A priest, a boy scout and Elon Musk are flying in an airplane together. Suddenly, there’s a jolt, and the plane starts to dive.
The pilot runs back to the cabin and says, “we’re going down, and we only have three parachutes!”
The four freeze for a second, and then Elon Musk grabs for a chute and hoists it onto his back.
“I’m sorry, but I’m the smartest man in the world — it’s vital that I survive. Good luck!” And he jumps out of the plane.
The priest and the pilot look at each other, and the priest says, “Don’t worry, my son. I’ve lived a good life. You and the boy take the two remaining chutes.”
The pilot is about to object, when the boy scout pipes up. “But there are still three chutes left.”
The priest and the pilot look at him. The boy grins. “The smartest man in the world just jumped out with my backpack.”
An old joke, right? I remember when the smartest man in the world was Henry Kissinger.
But apparently Elon Musk and his like don’t realize it’s supposed to be a joke. Want to throw up in your mouth? Take a look at this article by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker about survivalism among America’s coastal elites:
Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.
Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”
In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.” . . .
How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”
I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”
The C.E.O. of another large tech company told me, “It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.”
The article suggests at several points that this sort of thing reflects the imagination of our financial and technological elite — their willingness to think outside the box — as well as the sheer scope of their available resources. But of course, it’s actually a massive failure of imagination — the failure to conceive of any way of ordering society that wouldn’t result in its collapse, or of any world in which they could be themselves and do what they do well and not be radically exempt from the larger social world.
The New Yorker hedge fund types that interviewed seemed somewhat more self-aware than the Silicon Valley bros, but no more able to conceive of a way out for society as whole rather than just for themselves:
On the opposite side of the country, similar awkward conversations have been unfolding in some financial circles. Robert H. Dugger worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry before he became a partner at the global hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation, in 1993. After seventeen years, he retired to focus on philanthropy and his investments. “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution,” he told me recently.
To manage that fear, Dugger said, he has seen two very different responses. “People know the only real answer is, Fix the problem,” he said. “It’s a reason most of them give a lot of money to good causes.” At the same time, though, they invest in the mechanics of escape. He recalled a dinner in New York City after 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble: “A group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires were working through end-of-America scenarios and talking about what they’d do. Most said they’ll fire up their planes and take their families to Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One of the guests was skeptical, Dugger said. “He leaned forward and asked, ‘Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?’ The questioning continued. In the end, most agreed they couldn’t run.”
Élite anxiety cuts across political lines. Even financiers who supported Trump for President, hoping that he would cut taxes and regulations, have been unnerved at the ways his insurgent campaign seems to have hastened a collapse of respect for established institutions. Dugger said, “The media is under attack now. They wonder, Is the court system next? Do we go from ‘fake news’ to ‘fake evidence’? For people whose existence depends on enforceable contracts, this is life or death.”
Robert A. Johnson sees his peers’ talk of fleeing as the symptom of a deeper crisis. At fifty-nine, Johnson has tousled silver hair and a soft-spoken, avuncular composure. He earned degrees in electrical engineering and economics at M.I.T., got a Ph.D. in economics at Princeton, and worked on Capitol Hill, before entering finance. He became a managing director at the hedge fund Soros Fund Management. In 2009, after the onset of the financial crisis, he was named head of a think tank, the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
When I visited Johnson, not long ago, at his office on Park Avenue South, he described himself as an accidental student of civic anxiety. He grew up outside Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, the son of a doctor, and he watched his father’s generation experience the fracturing of Detroit. “What I’m seeing now in New York City is sort of like old music coming back,” he said. “These are friends of mine. I used to live in Belle Haven, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Louis Bacon, Paul Tudor Jones, and Ray Dalio”—hedge-fund managers—“were all within fifty yards of me. From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘You’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”
By January, 2015, Johnson was sounding the alarm: the tensions produced by acute income inequality were becoming so pronounced that some of the world’s wealthiest people were taking steps to protect themselves. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Johnson told the audience, “I know hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.”
Johnson wishes that the wealthy would adopt a greater “spirit of stewardship,” an openness to policy change that could include, for instance, a more aggressive tax on inheritance. “Twenty-five hedge-fund managers make more money than all of the kindergarten teachers in America combined,” he said. “Being one of those twenty-five doesn’t feel good. I think they’ve developed a heightened sensitivity.” The gap is widening further. In December, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a new analysis, by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, which found that half of American adults have been “completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s.” Approximately a hundred and seventeen million people earn, on average, the same income that they did in 1980, while the typical income for the top one per cent has nearly tripled. That gap is comparable to the gap between average incomes in the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the authors wrote.
Johnson said, “If we had a more equal distribution of income, and much more money and energy going into public school systems, parks and recreation, the arts, and health care, it could take an awful lot of sting out of society. We’ve largely dismantled those things.”
As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
But elite anxiety is not just a gauge of our national predicament. It’s a cause. These are people who have the power and position of societal leaders. They built the plane, they own the plane, and they fly the plane. We are all flying along with them. And they are having serious conversations about bailing out rather than, I don’t know, changing course, preparing for a water landing — anything that suggests a concern for all the other people in the plane as something other than a threat.
Survivalism isn’t new, of course — and the article talks about some of the comical and terrifying antecedents. But there is an enormous difference between self-appointed prophets of doom plying their trade and the leadership of society saying, “I paid for that parachute.”
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them. Justin Kan, the technology investor who had made a halfhearted effort to stock up on food, recalled a recent phone call from a friend at a hedge fund. “He was telling me we should buy land in New Zealand as a backup. He’s, like, ‘What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.’ ”
There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”
That view is, in the end, an article of faith—a conviction that even degraded political institutions are the best instruments of common will, the tools for fashioning and sustaining our fragile consensus. Believing that is a choice.
I called a Silicon Valley sage, Stewart Brand, the author and entrepreneur whom Steve Jobs credited as an inspiration. In the sixties and seventies, Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” attracted a cult following, with its mixture of hippie and techie advice. (The motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”) Brand told me that he explored survivalism in the seventies, but not for long. “Generally, I find the idea that ‘Oh, my God, the world’s all going to fall apart’ strange,” he said.
At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience. In the past decade, the world survived, without violence, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; Ebola, without cataclysm; and, in Japan, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, after which the country has persevered. He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”
As readers know, this is really out of character for me to go on like this — either to quote an article at such length or to play the outrage porn game of saying “can you believe this???” But this is my authentic reaction. I can’t believe it. I knew things were bad — but not this bad. I know some people who have senior roles at hedge funds, who move in high-powered circles in Silicon Valley. I’ve never heard anything quite like this. This is serious Ayn Rand meets Dr. Strangelove next-level stuff.
I really hope that Osnos is the new Stephen Glass, and that half of this article is made up out of whole cloth.