Collison, Caitlyn, and Steve Ballmer’s Meltdown

Patrick Collison
Photo by AOP.Press/Corbis via Getty

One of the most rewarding parts of writing for this community is the feedback that I receive from readers. I’ve been inundated with great questions over the past week, and I’ll be engaging with some of them here—in addition to a few observations of my own.

It feels like we’re on the cusp of a changing of the guard among Silicon Valley billionaires. Who in the next generation of tech titans do you think is the most fascinating politically or philanthropically?

For several years I’ve been keeping an eye on Patrick Collison, the 32 year-old C.E.O.of Stripe. Collison isn’t liquid yet, but he and his brother John are looking at a combined net worth north of $20 billion once their payments company goes public. More fascinating, however, is the copycat effect of Collison’s rising profile in Silicon Valley, where a whole crop of civic-minded entrepreneurs who work on topics like climate change and basic science absolutely idolize him.

Collison’s influence is evident in events like his annual, invitation-only secretive conference called Bourlag Camp in Sonoma County. He’s a leading funder of California’s YIMBY politics, the pro-housing movement that sees deregulation as a way to reduce inequality. And during COVID, he and economist Tyler Cowen orchestrated one of Silicon Valley’s most interesting projects: a rapid-fire science funding program that distributed $50 million to pandemic researchers called Fast Grants. Collison hasn’t engaged seriously in partisan politics yet—the Irishman is not yet an American citizen—but I’ve heard a lot of Democrats in the Valley praying over the years that he’ll get there, even though they’ll find he isn’t as much of a lefty as they hope.

Along similar lines, I have a lot of respect for Dustin Moskovitz, the former roommate of Mark Zuckerberg and a Facebook co-founder. Lots of young tech billionaires delay thinking about civic responsibility until much later in life—they park a few billion into a family foundation or a donor-advised fund and maybe dabble in political or charitable work here and there, but they largely punt on developing a broader theory of their work. Moskovitz is only 37 and he has a day-job as a public-company C.E.O. (Asana), but he and his wife, Cari Tuna, have articulated a clear worldview and spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year pursuing it. You can totally disagree with Moskovitz about the merits of effective altruism—the philosophy, popular with right-brained technologists like him, that applies “rationalist” thinking to supercharge their philanthropy—but I give him props for making strategic decisions now rather than later.

Can you explain Larry Ellison’s politics to me? I seem to remember him being a Democrat, but I see he maxed out last week to Caitlyn Jenner. When exactly did he get red-pilled?

Bingo. Ellison’s $32,400 check to Jenner—the leading G.O.P. rival to Gavin Newsom—in many ways completes a decade-long transformation. If all you read were the political headlines involving Ellison over that time period, you’d have zero idea that the Oracle founder was once a bleeding-heart liberal.

Ellison, of course, was once a close friend and ideological compatriot of one of tech’s leading progressives, Steve Jobs. He joked in 2000 that Bill Clinton should be elected to a third term and almost named him to Oracle’s board of directors. But sometime during the Obama years, Ellison began to develop second thoughts. Why? One theory is Ellison’s unflagging support for Israel, at a time when most Democrats, and many American Jews, were souring on Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel is Ellison’s number one issue.

By the 2012 election cycle, Ellison was finding and funding China and Iran hawks. He poured $3 million into Mitt Romney’s super PAC, and $4 million four years later into a super PAC supporting Marco Rubio. Over the next four years, Ellison convinced the world that he was buddy-buddies with Donald Trump, though it seems quite likely that reflected what was good for Oracle politically—remember his land-grab for TikTok?—more than any genuine kinship with Trump.

The fact that Ellison is now backing someone like Jenner—a culture-war candidate who obviously has no say in American foreign policy—tells me that the red-pilling is now complete. The man is a Republican.

OK, why are Republicans like Elise Stefanik this week introducing a bill to “End Zuckerbucks”? I feel like I missed something.

There is a very, very small part of me that feels bad for Mark Zuckerberg, the rare public figure who is despised by both parties. The man can’t win.

To catch you up: Last fall, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $350 million to a nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The group then sent that money to county election offices across the country to help them execute a Covid-safe Election Day. As I reported last year, Those grants were a godsend for election administrators, both Democrats and Republicans, who had insufficient budgets to do extra work.

The line between nonpartisan philanthropy and political advocacy is paper thin, and so it’s natural that a group run by a former Obama Foundation fellow and supported by prominent Democratic donors would draw a close look. Plus, even if it is nonpartisan, should billionaire philanthropists really be involved in such bedrock issues as election budgets? And really, aren’t there better things that Zuckerberg could be doing at his day job to safeguard American democracy?

These are all legitimate, narrow lines of inquiry. And in the aftermath of the Zuckerberg money, several states, including Texas and Florida, barred election officials from receiving private money. OK. But Mark’s “Zuckerbucks” have since become part of a broader conspiracy theory circulating in right-wing media, and now being promoted by House Republicans, that alleges with scant evidence that the money was effectively earmarked for Democratic counties, an argument discarded by multiple GOP-appointed judges in lawsuits. In reality, almost anybody who applied to the program received a check, basically no questions asked.

I get that going after Zuckerberg is easy politics, but this is the wrong critique of billionaire philanthropy. A fair question about the role of money in politics has now devolved into something else.

Steve Ballmer’s madman management style arguably set Microsoft back years. Now he has turned his attention to the L.A. Clippers, who … also can’t quite seem to get over the hump. Is Ballmer just not good at this shit?

Let me just say that the Clippers would’ve beat the Suns with a healthy Kawhi Leonard. This series was a sham. Then again, the Clippers would’ve lost to the Lakers with a healthy Anthony Davis. This whole playoffs needs an even bigger asterisk than last year’s bubble.

When he wasn’t excitedly and weirdly rubbing people’s legs, Ballmer looked downright despondent Wednesday night in his mask on the floor of the Staples Center. It usually isn’t right in sports to blame a billionaire owner for what happens on the court. But the human Energizer bunny is so hyper-involved in Clippers operations that I think it is completely fair to pin some of this on him. He has made himself responsible. Ballmer’s got one more year before Kawhi likely becomes a free agent, and while I don’t think he’s going to move the team to Seattle as Angelenos fear, he very well could expect to be chased out of town himself if the Clippers manage to botch this for a third year in a row.

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