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From London, I'm Erica Skidmore Williams, and I'm Brooke Zafrin, and this is even the Rich.
We've spent the last four episodes hanging in Rome with the Getty family. We saw the sights, we ate pasta and we drank cognac. We witnessed a kidnapping. But today we're leaving all that behind us.
You know what I've been thinking lately, there's kind of a big difference between being rich and being a billionaire, like rich people have boring tiny sailboats, but billionaires have megawatts.
Yes, exactly. Or like rich people are writing out the coronavirus pandemic in their mansions. But some billionaires are taking cover in doomsday style bunkers where they have enough food, water and Patagonia fleece vests to survive the end of the world.
Just the bare essentials. And when we talk about billionaires these days, I think one place comes to mind Silicon Valley.
It's this magical kingdom where computer nerds can become tycoons and that power goes straight to their big brains.
Exactly. I wanted to learn a little bit more about what makes tech billionaires tick. So I called up Sarah Ellison. Sarah's been a journalist for more than 20 years, working for outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and The Washington Post, where she's currently a staff writer. And she says that if there's been one constant in her long career, it's this. She writes about very rich people who sometimes act outrageously.
I seriously can't wait to hear what she has to say. Well, you don't have to.
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So, Sarah, these days you write primarily about people in power, whether in Washington, D.C. or on Wall Street. How did that become your focus?
When I started out, I worked for The Wall Street Journal for almost a decade. And, you know, one of the interesting things you can do for a paper like that is you're exploring people in power and what they're doing wrong and how they're abusing their power. And it became a kind of expertise that I developed. And then I only continued that when I was at Vanity Fair, because Vanity Fair is a place that is also looking for when wealthy and powerful people trip up and do things wrong.
And, you know, there's this kind of classic thing that people say about journalism. You're either comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable. And I've almost always fallen on the latter portion of that equation. And I don't really know how it happened, but it is definitely become the thing that I know how to do. And it's not always afflicting people, but it's just kind of gaining people's trust and talking to them about how they're choosing to use their position.
And almost no one sees himself as a sinked. Hmm. And if you can get inside that a little bit, people actually find it kind of cathartic to talk about that. I haven't thought about it like that. Like, every journalist is just a good shrink in the end. Yeah.
And the day as you know, even the rich, the show is about very rich people who sometimes act outrageously. Are there any people that you've written about who fit that description?
I would say if there were a beat description of what my job has essentially been since I started working in journalism, like very rich people who sometimes act outrageously would maybe be the best description.
So I've I've written a lot about Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family. I've more recently done, you know, a wider range of things that have much more to do with Washington, which is, of course, full of I mean, this administration in particular, people like Steve Manoogian, Wilbur Ross. These are incredibly wealthy individuals who are now pulling the levers of government and depending on your opinion of this administration, are acting outrageously or not. I was doing a lot of reporting for years out of London, and I was reporting on, you know, Tony Blair's post office effort to make the world better, but also by making himself much richer.
Even people like Piers Morgan, who, you know, for a while, you know, he had a television show in the United States. It was getting a lot of attention. These are all people who have gotten a certain amount of power, not all as wealthy as the billionaires that that we're talking about today. But it's interesting to to try to understand people who do have so much power and through their small decisions can have such a huge influence on the world.
And just one last part of that politics is something that I've come to relatively late in my career. And for years, I always thought about business being the thing that really shaped so much of the real power in the world. And even after covering politics, I don't see that any differently. The forces of money and influence are so much more powerful than well-meaning lawmakers who are in Washington making relatively modest salaries.
I'm curious, do you think that ridiculous wealth is what leads to acting outrageously and brings out that behavior? It's always there. Or because you get wealthy, you become outrageous? Like, I've always just I've kind of wondered because, I mean, not all billionaires act the same, but it seems to be a common thread amongst them that they behave similarly and do kind of outrageous things. And I've always wondered, as we all have that ability, it's just we don't have the insane wealth to do it.
Or being that rich is what causes that.
In my experience, you have to have a certain amount of drive and hubris and certainly a work ethic to amass a certain amount of wealth. So you have people who made a lot of money when they were involved with PayPal, for instance, there's a sort of PayPal diaspora and some of those people, they have a lot of money, but they didn't continue to amass tremendous amounts of wealth beyond the point where most reasonable people would say, that's pretty good.
I'm really comfortable now. I'm going to just start to do philanthropy or I'm going to engage in a different enterprise. There is a point when you amass so much wealth that you employ such a universe of people to give you advice or to furnish your house or plan your vacations, whether it's advise you on business strategy or, you know, like your wardrobe. That everyone is kind of living off of your of your fortune, and that makes for a very strange existence.
And once that starts to happen, I think that's when people really start to go crazy and and start to act in these ways that they're either bored of their money or they think, well, I have all this money.
Why don't I do the kinds of things that we see engaging in the kinds of projects that whether it's Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, that they kind of say, well, if I had all the money in the world, this is what I would do with it. I would build a clock that counts until the end of time and that those are the kinds of ideas that people get to do when you have billions and billions of dollars. And it's easy to poke fun at that.
So I would say that, yeah. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It's hard to say, but I would say that there's a level of money after which it's almost impossible to stay sane. Brooke, what's the last thing you ordered from GrubHub Tacos, of course, you know, besides the obvious delicious food, one of my favorite things is that when you order food through the GrubHub app, you get a ten dollar perk every time you order from select restaurants.
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And also there are people who say, you know, if you're worth 50 million dollars, that's a lot of money, but certainly more money than I would ever have in my lifetime. Yeah, but that's a pittance compared to what we're talking about when we talk about a billionaire. And so in that world, there's all these hierarchies that are almost invisible. The material possessions are almost impossible to measure it through because after a certain point, you can't buy a bigger house or a bigger plane or a bigger boat.
But there are fine gradations in there. And it's the thing that keeps people who have 50 million dollars feeling like they're falling behind. I mean, one of the things that's interesting about you mentioned these companies and this is one of the hallmarks of Silicon Valley and what makes it so very different from a place, you know, the moneyed world of New York. I, I there's an anecdote that I always think of when I'm when I'm thinking about the wealth of Silicon Valley.
And it was maybe five years ago I was at lunch with a very High-Powered investment banker in Manhattan, and he was talking about how he was sort of there in his is suit and tie. And, you know, we were at the Four Seasons restaurant, so it was, you know, beautiful. And he was talking about his irritation with Silicon Valley and how everyone was just in a hoodie and didn't even bother to kind of get dressed. And he said, at least we admit that we care about the money.
They don't even admit that. But that's all they really are interested in. And so I thought that that was such a perfect distillation of the difference between these two worlds and how whether it's Google saying do no harm or Facebook talks about connecting the world, these are people who are very principled and start out with a certain idea of how they want to do business and then find themselves really hitting the reality of what it means to stay in business. And there are a million compromises that are made along the way and worse than compromises when you look at some of the algorithms that these platforms follow in order to keep people engaged.
If you were going to write a story about billionaire style, like literally their style, what would you say?
Maybe the headline would simply be fleece, just fleece and nothing else. Like, that's all you would need to have a one word, one word story. I mean, I can picture, like you said, fleece.
And immediately my head went to all those paparazzi shots that you've seen of these billionaires walking around and it's. Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah. Yeah.
It would be like how how hard you can work to look like you have no money when you have more money than God. I would that would be my I mean I don't know what what the second sentence would say, but I do think that the aggressiveness with which yeah.
Billionaires of this of this type and this generation and when I say this generation, I'm not talking about, you know, octogenarian billionaires, but the kind of clothing that they wear when people are showing up to the Allen conference, which is this, you know, media and tech conference that happens, you know, around the Fourth of July every summer, and everyone shows up in their exercise gear. And that's the way to be a billionaire. If you're a man, if you're a man, if you're a woman.
I don't think it applies. Exactly. There might be some athleisure situation that you can engage in, but that is I don't know if there are enough. In fact, most of the women who are billionaires don't get to wear athleisure. They actually have to wear kind of some corporate outfit.
There is a double standard when it comes to female CEOs in tech. You know, their male counterparts get to dress exclusively in fleece. But then there's the expectation that the female CEOs are dressed to the nines in their professional suits, whatever that might mean. Is that changing at all? Is there ever going to be gender equity in Silicon Valley, do you think?
Such a good question, because this is an industry that for all of its making the world better aspirations.
Women has seen a real reckoning, certainly about gender. And I don't even think people have gotten started on like the racial politics inside of a lot of Silicon Valley companies and certainly what we've all been watching. More recently, with the protests were Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, some of that has seeped out into Silicon Valley. You know, I would like to say that it can't stay that way. And yeah, and there was a really high profile protest in walkout at Google over the way that women were were treated inside that company.
Obviously, there was the famous memo and Uber really pillorying that company's culture. And what you've seen, unfortunately, what you still see is the women who stand up for those and make those kinds of public protestations, certainly a Google. A lot of them have left the company and are now doing other things. And it might it might require building a whole other culture in another place, because I do think that there are some really entrenched systems in those companies.
And some of it is because something like programming has been so. Aggressively male for such a long time that it's taken longer than you would think for that to change. But, you know, I think that, again, Silicon Valley isn't alone in that. There are a lot of a lot of companies and a lot of industries where where that change is a long time overdue. And and we're seeing the beginnings of movement, but certainly not enough.
So kind of on that tangent, you write about Silicon Valley, which means you're the perfect person to answer the question. I've always been afraid to ask, why is it called Silicon Valley?
That's such a good question that I had to Google it. And it has something to do with sand being the original ingredient in the silicon chips that then become, you know, the thing that drive computers and. Yeah, and it goes way, way back. I mean, Silicon Valley, there are people and tech companies that were operating in that area long before it was ever named anything. And I think that the original name dates back to 1971. It was when, like, people like Intel were, you know, operating or headquartered in that area.
And it has to do with the idea that, again, that they're all they all start with sand and there's sand in that region that they can use to make silicon chips. Well, that'll be helpful.
If I ever had a bit of trivia night party party convention, right? Yeah, you probably use that in L.A. and nobody will know. But I don't know. Everybody in Silicon Valley probably already knows that answer, but we both learned something in that exercise.
Yeah, I'm excited for that. I'm glad to know that because it's something you hear all the time. But I've always been like where I actually come from. Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about the moment that we're living through.
Most people are staying home, bingeing our podcast. Yay! But I've read that quite a few billionaires have fled to places like New Zealand where they've built these elaborate doomsday style bunkers. Can you explain what those even are? Sure.
The doomsday style bunkers for billionaires have existed long before the pandemic. They certainly are retreating to those. This is a perfect time to have one. If you're if you're if you've already built one for yourself, it's is another sort of survivalist mini movement among certain kinds of billionaires where they know that they can survive the end of the world if it comes down to it, because they have stockpiled five years of food and enough electricity of their own with their own generator.
And so, you know, all it takes is a moment like this where it does sort of sometimes feel like the end of the world is coming for people to retreat to those kinds of places. I mean, I remember interviewing a billionaire, Pierre Omidyar, years ago in Hawaii. He had two different planes, an entire warehouse, for lack of a better term, full of food that he and his family could live off of.
And that's just one small example of the kinds of preparations that billionaires have made again before the pandemic. But this is a perfect time to break out that bunker. And, you know, Nick, nip into your your stockpiled food.
If you don't feel like going to the grocery store and having to deal with, like, you know, the six feet of separation that you're going to need to leave between you and the person in front of you, not like these guys are actually shopping for themselves, but. Yeah, but you get the point.
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I wanted to talk a little bit about Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, which we've touched on a little bit earlier. I I don't know if you've seen this. There's a meme that's been circling of two pictures of him side by side. In one of them, he's young, kind of scrawny, definitely looking like the stereotypical nerd. And the caption says, I sell books. And then on the other photo, he's buffer. It's a more recent picture, super intense stare.
And the caption for that one says, I sell whatever the fuck I want. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of Jeff Bezos from being the scrawny kid to the billionaire? Whatever you want to call him, Playboy.
I guess at this point, you're absolutely right that Bezos started out very much a kind of nerd and a and an endearing nerd who had this idea to sell books online. And, you know, when it first started out, it was it was narrow as an idea and something that no one was entirely sure was going to go all that far and over time. I mean, this is a perfect example of somebody who was intensely focused and had a real idea and pursued it unstintingly and created a real business out of that that first line of selling books.
But that allowed him to expand. And obviously his money has come from a massive expansion of that business to sell, as you have so aptly noted, whatever the fuck he wants.
But but the things that you can look at over his evolution that are real moments of change. One of the biggest ones was when Amazon created its own studio. So Amazon studios, when they started to get into the business of making movies and creating entertainment. And there's sort of nothing about that business that is. That is like selling books online. And yet, you know, Amazon approached it in a very kind of focused way. What what people started to notice then was Jeff Bezos showing up at the Oscars or Jeff Bezos interacting with L.A. types that you wouldn't normally have seen him ever be around, nor would have they ever given him the time of day.
And so all of a sudden, he starts to be invited to those parties and he starts owning some of those studios and some of those parties and having so much more money than anyone else in that in that world. And then you see him getting better and better physical shape. So he's working out. And the next thing you know, there is this incredibly shocking story in the National Enquirer about an extramarital affair that just turns everyone's impression of him on its head because we're now so far from the nerdy guy selling books online, although there is like that nerdy adolescent trapped inside that will never get out.
You know, there's still a shimmer of that on the inside. But you have just such an incredibly different figure now and again by virtue of the amount of money and the size of the empire he has created, he has a seat at it, not only a seat at the table, any where he wants to be. He owns the table. He's dictating the terms. There's there's not an element of our lives that Amazon doesn't touch in some way.
And it's a pretty stunning achievement.
Let's talk a little bit about the National Enquirer story you alluded to. Can you walk me through what happened there?
Sure. So it's over a year ago now that the National Enquirer came out with this blockbuster story that had text messages and some paparazzi photos of Jeff Bezos engaged in an extramarital affair with a woman named Lauren Sanchez. And it was shocking for a variety of reasons. The National Enquirer isn't really in the business of writing about Silicon Valley billionaires. But the surprising thing was that here was this incredibly high profile CEO of a multinational behemoth whose text messages had found their way into this tawdry tabloid.
How the hell did they get a hold of those? Yeah, how did that happen? And that was the question that was immediately on everyone's mind. And it was also on Jeff Bezos, his mind. And so he got his security consultant to start an investigation to try to figure out how that happened. And quickly, the security consultant who has worked with Bezos for a long time, his name is Gavin de Becker. He almost immediately started zeroing in on someone by the name of Michael Sanchez, who is Lauren Sanchez's brother, de Becker, when he was talking to Michael Sanchez about how do you think that Jeff's text to Lauren ended up getting in the hands of the National Enquirer?
The idea was that maybe his phone had been hacked. Somehow someone had managed to get in the phone. And in the course of those conversations, Michael Sanchez mentioned that he had consulted with two people who he knew, whom he thought would know a lot about security. And their names were Roger Stone and Carter Page and Roger Stone and Carter Page are both now former advisers to Donald Trump. You know, Roger Stone is famously somebody who worked for Richard Nixon early on.
He's a self-described dirty trickster in politics. And so that raised de Beckers antenna to think, well, wait, if we're talking about these Trump advisers and at this point, you have to remember that Jeff Bezos has become a target of Donald Trump's, largely because of his ownership of The Washington Post, which is my employer, it should be noted. So but at that point, you know, DeBacker started to probe whether or not this is something that could have been politically motivated and that there were people around Donald Trump who were trying to hurt Bezos by getting this information out in the public sphere and using the National Enquirer to do it.
The National Enquirer had just gotten in trouble for campaign finance violations, where the National Enquirer had written story after story about lauding Donald Trump and attacking his rivals on the political trail.
Already at this point, the National Enquirer and David Pecker, the CEO of the company. That owns the National Enquirer had gotten in, you know, a lot of trouble and were nearly indicted before Packer and his deputy had signed a deal with prosecutors to avoid being indicted. And so this whole circle of activities is swirling around. And De Becker thinks it's worth probing whether this is a political hit job on my boss. Fast forward what DeBacker says and what the National Enquirer eventually does is sort of finger Michael Sanchez as the likely source of at least some of the information, some of the texts that end up in the National Enquirer.
We have to note that Michael Sanchez has, you know, denied this, denied it at the time. He always said that he never supplied photos of Bezos and Lauran or photos of Bezos himself to the Enquirer. And then not that long after, Bezos himself publishes a letter in Medium where he reveals what looks very much like a letter of or what he says is a letter of blackmail from Dylan Howard, the editorial director of I, which is the company that owns the National Enquirer, to him saying we have these photos.
These are the photos that have been described to us. Some of them. Are you wearing only boxers or you in this position? Are you in that position? Some of them are him naked, et cetera, and we don't want to do anything with them. But it was sort of a threatening, a threatening letter.
And Bezos decided that what he was going to do is, instead of being influenced by that letter to providing more information or sort of playing ball or giving them a comment, he was just going to put out the entire back and forth between the National Enquirer and himself in a move that was just completely surprising and shocking to anyone who has followed sort of celebrity journalism at all. Because a lot of the times what ends up happening in these stories that a publication like The Enquirer is is pursuing is they will say we're pursuing this story about you sleeping with so-and-so or doing this thing.
And then sometimes what can happen is the person who's being written about can say, well, don't write about that, but I've got a different story that I can trade. So I'll give you a better story than the one that you were about to write. And so there's a little bit of jockeying that goes into those sorts of calculations.
So Silicon Valley has been the center of the technological universe for decades, which we've talked about.
But I'm wondering if the pandemic will change that. I mean, a lot of the big players like Twitter and Facebook, they've talked about how they're experimenting with permanent work from home policies following, you know, this quarantine and lockdown, which, of course, wouldn't surprise me if this inspired workers to leave the Bay Area where the cost of living is astronomical.
Do you think Silicon Valley will be the same after this?
I think this is one area where things really could change. And a lot of tech firms were moving to Los Angeles already, which is not the cheapest real estate in the country for sure. But Google just announced not long ago that it wasn't going to have its employees come back to their offices until at least June of twenty twenty one. And so, you know, once you give people that amount of time out of an office and certainly for the people who are programmers and who are doing a lot of their work anyway, in a world that is entirely digital and remote, it makes a lot of sense to let people do that from wherever they are.
And we've now gone through a long period of time where everyone has shown that they can have video calls and Zoome calls or Google Hangouts. This is an area that Silicon Valley is going to change and so is everybody else, because I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with people who run businesses who are rethinking office space and rentals and things like that.
I know a lot of my my friends who had jobs, who were who said, oh, we can't you can't work remotely, because that's always been something that I feel like my peers especially are always pushing for. And now in the midst of everything going on in this world, you find ways that you can work remotely. So it's definitely I feel like a wave of change is coming. So I'll be curious to see how it plays out. Thank you so much, Sarah.
This was an amazing talk. I really enjoyed talking with you. It was such a pleasure.
Thanks again to Sarah Ellison on our next episode, we're bringing you a story that combines sibling rivalry, high fashion and murder. Gianni and Donatella Versace built one of the most iconic fashion labels in the world. But when Johnny gets shot, it's up to Donatella to step out from behind her brother's shadow and try to save the brand they built from ruin.
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Another way you can support the show is by filling out a small survey at Wonder Ekom survey. I'm Erica Skidmore Williams. And I'm Brooke Zafrin. This episode was produced by Adreno. Kayla Bissinger is our associate producer, audio assistance by Jake Goreski. Our executive producers are Stephanie Gen's marshmallowy and Hernan Lopez for wondering.
FedEx has been used to mail everything from urgent contracts to a three and a half year old panda named Bobo, but when overnight shipping first came along, no one knew if customers would really pay more for the service. And for a while they didn't. In fact, at one point, FedEx was in such dire straits that founder Fred Smith went to Las Vegas to gamble the company's future at the blackjack table. I'm David Brown, the host of Wonderin Show Business Wars.
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