Melinda Gates, Infinite Fertility, and J.D. Vance

JD Vance at the Allen and Co. Sun Valley conference
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Theodore Schleifer
July 14, 2021

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. 

You reported last week on unease within The Gates Foundation, in part due to a new governance structure that could send Melinda French Gates packing in two years if things get too tense. I know you aren’t Freud, a performance coach, or a divorce attorney, but what do you think actually happens?

I may eat these words, but I’m going to bet on the boring outcome and buy the Gates Foundation’s line that Melinda sticks around. I’ve got two reasons. The first is that everything happening in the public eye right now has to be read against the fact that, behind the scenes, Bill and Melinda’s attorneys are trying to hash out a divorce settlement that maximizes their client’s holdings. Make no mistake: The headlines that you read all shape the leverage that each side has in that negotiation. (Counterpoint: Did you catch Bill Gates at Sun Valley saying the divorce was “my fault”? Off-message, Bill!) And so while there’s obviously real tension between the Gateses, I predict the discord is worse now than it will be in two years, when the ink on the separation agreement almost certainly will be dry.

I also suspect some commentators are over-projecting the outcome of the Jeff Bezos-MacKenzie Scott split onto the Gates divorce. Jeff and MacKenzie had almost no record as philanthropists before they broke up, and so it was not some wild twist to learn afterward that they had major disagreements about everything from the Giving Pledge to the fundamental fairness of the U.S. economy. The Gates couple, on the other hand, has a 20-plus year history of working together, and they’ve both largely sung from the same philanthro-capitalist hymnal. The two have different relative priorities within the foundation, but there is limited evidence that they had any big-picture fissures over their role in society more broadly. I know that’s the less titillating answer—and it’s against my interest to make the case for stability as someone in the media business—but that’s my take.

Branson, Bezos, Musk—we get it, billionaires are eager to explore space. What’s the next billionaire extracurricular activity of choice? Bespoke gene-sequencing? Cryogenic freezing? Can one of them just buy the Knicks?

I sometimes wonder what the billionaires of the future will actually eat and drink. It might not be the same as mere mortals, at least at first. Recall that before meals like plant-based burgers became available to the masses at places like McDonalds, billionaires like Bill Gateswere betting on (and eating) them for years. Plant- and lab-based meat is now mainstream, of course, but in-house executive chefs are always looking for ways to find a scientific edge and hack nutrition for their clients.

Speaking of science, plenty has been written about the Silicon Valley obsession with life-extension research, whether it’s blood transfusions or Google’s Calico project. But here’s a twist you might not have been following: the effort not just to live forever, but to be fertile forever (well, at least longer.) Reproductive longevity research could be big, especially as wealthy women become a bigger part of the billionaire class and begin exploring markets that men have overlooked. The person to watch here is attorney Nicole Shanahan, the new wife of Google cofounder Sergey Brin, who over the last two years or so has been at the vanguard of this cutting-edge field. Given that the Brin family’s net worth recently crossed $100 billion, there’s a hell of a lot to work with.

Plenty has also been written about other billionaires, such as Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, and Laurene Powell Jobs, flocking to buy media companies as civic-minded and reputation-burnishing projects. But the line between independent media and agenda-driven content creators is thinning by the day, and I expect billionaires to take advantage by launching their own media companies, just as sports stars have done. For instance, in the past year, Gates and Eric Schmidt joined people like Reid Hoffman by launching podcasts to spread their gospel. Business leaders blogging their feelings or ghostwriting memoirs isn’t new, of course, but I think they’ll increasingly compete with traditional media rather than just funding it.

Lastly, when it comes to the Knicks, buying a team is of course a favorite pastime of the mega-wealthy that allows them to overhaul their legacy. Consider how Steve Cohen, whose New York hedge fund pleaded guilty in 2013 to insider trading, has reinvented himself as a hometown hero with his purchase of the Mets. But the challenge for even the most sports-crazed billionaire is that major-league franchises just don’t come up for sale that often. So one trend I expect to accelerate over the next decade or two is that billionaires will continue getting creative when it comes to which sports teams to own. A basketball team might not be for sale anytime soon, but maybe Jay Penske would like to own a Formula One team, for example. There’s fun to be had outside of the four major sports, even if it does less for the ego.

Two Peter Thiel protégés, Blake Masters and J.D. Vance, are both now officially running for the U.S. Senate. The $10 million that Thiel is spending on behalf of each of them obviously helps, but could the Facebook connection backfire for either of these alleged anti-tech populists?

This may be a greater risk for Masters than it is for Vance. First of all, Masters is a Thiel lifer—the Thiel Capital C.O.O. has worked for Thiel in some capacity for almost his entire professional life. Vance, although he’s often referred to as a Thiel aide, barely ever worked for the billionaire directly. He also has his own, very public profile from his best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, and Oscar-nominated Netflix movie. When pressed on Thiel, like he was in a recent interview, Vance can offer some pablum about how Thiel is just one generous supporter and how he and Thiel are different people. Masters will have a harder time disassociating himself if needed.

Now, do I expect the words “Peter Thiel” to appear in a primary ad from a G.O.P. rival in Arizona or Ohio? No. Despite his speech at the 2016 Republican convention, too few voters know who Thiel is for the association to move the needle. But both Masters and Vance have signaled that they plan to make Big Tech “silencing” a part of their message, and it doesn’t take Karl Rove to look up who sits on the boards of Facebook and Palantir. A hypocrisy critique is always compelling, especially because Vance is already likely to be battling that narrative when rivals pummel him as a dishonest shape-shifter who previously repudiated Donald Trump.

For what it’s worth, while Vance is going to get significantly more press attention given his national profile and Twitter persona, if I had to bet on which of the acolytes is a likelier Republican nominee, I’d bet on Masters. Arizona has drawn a weaker G.O.P. field, and Vance appears to be beginning his run in a deep hole against more established Ohio politicians such as Josh Mandel and Jane Timkenat least according to one internal poll. Compared to Vance, Masters does have a bit of a wooden quality—his introductory video felt a little low-energy—but he has an equal amount of Thiel money, $10 million, to deploy in a political landscape that feels friendlier.

Also, a final shout out to Eric Schmitt, the Missouri Senate hopeful whose super PAC today disclosed a $250,000 check from Thiel—and misspelled their own mega-donor’s name on the F.E.C. filing.

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