You can tell from Brian Armstrong’s opening words that he’s a numbers guy.
“There have been a lot of difficult events in the world this year,” understated the Coinbase CEO in announcing that forthwith, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States would do a better job of ignoring them.
According to Armstrong’s recent blog post, Coinbase’s mission is to “create an open financial system for the world”. He left out the second half of the company’s mission statement, the part about being “the leading global brand for helping people convert digital currency into and out of their local currency,” which doesn’t convey the nobility of his purpose as clearly, but does specify the source of his profits.
And it’s really that part we should be focusing on, not the “economic freedom” that he describes as central to Coinbase’s purpose. Because Armstrong doesn’t address economic freedom in his letter. He doesn’t discuss why it is important, or why there’s a need for it, or who is suffering from a lack of it.
Armstrong’s “mission focused” missive, which commits the company to apoliticization, conveniently overlooks the fact that economic freedom is a political and human issue. Proscribed activities at Coinbase now include debating “causes or political candidates internally” and taking on “activism outside of our core mission at work.”
Taken in conjunction with the email he subsequently sent to employees in which he offered severance packages worth between four and six months’ pay to those who agreed that “life is too short to work at a company you aren’t excited about”, Armstrong’s posturing on the subject of non-posturing appears to be nothing more than a love letter to stakeholders in a potential IPO, complete with a rich dowry — the excision of dissent from Coinbase’s body politic.
A direct listing for the $8 billion-valued Coinbase has been the subject of speculation within the industry, and that was also the vehicle chosen by Palantir to “cement billionaire fortunes” for co-founder Peter Thiel and CEO Alexander Karp. In a direct listing, shareholders sell directly to buyers and avoid lockups. And how crypto is that?
It’s surely no coincidence that Armstrong’s email to employees was penned just a couple of weeks after Karp told investors, ahead of his own IPO, that if they want to change the client base or culture they should “pick a different company”.
Karp, not incidentally, has also stated that Silicon Valley’s “engineering elite… may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires.”
It’s almost as though Armstrong were reading the Palantir IPO playbook.
Microsoft president Brad Smith is on record this year as saying that “I don’t think our employees are naive. I think sometimes they are idealistic. I think the world needs a combination of idealism and pragmatism.” But he’s one of a diminishing number of tech executives who seem to be comfortable with the notion that employees don’t want to check their beliefs at the entrance to the ‘plex or the Park.
Earlier this year Google fired four employees that it described as “engaged in intentional and often repeated violations of our longstanding data-security policies.” All four had, coincidentally, denounced the company’s treatment of its workers, and were uncomfortable with the company’s relationships with certain government customers.
At Salesforce, employees protested the company’s relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Amazon employees railed against selling facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies. Even Google relented in the face of employee opposition to using AI technology on a drone strike project.
It’s clear that despite the extraordinarily employer-centric nature of American labor laws — which essentially offer carte blanche to employers to fire anyone, anytime, for any reason other than discrimination — Big Tech is facing a reckoning internally as well as externally.
And it’s into this morass that Armstrong has waded, tepidly wielding a commitment to create an anodyne workplace bereft of political discourse that will surely thrill potential investors in Coinbase’s will-they-won’t-they IPO.
There was a time when Google’s motto was “Don’t be evil.” It was a simple, elegant exhortation that helped align the company with the motivations and beliefs of its employees, customers, and yes, even investors. Evil may not have been defined, but that was part of the beauty of the sentiment. It deferred to the sense of righteousness that exists in each of us who choose to work within a “mission focused” organization.
Today that motto is “Do the right thing.” Tell me that isn’t doublespeak for “We’ll decide what’s right, and you can tag along.”
Creating an open financial system for the world is why many of us are involved in the digital asset industry. But our missions, plural, do not exist in a vacuum. And while there is plenty of self-serving in the crypto industry, the opportunity to rectify inequities appeals to many.
Some of us interpret the “economic freedom” enabled by cryptocurrency as an opportunity to escape centralized authority, or to dodge the surveillance capitalists. Some of us see economic freedom as providing a financial infrastructure to the less advantaged citizens of our planet. Some see it as a personal message, a chance to secure our own economic freedom through investment opportunities that are more inclusive than the Cantillon Effect-perpetuating Accredited Investor rules.
However we see it, economic freedom is an inherently political issue. Try as Armstrong might, it cannot be extricated from its historical context and neatly packaged up as a marketing slogan.
Or maybe it can. After all, Palantir lists three guiding ideas on its website, including “Keep focused on the mission,” which isn’t a million miles from Armstrong’s twice-mentioned “laser focus on the mission.”
You don’t need a B.A. in Economics to see where this is going.
Cointelegraph is interested in hearing the stories of Coinbase employees and their reaction to Mr. Armstrong’s letter. Please feel free to contact us in confidence via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM our Editor in Chief on Twitter, @JonRiceCrypto