Politics at Work

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

CEO of Coinbase, Brian Armstrong posted an article this week on the role of his company in addressing the many difficulties facing the world like this year. The short of his answer is that Coinbase doesn't have a role in solving these problems, and frankly shouldn't.

Brian built Coinbase as a mission focused company. And being mission focused requires the organization to put aside issues like the pandemic, upcoming elections, societal unrest, and really anything that falls outside the purview of what Coinbase has been built for.

"Coinbase's mission is to create an open financial system for the world."

This is a hard problem. And one that is more likely to be solved by a company that's got blinders on. Especially given the all-consuming nature of the problems populating today's airwaves. The pandemic, riots, police violence, wildfires, and the prospect of another four years of Trump are scary problems in their own right, but these fears are being needlessly amplified by the news and social media algorithms that push us to our political edges. No doubt these are all problems to solve, but they're simply too politically charged and emotionally involved to be properly addressed in a workplace that's not consciously focused on solving these issues.

And does a company like Coinbase really have much to add when it comes to solving a problem like racial inequity? Within the intersection of creating an open financial system for groups that are underserved by traditional financial services, Coinbase should have a role and I expect it will. But any work outside of directly driving their mission to create an open financial system for the world frankly should be kindly set aside by Coinbase and left to the people and organizations that are mission focused on solving for problems like pandemics, forest management and global warming, equality of opportunity for all, police reform, and the collapse of our democracy.

The reason for delegating work in this way is simple—the software engineers at Coinbase are not going to have as much impact on solving for the corona virus than a group of virologists will. Likewise a group of virologists would be better served focusing on solving for pandemics than they will by working to create open financial systems for the world with cryptocurrency. These problems will be incredibly hard to solve even with clear focus from the people designed for driving their mission forward, and even harder if the efforts of these organizations are needlessly spread thin. And I'm honestly not sure that many people are built for driving change in these politically charged arenas. I think it requires high degrees of patience, persistence for the truth, and good judgement, all of which you'll be hard-pressed to find from startup employees that are exhausted from 50 hour weeks and the collective isolation we're enduring as a result of the pandemic.

Maybe this is harsh, but I think if an employee is so driven by a topical cause that they need to disrupt work to express their views, they should quit and go to work on that problem. It's really that simple. Maybe I'm missing something, but most disagreements on these points strike me as thin-skinned and defensive rebuttals or virtue signaling.

So far I've discussed the internal roles of companies when it comes to popular social issues, but what about taking external stances? Again, I think this work would be better served by those that are actually working on the problem in question, but I have some reservations. Companies today do have large platforms and financial resources to drive change. Publicly donating to a cause can make a direct impact, drive awareness, and encourage other people and organizations to donate as well.

But the resources of the world are finite. We only have so much money and attention to go around. While many of the causes of the day are no doubt important, the very fact that they're popular is evidence that these resources would be better spent on other effective causes (which are usually neglected). The reasons being are that resources have diminishing returns and highly effective causes like global health, animal welfare, and existential risk are generally unsexy and thus lack the resources they deserve.

So while I don't think that Coinbase needs to take a stance on BLM, I would be happy if they'd take the Giving What We Can pledge or if their equity stakeholders took the Founder's Pledge and promised to share their returns with highly effective causes.

That said, Coinbase is a company that very well could have a mission worthy of being focused on, and they've likely got the team that is well-suited for addressing their goal to create an open financial system for the world. So I'm not sure I would be as quick to encourage Coinbase to divert resources outside of their mission, even for other highly effective causes.

Companies should be mission driven, and they should be driven to tackle real problems. Companies should be populated by people that are 100% focused on solving the problems they've set out to solve. And if these companies are solving problems you think to be unimportant, you should quit and go work on what matters. But if it's a cause that's trending on Twitter today, it's probably less important than you'd think.

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