Fair warning: This article will piss off a lot of you.
I can say that with confidence because it’s about Peter Thiel. And Thiel – the PayPal co-founder, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist – not only has a special talent for making money, he has a special talent for making people furious.
Some people are contrarian for the sake of getting headlines or outsmarting the markets. For Thiel, it’s simply how he views the world. Of course a side benefit for the natural contrarian is it frequently leads to things like headlines and money.
Consider the 2000 Nasdaq crash. Thiel was one of the few who saw in coming. There’s a famous story about PayPal’s March 2000 venture capital round. The offer was “only” at a $500 million-or-so valuation. Nearly everyone on the board and the management team balked, except Thiel who calmly told the room that this was a bubble at its peak, and the company needed to take every dime it could right now. That’s how close PayPal came to being dot com roadkill a la WebVan or Pets.com.
And after the crash, Thiel insisted there hadn’t really been a crash: He argued the equity bubble had simply shifted onto the housing market. Thiel was so convinced of this thesis that until recently, he refused to buy property, despite his soaring personal net worth. And, again, he was right.
So Friday, as I sat with Thiel in his San Francisco home that he finally owns, I was curious what he thinks of the current Web frenzy. Not surprisingly, another Internet bubble seemed the farthest thing from his mind. But, he argued, America is under the spell of a bubble of a very different kind. Is it an emerging markets bubble? You could argue that, Thiel says, but he also notes that with half of the world’s population surging to modernity, it’s hard to argue the emerging world is overvalued.
Instead, for Thiel, the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”
Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.
Like any good bubble, this belief– while rooted in truth– gets pushed to unhealthy levels. Thiel talks about consumption masquerading as investment during the housing bubble, as people would take out speculative interest-only loans to get a bigger house with a pool and tell themselves they were being frugal and saving for retirement. Similarly, the idea that attending Harvard is all about learning? Yeah. No one pays a quarter of a million dollars just to read Chaucer. The implicit promise is that you work hard to get there, and then you are set for life. It can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt,” Thiel says.
Thiel isn’t totally alone in the first part of his education bubble assertion. It used to be a given that a college education was always worth the investment– even if you had to take out student loans to get one. But over the last year, as unemployment hovers around double digits, the cost of universities soars and kids graduate and move back home with their parents, the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia.
- Innovation ended in the 1970s, PayPal founders say (stiel.org)
- Peter Thiel: Clean technology is a “disaster” (venturebeat.com)