How a Silicon Valley Investor Does Leadership

Lately I have been describing my personal political views as “left of Bernie, but with a preference for plans that can work.” In other words, I would love universal healthcare and free college. I just don’t know how to get there in any practical way. I don’t think anyone else does either.

This indirectly brings me to Sam Altman, CEO of Y-Combinator, and a billionaire investor. He’s embarking on an experiment to see what happens when you give citizens free money, no strings attached. This is important because our robot-centric future will mean the end of most forms of human labor. And that means one of two things, in all likelihood: 1) 90% of the world starves to death while the robot-owners thrive, or 2) 90% of the world receives some sort of “free money” from the rich, with no strings attached. Sam is testing option two.

Stop right there. I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking it is far too soon to be thinking about a robot takeover of labor. But you might not know that Sam is heavily invested in robot startups. He’s seen things you haven’t seen. If he’s planning for a robot takeover of labor, get worried. He’s not guessing.

This is the sort of experiment your government should be doing but doesn’t know how to do. So Sam is doing it. And his results could easily inform government decisions when the robot revolution kicks into high gear.

I’ve said before in this blog, and on Periscope, that our old system of government – the republic – has already been replaced by citizen influencers. Thanks to social media, the best ideas go viral, and our elected representatives end up being more like followers of good ideas than leaders with their own plans. If Sam’s experiment shows us something we didn’t know, and the results can be reproduced, it will inform public policy on one of humanity’s greatest inflection points.

A smart investor always insists on small-scale tests of big ideas before committing big dollars. In the world of business, this is standard practice. Compare that to the current GOP healthcare plan that involves granting all the federal money for that cause to the states so they can work it out.

Dumb.

The responsible approach would be to test some healthcare ideas in a few states or counties and then work with what we learned. A wholesale change such as transferring responsibility to the states is reckless and, in my opinion, unethical. The unethical part is that moving funding to the states is little more than a political trick to protect Republicans in the 2018 election. It has nothing to do with helping citizens.

Regular readers of this blog know I am forgiving of politicians who intentionally exaggerate and ignore facts, so long as their intentions appear to be directed at the greater good. But shifting money for healthcare to the states is for the benefit of Congress, not the greater good. 

My bottom line is that I can support a government plan that involves testing small before going big. But going big on an untested idea is not leadership. It is just bad management, or worse.

I don’t know if Sam Altman’s test of free money will tell us something important or not. But I do know it is a sensible and responsible approach to leading. Maybe someday our elected officials will learn how it’s done.

Speaking of leading, you might enjoy pre-ordering my book, Win Bigly, because it is filled with pages.