This week Paul and Rich set out to ostensibly talk about the ongoing saga of Gawker vs Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel (recorded just days before the Gawker bankruptcy announcement). Instead, they find themselves debating about the ethics of media and business, free-market capitalism, surge pricing, universal basic income, the ethos of the Valley — and Rich promises Paul that he will never read The Fountainhead.
Tom Meyers: Hi podcast listener. The following episode of Track Changes includes a conversation about the Gawker Media trial. We recorded the show just days before the news, on Friday, June 10th, that Gakwer had filed for bankruptcy. And now, Track Changes.
Paul Ford: [long sigh]
Rich Ziade: Paul, why the sigh? It’s gonna be a great episode!
Paul: I’ll tell you. Because Silicon Valley and East Coast media culture are fighting again.
Rich: Oh, you’re squinting while you say it.
Paul: Well I just feel like it’s like your parents fighting, it’s exhausting.
Paul: I feel like these two worlds that I’ve been part of for twenty-plus years, like they just can’t get along, and it’s always this eternal Thanksgiving dinner, where like, on the left, Silicon Valley is like, “Well YOU always want to report on the WORST possible things,” and the media’s like, “We’ve been around forever and you guys are a bunch of upstarts.”
Paul: It’s exhausting. Ah hey, you know what, Rich? We should actually, we should say that this is Track Changes.
Paul: What is Track Changes?
Rich: Track Changes is a podcast.
Paul: Oh my God.
Rich: By Postlight.
Paul: We’re a product shop in New York City. We build products. Digital products.
Paul: I’m Paul Ford.
Rich: Rich Ziade.
Paul: We’re the co-founders of Postlight, and we do a podcast, which you’re listening to right now in your very own ears.
Paul: So, all right, a thing happened. Another thing happened.
Rich: Here we go.
Paul: Which is that, you know how Gawker and Hulk Hogan were having their thing?
Rich: Yes. The lawsuit.
Paul: Hulk Hogan sued Gawker successfully, $140 million in damages, for exposing a video of him having sexual intercourse with Heather Clem, the wife of Bubba the Love Sponge.
Rich: You just wanted to throw that in there.
Paul: It’s so grisly, right?
Rich: But go on.
Paul: It’s all grisly.
Paul: So this has led to an enormous outpouring of media self-satisfaction.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And strong opinions. And then, not long ago, an article appeared, and it cited Nick Denton, who’s the publisher and founder of Gawker — Gawker’s a whole of sites, like Lifehacker and Gizmodo.
Paul: Denton was like, “I think that someone is funding this lawsuit.”
Paul: And then Forbes magazine, a journalist at Forbes magazine, went out and pushed that story a little further, and found out that it was…Peter Thiel.
Paul: Who is Peter Thiel?
Rich: Peter Thiel is an extremely successful Silicon Valley investor. He is one of the co-founders of PayPal.
Paul: So there’s the famous PayPal Mafia, which is like, Reid Hoffman, Elon Musk —
Rich: Elon Musk. And Peter Thiel. And there were others. And then was a very early investor in Facebook.
Paul: Right. So this is a guy worth more than $2 billion.
Rich: He’s worth a lot of money.
Rich: He’s one of the icons, I would consider him an icon, of Silicon Valley.
Paul: He’s a very specific kind of Silicon Valley-type, too, like he’s very libertarian.
Paul: He’s a sort of, like —
Rich: Very particular viewpoints.
Paul: He feels that, you know, democracy’s basically over.
Paul: He taught a class at Stanford.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: On start-ups.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And if you read the notes for that class, it is one of the darkest, most grim documents I’ve ever —
Rich: Yeah, it’s sort of an end times…
Paul: Yeah. He’ll be like, “If you go this way, you can see an incredible increase in revenue if you build your audience across these platforms, but if you look at this quadrant, everyone in China will be a cannibal by 2040.” And you’re like, “What?? Wait. Where?”
Rich: Yeah. Exactly.
Paul: And he loves to drop those things in.
Paul: So Thiel, lo and behold, has funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit to the tune of $10 million.
Rich: Paying for the lawyers.
Rich: To aggressively, I mean, let’s face it, they won.
Paul: Pending appeal.
Rich: And you know, chances are, probably Hulk Hogan, on his own, would not have been able to get a world-class legal team to really come at Gawkers. So why did he do that?
Paul: Well he said he did it because people were like, you gotta do it. You got — his Silicon Valley friends were like, “You gotta do it.” In 2007, he was outed, I guess kind of publicly outed, he was already out to his friends, as gay, by Valleywag, which is a kind of on-again-off-again, one of the Gawker properties.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Which is critical of Silicon Valley.
Rich: Gossip Silicon Valley site.
Paul: Yeah, they made fun of, like, Sean Parker had, like, essentially a Tolkien-themed wedding.
Rich: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: Napster guy.
Rich: It was very entertaining, I’m not gonna lie. I used to go to Valleywag a lot.
Paul: Valleywag’s good.
Rich: Yeah. OK, so they outed him as gay.
Paul: That’s about nine years ago.
Rich: He was very upset about that. This is years ago. And so he finds, I just, I keep replaying the phone call to Hulk Hogan.
Paul: I know. Can you imagine?
Rich: “Do you wanna meet at Quiznos? I want to talk to you for a minute.” [laughter] Like, where does that even…that connection even come together?
Paul: I imagine a jet lands in Florida?
Rich: Like in a big parking lot at a strip mall.
Paul: I want this, no, I want this to happen in the, like, in the aircraft hanger.
Rich: Oh, OK. So it’s…
Paul: Like, Hulk has —
Rich: A handshake —
Paul: You know, I’m assuming, like, maybe Hulk Hogan doesn’t have a limousine, but there is, like, a, like maybe a pickup truck that has a trailer behind it —
Rich: He has like an F-150.
Paul: Yeah, or something. Like, he pulls up and like, the jet kind of comes into the hanger, and Peter Thiel gets out and Hulk Hogan is like…
Rich: “It’s really nice to meet you.”
Paul: [gravelly Hulk Hogan impersonation] “Hey, bro.” Yeah, right?
Rich: “It’s really good to meet you. Heard a lot about you.”
Paul: Those two guys shake hands. I don’t know, I’m wondering what Thiel’s handshake’s like. I could see it being both very firm and very limp, very kind of, like, wishy-washy.
Rich: Clammy, is the word that comes to mind.
Rich: In any case, so he said, he tells Hulk Hogan, “I want to help you.” Hulk Hogan probably already had a legal team, and Peter probably said, “You know, we’re going to upgrade this game.”
Rich: “We’re going to take it to the next level.”
Paul: Listen, I want to get this guy.
Rich: OK. So.
Paul: So now, forces are arraying themselves against Gawker.
Rich: Well, it’s gonna be, it’s an uphill climb for them to survive, frankly.
Paul: And no, they have other lawsuits that he’s funding, along the same lines. So it’s tricky. So this is a lot, a lot of people perform, you know, their opinions.
Paul: Like people are like, “Well you know, Gawker’s the worst, but…this is even more worst.”
Rich: So here we are.
Rich: Which raises a broader question. A bigger question, really. Will that publication that has, like, there is an investigation happening right now, there’s an investigative reporter out there right now, probing a billionaire, because that’s interesting. Hearing about what’s going on with billionaires is interesting, right? And…
Paul: Because these are people, in practical terms, who exercise enormous amounts of influence over our culture. Let’s draw some, like, Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.
Paul: OK, so here’s a person of incredible — Michael Bloomberg owns…
Paul: Bloomberg, he’s worth billions of dollars.
Rich: But let’s see the scenario through, right? I’m the publisher of Northeast Newspapers Inc.
Rich: OK? And I’ve got two journalists that are putting together one hell of a cover story.
Paul: About billionaire John Doe.
Rich: Billionaire John Doe. And this goes down, right? Publisher, now, is pausing, because a precedent has been set here, right? One in which, OK, wait a minute, am I now in the gun-sight of John Doe? Of billionaire John — and do I need to worry? And the truth is, look, probably not, but that’s not the issue. The issue is you’re now influencing the agenda of the press.
Paul: I think long-term, the press is a little more subtle than that, and I think that actually, the, it’s the kind of, you know the Streisand effect?
Rich: Sounds familiar.
Paul: So Barbra Streisand tried to get them to not include pictures of her house from the air on the internet. I can’t remember if somebody was publishing them, or what was up. But because she kept saying, “I don’t want these pictures of my, whatever, Malibu estate,” or wherever it was to show up on the internet, they of course became incredibly widely propagated. Everyone made a point out of sharing them. It’s a little act of micro-rebellion.
And so that became known as the Streisand effect. And I sort of feel that the same thing is gonna happen here, is Thiel, Thiel behaved in a non-transparent manner, which is actually really not a good, like, that’s not core Silicon Valley ethos. You are supposed to disrupt and destroy industries and then also document how and why you’re destroying them, so that when you kill all the jobs, you can be like, “But I did it for these reasons, and these market forces were at play, and I just happened to profit immensely from it, but it wasn’t personal.”
Paul: And this is an intensely personal, it’s non-transparent, and the media industry actually rallies — it circles the wagons around stuff like this. So —
Paul: Yes, of course, there are people who are like, “I don’t want to get sued by a billionaire. That sucks.”
Paul: But there’s an equal number of people who are like, “I’m gonna just continue to pay my litigation insurance, have a lawyer run these things through, and use some fact checking — ”
Paul: Or, “We’re gonna get these bastards.” What Thiel did, actually, was set it up so that Silicon Valley is now under much greater scrutiny, and he made everyone look very selfish, immature, and vengeful. And actually, Jeff Bezos just got up onstage, talking about owning the Post, and talking about how Thiel was wrong. Like, it was something, the quote was like, “If you seek revenge, you dig two graves.”
Paul: And now we’ve got Trump actually out there, saying, like, “To hell with the media, and you’re all liars, and you’re all really bad,” and, you know, Bezos has, like, all these reporters going after Trump, and so on. The thing that’s tricky here is that we’re literally in this world of billionaire-on-billionaire.
Rich: Well, yeah. I mean, that’s the game.
Paul: Like, we actually need billionaires to support us so that if litigation, or maybe just hundred-millionaires, you know, we can lower our standards a little bit, but support us if litigation comes in from another billionaire.
Paul: Like, if you’re like a middle-class or lower-middle-class journalist, which most of them ultimately are, unless you have something with deep pockets protecting you, namely a billionaire, it’s very dangerous to go out and report on billionaires.
Paul: So that is real. I don’t think the media industry is going, like, “Hoo, should we kill that report on that rich person?” If anything they’ll double down. But I think the long-term endemic problem is that rich people can game stuff.
Rich: And they do.
Paul: They do.
Rich: And look, I think what’s reassuring here is, I call it sort of the press-is-immune system?
Rich: Like, the way it collectively reacted to this, and used itself to highlight this behavior, he can’t be happy right now. Like, this has been a bad ten days for him.
Paul: I think the —
Rich: I mean look, the guy might be a sociopath, and he may be perfectly fine.
Paul: I think the initial release was like, “Yeah, I did it,” you know, and then suddenly everyone…[sigh] Silicon Valley tends to be a real monoculture, no matter how much that it proclaims that it’s not. It’s a little left, it’s a little right, but there’s a kind of, like, utopian vibe of infinite progress.
Paul: And transparency is one of the core virtues. Competition and transparency, right?
Rich: Mmmm hmmm. Right.
Paul: And he pushed back against one of the core values, and what you’re seeing is there’s a fundamental divide as to, like, was that acceptable or not. What he did is not within the, like, the Overton window of billionaire behavior.
Rich: The truth is, it’s not illegal. It’s worth noting.
Paul: Well this is the thing, it’s actually archetypal, like, rich person getting their way behavior.
Rich: Yeah, it’s…this stuff happens, right?
Paul: Like he’s totally in compliance with the ethics of capitalism and the rules of the American legal system.
Rich: yeah. I don’t even think capitalism’s involved, it’s just somebody wanted —
Paul: Well he had the money to do it.
Rich: He had the money to do it, but…
Paul: So it’s his money to spend. He had $10 million to spend on this, and that’s, as a very wealthy person, he had absolutely every right to say to Terry Bollea, “I will support your lawsuit against Gawker.”
Rich: Yeah. Absolutely.
Paul: I don’t even know if it was, I mean, that’s the question —
Rich: I think that what people are repulsed by, by the way, he didn’t sue them for his stories.
Rich: He found a vehicle where he could do harm. So, I mean…
Paul: Well it’s sort of like being —
Rich: I doubt Peter cares very much —
Paul: It’s like being a patent troll.
Rich: Sort of. Yeah. I don’t think he cares very much. Like a patent troll doesn’t care very much about this one particular patent, and protecting it. And just as Peter probably doesn’t care about the injustices brought upon Hulk Hogan, if any, right? I don’t think he cares. He just found an opening.
Rich: Essentially. He’s like, “Boy, this is pretty juicy. I think we can really do some damage here.” And ran with it, right? I mean, he could have sued them for his story, but the truth is, there probably wasn’t any path forward. With this, he’s like, “OK, they’re vulnerable here. And I could put my resources behind this and see what kind of damage I can cause.”
Paul: Let me ask you a really broad, dumb question: could you argue that that was ethical?
Rich: About what he did?
Rich: Uh, I would argue that…yes. Here’s my problem with bringing ethics into this: the checks and balances around the press, you got to rely on the fact that they’re going to take care of themselves. The press will take care of itself.
Paul: Oh, they relentlessly police each other. If one organ of the press screws up or misbehaves, every other one just piles on. It’s a holiday.
Rich: If you start to bring ethics in, there are some stories out there that could come out of the press that are exposés that could ruin people, that shouldn’t ruin them. That are just, are so bad, and the damage is so far and wide —
Paul: Right, like imagine if somebody got your Google search history for the last fifteen years.
Rich: And just…
Paul: They could just ruin your life.
Rich: And you could ask the question, “Is that ethical?” Right? And the truth is —
Paul: Not really. No.
Rich: No, well, I just wouldn’t go there. I just wouldn’t get in the game. I just wouldn’t, like, I think you have to rely on the checks and balances between how the press is checked and how the general population is checked towards the press, like the press is, to me, an arm of how all of this works, whether it be government, the press, and the people, and I think —
Paul: Well it has its own consensus and monoculture, too, right? Like there’s an ideology associated with the press, and there’s a certain set of things that are kind of unthinkable.
Rich: I think what this touches on is, you know, when I think about, sort of, the way the systems were set up for this government, right, like there’s a particular set of powers the president gets, there’s a particular set of powers Congress gets, then the Supreme Court has its own set of powers, it’s actually a very cynical system. It has principles and it has, sort of, the virtues that we’re supposed to aim towards, but what, really, the system, the way it works, is actually just making sure that everyone doesn’t screw everyone else.
Paul: Well, and —
Rich: And —
Paul: It was a good prediction, because every single wing of government has tried to claim ultimate power along the way.
Rich: Well it’s human, it’s humans, right?
Paul: I mean, the expansion of the executive branch’s powers over the last hundred years, it’s bananacakes.
Rich: Right. All of it. All of it. All of it. I mean, and you could say, well wait, then, you ever see the news when, like, the Justice Department sues, like, the Department of Commerce?
Rich: It’s very odd. What they do is they bring the courts in as this third party that is going to be this arbiter of what’s right and wrong.
Paul: And sometimes the FBI is running the government, sometimes the CIA is running the government, it’s bad stuff —
Rich: It’s just all of these agencies have their mandates, right?
Rich: And then they take cover under their mandates to reach as far as they possibly can. And the press is, to me, another arm of this.
Paul: Well just about any institution seeks to expand its influence, right?
Rich: Of course.
Paul: I mean, we’re hiring engineers and product developers and designers because we would like to have more influence as an agency in New York City.
Rich: And be more successful, and be larger —
Rich: We all —
Paul: And we feel, we’re perfectly ethical about this.
Paul: And so it’s like, there’s an internal system at work, and I think we probably are overall, like I don’t see us doing anything wrong, and I think about that a lot, but at the same time —
Rich: Ethics scare, I mean, when you bring the word “ethics” into the picture, look —
Paul: It’s endless, right?
Rich: I negotiate terms with someone.
Rich: Right? And you could argue, it’s like, you know what, I think I can eke out another ten percent out of them.
Rich: And you say, well Rich, that’s not the ethical thing to do, and it’s like, what are talking about?
Paul: Well we actually, I mean this is not an abstract conversation in any way.
Rich: We have this conversation.
Paul: Because I’ll be like, “Well that’s my buddy. I don’t really want to drill ’em down, you know, blah blah blah.” And you’ll be like, “Ford!”
Paul: “The hell are you doing?”
Rich: Yeah, because what you have on the other side is that person is not struggling with their own ethical questions about how they’re going to beat our price down, because of their motivations, and their goals, and their …need to survive and thrive.
Paul: Well, what we’re doing, I mean, we’re not, we’re also not bound by the same rules as like, the justice system. It is in our best interest, validly and understood by all, to get the most money possible for the service we perform.
Paul: No one begrudges us that motivation.
Paul: Because that’s the fundamental principle of our existence.
Rich: And relatively speaking, we, the way we’re going to succeed is by walking away from an effort and leaving behind a perception that, wow, that was great value for what we delivered.
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: Because we know. There are other agencies out in the world. They will milk you forever. And they’re not delivering much of anything. And they’re happy with that. They’re like, you know what, we can just sort of hang here and keep billing and billing and billing — and the truth is, they’re not breaking any laws. What they need is for the other side to fish them out, and actually know what’s up, and get to a better place.
This is all, to me, it’s all subjective, it’s all relative. There’s a relativism to it all. So when you bring ethics into the picture, that’s why I think it’s not ethical or unethical for Peter to do this. I think what’s also not ethical or unethical is to come down on him real hard as the press for doing it.
Paul: So Silicon Valley does not like negative press coverage. Who does?
Rich: Who does?
Paul: But it likes power.
Rich: It loves power.
Paul: It loves power. It’s very big, like there’s an ideology that slowly percolates out from the Valley, where people tell you about how this is the best place ever at the most essential time ever, and then when you’re like, “I don’t know. Maybe not bitcoin,” forty billion people show up in your Twitter timeline and tell you that you’re the worst person who ever lived.
Rich: Yeah, because they feel it’s progress. I think they draft behind, like, this notion of forward progress, and it’s merit-based, and it’s just, there’s a purity to it, right?
Paul: Well, and everything that they see as an enemy, so the media, the government, so on, they see that as damage that technology can route around.
Paul: And I actually, what you see is that entire ideologies are emerging.
Paul: People, around the kind of libertarianism and so on, where there’s this model of true freedom, which always, to me, strikes me as the kind of freedom where someone’s like, “I want to smoke weed in my room.” Like, it’s that kind of, “Mom! Leave me alone.”
Paul: But regardless of my opinion on that, there’s a kind of slowly simmering ideology of, like, individual rights, technology as this kind of incredible enabling force that slowly overtakes the entire economy, and that the world gets run by, essentially, a, you know, a Google spreadsheet fifty miles on a side.
Rich: Yeah. I mean, you look at, like, an Uber’s mission, and the way they’ve dismantled so many of, sort of, the status-quo structures that run, like, TLC commissions and various cities and all that? Silicon Valley views the TLC commission as sort of this artificial extortion scheme.
Paul: Well I mean —
Rich: Nothing more than that, it’s just sort of this, this wall that’s been built around this value, and they shatter it, and you say, well wow, Uber is brutal, that’s aggressive, and it’s ruining —
Paul: Well it’s also, it’s actively influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, right?
Paul: It’s an Objectivist kind of company.
Rich: Yeah, and I gotta say, look, I think Ayn Rand is a strange creature, but I believe in some of it. I actually do believe that they did a good thing by dismantling the TLC. Like 99% of cabs drivers just don’t own their —
Paul: Wait, let’s just be clear. You believe in some of what Uber has done, not in Objectivism?
Rich: I don’t, I don’t even, I don’t…
Paul: Yeah, please.
Rich: I think she’s —
Paul: I just can’t. I can’t.
Rich: She’s pro-merit-based systems, essentially? I don’t know —
Paul: We can’t have Galt’s Gulch, we can’t have that stuff in our company. I just can’t do it.
Rich: I don’t know what this means.
Rich: I don’t know, I don’t know it well enough —
Paul: Let’s keep it that way.
Rich: I think she’s very pro —
Paul: You’re never reading The Fountainhead. Never.
Rich: I’ve never read The Fountainhead.
Paul: Good. That’s never gonna happen.
Rich: I don’t plan to. But yes. I believe in surge pricing. I believe in surge pricing. I actually think it’s a good thing. We can discuss that. Maybe that’s another entire episode. I actually think surge pricing is a good thing.
Rich: Yeah. I do.
Rich: Because I think it’s a natural mechanism, (a) that allows the driver to make more money, and incents other drivers to leave their houses and get on the road. What’s wrong with that?
Paul: I can’t get home without spending all the money.
Rich: Then —
Paul: I shouldn’t have gone out? During a freak weather event?
Rich: It is, it is, not —
Paul: I have to get my baby to the hospital?
Rich: It is not, it, it — the amount of variable pricing that happens around booking a plane ticket is surge pricing writ large, to levels none of us can even comprehend. It’s just, we’ve gotten accustomed to the idea —
Paul: Here’s what I’ll give you —
Rich: “Holy hell, I gotta book that ticket by this Friday, because the prices are gonna go up — ”
Paul: Here’s what I’ll give you —
Rich: “ — because there are less seats on the effin’ plane!”
Paul: Technology has made surge pricing —
Rich: Why doesn’t that upset everyone?
Paul: Surge pricing — it does upset everyone! Technology has made surge pricing inevitable in every industry.
Rich: I think it’s naive. I think to view this as unfair is naive.
Paul: Whether it’s fair or not, put that aside for a second, because first of all, we just don’t even get to have a conversation about it. Basically the deal is, let’s obliterate the Taxi & Limousine Commission and then we’re going to jam this thing in, and we’re going to do whatever it takes, we’re going to be litigation-first, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get our stuff in here, and it’s not — to me, Uber strikes me as like, Time Warner-Comcast, it’ll be another crappy monopoly with like, two players defining how the pricing’s gonna work, rather, because there should be more downward pricing, and there probably should be more people who can drive?
Rich: I think there will be.
Paul: I hope so.
Rich: I think if more people drive, the pricing will be down — Uber, first off, is not even close to a monopoly. And secondly, people can come out and drive, and the prices will go down.
Paul: I think we’ll end up with —
Rich: I think it’s a very natural process.
Paul: Here’s what I think will really happen. I think the minute the government kind of settles things down and the Taxi & Limousine Commission sort of all are like, OK, we’ve got to make it work, everyone will just suck up to each other in the way that they always do. And you’ll end up with, like, these unholy garbage monopolies like the cable company has in New York City.
Rich: Would you say that the fixed-pricing schemes and the days of just one TLC commission establishing pricing across the whole city was not a monopoly?
Paul: Pure, hot, liquid, flaming garbage, and it’s made life harder. But no, what I’m saying is that, you have this fantasy that Uber’s going to come in and somehow enact a good capitalist vision. I think it will suckle at the same toxic breast of government that everything else will. It’ll just get right in there.
Rich: Here’s what I like about it. Here’s what I like about it. Most medallions are not owned by the drivers, right?
Paul: I know!
Rich: And the drivers are just workers, right? What I like about it is the guy with the Camry on New Year’s Eve, if he chooses to do it, when surge pricing is 5X because everybody want cars to get home, can go do it.
Rich: And that’s incredibly empowering.
Paul: Absolutely, until everyone has to make their peace with each other, a new law gets passed, and there’s like, a 60,000 driver rule, and then there’s a new Uber license medallion-like object that’s subject to the same —
Rich: You’re angry about a future that you’ve drawn in your head.
Paul: It is, that’s what’s coming.
Rich: I think the future, I think the current state of things is actually pretty great. I think it’s a lot better than it was. So this is worth talking about, they’re feeling pressure from surge pricing, right, whether it be because of competition or because of perception, or whatever, and that’s fine! That’s good. Competition is good. Perception is part of being a brand, and having to deal with what you have to deal with. I think it’s all good. The price for the average Uber ride has gone down over time, as they’ve scaled up, and as they’ve seen pressure from other places. Pressure is good. That’s how markets work. That’s a good thing. Like it’s a positive thing if surge pricing goes down, because of other factors that come into play. If not, then good for them. It’s all good.
Paul: I just…
Rich: Because, here’s the thing. The other end of surge is that driver. That’s what you’re not getting.
Paul: No. I respect that. I’m glad that people can get closer to a middle-class life by doing things. I think that that is fantastic.
Paul: I think that that’s great. But what I see is that, I don’t have any faith that a disruptive, Objectivist organization like Uber, after experimenting with surge pricing and having to negotiate with the Taxi & Limousine Commissions across this great land as well as across the ocean, will not figure out an ugly compromise that benefits itself. I feel that there’s a lot of actors here, and I don’t ever get the sense that anyone’s going, like, let’s make the best and most efficient environment for people to ride safely from one location to another.
Rich: Can I ask you a question? What commercial entity doesn’t seek to benefit itself?
Paul: None. But I think transportation is one of these weird, quasi — I feel that the MTA is actually pretty good in New York City, even though it’s endemic and has a lot of problems with corruption.
Rich: It’s great. I love the MTA.
Rich: I don’t think that has anything to do with anything?
Paul: Well we’re still talking about moving people from one place to another.
Rich: No. Fine.
Paul: So cars and trains are not —
Rich: Tons of the transportation that occurs in New York City is commercial.
Rich: The MTA happens to not be.
Rich: But, like, a lot of it, I think there are private express bus companies, there’s Uber, there’s taxis. It’s all commercial.
Paul: I think you’re — we’re talking about the driver in here, but Uber, it’s in Uber’s best interest to get the driver out of the equation as quickly as possible. They’re all over self-driving cars.
Paul: So what happens then?
Rich: I mean, what happens then? What happens —
Paul: No I mean, you’re telling me about this great opportunity —
Rich: What happened to calligraphers when the printing press came out? What happened then?
Paul: They did wedding invitations! And died hungry!
Rich: Fine. We’re going to have to figure that out, right? I mean —
Paul: OK, so —
Rich: You just took us to a —
Paul: Here’s Silicon Valley’s answer: Y Combinator right now is going to give twenty people in Oakland universal basic income of like a grand or two a month.
Rich: Twenty people?
Rich: Small sample size.
Paul: That’s a very small sample size.
Rich: But OK.
Paul: The deal here is that because robots will take all of our jobs —
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And actually, when I say robots, what I mean is algorithms focused on optimization assembled into software packages that move, that say where, like, certain things should be moving on autonomous vehicles. Like, not really robots. They’ll be so much automation that all the parts of the economy that used to let people get any kind of leg up out of real poverty will basically be gone.
Rich: You know, I…I feel like we could’ve had this conversation in 1890 when the Industrial Revolution kicked in.
Paul: I feel we’ll have this conversation until we die.
Rich: So I think it’s —
Paul: And poor people will always be around.
Rich: I think it’s quite self-centered to assume that this happens to be the tipping point, when we’ve been tipping the point for the past 500 years.
Paul: People always think that —
Rich: Or 1,000 years, or whatever.
Paul: Yeah, but they just think that the robots are right around the corner. This time’s different.
Rich: Fine. I mean, OK? So just give people money to live? Is that what —
Paul: That’s basically the idea.
Rich: I think it’s sad. I think it’s awfully sad. I think a third of questions you have for someone at a cocktail party is, “What do you do?” It’s your purpose. It defines you.
Paul: “I receive universal basic income from Y Combintor.”
Paul: That’s —
Rich: What do you do with that? What do you do with that, jeez?
Paul: That is —
Rich: I mean, you know what I’m for in that context, is maybe credits towards whatever skills you want to train up, you can use them at, you know, a cooking school, or a, an HVAC training, or whatever. Like, you can use those credits to build skills for yourself.
Paul: Yeah, but robots are going cook and do HVAC. So you have to —
Rich: I have to assume we’re not just going to sit there with tubes going in our mouths while we’re on the couch and the robots are doing everything else. There’s gotta be something, right? Nurse practitioners, or nurses, or…I don’t know. There’s professions out there that we’re going to need, no? I just think, I like the idea, but I like the idea of subsidizing training up on people, there’s gonna be armies of people who were cabbies and now they can’t do anything.
Paul: Do you like welfare?
Rich: [deep sigh]
Paul: Yeah! Now see, this is the problem.
Rich: I think in certain contexts, I’m for…helping people, yes. I do think there are problems that —
Paul: You don’t wanna say, like, I support and like welfare.
Rich: No! I think there are contexts where the family setting or the age of the person or the condition of the person requires us to help them.
Paul: I mean here’s the thing —
Rich: But I think that it’s, I mean, obviously there are people out there that are very capable that rely on it, and it puts them on a path where they’re not, probably not feeling good about themselves, frankly, and (b), not contributing to, just, the general world they’re in.
Paul: We should give people a little context here. You and I are doing pretty good. We’ve got our podcast going, we co-founded our agency, we’ve got about forty people working at our company, so on and so forth. We were not always doing this well. And I think it’s actually good for the listeners to know that. Like I went to a school for poor kids called Milton Hershey School, because my mom —
Rich: Of the chocolate?
Paul: Of the chocolate fortune, because my —
Paul: Because my dad was gone and my mom was making $3,000 a year as a puppeteer. You were growing up in Bay Ridge, like, desperate to get a job at a bodega cutting meat, because, like, and getting…
Paul: Like you were under some pretty serious stress.
Paul: So this is not entirely, like, I feel that it could be very easy for people to hear us talking about this stuff and feel that we’re playing with it idly?
Paul: But the reality is both of us are very serious recipients of certain kinds of institutional generosity.
Rich: I don’t know about that.
Paul: Well, I mean, you went —
Rich: I went to CUNY.
Paul: You went to CUNY.
Rich: I went to City University of New York.
Paul: That’s a big leg up.
Rich: Which, um, is my bachelor’s degree.
Paul: That is a great program.
Rich: It is a great program.
Paul: People who are out of the city —
Rich: It costs just about, I think it was like, $1,000.
Paul: People who are outside of the city don’t know —
Rich: When I went. I don’t know what it is today.
Paul: It’s not enormously more. It’s like, probably is enormously more, but it’s still nothing compared to…
Rich: Yeah, it’s heavily subsidized by the state and the federal government.
Paul: CUNY is like one of the great educational institutions in America.
Rich: It’s struggling right now.
Paul: It is struggling.
Rich: Which is sad.
Paul: It’s very sad.
Rich: Because I believe in CUNY, and I believe in what it does, and I believe in institutions and systems that empower and enable and train up and give you skills and give you a path. I believe in those.
Paul: So I went to a, at a very, very critical time in my life, I went to a school for a couple of years that not only took care of all my material needs and helped me get educated, sent me to college part-time my senior year because I was someone with some capacity, and then gave me $3 or $4,000 a year through my bachelor’s degree.
Paul: Right? That was because a benevolent billionaire who made chocolate couldn’t have kids of his own and so he wanted to help something. To help other people, starting in 1909.
Paul: So as we’re talking about this stuff, I think it’s important to acknowledge that institutional leg ups, these things have helped us get where we’re at right now.
Rich: Yes. Absolutely.
Paul: And we’re not —
Rich: And I’m pro-those institutions.
Paul: I mean, it’s a tricky thing, like you, you’re more conservative than me, but by the standard of the typical American conservative, you’re almost on the left.
Rich: Yes. Yes…yes.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, you’re not socially super conservative —
Paul: And you’re basically like, you’re basically just into what you can do with a business. You like creating jobs.
Paul: You like making money.
Rich: I believe in that. I believe that’s the way to contribute.
Paul: And look, I’m along for this ride, and participating. Like, I’m not, I want to be here, part of that, because I’ve tried the other stuff, and it doesn’t work as well.
Paul: So Silicon Valley thinks that —
Rich: I think we started talking about Gawker and Peter Thiel. I don’t know how we ended up here, but —
Paul: But this is actually of a piece —
Rich: I’m glad we ended up here!
Paul: Let’s, let’s get back to it, because this is actually all of a piece. I think it’s worth it. Silicon Valley has decided that it will be place that produces the answers.
Paul: And I feel that that model of culture, I know a lot of people from out there, and they are smart as can be, and they can focus on platforms and technology in a way that I’ve never been able to do in my life. They can just go.
Paul: And they can build enormous things with hundreds of millions of users, and they can touch hundreds of millions of users on a regular basis.
Paul: And that is the culture out there.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And everything here is muddier, stickier, they are more competing forces. Government, media, and business are all in the room together, pulling at each other on any given day in New York City.
Rich: There’s a status quo. There’s a lot of power, and it’s distributed, and there are a lot of industries here, and there’s lot that are old, and some of them have a lot of old money, and it’s the status quo. I think Silicon Valley basks in the blank slate.
Paul: There’s also one —
Rich: That if you’ve got that idea, like, the truth is, they shattered the status quo. They shattered a lot of other industries, but Zuckerberg, he had nothing.
Paul: I think —
Rich: There was nothing, there was nothing around him, there’s…there was no competing force that was saying, “Hey, you are not going to infringe on my territory.” It’s hard for me to start a magazine here, right? It’s hard for me to penetrate fashion, or —
Paul: Oh yeah.
Rich: To get into the industries. And what you have, which I respect, and I admire, about the Valley, is that it is about that blank slate, and I respect that.
Paul: The flip side is that the hero of the Valley is the person who’s been able to aggregate an enormous amount of capital. The billionaire.
Rich: I don’t know if that’s the perception of what makes you a hero in the Valley. I mean, that happens to be a byproduct of what happens to you in the Valley.
Paul: I think if you talk to any young person creating a start-up, and you say, how much do you need to make to feel really successful —
Paul: They’re going to have a number.
Rich: Well that person usually doesn’t make it.
Paul: No, they don’t.
Rich: They don’t. The person who thinks —
Paul: It’s the —
Rich: —that audiobooks are the future, and they believe in it, and they eat it and they sleep it and that’s all they care about, and then a byproduct of that is they take hold of this space and they create a successful product and a company? Then they make money. Those people tend to succeed, right? I think the ones that say, “I’m going to go make $100 million, I’ll see you later, I’m going to the Valley” — I don’t think they ever succeed.
Paul: I think that yeah, but I just, there’s a myth of money associated with that place. There’s just a sort of, like, success is measured that way.
Rich: Well, I think success is measured by usage and traffic an visits and people and sign-ups, and I think a byproduct of that, hopefully for the ones that are trying to grow, is money. But I think success is mostly measured that way. I…
Paul: I just…
Rich: We’re generalizing grossly here but.
Paul: I know. Here’s what I would say, is that things move in one direction. They move towards larger platforms and more cultural impact. And things here do that as well, but they tend to do it in a more muddy way with more people — you’re like, three degrees of separation at any point from like, crazycakes stuff.
Paul: That is often corrupt and often weird, but also sometimes productive. Like you said, we’re not —
Rich: Kind of New York City, isn’t it?
Paul: Yeah, we’re not far from the — you know, I went and gave a talk, funded by a venture capital firm, and it was about design, and, like, the other people speaking, half of them were in fashion. And it’s just sort of, like, no one knew what to make of each other, but those worlds collide.
Paul: We’ve gone down to the White House to consult. You and me.
Rich: Yeah. And I love that, I love that sort of swirl of stuff that makes up New York? I think that’s just something, I grew up here, I’ve lived here most of my life, so I love that about it.
Paul: But I think what I would say is I think that that’s more what the world’s like, like, when —
Rich: I know, but you know, the dream is, go to the Valley, make your thing that ends up being an atomic bomb on that industry that’s been around for a hundred years. Whether it be taxis or publishing or anything. Money. Banks. Anything is disrupt-able.
Paul: Fine. And that is an enormous amount of power, but if you want more power, you have to get it through other avenues, like the media or politics or starting other companies, so on and so forth. And the people who are the power brokers, and those systems are just not as amenable. Silicon Valley, I get the sense some of those guy would just love to buy the press, and tell it what to do.
Rich: Yeah. I think there’s an idealism, and there’s…there’s sort of a myopic view of the world that takes hold, because you’re sort of living in that place, where none of the status quos around you, none of the machineries around you, none of the things that you feel like you have to navigate through — ”Why do I have to navigate through that? I did the right thing. I am the American success story.”
Paul: Why can’t — why not just disrupt that?
Paul: But you know, the real issue there is that the press ultimately is for sale.
Rich: Everything’s for sale.
Paul: Yeah. Including the presidency. Including —
Rich: Takes what, $2 billion to make it to president? I mean obviously you have to be likable and smile a lot and not have horrible scandals behind you, hopefully. But it takes billions to become president, right?
Rich: So various industries come in and they say, all right, you know what, I’m gonna get behind you, and I’m just a real-estate guy from Oklahoma.
Paul: And then we’re going to give everybody a couple thousand dollars a month to keep them from losing their minds and killing everyone else.
Rich: I’m curious to see how this experiment goes. I mean —
Paul: I look to forward to the results.
Rich: I think they’re not giving it to just poor people. I think they’re giving it to this cross section —
Paul: They have somebody monitoring the study, it’s not like…
Paul: It’s not just people filling out a Google form.
Rich: I mean, I get it. I think it’s kind of goofy to assume that the world is robots tomorrow. I think, sort of, the full cycle of going to the industrialization of food and now back to valuing, sort of, the handmade, bespoke experiences, I think just speaks to us wanting to keep reminding ourselves that we’re human.
Paul: I mean, is that what you do with your universal basic income? Is you start your, like, artisanal peanut butter company?
Rich: Somebody’s gonna wanna start something.
Rich: I hope.
Paul: Then your 500 people a year with artisanal peanut butter…
Rich: Yeah, and what is hap — what’s happy for you? Happy is just being able to pay your bills and have friends come into your coffee shop, or whatever.
Paul: Right. Then they make a short Facebook video about it.
Rich: Very short.
Paul: It goes viral. Well…
Rich: This was a fun discussion. I feel like it got heated.
Paul: [sigh] We’re both actually roughly…you’re probably more generous than I am? But you’re much more of, like, an uptight capitalist about it.
Rich: [laughter] That’s a great description.
Paul: We’ll have to see —
Rich: What a wonderfully confusing description.
Paul: Yeah. It’s, so it’s really tricky, right? It’s…anyway. This is —
Rich: This podcast is free, though.
Paul: It is free. We give it away to promote our company, Postlight. What’s it do, Rich? What’s Postlight do?
Paul: What do I do? I need, I’m coming to Postlight, what do I get?
Rich: We provide strategy, design, and…we design and build stuff, and we are mostly in the tech world.
Paul: We’re busy.
Rich: But talk to us. Anyway.
Paul: No no no, I mean, talk to us, talk to us if you want to work with us.
Rich: If you’ve got questions, if you’ve got comments, if you’d like to work with us —
Paul: Send them to, what do I do?
Rich: [email protected].
Paul: Ah, thank you!
Rich: This is Track Changes.
Paul: The podcast from the Postlight Agency. Visit us at POSTLIGHT.COM! I’m Paul Ford.
Rich: And Rich Ziade.
Paul: We’ll see you soon.
Rich: Take care.