Coinbase, Company Focus, and What Counts as Politics

Reading that Coinbase post made me super glad that I’m not still a CEO right now.

Founders, if you’re stressing out about the prospect of your company failing, trust me, it’s not all bad! Reading about the stressful issues facing other CEOs—and then thinking about how you don’t have to deal with them—is a truly great feeling.

For those of my readers who (blessedly) don’t follow the ins and outs of the startup world, here’s what I’m talking about: a few weeks ago, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong announced a new company policy about engagement with social and political issues.

The post is the kind of thing that’s hard to summarize succinctly without unintentionally adding your own interpretation, but essentially, he said that Coinbase would focus primarily on achieving its mission, and not on societal issues or political causes. He also offered substantial severance packages to any employee who disagrees with this approach. (Recent reporting suggests that around 5% of them took it.)

Despite a few high-profile exceptions, it’s clear that most tech CEOs, even the ones who haven’t said so publicly, agree with Armstrong’s approach. The tell? Normally, when a startup announces layoffs, there’s a rush of other startups making public overtures to hire those newly laid-off employees. But I haven’t seen a single company go out of its way to recruit the employees who left Coinbase over this.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this post and the corresponding issues for a couple weeks. At first I thought it was a pretty reasonable policy, perhaps even a model for my next company. The more I turn it over in my head, though, the more doubts I have.

It’s all well and good to say that your company won’t engage with divisive political issues. But that approach elides the fact that the question of what’s considered a “political issue” is itself inherently political. Politics is often the process by which certain things stop being considered politics.

Two hundred years ago, slavery was the defining political issue in this country. If you advocated for slavery, no one would say you were discussing “politics”—you would just be an insane racist. The political process (and, of course, the Civil War—I’m not going to get into the issue of whether or not war is a part of politics) eventually settled this issue so thoroughly that it’s now seen as outside the realm of politics entirely.

Similarly, I suspect the United States will—if we don’t totally collapse before then—one day be riveted by debates about the legal rights of artificially intelligent beings. But right now, that’s just wild theorizing. To reach the status of being a political issue, that will first have to be considered a legitimate topic of debate by a critical mass of people (even, and perhaps especially, those who oppose it).

Calling Black Lives Matter—internal debate over which was reportedly the inspiration for the Coinbase post—a divisive political issue is pretty clearly a statement of objective reality. But the fact that valuing Black lives is still a source of division in this country instead of, you know, an obvious truth, is what the BLM movement is fighting.

In the post, Armstrong also mentions that Coinbase will engage with political issues that affect the company’s ability to achieve its mission, like cryptocurrency-related policies. But as politics in the U.S. get more and more incoherent, those boundaries become much harder to define. You can make a pretty compelling argument that the Trump administration’s disregard for the rule of law and, potentially, threat to democracy itself could dramatically affect every American company’s ability to achieve its mission. It’s going to be hard for any of us to achieve anything for a while if Trump foments massive post-election riots.

I suspect much of the turmoil over these issues in the workplace comes from the general sense of helplessness many of us feel about the current state of affairs. We feel powerless to change the direction of the country, so we turn to the organizations we think we can impact, even if those organizations are grossly imperfect vehicles for the pursuit of justice.

Not to mention the fact that tech companies brought this on themselves by spending decades painting themselves as the idealistic good guys, emphasizing their non-traditional corporate cultures and encouraging employees to bring their “whole selves” to work. Turns out most people’s whole selves involve a lot more than just getting a nose ring or bringing their dog to the office on Fridays.

Still, it’s easy to criticize a rule, not so easy to say what should go in its place. Being a founder involves making a series of impossible choices that always leave someone unhappy. If I were running a company today, I’d probably implement at least some lightened version of the Coinbase policy. I don’t think it’s healthy, for example, for the company Slack to be a place where every last political issue is debated or where horse-race gossip is traded.

Or maybe I’d go the Palantir route and build a company full of people who are explicitly ideologically aligned. That’s sort of uncouth to say, especially if your ideology is like Palantir’s, but I think it’s worth considering, especially for smaller organizations.

Most people want a workplace—and a world—where they don’t have to constantly battle over divisive issues. But the problem right now seems to me to be one with the state of American society, and I’m not sure how easily such an issue can be resolved at the level of company policy.

Until next week,


Read of the week: this piece from Discourse Magazineon how what ails America today is not tribalism, as you’ll hear from so many pundits, but actually the absence of tribalism:

We have enormous political challenges because we no longer value or know how to live like tribes: to make rules together, to develop consensus, to work out difficult problems without calling for outside help. In fact, tribes—real tribes—provide a great deal of meaning, community, and connection. If American society were to adopt some “tribal” characteristics, we would all be a lot better off.”