In his new book "Zero to One", Peter Thiel, the chairman of Palantir, co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, attempts to explain why some businesses fail and others succeed — and what kinds of societies produce the greatest volume of the latter.
In a brief Q&A with Fusion, Thiel took some questions about the state of American tech, and what the future of the U.S., and the world, may eventually look like.
FUSION: What lessons should we draw from Buzzfeed's report about an Uber executive targeting a reporter — about the company itself, and about Silicon Valley?
PETER THIEL: It reveals a company so obsessed with perceived enemies that it ends up making real enemies. (Of course, I’m an investor in Lyft, so I’m biased.) For the Valley as a whole, it shows the downside of “disruption”: when you begin with an adversarial attitude toward business, you set yourself up as a target, too.
F: Did you read Thomas Piketty's book on inequality ("Capital in the 21st Century")? Do the U.S. and the West have an inequality problem? If so, what can or should be done to address it?
PT: Piketty accurately describes inequality in the past and present of countries like the United States, but when it comes to the future he’s not even wrong: he traces a trend but doesn’t explain it, simply claiming it will continue unless we enact a global wealth tax. Piketty’s proposal is not just unworkable, it shows his whole premise to be strangely incoherent: at the global scale, inequality has been falling as millions of people in China and India escape poverty. Meanwhile, in the United States, the most urgent debate isn’t for or against inequality, it’s whether or not to accept stagnation. State and local regulations make it hard for people to start new occupations and even harder for anybody to build affordable housing. Those policies deny people opportunities every day in tangible ways, unlike the abstract idea of inequality.
F: What do you think Bitcoin will look like in 10 years?
PT: The future of Bitcoin is binary: in ten years it will be either worthless or wildly valuable. To succeed, Bitcoin needs a payment system to complement what has so far been only a speculative currency. To get that done, politics will be a bigger challenge than engineering. I started PayPal because I believed that a secure internet currency would change the world, and I still think that’s true; the question is when.
F: How should the world be tackling climate change? Have you changed your lifestyle at all to lower your carbon footprint?
PT: In my life I focus on technology. Climate change is a planetary phenomenon, and at the global scale there are many more people desperately trying to increase their consumption than there are people trying to reduce it. But I don’t think we in the West can tell the world’s peasants to stay green and poor for the sake of the Earth. And changing our own lifestyles won’t be enough. People in richer countries should feel responsible for something harder than changing our habits: we should work to create new technology to solve energy problems for the entire world. If we don’t, all lifestyles everywhere are likely to be meager in fifty years, and nobody will have any choice about it.
F: What two companies are you most excited about right now (besides your own) and why?
PT: Airbnb and SpaceX. The next $100 billion consumer internet company will be Airbnb: it opened a new market where most people saw only empty space. Elon Musk wants to open a whole new planet. His mission to Mars will take time, but SpaceX has already reengineered the rocket industry.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.