Nation’s Problems Aren’t Tech’s Fault

By Carla Marinucci
San Francisco Chronicle.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and an increasingly active force in conservative and libertarian politics, says the country has a problem: It’s not embracing tech.

Worse, said Facebook’s original investor, it’s making the tech culture a whipping boy for its problems.

“I defy you” to name one science fiction film — with the possible exception of the “Star Trek” and “Back to the Future” series — “in which technology is not portrayed as destructive,” Thiel said at a packed fundraiser Thursday night for, the immigration reform advocacy group co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“The tech industry is an easy scapegoat in this country,” Thiel said. “People are looking for an excuse to beat up on technology.”

Thiel was a hot ticket in a city where blockades of Google buses have come to symbolize civic unease over economic and social changes brought by an influx of wealthy tech workers. An overwhelmingly young, tech-savvy audience jammed the San Francisco headquarters of the Dropbox app to hear the entrepreneur who has defined the “liberty movement” of tech politics expound on his views regarding tech’s role in rebuilding the middle class.

In a lively debate with author Andrew McAfee, a director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Thiel faulted globalization — and not tech — for a growing income equality divide.

Job creation shackled

In a country that has “leaned the least on globalization,” said the venture capitalist and hedge fund manager, “inequality and wealth has widened dramatically — to the point where you really wonder if we’re living in a stable society at all.”

Thiel argued that he and other entrepreneurs could create more jobs, but that the country — and even the Bay Area, for all its tech-friendliness — is shackling innovators.

Regulatory burden

“The regulatory burden is much higher, the court system is much more onerous … the zoning regulations are far more severe” in the U.S. than in places such as Western Europe, the German native said.

“There are ways in which I have a lot less freedom … with regard to what I do with my money,” Thiel said. “I’m largely restricted — from the (Food and Drug Administration) right down to the San Francisco zoning department.”

But make no mistake, the 46-year-old Thiel has plenty of money. Forbes magazine ranks him as one of the world’s 300 richest people, with a net worth of nearly $2 billion.

Thiel’s moves on the business front have made international headlines. They include offering scholarships to innovators under age 20 who reject going to college and donating $1.25 million to the Seasteading Institute to explore the launch of a libertarian “floating colony” into international waters off San Francisco.

Political force

In conservative and libertarian politics, Thiel is also becoming something of a powerhouse.

He’s given $1 million to the antitax Club for Growth, he’s been active in the Republican LGBT movement called GOProud and he’s good friends with right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, who dedicated her last book to him.

Backed Ron Paul

He put nearly $4 million into the Endorse Liberty political action committee’s 2012 efforts on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Recently, he made his first-ever donation to a Democrat — former Obama trade representative Ro Khanna, who is trying to oust Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.

The attention has brightened the spotlight on his political views — as on Thursday, when Thiel was pressed to explain the growing economic divide by Art Pulaksi, head of the 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation.

Pulaski questioned the billionaire about the loss of the “social contract” of earlier decades, when he said employers appeared to be “willing to share more of the wealth” with their communities and their workers.

Thiel suggested that his antitax philosophies are rooted in part in government inefficiencies.

“The left says there’s too much inequality, and the right says the government is incredibly bad at spending money,” Thiel said.

“I wouldn’t mind paying more in taxes if I felt the money was being spent as well as it was spent in the ’30s or ’50s.”

Asked about raising the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2016 from the current $9 — a ballot measure proposed by GOP activist Ron Unz — Thiel said was inclined to support it as an alternative to taxpayer-funded benefits.

“In theory, I’m against it, because people should have the freedom to contract at whatever wage they’d like to have,” Thiel said.

“But in practice, I think the alternative to higher minimum wage is that people simply end up going on welfare.”

He added, “Given how low the minimum wage is — and how generous the welfare benefits are — you have a marginal tax rate that’s on the order of 100 percent, and people are actually trapped in this sort of welfare state.”

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