Can Zuckerberg’s Old Roommate Strong-Arm Washington?

Dustin Moskovitz in 2017
Photo by Horacio Villalobos - Corbis/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
August 5, 2021

Every political mega-donor plays the game in their own way. Some are more transactional, hoping to marshal their access to defang regulators who may one day investigate their companies. Others are more myopic, lured by a photo for their office, an internship for their kid, or an ambassadorship for themself. Old-guard Silicon Valley powerbrokers like Eric Schmidt and Ron Conway have leveraged their influence into political-economic puppeteering in debates over the future of China and San Francisco. But now a younger generation that subscribes to a new kind of governing philosophy —called effective altruism—has arrived, and they’re trying to bring the same mastery that they deployed when buying anti-malaria bed nets to the more cutthroat arena of Democratic politics.

The twin powers of effective altruism are two millennial billionaires: Dustin Moskovitz, the Facebook co-founder and C.E.O. of the newly-public software company Asana; and Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and the wealthiest person in the world under the age of 30. He’s known as S.B.F., or, sometimes cheekily in the world I cover, as “The Next Dustin.” The pair do not formally work together or talk much, but they are ideological brethren—apostles for a philanthropic gospel that calls for donors to (over)rigorously and quantitatively evaluate how much each dollar they give can reduce suffering. Perhaps most important, the current Dustin and the next Dustin are conjoined in a loosely-coordinated effort, backed by a combined $60 billion fortune, to convince Washington lawmakers not to leave America so defenseless for the next pandemic.

Moskovitz and S.B.F. want Washington to fully finance Joe Biden’s request for $30 billion in pandemic preparedness funding as part of his $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal. But former C.D.C. director Tom Frieden and Senator-turned-lobbyist Tom Daschle wrote last month that Congress was preparing to spend as little as $5 billion on the matter as part of an attempt to placate more fiscally conservative Democrats. Asked on Wednesday if the $30 billion would be fully funded, Jen Psaki said only that the White House believes Congress will apportion an “historic” amount.

And so the tech billionaires, concerned that a mere $5 billion would leave the United States vulnerable to future plagues that could be far deadlier than Covid, have gone to battle in a way that shows some newfound political maturity. Moskovitz’s philanthropy, the Open Philanthropy Project, has broken a decade of tradition by hiring lobbyists to twist arms on Capitol Hill, a new tactic that speaks to his seriousness. S.B.F. is bankrolling a new television campaign targeting insiders in the D.C. market.

But unlike Schmidt or Conway, who thrive on scorched earth, neither Moskovitz nor S.B.F. seems interested in applying the utilitarian doctrine of effective altruism to turning the screws on the politicians they have funded. I find this puzzling. Given the amount of money that S.B.F. has spent on campaigns, he could easily get some of the relevant policymakers on the phone himself, rather than airing an ad and hoping they catch it while glimpsing over their phone at Rachel Maddow on mute. The same goes double for Moskovitz. Surely the Democratic Party’s biggest outside donor last year—if you exclude the two who actually ran for the presidential nomination, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer—could get a few minutes on the phone with Biden if he really wanted to, or at least someone like Ron Klain. That would do more to advance the cause of pandemic preparedness than hiring influence-peddlers from Tarplin, Downs and Young to harangue some mid-career congressional staffers. It’s not hyperbole, if you take the advocates at their word, to say that lives could depend on it.

These are not donors who ask for much, either. So in addition to this being good policy as far as Biden is concerned, it’s also good politics. “I don’t know to the extent that Biden is sitting down with Dustin or whatnot,” one person close to OpenPhil told me. “Dustin is very different from Bill Gates,” who was willing to sit down with Donald Trump to advance his foundation’s agenda“Gates will specifically use those relationships in order to achieve his objectives. I haven’t seen OpenPhil and Dustin do those types of get-into-the-backroom, where-the-deals-are-happening things.”

I floated that idea to S.B.F. when I reached him in Hong Kong earlier this week. “That wouldn’t be crazy at all,” he told me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that were an approach that some people were taking here.” Yeah, but how about him—you know, the guy who donates millions to Democrats? “I haven’t been on the phone much recently.”

Moskovitz has always come off to me as a little uneasy in the public eye when it comes to politics, although his use of philanthropy to fund pressure groups is not new. He is not stop-you-on-the-street famous, unlike his Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg or the Winklevoss twins (He has but a bit part, courtesy of Joseph Mazzello, in The Social Network, a movie he says is horseshit.) Part of it may be that he just doesn’t take himself as seriously as many of his peers. On Twitter, he can appear like just another Tech Guy with Opinions, even though last year he recorded $50 million to pro-Biden efforts. (The real number, including undisclosed giving, is likely much higher.) Donald Trump would have gone berserk if the late Sheldon Adelson was live-tweeting his thoughts on various White House decisions. And yet few people even notice when Moskovitz criticizes the Biden administration’s slowness to send extra vaccine doses to India. His Twitter feed is refreshing given that Moskovitz doesn’t do many interviews—I still crack up at a Forbes profile last year that read that Moskovitz “admits he has agreed to speak at length with Forbes only because his PR execs promised he wouldn’t have to do any more interviews for the rest of the year.”

The Facebook co-founder has been reluctant since the beginning to be in this position as a fixer. In the fall of 2016, Moskovitz came out of nowhere to donate $20 million toward electing Hillary Clinton and enacting her agenda, writing on Medium that he and Tuna felt “compelled to act” even though they had “reservations about anyone using large amounts of money to influence elections.”

But after Clinton lost, Moskovitz—largely viewed by insiders as not exactly nailing 2016 with his late-cycle checks—wised up and gingerly leaned in. He played things closer to the vest, eschewing Medium and declining to voluntarily disclose checks in 2020. He hired a recently-graduated PhD, Otis Reid, to serve as a political consigliere. (Reid recently went full-time at OpenPhil. That’s part of a post-Trump trend I’m seeing: Josh Hendler, the chief political aide to Schmidt, is now in-house at Schmidt Futures.) I’d hear frequently during the campaign that Reid and Moskovitz could be annoying to deal with given their obsession with academic literature and their almost manically-quantitative focus, but others saw them as willing to follow the math no matter what, unlike other mega-donors.

“These people think that they’re hot shit,” said one Democratic operative close to the Moskovitz team. “And I think Dustin really knows at the end of the day, when he goes to bed, ‘I spent X amount of dollars in the 2020 election and I netted Joe Biden X number of votes.”

The Bankman-Frieds are one of Silicon Valley’s most underrated and fascinating power families. The whole clan sits alongside Moskovitz at the cross-currents of effective altruism, partisan politics and billionaire philanthropy—part of a movement led by Obama-trained operatives who, funded by Silicon Valley fortunes, are trying to use randomized-controlled trials, data science, and engineering to modernize the Democratic Party. They are—and I’m over-generalizing here—usually more pragmatic, market-friendly and, accordingly, billionaire-friendly.

S.B.F. has notched a land-speed record for achieving crossover tech-media stardom—in the last few months alone, he has been profiled in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, with each outlet dutifully mentioning the now-hackneyed fun fact that the 29-year-old often sleeps overnight in a office bean bag. (I’m guilty, by the way—I interviewed him for Recode and mentioned the bean bag.) The logic to S.B.F.’s life is to “earn to give,” or to make as much money as humanly possible, no matter the means, as part of a two-step strategy that culminates with giving it all away to effective-altruist causes. The plan is working. FTX, which didn’t even exist four years ago, is now about to have its name adorned on the arena of the Miami Heat. The company just raised almost $1 billion at a $20 billion valuation. S.B.F. has unquestionably made it big.

Then there’s his younger brother, Gabe, whom S.B.F. slipped some cash to run ads in the capital media market calling on lawmakers to fully fund the biosecurity effort. The group, Guarding Against Pandemics, is a 501(c)4 effort but has raised over a half-million dollars from donors and recently started a PAC, allowing it to potentially evolve into a bona fide pressure group. S.B.F.—who last year donated $5 million to Future Forward, the same Biden super PAC that Moskovitz backed—told me that he is actively looking this week at other pandemic-preparedness lobbying investments he can make, and so his total outlay of cash will be a “bit bigger.”

The family matriarch has also become a major Bay Area player. Barbara Fried, previously a low-profile Stanford Law School professor, has somehow managed to create one of the most buzzed-about organizations in Democratic big-money politics: a fundraising network called Mind the Gap that, informed by effective altruism, became a secretive node of Silicon Valley’s political moment, steering tens of millions of dollars to progressive nonprofits like the Voter Participation Center. There had been talk around town that Mind the Gap might shut down after the election, but that’s not happening (just look at the docs). The group now has over 2,200 donors in its network—heavy on tech types like billionaire Karla Jurvetson, who gave the group another$1 million earlier this year—and I’ve learned they just tapped a new executive director, the former head of VPC, Marissa McBride. The kids, though, remain the inspiration. “When Sam was about fourteen, he emerged from his bedroom one evening and said to me, seemingly out of the blue, What kind of person dismisses an argument they disagree with by labelling it the ‘Repugnant Conclusion.’ Clearly, things were not as I, in my impoverished imagination, had assumed them to be in our household,” Barbara wrote in the heartwarming acknowledgements of a new academic book last year. “In the years since, both Sam and Gabe have become take-no-prisoners utilitarians.”

But S.B.F. and Moskovitz don’t have the benefit of time if the stakes of the reconciliation bill are as high as they claim. Take-no-prisoners utilitarianism this is not, especially for Moskovitz. I’m told that he has been more engaged in the pandemic preparedness work than the standard OpenPhil fare, but the public-company C.E.O. is letting his staff and the lobbyists run point. He hasn’t gotten personally involved by making phone calls or taking meetings. From talking to people in his orbit, it seems like the simplest explanation is that Moskovitz still sees something icky about a mega-donor directly badgering public servants to steer public policy, as opposed to, say, letting his grantees work for him. That may be admirable, but it comes at a cost: He has personal leverage, regardless of whether he wants it.

“All these folks have finally started to understand their own power,” as one Democratic fundraiser put it to me this week. Maybe. But hiring a lobbyist is but a mere first step. “Until Dustin shows up to planning calls with John Podesta … I doubt that they’re trying to gladhand people at social events. This is not the kind of entry point for them into DC elite social circles,” said another source close to OpenPhil. “In fact, they’re probably actively disinterested in that usual hyper-rational way. They just want the policies.”

And yet the best way to deliver the policies is to use your best lobbyist. And the best lobbyist that policy-wanter Dustin Moskovitz has is mega-donor Dustin Moskovitz. As an effective altruist running the numbers might point out, making a phone call is free.