Hi! Can here! You might have noticed I’ve been a bit away from Margins. The last couple of weeks have been a bit crazy — I traveled to Turkey as Northern California ceased to be livable. And right after I waited out my quarantine, I took a week off from all internet, which has been a godsend. I am still in Turkey, but we are back on schedule with Margins! Today, we talk about the Coinbase memo.
It’s tough to avoid the sight of Eiffel Tower in Paris, but not everyone is, or was, a fan. Famous writer Guy de Maupassant hated the Eiffel Tower so much that he'd have lunch at the base of it every day. Of all the places in Paris, he said that was the only place where he could avoid the sight of that hideous monstrosity.
I thought of this when I first read the now infamous Coinbase memo. Brian Armstrong, the generally non-confrontational CEO made waves in the technorati by stating not only that Coinbase would practically eschew and discourage any political activity inside the company that doesn't relate to the company's stated mission of "creating an open financial system."
As an avowed believer in the futility of tech CEOs writing pointless diatribes, I found it hard not to roll my eyes when I saw it making the rounds. I think such memos serve more the writer than the intended audience, but as I also moonlight as a tech commentator right now, I took the time to read it.
And hey, Brian Armstrong seemingly goes right into it:
In short, I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world. We will do this by playing as a championship team, focus on building, and being transparent about what our mission is and isn’t.
Not surprisingly, the post elicited a whole slew of reactions, especially due to its somewhat patronizing tone but also especially at this section:
Political causes: We don’t advocate for any particular causes or candidates internally that are unrelated to our mission, because it is a distraction from our mission. Even if we all agree something is a problem, we may not all agree on the solution.
There were people who thought it was the most honest elucidation of what most CEOs really think and also those who believed that those who believe in compartmentalized view of society would be the first to be put up against the wall when the revolution comes. All in all, though, people generally fell along party lines with fans of billionaire CEOs singing its praise, and vice versa.
I am not sure if a billionaire CEO makes the cut when extending sympathies in this holy year of 2020, but I gave it a try. On the one hand, as Armstrong says, facing so many difficult events both in the US and internationally, facing an increasingly activist employee base could be challenging. It's not like, as he doesn't quite say but obviously implies, he is paying all those people to go around and be political activists with cushy tech salaries.
Yet, dig a bit deeper, and it's easy to see why so many people, not so surprisingly on the progressive side, were so bothered not just the content but also the tone of this new manifesto.
No Politics is a Political Stance
Firstly, there are the irredeemable ironies. Political apathy is not a neutral stance, but a strongly conservative one, almost by definition. When there are competing forces, one trying to pull you in direction and another forcing you to stay where you are, saying that you'd rather not move is picking a side, not removing yourself from the equation.
This is hardly a thought experiment. Here in the United States, not a single day goes by without someone pointing out how the meager turnout is one of the biggest reasons why election results are way more conservative than the entire electorate. In many other countries, like my homeland of Turkey, there are whole generations who have been actively de-politicized to let the conservative, right-wing take hold.
And there's the other irony of making such a politicized statement that your company grinds to a halt discussing nothing but, as you guessed it, politics. There've been many reports of Coinbase employees going on endless debates on Slack, trying to figure out what all this means. My friends who are there now confirm those reports. Good job, Coinbase?
Specialization is for Insects
And that brings me to my second, slightly more personal point. It's one thing to say, with some delusion but undoubtedly good intentions, that you are not a political entity. Still, it's a whole another thing to do it in such a tone to imply that any political discussion is not welcome at your company.
People often say that you should never discuss sex, politics, or religion at work, yet I have never been at a workplace where adults discuss anything but. And, you know what, things often work out fine. I find it utterly infantilizing to assume that you can bring together a bunch of smart people to work on whatever but that those people can't perform their duties without letting their politics get in the way so that you tell them that there are no more politics allowed.
I don't know Brian Armstrong personally, and what little I've heard of him, he seems like a good, if not slightly eccentric and nerdy fellow. Still, this decree feels less like telling people to focus on the company mission, but more of abdication of his duties as a leader.
In contrast, I am reminded of how right after the 2016 elections, our director at Uber told us that while he was extremely disappointed at the outcome, he expected us to treat each other with respect. Soon after, I had discovered a couple of coworkers had voted for Trump. While I was understandably upset, I took our relationship as coworkers who spent many waking hours together, as the common ground to discuss otherwise heated topics. That is not too much ask.
Seriously, What is Crypto?
And lastly, the supposed company mission of creating an open financial system. I am admittedly still a crypto-skeptic, but I am approaching my own skepticism with a heavy dose of doubt at this point, given the obscene amount of money flowing into it. I still don't get how most crypto applications aren't merely worse implementations of append-only databases or content-addressable storage systems. Still, I am tapering those understanding that sometimes you just need a shock to the system to uncover new ideas, and maybe crypto is that shock.
Yet, it's hard for me to square the lofty goals of "creating an open financial system" with the actual business of Coinbase, which is mostly letting people in the developed world speculate on assets that they don't understand, have no basis in reality, and do nothing but burn electricity.
Suppose I am entirely wrong, and Coinbase is actually about creating an open financial system for the world. In that case, it's almost farcical to argue that the company that's now sitting at the center of this new system would not be involved in practically every single political decision in the world. This is the same as arguing that Wikileaks is not political because all they do is publish leaks, or that any news organization can or should be genuinely neutral. It’s laughable.
It goes without saying the main political ideology behind most things crypto is libertarianism and this memo barely hides its author’s leanings. While I don’t generally have favorable opinions of libertarianism, I do respect their proponents’ staunch desire to be wrong at every turn about how humans operate in the real world. What I can’t really handle, however, is veiling one’s own political goals of rebuilding the entire world order, regardless of its plausibility or feasibility and then pretending there’s nothing political about it. How could one, with a straight face, make the case that the world would not be made in Coinbase’s founder’s political image if they are successful at throwing it all out and rebuilding it? 
I Wish It Were Easy
I've talked about before how one of the unique and valuable things about America and the Western world in general is the sense of quiet it provides. There's nothing nice and inviting about having to worry about what is happening in the news that day, being glued to the TV (or Twitter, I guess) every waking day. I used to tell my friends in Turkey one of the things that seem to make America more productive is that you do not have this constant drivel of news that sucks out all the oxygen. So, I am not saying that Brian Armstrong is wrong in being worried about his company's employees being distracted with the news, or that his company dragged into politics.
What I fundamentally disagree with him is the notion that you can separate the business from politics. Whether he likes it or not, any company that employs people, which is still all companies, will be involved in politics. As companies operate through people, they will be forced to take stances in what those people may or may not believe in. It might not always make everyone in the company happy, and that doesn't mean you have to respond to every news cycle by blasting out a press release, but there's no way people to turn off what is important to them as they step into the office, or sign into Slack.
Again, as I mentioned before, I often think such lofty memos are more for its author to feel good about themselves than they are about charting a new course for the company. It’s hard for me to imagine a workplace where there are no discussions of politics, let alone in one that is founded entirely as a political act. I am glad, in that sense, Coinbase is doing the right by allowing people who would rather not be part of it by providing them with generous exit packages. But I am also suspicious that such a policy can survive in its intended pure form. With exceptions carved out over time, it’ll be nothing but just another memo, written by another slightly bored tech CEO. But hey, that’s what I’m here for.
1: The other thing is, as far as I know, Coinbase has long decided not really to throw out the the financial system but instead be part of it while making hand over fist letting people speculate crypto assets. This change of heart is one of the reasons why the company had a few high profile hires leave relatively quickly. But hey, we are not a gossip blog.