Week in Review

The risk of welcoming stealth billionaires

Be careful what you wish for New Zealand, writes Victoria University of Wellington philosophy professor Nicholas Agar

Covid-19 has been especially bad news for the fortunes of brashly ostentatious billionaires like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson and President Donald Trump.

Forbes magazine tells us Covid-19 has so far cost Trump US$1 billion. With his day job as President potentially ending this November, he might be worried about the implications of that drop in a single month for his estimated remaining $2.1 billion. Perhaps this anxiety explains his hurry to reopen the US economy. Lockdowns are really bad for the revenues of golf courses.

Branson’s February 2020 launch of the first cruise ship of his Virgin Voyages is now looking like a badly timed business move of epic proportions. He recently offered his personal Caribbean island – Necker Island – as collateral for a loan from the British Crown to save his Virgin Atlantic airline. But this offer only drew the attention of an annoyed public to the fact Necker Island is also a tax haven that has sheltered Branson’s billions from the UK tax collector these past 14 years. Necker Island looks lovely – the ideal Covid-19 refuge. But posting footage of your dream Bond villain lair on the Internet now seems particularly poorly judged.

Traditional billionaires like Branson and Trump have lots of visible holdings in tangible things like commercial real estate, airlines, golf courses and cruise ships. This kind of billionaire relishes publicity. We know what they’re doing because they’re so busy telling us – publicity enhances the values of the Virgin and Trump brands.

There’s another kind of billionaire having a somewhat different experience of the pandemic. This kind of billionaire has a deep understanding of the levers of the digital economy and the profits that secrecy can bring.

Among these stealth billionaires is New Zealand’s own Peter Thiel.

Thiel is the German-born, US-naturalised co-founder of PayPal who scored big by getting in early on Facebook. He was fast-tracked to New Zealand citizenship in 2011 without having to submit to the annoyances of our residency requirements. The New Zealand Herald’s Matt Nippert describes how Thiel parlayed himself to credulous Kiwi politicians and business people as “our exceptional angel of venture capital”, making a series of commitments that were – in the end – never quite honoured.

Once his citizenship application was approved, Thiel’s focus switched from our tech firms to our real estate. He seems to have selected New Zealand as the place to “prep for the apocalypse”. In 2015, he scored a $13.5 million-dollar property on Lake Wanaka complete with a walk-in closet able to be repurposed as a panic room.

Thiel didn’t make the amateur error of posting footage of his Otago Bond villain lair on the internet. He’s strenuously sought to avoid attention to it. Imagine how pissed off he must have been at his tech entrepreneur buddy Sam Altman. In a 2016 profile in the New Yorker, Altman spoke openly, and with uncanny prescience, about his plan “[if] the pandemic does come … to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel’s house in New Zealand”. Duh! The first rule of the Stealth Billionaires Club is: You do not talk about the Stealth Billionaires Club.

If the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t activated billionaire escape plans then you’d have to wonder what would. Has Thiel joined other Kiwis in coming home?

It’s difficult to track the movements of a billionaire like Thiel. Molly Reuben writing for the Huffington Post sought to answer the question of whether the coronavirus has prompted him to flee to his “New Zealand bunker”. She had the ingenious idea of using the publicly available US Federal Aviation Administration database of private aircraft for names of jets that could be Thiel’s and using his well-known obsession with The Lord of the Rings to guide her hunt. Reuben’s searches for “Thorondor”, a bird in Rings author JRR Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion described as the “mightiest of all birds that have ever been”, revealed a “top-of-the-line Gulfstream G550 business jet” that had made flights “several times a year” from California to New Zealand.

Reuben conjectures that Thorondor could be ferrying Thiel and other high net worth individuals from the Mount Doom of Covid-19 America to his New Zealand refuge. But she can’t be sure. Thiel isn’t the only tech billionaire with a Tolkien fetish. Reuben speculates that Thorondor could be owned by Sean Parker, co-founder of the file-sharing service Napster and another significant beneficiary of Facebook. I enjoyed the part in Reuben’s story that describes Ian McKellen’s acid response to a US$1.5 million offer to officiate at Parker’s wedding dressed as Gandalf – “Gandalf doesn’t do weddings.”

What can we learn from these billionaire hijinks? There is much angst about the damage Trump has done to democracy as President. There’s a cottage industry in the media counting and classifying his falsehoods. But Trump’s interests as a billionaire are as obvious as the Trump name plastered all over his buildings. Visibility is the essence of his business plan.

The greater risk to democracy may come from billionaires like Thiel, where the source of some of his wealth is not in plain sight. Another stealth billionaire of the digital economy is Jim Simons. His Renaissance Technologies used data analytics to consistently beat investors whose investment choices were guided by their gut instincts. It was a key part of the Renaissance business plan that other investors remain naïve. The full story of Simons and Renaissance was only told when Simons’ estimated fortune of US$21.6 billion was securely banked.

Palantir, a company co-founded by Thiel, takes its name from a spooky Lord of the Rings technology that enables its users to spy on far-off places. This is a good description for the big data analytics services Palantir offers clients including the CIA and other US government agencies. Recently, Palantir offered to help the New Zealand government track the spread of Covid-19. In a move characteristic of dealings with digital-economy stealth businesses, the Ministry of Health was taciturn in its responses to RNZ inquiries – “No decisions have been made as to whether or not we will proceed with their solution now or in the future.”

What’s the problem with this? If the stealth billionaires of the digital economy were content to just bank their profits or buy the occasional Caribbean island then perhaps we needn’t worry. It’s when they choose to support political causes that we should be concerned. The talents that lead to success in the digital economy offer zero guarantee of ethical understanding. Too many stealth billionaires have channeled their fortunes into illiberal and fringe right-wing causes. Robert Mercer, one of the big beneficiaries of Renaissance Technologies, has used his wealth to, among other causes, impede action on climate change. Thiel was an enthusiastic early supporter of Trump.

These stealth billionaires are unlike Bill Gates, an earlier master of the digital economy, who seems to welcome scrutiny of his motives. On the website of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, you’ll find sentiments like “Empower the poorest, especially women and girls to improve their lives.”

It is important we in Aotearoa be alert to the possibility that, with the right to vote conferred by New Zealand citizenship, the super rich may acquire an interest in using wealth to influence the country’s politics.

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