Names like Musk, Gates and Bezos dominate headlines at a time when billionaires influence our schools’ curriculums, control the social media platforms we communicate on, elevate political candidates and shape the world of philanthropy. However, journalist Teddy Schleifer says that we still know way too little about how Silicon Valley’s wealthiest are sculpting our lives and politics.
Starting out his reporting career with the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle and CNN, Schleifer untangled connections between politics and money in Washington and among Houston’s energy tycoons. Later, this curiosity led him to Recode and Silicon Valley, where he started investigating tech billionaires and their newfound influence.
Schleifer is fixated on how Silicon Valley’s magnates are using their bottomless resources to fund pet philanthropy projects aimed at solving society’s largest problems, and how they’re grooming and electing hand-picked politicians. For example, he points to Mark Zuckerberg‘s $100 million gift to reshape public education in Newark, NJ, and Peter Thiel’s record-breaking investments into Donald Trump allies like Blake Masters and J.D. Vance. However, he says that for all the cult-like attention paid to billionaires, we are frighteningly ignorant about where they’re actually funneling their money and influence, especially when it comes to the young, ambitious tech tycoons who are dominating American politics more than ever before.
In June 2021, Schleifer helped launch Puck, a subscription-based media company focused on power, money and America’s elite (what Schleifer calls the 0.001%). The growing team at Puck includes established names like Tara Palmeri, formerly of Politico and ABC News, Julia Ioffe (known for her reporting on Russia and Ukraine), and “How to Be Black” author Baratunde Thurston.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Puck is its model of the world, which highlights four centers where the wealthiest and most powerful exert their influence: Wall Street, Washington, Hollywood and the newest nexus of power, Silicon Valley. Despite our region’s focus on innovation and relatively recent economic growth, it’s clear that tech has developed deep ties to the entrenched powers of banking, politics and entertainment.
We spoke with Schleifer to learn more about his mission to uncover the financial and political goals of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest figures.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Six Fifty: I know you came over to report on Silicon Valley for Recode. I was wondering if you could talk about that experience. What brought you here and what did you learn?
Teddy Schleifer: I’ve always been interested in wealth and understanding how money can convert to influence and power. And that’s been an obsession of mine. Before Recode, I used to cover money in politics at CNN.
I wanted to dive deeper at Puck. The disparities between the wealthy and the poor, the ways in which the wealthy can exacerbate or combat inequality, those are Puck topics. The outrageous fortunes that are made and how they’re deployed. The premise was to go deeper and maybe narrower on a few topics and a few people.
The Six Fifty: What are the topics and who are the people that drew you to Silicon Valley?
Teddy Schleifer: What I’m most interested in right now is how the wealthiest people in the Bay Area are using their assets to reshape the world in their image. So the people that I’m most interested in, some of them are high-profile like Laurene Powell Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but then some of them are very low-profile, people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Or there are people on the Forbes 400 list who live in the Bay Area and the average person has never heard of.
There’s a tremendous amount of wealth in the Bay Area that could have great impact, for good or for ill. So that’s kind of what got me interested.
Everyone, whether you’re homeless on the street or worth $100 million, is entitled to their opinion. But the difference is that wealthy people can act on their opinion in a way that gives them the ability to be leaders or undemocratically power hungry depending on how you see things.
They do it through politics, through philanthropy, to some extent through tax payments or lack thereof. These people have a lot of influence, and I’m not really someone who believes that their influence is for ill. I don’t use the word billionaire influence as a negative. It’s just an objective statement of fact that these people have a lot of power. And that power should be understood, scrutinized, debated and reported.
The Six Fifty: What makes the billionaires and wealth here in Silicon Valley different from other places you’ve reported on?
Teddy Schleifer: There are a couple main differences. First, wealthy people here are pretty young. You generally get wealthy on Wall Street later in life. In Silicon Valley, maybe you don’t really know what you want to do with this money. You’re 40 years old, still founder and CEO of a company, and you have to figure it out with a new spouse and a young family. A time horizon where you can live for another 50 years.
Another key difference, and this is definitely a stereotype, but one that I think is true. Lots of tech people are interested in starting their own things. People want to have their own foundation focused on their own pet issues. They’re not as collaborative as people on Wall Street or in energy in Houston.
Tech people have lots of ingenuity, skills and intelligence. So you want them focusing on their own things, and buying into the process. But the downside is that this approach can create a scattershot approach to social issues. There’s also an arrogance that comes with it too, where “I alone can fix it.” I’m gonna fix Newark schools in Mark Zuckerberg’s case, or I’m gonna pass an Opportunity Zone program in Sean Parker’s case. That’s why the personalities matter, because the personalities often shape what ends up getting funded.
Tech’s deepening relationship with Washington
The Six Fifty: I was also wondering about the four centers Puck focuses on: Hollywood, Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. How does Silicon Valley fit into or interact with those three other spaces?
Teddy Schleifer: One of the core ideas of Puck is that these worlds are much more commingled at the tippy top than people think. Someone like Marc Andreessen is not living in Marc Andreessen world in Silicon Valley. He’s friends with top talent agents in Hollywood, lobbying members of Congress and pitching companies to Wall Street bankers.
The Puck view of the world is not even the 1%. It’s the 0.001%. It’s really one world, not four worlds. I’ve been very interested in the Silicon Valley and Washington conversation. Over the last five years, since Trump’s election, lots of people in tech have tried to wise up on politics and get to know the right legislators. I’ve tried to own that intersection.
The Six Fifty: Tell me a bit more about that intersection.
Teddy Schleifer: (Historically,) Silicon Valley has not been that political. Tech is sort of an anti-politics school of thought, this belief that companies are the way to change the world.
I think Trump changed that. He made even apolitical people lean into super PACs and dark money groups. It’s been fascinating. On the left, in Democratic politics, you’ve had this tightrope walk that candidates have done. Tech people have a lot of money and you want them to donate to your campaign and your super PAC. On the other hand, the left is very hostile with tech right now. The AOCs (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and (Elizabeth) Warrens of the world want to break up these companies. On one hand you want to be a brand that is pro-tech, so you can rake in the tech money. But you can’t be too pro-tech because you’ll be slapped by the left.
Going forward, I think the big storylines are around: to what extent is the Trump era over? There are a lot of tech leaders who want to go back to the politics of 2013 where they just didn’t have to care about this stuff that much. I think a lot of tech leaders did not care if Mitt Romney or Barack Obama was elected president in 2012. But Trump’s election made people worry existentially about democracy, obviously somewhat correctly, and there was a feeling in tech circles that something needed to be done.
I think that the caricature that tech donors are primarily interested in tech issues is not true. Sometimes it’s not even clear what would be good for them. If you’re a venture capitalist who invests in startups, you could argue they should be anti-tech. I feel like using “big tech” to understand all tech people isn’t right. They care more about education, immigration and the climate. They aren’t really that invested in tech policy unless they’re Mark Zuckerberg and the CEO of a company.
The Six Fifty: I see a lot of technocrats, even on the ballot for local elections. Beyond billionaires, I was wondering if you could talk about the influence of wealth at the millionaire level.
Teddy Schleifer: To your point, it doesn’t take that much money to have an outsized impact on an election. If you are a millionaire with $20 million to $30 million and donate $50,000 to a state legislative candidate, that’s nothing for you but could get someone elected.
There are tons of people at say Google who are millionaires, it’s almost not even interesting. But the second order consequences of that wealth creation, you’re right that they go beyond what the billionaires are doing. A lot of the reason that real estate is so expensive on the Peninsula is because wealthy people place cash offers. To some extent that’s why a sandwich costs $15 and certain nonprofits get funded. It’s not necessarily because of the billionaires. If I were to do a critique of my own coverage, I feel that billionaires’ power is overstated to some extent and that the power of the entire economic class is understated. The 1% have more power than we think, and maybe the .01% have less power than we think.
The Six Fifty: One of the last things I was wondering was how you talk about Puck as public service journalism. It’s interesting how you remark that it’s sort of the opposite of poverty journalism. How do those two beats fit together?
Teddy Schleifer: To clarify, I think of philanthropy and the billionaire beat as public service journalism. I see my job as equipping people with the real dirt and the real low-down on what’s actually happening in this world. People can hate billionaires or love billionaires accordingly.
There’s just not really good reporting on this stuff. Period. The role of donors in society is not really understood. To cover inequality, you need to cover the hell out of the bottom 1% and the hell out of the top 1%. Understanding the ways in which wealthy people have an impact on the world for good and for ill is going to inform conversations about a wealth tax or the power of billionaires. I see my job as answering the questions about how much people actually pay in taxes, how much people actually donate. Who are the political candidates that everyone is gaga over? That’s the stuff that I think is important for society. You unearth the facts and let the arguments fall where they may.
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