Point of View Columns

There is Such a Thing as Too Smart

If you live long enough and pay attention you can learn why some old sayings stand the test of time. Most of us have at some point learned that it is better to be safe than sorry, that a bird in the hand is usually better than two in the bush and that looking before you leap is almost always a good thing. Billionaire Peter Andreas Thiel has suggested that young people in America forgo college and become entrepreneurs, thereby proving that there actually is such a thing as being too smart.

A little background – Peter Thiel is a German-born entrepreneur who has accumulated a multibillion dollar fortune as a venture capitalist and hedge fund manager. His most famous accomplishment to date is that he was the founder of Pay Pal. He is noted for his extreme libertarian views and has financed numerous initiatives that spread the gospel that the American government is too big and too intrusive. He has also been one of the major financial backers of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, which tells you something right there.

It is useful to point out that Mr. Thiel has not been able to explain how this same American government created an environment in which he was able to make several billions of dollars as an immigrant. I am not aware of many immigrants to Germany or France or Japan becoming billionaires. There is a lot that needs correcting in the United States but it does seem allow some people to become fabulously rich, Mr. Thiel included.

Not content with biting the institutional hand that has fed him, Mr. Thiel has now unleashed this outstandingly stupid idea that college is a waste of time and that young people in America should forgo college, or drop out, and become entrepreneurs. And, putting his money where his very busy mouth is, Mr. Thiel is actually awarding $100,000 grants to young applicants to the Thiel Foundation who come up with “winning” entrepreneurial ideas.

The word “winning” is in quotes, because $100,000 is rarely enough to start up a viable business. It is enough to entice some young, impressionable and ambitious young people to drop out of school. Pointing to the examples of famous college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, Thiel is trying to be the Pied Piper that will lead young people down the road to success.

One of the problems in this world is that there is an assumption that if someone is wealthy then they must be very smart. The smartest wealthy people know that they have become rich because of a combination of applied intelligence, timing and good fortune. And then you have people like Peter Thiel who actually believe that a few billion dollars has made him so damn smart that he can put forward this very dangerous idea to very impressionable young people.

Unfortunately, zealots like Thiel who are absolutely convinced of their brilliance, do not let inconvenient facts get in the way. The fact is that most start up businesses fail. The fact is that most successful entrepreneurs have persisted through several failures before they achieve even a modicum of success.

The fact is that most people are not cut out to be entrepreneurs. The fact is that while higher education is severely overpriced, it provides skill sets which are indispensable to a successful career and a fulfilling life. It is important to learn biology, architecture, and history and computer science. It is equally important to appreciate art, literature and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet. It is hard to learn about any of these things as a nineteen year old entrepreneur.

Pointing to Jobs, Zuckerberg and Gates as role models is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst. Bill Gates did indeed drop out of Harvard to start his computer software company. But it is important to know that through good fortune and timing Gates spent thousands of hours learning computer programming at the University of Washington as a precocious high school student. Gates’ father was a partner in a Seattle law firm that represented numerous venture capital companies.

Steve Jobs did drop out of Reed College with no thought of becoming an entrepreneur. After backpacking around India he did get some insight into the business that made him a success. But it was not a direct path.

Mark Zuckerberg did drop out of Harvard and Facebook has made him a multibillionaire. As this column is being written the stock of Facebook is dropping just one day after its less than glorious initial public offering. In any event, Mr. Zuckerberg will be a billionaire. How much better the world is because of Facebook is a matter of debate.

Encouraging young people to be more focused in their studies makes sense. Encouraging young people to build a range of skills and perspectives that will enhance their personal career agility makes sense. Encouraging young people to explore entrepreneurial alternatives makes sense.

But Peter Thiel should know better than to encourage young people to drop out of school or to forego higher education altogether. By the way, Mr. Thiel has undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University – so much for practicing what you preach. And Mr. Thiel has to know that his personal genius alone did not make him a billionaire – hard work, timing and luck have all played a role in his personal narrative of financial success.

His message is deceptive, dangerous and shameful and another example of a wealthy denizen of the right wing of the right wing thinking that they know how the rest of the world should live their lives.

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Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – September 24, 2010

Summer has departed. A disappointing season to be sure, too hot, too angry and too crazy. Autumn usually promises a cooling a soothing moment before arid chill of winter, but probably not this year:

The Tea Party at the Gates

There has been much talk about the Tea Party movement and how it represents a populist surge that is therapeutic and cleansing. It has been likened to being a high colonic for the body politic.

But nothing in politics is ever that simple. There are deep seated resentments and restrained urges towards meanness that are now in the light of day, having been given legitimacy by a seemingly supine Republican Party leadership.
Current G.O.Tea Party Republican candidates for Senate promise to bring an agenda to Washington that does not seem to be therapeutic.

There is one candidate who believes that unemployment insurance may be unconstitutional (Miller – Alaska). There is another who believes that women in the military vitiate the preparedness of the American armed forces (O’Donnell – Delaware). We can’t forget the candidate who questions the legitimacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Paul – Kentucky). And then there is the potential United States Senator who proposes to abolish the Department of Energy and the Department of Education as well as Social Security for good measure (Angle – Nevada).

I wish that someone would ask Michael Steele or Mitch McConnell or John McCain or Sarah Pailin if they really believe in this madness. Prior inquiries have been greeted with pabulum-like homilies about the right of the local electorate to express itself. But, of course, the United States Senate passes national legislation that affects everyone in this country.

Does Michael Steele really believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be reconsidered? As an African American Mr. Steele and his family personally benefited from this historic legislation, does he give Rand Paul a pass on this one?

John McCain has spent his entire life in the military and has always been a supporter of women serving in the armed forces of this country. Is he prepared to support Christine O’Donnell and her antediluvian views on this subject?

Sarah Palin presumes to belong to America now, but she never hesitates to refer to her Alaskan roots. No state has benefited more from the policies of the Department of Energy than Alaska. Is she prepared to correct Sharron Angle on this subject?

Clearly there is anger and resentment and bitterness flowing through this country. Candidates who channel that anger can be successful in the short term. But if those emotions are only channeled in a destructive direction Steele, McCain, Palin, etc. may regret reaping what they have sown. And so will the rest of us.

War Without End

“You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”……General David Petraeus from Obama’s War by Robert Woodward

This one quote from Robert Woodward’s new book is chilling and sad and heartbreaking. If the military proponents of the war in Afghanistan do not believe that the war is “winnable”, however that may be defined, then why are hundreds upon thousands of men, women and children going to die as a result of that war?

It is clear to many that the security of the American homeland is not tied to the war in Afghanistan in terms of protecting the citizens of this country. The security of this country is undoubtedly endangered by the anger and resentment arising from the collateral deaths of thousands of civilians sucked down into the cauldron of war. And yet, this country still goes forward in this war without end.

The Mouths of Gift Horses

There is an old saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. A fairly benign advisory needs to be brushed off given the events of this Friday.

On September 24th, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook and said to be worth over $7 billion, will announce a gift of $100 million to the Newark (New Jersey) school system. This gift represents 10% of the annual budget for that city’s school system and is by far the largest individual gift that it has ever received. Newark Mayor Corey Booker will accept this gift on the Oprah Winfrey show. So what could be wrong with this picture?

Some critics are carping that Mr. Zuckerberg is making this gift because an uncomplimentary bio-pic entitled “The Social Network” is opening in theaters at the same time. Somehow, this $100 million donation to the children and teachers and administrators and parents in Newark is supposed to blunt or deflect the inevitable criticism that will flow after “The Social Network” hits the silver screens of the world.

The thought that comes to my mind is “Who cares?” Tens of thousands of people will benefit from Mr. Zuckerberg’s largesse. In this era of naked and rampant greed and selfishness perhaps a few more of the mega wealthy men and women of this country will use the fig leaf of charity to hide their nakedness.

Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Ford and many others have done it. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to burnish his image by doing undeniably good and charitable work, here’s hoping that a few more tycoons, athletes, rappers and bankers follow his lead.

Have a great weekend!

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