Peter Thiel: A Gay Libertarian Billionaire on How to Fix the Country

BY Lucas Grindley

August 22 2011 5:00 AM ET

The September issue of Details boasts on its cover “A RARE INTERVIEW
WITH ELUSIVE BILLIONAIRE PETER THIEL.” The gay cofounder of PayPal and early
investor in Facebook can be hard to get hold of. So we thought you deserved
an extended look at The Advocate’s
interview with the man who predicted the bubble would burst in the financial
market, and then also in the housing market.

Thiel was named to our September list of
eight innovators
who are changing the world with their ideas. One of
Thiel’s is a scholarship program that paid 24 young people $100,000 each to
skip or drop out of college and build a company instead.

For Thiel, a staunch libertarian who is the top financial
contributor to GOProud, an ove emphasis on higher education has contributed to
the country’s disappointing progress in a number of areas, including research
into a cure for HIV.

 

 The Advocate:
I’m figuring the thing people would want to ask you is how someone stays so far
ahead of the curve so often.

Peter Thiel: I don’t
have any great answers on it. I spend an awful lot of time just thinking about
what is going on in the world and talking to people about that. It’s probably
one of my default social activities, just getting dinners with friends. And so
there are always these questions: What important things are going on? What’s happening
in the world? What does the future look like? These are a set of questions I
keep coming back to. There is a lot of value in thinking about the future and
trying to make sense of things.

I believe that people are too complacent about technology.
The standard thinking is there is a lot of technology going on. I tend to think
there is a modest amount going on and it would be good if there were a lot
more. I actually think there is a little bit of a problem that there is not
enough technology, and we have to try really hard to figure out ways to
accelerate it.

 Isn’t technology the one thing the U.S. has going for it?

We have a lot going on in the computer and Internet side, but
there are a lot of other areas where things are surprisingly stalled out. If
you look at energy policy, the U.S. hasn’t really succeeded in reducing its
energy dependency in 40 years. The clean technology stuff feels — some things
are happening — but it feels very stalled. There’s been some progress in
biotech but not as much as one would have thought 20 years ago.

If you look at transportation, it doesn’t seem to be
changing that much. In some ways, with all of the crazy airport security stuff,
things got slower than they were three years ago. 

And there are more narrow ones. You take something like HIV — there has been some progress in
sort of managing the disease and turning it from something that is lethal to
something that is more chronic. But on the other hand, we seem to still be
incredibly far away from a vaccine and much less secure. If we had been having
this conversation in 1985 and said that a quarter century later there would be
no vaccine, there’d be no cure, and people wouldn’t be talking about that stuff
anymore, that would have been a pretty pessimistic assessment.

So there are a lot of these areas that have done less well
than people think.

 So you thought that beginning to fix all that came down
to education, or people starting companies early?


Our thesis was that there are some people who are inventors,
who are sort of engineering-type personalities, who have ideas for building
things. And when those people try to do something new, the credentials are not
really the key thing. Credentials are critical if you want to do something
professional. If you want to become a doctor or lawyer or teacher or professor,
there is a credentialing process. But there are a lot of other things where
it’s not clear they’re that important.

It’s not clear to me, for example, that credentials are very
important to becoming a writer. You become a great writer by writing. There are
some things you can definitely learn. But the real way people improve is by
having the opportunity to write thoughtful and long pieces as quickly as
possible.

In a similar way, I think something about starting
businesses and doing something entrepreneurial is very praxeological. You learn
it by doing it. And if people have great ideas, they should do it whenever they
have it. I don’t think there is anything about people having to be young or
old.

They should do it whenever they have it?

I don’t think you should put these things on hold.

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