Delusions of Grandeur: the Age of the Populist Billionaire

Chamath’s bid for Governor was met with strong support on Twitter, but let’s not be fooled by a mix of hubris and populist Reaganomics.

Can we not do the billionaire-turned-politician thing again? We’re just about done not dealing with the deadly consequences of the previous experiment, let’s not have to not deal with the same bulls — t all over again, please.

When Chamath Palihapitiya, the former growth guru at Facebook and owner of venture capital firm Social Capital, announced in an off-handed tweet that he was running for governor of California, he was met with strong support from his followers.

A few hours later, the billionaire published a website, chamathforca.com, on which he outlines his rather terse platform:

chamathforca.com

In proper 21st-century communication, he also pinned a tweet on top of his profile, outlining his vision for California with a meme flag and fewer than 280 characters:

Credit Twitter/@chamath

It is as of yet unclear whether the tech guru intends to run as an Independent or a Democrat; most of the interwebs assume that a Republican bid is off the table, seeing that Chamath’s recent contributions all went to Democratic candidates and PACs (we can still note that he donated to Ted Cruz in 2011, however).

His communication style and platform, however, a mixed bag.

The bare-bone platform focuses heavily on education: Chamath intends to make it free and provide teachers with a $70,000 minimum salary. He also wants to gift families $2,000 for every new-born child and create a “bonanza of climate-friendly jobs.” And he plans to finance it all by reducing the states’ taxes to 0%.

The description of this specific policy point is fascinating:

We can cut taxes to 0% from 16% and drive growth which will increase the state’s revenue from $150B to $300B.

If you haven’t read a real trickle-down argument in the recent past, here it is for you in all its glory. How exactly he intends to double the state's revenue without direct taxation by “driving growth” is yet unknown. As a venture capitalist, he might believe that with an aggressive growth rate, he’ll be able to double California’s market cap and IPO or SPAC it on the markets.

This political platform may look like it panders to the young, wealthy, bourgeois-bohême, liberal masses. Indeed, it promotes things we can and should all support (education and environment). It also reeks of supply-side economics and is nothing but GOP fiscal policy in disguise; Reaganomics for the 21st-century tech elite.

The truly frightening aspects of this launch are the tone of the message and the memes that go with it. Chamath even parodied the Californian flag. While we can appreciate the logic (“why would the alt-right and Trump be the only ones allowed to play with the flag, let’s take this from them and make it fun”), appropriating symbols of state or national unity to serve an individual cause invariably leads to problems.

Some might think that this is nothing but a publicity stunt, a clever marketing ploy designed to raise awareness on topics M. Palihapitiya cares about or to boost his business. Pundits were thinking the same about Trump in 2015/2016, and see where that got us. Chamath is obviously testing the waters and surfing on his cool, trendy, and mostly-positive image as an innovator and savvy investor, but let’s not get fooled.

His bid is but another delusion of grandeur from a billionaire bored by his business life's routine. While some of his peers find solace and purpose in neo-pagan spiritualism, others do so in seeking government offices. Their financial success gives them the impression that a state (or a country) can’t be much more complicated to run that a 10-person startup in a Palo Alto garage.

We’ve seen how destructive this attitude truly is. It is also invariably connected to trickle-down economic principles and ethical concerns built around deregulation. This is the opposite of what America and the world need right now.

Please, billionaires of the world, pay your taxes, manage your businesses, drink your ayahuasca-flavoured açai-goji-mango smoothies, and stay out of politics.

I write about politics, business, society and culture on Medium. For startup/business content, check my newsletter: fundraisedd.substack.com

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