies—

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, yeah, right.

 

Brian Beutler: —cause of the free speech free speech concern. I think that the so but we didn’t do that with cigarettes. We we we did this public accountability thing, public education thing, warning labels, taxes, you know, and the result is fewer people smoke, fewer people die of cigarettes. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah yeah yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: You can choose to smoke if you if you if you want. And also like the tobacco companies, if you’re if you like, walk into any place outside of North Carolina into a room full of other elites and people ask like, what do you do? And you say, I sell cigarettes. Like you’re not going to get the same kind of rapturous welcome as you do if you’re—

 

Max Fisher: That’s a good point. Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: You know, like, like there’s a stigma associated with— 

 

Max Fisher: Right. Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: —peddling that stuff. And I feel like in theory we could kind of recreate that aspect of the success of the backlash to cigarettes to the like onto the, onto the, the tech barons, the wreckers. Right. But, A, like, I guess one of the concerns I have about that is that like it took forever, right? Like—

 

Max Fisher: It did, yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: People knew that cigarettes were bad for you going back decades and it took all that time to get to where we are today. And the other thing is that like I mean, you were saying this essentially is that like no one benefits long term from smoking except the cigarette manufacturers, right? Like, or maybe like the pulmonologists, but like really just. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: Really just the manufacturers. Whereas like the viral content machine, the like brain poison machine. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: Like there are a lot of people who benefit_

 

Max Fisher: That’s true. That’s true.

 

Brian Beutler: —benefit from it. And not just like the app creators. Like I’ve benefited from it. 

 

Max Fisher: Sure, yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: Personally. 

 

Max Fisher: Me too. 

 

Brian Beutler: It’s a vehicle for propaganda for governments and parties and businesses. So like, I feel like. There’s this problem that I don’t know, like how if it’s solvable, that if you wanted to get to where people thought of social media and cigarettes as kind of like. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: Two different manifestations of the same thing. It’d just be much harder because there’s always going to be powerful people who are like, you know, keep that poison flowing. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s a really good point about social stigma as a powerful force for limiting the corporate power and also creating just public awareness so that people can more reasonably navigate their relationship to the product and also how they think about the companies and the leaders of those companies. I think about this story a lot from 2017, which I think and you made this point was when the the backlash to Silicon Valley was really started taking off where it’s an interview with this woman who worked at Facebook for years and it talked about how she was a big backpacker whenever she would travel abroad, she had a big like Facebook sticker on the back of her backpack and people would stop all the time and say, that’s so cool, you work for Facebook, that’s amazing. And that starting in 2017, she couldn’t leave Silicon Valley with that sticker because people were just give her a hard time and people would be like. 

 

Brian Beutler: Mm hmm. 

 

Max Fisher: That’s so shameful that you work there. And I feel like that has really only heightened in the last few years. And I you know, now when I meet people who work for Facebook or big social media companies, I usually like before they even know, you know, about my book or about the fact that I’ve written and reported a lot on social media companies, like they’re really apologetic about it. Or they’ll be like, oh, you know, I work for Facebook, but I don’t do this or I don’t do that, or I disagree with the company about this or that. Or in my experience, generally, people who work for the companies tend to kind of stay in the bubble in Silicon Valley because that feels like the place that to them they were like, this is the only place that gets me and understands and supports what I do. But if you go outside of it, people are much more critical of it. So I think that social stigma is having an effect and is really rising. But to your point, it’s a very, very slow moving force. But I mean, what do you think? What do you think it’ll take to actually limit the power of these companies? 

 

Brian Beutler: Oh, man, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I, I, I’d think that, you know, over the course of 20, 30 years. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Like, regulatory impositions will help. I think. Hopefully our generation of parents will. Like raise their children to understand social media as at the very least, a very mixed bag and ideally something that they like their kids should not become addicted to or like like build a substantial portion of their life around. Like at some level it’s on us like to. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. I think that’s true. 

 

Brian Beutler: To to make it so that the next generation’s learn from our mistakes, right? By the time we’re 60, there will be a millennial president [laughter] and and like that person will bring hopefully a healthier understanding of of of where these companies fit into society, where they should fit in and like where they shouldn’t. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: And I mean I’m hopeful that like. If if we’re in a tech apocalypse and there’s no bailout at the end of it. You know, finally, for once society sees that these aren’t like merchants of a higher truth or of like a bolder future, but just like, you know, the same kinds of grubby, greedy people who caused the financial crisis of 2008 by by saying the housing bubble would never pop, just like. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: You know, polished mediocrity with a lot of money. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: That their cachet will just diminish. And and to the extent that the popularity of of like the Internet of things, the social media world is is propped up at all by our sense that this stuff was created by intelligent people like if it turns out it’s just created by like people who want to sell cigarettes essentially. [laughter] 

 

Max Fisher: Right, right. 

 

Brian Beutler: Like, we will we will collectively think of it as something more like that than something that’s like, cool. But I don’t know. I mean, I just I just came up with that on the fly. [laughs]

 

Max Fisher: I think the generational point is a really good one, because I think that the fact that our generation and people our age and, you know, within about ten years of us grew up thinking that phones were exciting. The Internet is exciting. Computers are cool. Things that are on your phone, you know, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are really cool and exciting. I mean, I thought that when I was a kid, I thought it was amazing to get it. And I think that when you talk to younger people now or if you for a project I’m working on, I was listening to podcasts of younger Gen Zers talking to each other about smartphones and social media, and there is a much more clear eyed view of it. I mean, the rates of addiction are also way higher. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. 

 

Max Fisher: So, you know, the usage rates are going way up because the products are so much more addictive than they were even when you and I were coming up. But there is a real sense that these things are harmful, these things are bad for us, and we have to manage them in our lives or out of our lives as best we can. And whether that’s going to be enough is going to be a tough question. I mean, I don’t know exactly what this new generation of AI is going to do, but I’m sure it will make all social media platforms more addictive and more effective at pulling you into your screen. But at least there is now a sense of like these are cigarettes rather than these are, you know, magical enlightenment devices. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. And I mean, like in this uncomfortable truth that the people who understand best how bad these things are for you are also the people who use them the most. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Is hopefully like an artifact of this one generation that came up when the technology was new, but it was already kind of omnipresent, right? 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: I don’t have I don’t have the instinct, like when something is happening that that like, seems memorable or funny or whatever. Like people who are just five, six years younger than me will, like whip out their phones and start recording. But like, I didn’t develop that reflex because the first 25 years of my life, it was just not possible. And we did things in a different way. 

 

Max Fisher: You’re sounding a little like a Gen Xer. [laughs] 

 

Brian Beutler: A little bit. No, I mean, like we were like, yeah, that’s the thing about geriatric millennials. It’s like we—

 

Max Fisher: Best of both worlds.

 

Brian Beutler: —span. Yeah, or worse, whatever. [laughter] But, you know, if the subsequent generation. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Can learn from us, old timers, that, like, there are other ways to figure out what music you want to listen to or how to stay connected to people, that doesn’t require mainlining on your phone all the time. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Then, like you can imagine, like not not the Xennials, but the the next one, whatever they going to be called. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Having like, a just generally healthy relationship with technology, then either we do or the people just a few years younger than I do. But I don’t know. That’s like they’re they’re, they’re, they’re they’re going to come back at us with, like, okay, fine. We’ll pick up the addiction factor by— 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: —by ten or whatever. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s also kind of a bummer that it would fall to individuals.

 

Brian Beutler: Yes. 

 

Max Fisher: And it would fall to like kids. Basically. It’s it’s like, well, as a society, we can’t solve this problem. So 16 year old’s, it’s on you. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah well and their and their parents and just like.

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: Like, I don’t know, just like as if parenting weren’t complicated enough. Now you have to raise your child to have, like, a lifelong healthy relationship with their, like, an artificial aspect of their environment. Okay, so. Last question. I wrote about this last week. 

 

Max Fisher: Sure. 

 

Brian Beutler: I know that Obama reminisced in his book about the BP Gulf oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and how the parties most to blame they’d like immediately put it on him. And like I remember the meme that this was Obama’s Katrina and like. You know that the people who supported Big Oil couldn’t have been happier that that meme emerged. They echoed it. And he wrote in his book about how he really wanted to lay into all those people, write like he wanted to lay into Republicans for making people suspicious of government. He wanted to lay into business elites for promoting those politicians because they just wanted to have more free rein. And then he admits he chose not to say what was really on his mind and just said. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm. 

 

Brian Beutler: The buck stops with me. I’ll take responsibility. And like, I know that that that there’s some like abstract honor in in approaching things that way, especially if you’re the president of the United States. But it also feels like maybe if the expectation is that you screw up, you’re going to pay for it, your brand will be toxic. The president of the United States is going to make everyone know that like you did this, that maybe leaders would be a bit more circumspect. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Do you is it your sense that if Joe Biden were just a little bit more trenchant about people like Elon Musk and that they realized that like the forces that they were raging at were capable of raging right back at them? 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Brian Beutler: Would that be, like, salutary or would it have no effect or would it just make them even more hardened in terms of like refine the chaos engine, so to speak? [laughs]

 

Max Fisher: Do you mean in the sense of shaping public opinion or in the sense of deterring bad actors because they are—

 

Brian Beutler: Deterring this kind of the SVB thing? Biden just says, nope, screw you. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: We’re doing normal FDIC resolution. Anything you put in above $250,000, sorry, kiss it goodbye. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: The banking systems fine. You guys are just trying to get a payday. You screwed up. That’s on you. And people should be wary next time you come selling them something like. Something like, you know, yeah, this is just me, like acting out of fantasy. [laughter] But I do think that like, I do think that they realize that, like, in the in the recent history of the country, there’s been, you know, you know, progressives like to point out that that basically nobody from Wall Street went to jail for—

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: The financial crisis like the like does anyone even when they hear BP, do they think of the Deepwater Horizon anymore like I do? But I lived through it. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm. Yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: I just don’t think that it’s part of the collective consciousness anymore because the accountability was so minuscule. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: But if but if the expectation was like, no, the we’re, like this is a signal moment, we’re never going to let you forget it and you’re going to clean it up. And like, we’re going to remind people next time you come talking trash about what the government’s doing and that, of course, you’re doing that because you guys are the people who wrecked the housing market or put oil in the in the Gulf of Mexico or or wrecked the minds of teenage girls, like whatever it is. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: Just like you were going to you’re going to have to own it. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: And the liberal establishment is going to is going to make sure people get reminded of it. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. Well, so there are a few different like potential vehicles for accountability. Right. I mean, one is declining to wield the power of government to help out bad corporate actors who have gotten themselves into a jam through their own greed. Right. Like don’t don’t bail out the banks in ’08, you know, don’t bail out Silicon Valley Bank or don’t bail it out to completion. You know, let Exxon handle its own recovery. And I I’m going to sound like a squishy, contrarian, centrist Dem, but I have just always I’ve seen the case for just in terms of protecting the public good these you know, even companies that are really bad and that I really don’t like. And it’s their own fault that they got into a mess. If they’re big enough, they are a pillar on which the larger economy is built. And even though it sucks to think of the moral hazard implications of a bad performing bank, that issued bad loans out of greed getting government bailout because it forestalled a wider collapse of the banking system. You know, just ruthless, greater good protection. I really do see the case there. And same for Silicon Valley Bank. I think they’ve threaded the needle pretty effectively. I do see the case because there were a couple other banks that were so close to getting collapses due to runs. I mean, you saw the what was it, First Republic that had its value collapsed by like 90% or something, and it looked like there was going to be another one. And like, you don’t want contagion with bank runs and it like it sucks to think of bad people getting a bailout. But you know what? I maybe it’s a worthwhile cost to save a bunch of other innocent people from having their deposits wiped out. Especially we don’t know how far it’s going to go. Like I said, the investors in Silicon Valley Bank did lose everything that they had invested in the bank, so there was some moral hazard there. Um, another vehicle for accountability is personal or criminal accountability. And like I really do side with, with you in terms of it’s I think it’s pretty outrageous. No one went to jail for the financial crisis or one guy went to jail for this, like weird, obscure—

 

Brian Beutler: One dude. 

 

Max Fisher: Right this one like, really low ranking guy. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. 

 

Max Fisher: I mean, there was so much lawbreaking. There was so much cynical, knowing thievery, basically, that led to the financial crisis. I agree that it’s outrageous that more people didn’t go to jail for that. I don’t know enough about environmental law to know if there was individual criminal accountability for the Exxon spill. But, you know, seems like a good case for making someone personally accountable. And that I also think just seems like a good idea because that doesn’t threaten, you know, the overall economy, it doesn’t threaten the banking system if some executives go to jail. And then the third, which you’ve also alluded to, is just like public shaming. And I kind of like I don’t think that there’s much downside to it. It seems like something that, you know, doesn’t doesn’t cost much and doesn’t have much harm. If there’s more yelling at Silicon Valley leaders or more yelling at Elon Musk and more yelling at energy industry executives. But I, I do worry about putting kind of too much stock in how much that’s going to actually actually accomplish, just because I think a lot of that is happening already. And Biden has already been pretty outspoken about not liking Mark Zuckerberg, not liking Elon Musk, being pretty skeptical of Silicon Valley. And we know that Silicon Valley has gotten that message because they have overinflated in their heads to think that they’re under attack by Washington. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. 

 

Max Fisher: Which is not a case against doing it, but is just to say, you know, that will probably only carry us so far. 

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah, I it was a few months back and I’ll probably screw it up. But some reporter asked Biden what he thought of Elon Musk’s attack on him, some something he probably said about how old Biden is. And Biden was like, I hope he has fun in them on the moon or whatever. [laughter] And I’m just like, yes, like you’re you’re close, but it’s too wry, it’s too pithy. Like I get it—

 

Max Fisher: Oh yeah. 

 

Brian Beutler: —but like, just you think that he’s a fraud and like, if more people if more people knew that you thought that maybe they would stop thinking that this is Tony Stark and he’s just like another rich fail son who stumbled into. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Brian Beutler: Lots and lots of money, and now he’s like settling scores. 

 

Max Fisher: Our culture has a lot of admiration for rich people who present themselves as self-made. Whether or not that’s true because we want to believe it’s true. You know, we really want to believe that this is a society in a world where if you work hard enough and if you have good ideas, you know, you can do anything, you can go anywhere, you can pull yourself up. It’s a very attractive, very American idea. And when someone tells us that they embody that, we really want to believe it, even if there’s a lot of evidence against it. 

 

Brian Beutler: Max Fisher, thanks for spending so much of your time with us. 

 

Max Fisher: It was fun. Thanks for having me on. [music plays]

 

Brian Beutler: It’s odd to leave one of these conversations and feel like maybe the bad guys aren’t winning. Maybe I overestimated how well they’re doing in the game they think they’re playing, but I think that might be the case this time around. Or maybe it’s just that my visceral revulsion at the way people like David Sacks and Elon Musk comport themselves has made me overestimate how successful they’ve been at avoiding consequences. But I still do think it’s useful to build a kind of classification system for accountability mechanisms the way Max did at the end of our chat there. Maybe, as Max suggested, you can’t adopt a zero tolerance policy for moral hazard and just never bail out anything ever again. But there are probably some messes that we can and should expect the mess makers to clean up. We should certainly expect lawmakers and regulators to not buy into a bunch of disruptor bullshit and hold these companies and their leaders to some recognizable standards. And then there’s stigma. I would really like to see high profile liberal leaders be a little more aggressive and innovative in that realm. And it should start by recognizing that the elite class of industrial wreckers is, at this point an ideological enemy, no less committed or dangerous than the Koch brothers are. Democrats did a really good job, I think, in the last decade of using the Koch brothers as foils the boogeyman with the hidden industrial agenda that runs through reactionary GOP politics. Maybe the tech wreckers are better at cloaking their hidden agendas in utopian fantasy, but at bottom, I think they’re more similar than different. And it’s long past time for the scales obscuring the truth about who these people are. To fall from our eyes. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez, our associate producer, is Emma Illick-Frank. Our intern is Naomi Birenbaum. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos. Also note positively Dreadful will be off next week for the 4th of July holiday.