America has a long history of superstar entrepreneurs becoming gurus, motivational speakers, or even politicians. Very few of them become public intellectuals. But that's more or less what Peter Thiel is. Though perhaps that's not quite fair to him. You might just as well say that he was an intellectual who took a detour through business and became spectacularly wealthy.
Thiel's book, Zero to One, might seem like an improbable best seller, but it really isn't. He doesn't write very often, but when he does, it's always insightful. See, for instance, his long essay "The End of the Future," from National Review. Or "The Education of a Libertarian." And when you listen to him talk, it's clear that his mind is curious and nuanced-see this interview with Francis Fukuyama and the even more in-depth interview he did with the Boss in the latest episode of Conversations with Bill Kristol.
Now I don't often agree with Thiel--for instance, his Wall Street Journal essay on the benefits of monopoly strikes me as being correct in only the narrowest cases. But public intellectuals aren't useful because they tell you things you agree with. They're valuable because they have interesting minds and the intellectual horsepower to make compelling arguments-irrespective of whether or not you ultimately agree with them. The value-add, as they'd put it in Thiel's tech world, of a public intellectual is that he's able to force you to look at something differently than you would otherwise. For instance, here's Thiel linking four very different things-the crisis in credit, the slowing of technological progress, the tech bubble of the '90s and the housing bubble of the '00s-in "The End of the Future":
Like technology, credit also makes claims on the future. "I will gladly pay you a dollar on Tuesday for a hamburger today" works only if a dollar gets earned byTuesday. A credit crisis happens when earnings disappoint and the present does not live up to past expectations of the future.
The current crisis of housing and financial leverage contains many hidden links to broader questions concerning long-term progress in science and technology. On one hand, the lack of easy progress makes leverage more dangerous, because when something goes wrong, macroeconomic growth cannot offer a salve; time will not cure liquidity or solvency problems in a world where little grows or improves with time. On the other hand, the lack of easy progress also makes leverage far more tempting, as unleveraged real returns fall below the expectations of pension funds and other investors.
This analysis suggests an explanation for the strange way the technology bubble of the 1990s gave rise to the real-estate bubble of the 2000s. After betting heavily on technology growth that did not materialize, investors tried to achieve the needed double-digit returns through massive leverage in seemingly safe real-estate investments. This did not work either, because a major reason for the bubble in real estate turned out to be the same as the reason for the bubble in technology: a mistaken but nearly universal background assumption about easy progress. Without fundamental gains in productivity (presumably driven by technology), real-estate values could not go up forever. Leverage is not a substitute for scientific progress.
And here's how he extrapolates from there to concern about the fragility of our political order: