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 :: Against the Banks, Against the State ::
 Themen | Ökologie | Krieg+Militarismus | Medien/Netzaktivismus 21-02-2016 00:42
AutorIn : HANNES GRASSENGGER
Michael J. Casey, Wall Street Journal senior columnist, left, and author Hannes Bitcoins, anyone? Das Magazin’s Hannes Grassegger travels to RICHARD BRANSON’s Blockchain Summit on Necker Island and discovers how the global economy is being overturned by men in flip flops.
Michael J. Casey, Wall Street Journal senior columnist, left, and author Hannes
Michael J. Casey, Wall Street Journal senior columnist, left, and author Hannes
Left to right, Bites founder Elizabeth Rossiello, economist Hernando de Soto, pr
Left to right, Bites founder Elizabeth Rossiello, economist Hernando de Soto, pr
Your humble correspondent in pink shorts and white shirt, front, with Brock Pier
Your humble correspondent in pink shorts and white shirt, front, with Brock Pier
Summit participants enjoying the hot tub on top of Branson’s main villa. MIT’s B
Summit participants enjoying the hot tub on top of Branson’s main villa. MIT’s B
Last night: Ernst & Young’s Paul Brody taking a snapshot of Richard Branson, far
Last night: Ernst & Young’s Paul Brody taking a snapshot of Richard Branson, far
A young woman waves from a red pier. The breeze presses her short jumpsuit against her body. She waves with her right hand, while her left holds her sunhat in place. The captain brings the speedboat about, the motor sputters, and I jump off. “Welcome to Necker,” the woman breathes, “I’m Kezzia.” She turns, “Come with me.”

The air is that perfect temperature, somewhere in the high 20s, where you stop sensing your body and feel as though you are melting into the world. The crystal clear water of the Caribbean is just a few refreshing degrees cooler. The invitation said, “Smart Casual” – so I am wearing a white dress shirt with my swim trunks.

After a 36-hour journey, I have finally reached my des-tination: a private island belonging to the British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Kezzia leads me to a golf cart parked in the sand. I cannot help thinking of a video I saw in which one of Necker Island’s accountants cheerfully recounted serving as a human platter in a naked sushi dinner after finishing her office work. In an interview, Branson laughingly told of a new housekeeper on the island who wanted to institute a rule barring romantic relationships between employees and visitors, “It lasted exactly two days.” On Necker, there is no line between business and private life, at least for employees. For moments when Branson himself does not wish to be disturbed, he purchased the neighboring Mosquito Island. Only Larry Page, Branson’s kite-surfing buddy and CEO of Google, was recently allowed to buy himself a piece of land there.

The occasion of my trip is a gathering of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and radical anarcho-capitalists who make up the core of the bitcoin digital currency movement. What exactly this is all about remains completely unclear to me, but it seems they are getting together to plan a coup. “We look forward to welcoming you to paradise,” the invitation proclaimed.

I had already met a few of the participants on the way here. Standing at a kiosk on the beach waiting for a ferry, wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, was Michael Zeldin, 64, a prominent anti-money-laundering expert from the United States, familiar from his many appearances on CNN. Pre-viously a US delegate to the G7, he is now “Special Counsel” to a law firm that represents 17 of the 20 largest US banks. Next to him, dressed in swim trunks and holding a Carib beer, was Brock Pierce. Pierce, who claims to have invented the term “user-generated content,” rose from child star to millionaire tycoon of the old New Economy by age 17, then went underground after a sex scandal involving underage boys. While exiled in Spain, he built up an online-gaming empire selling virtual weapons in computer games, thereby becoming one of the most important digital currency entrepreneurs. He told me over a drink that he is currently an investor in 34 different companies.
Last night: Ernst & Young's Paul Brody taking a snapshot of Richard Branson, far-right, with Toni Lane Casserole, editor-in-chief of CoinTelegraph and the hottest woman in cryptocurrency.

Last night: Ernst & Young’s Paul Brody taking a snapshot of Richard Branson, far-right, with Toni Lane Casserole, editor-in-chief of CoinTelegraph and the hottest woman in cryptocurrency.

Like me, Pierce and Zeldin received invitations to tomorrow’s “Blockchain Summit Final Dinner,” a networking event on Branson’s island with a “cocktail reception and lemur feeding.” The Blockchain Summit is, according to the announcement, meant to bring together “the world’s greatest minds in digital innovation” to “define the future.” Essentially, what is happening is that a great deal of money and power are being gathered here, in the middle of the Caribbean, on a billionaire’s private island, for the purpose of plotting.

The golf cart trundles just a few meters over a narrow, stone-lined sand track and stops in front of a two-story wooden house. “The others are already up at lunch,” Kezzia says. “I suggest you get a drink, look around a bit, and then come join us.” “Do I need money?” I ask. She shakes her head, laughing, and flits away.

From the second story I hear the murmur of guests at lunch. The ground floor is a kind of tropical pub, open on all sides. To my left, a large flatscreen is playing a tennis match. Across from me is a clay tennis court, to my right, a gigantic pool table. Reggae bubbles out from hidden speakers. The middle of the room is occupied by a bar. On it, a brown creature with a dog-like face and the body of a monkey suckles someone’s left-behind drink. Presumably this is one of the lemurs that Branson had brought over from Madagascar to save from extinction. The lemur stares at me for a moment, then turns back to its drink.

I head towards the main building, up on the hill, following a path that leads past the tennis court and into the jungle. The smell of the island could be sold as a perfume – exotic wood with a hint of menthol and a bit of sea breeze. A net hangs in front of the trees, behind which I see two huge macaws. Branson boasts of having turned the island into a biotope. He has introduced hundreds of species to the island in order to protect them: a “Greatest Hits” of nature.

Branson evidently had two things on his mind when establishing his island: sex and drinks. His villa was built in Bali, then disassembled, shipped, and erected on Necker’s highest point. A wooden hot tub is enthroned on the roof, behind which waves the flag of the British Virgin Islands, the Union Jack on a blue background with the motto, “Be vigilant.” From here one can see the entire island: the beach house, the tennis court, the two ponds, a handful of scattered lovenests, and, in the distance, a few other islands. Next to the house is a shimmering green infinity pool that looks out on an endless Caribbean horizon.

Necker was also once the occasional refuge of Princess Diana. A handwritten letter to Branson testifies to her love of the place. Time and again, Branson has taken advantage of his island’s privacy to stage ambitious meetings, such as when he brought together politicians and entrepreneurs, like Tony Blair and Larry Page, to save the world from climate change.

Below, I see the solar panels that provide the island’s electricity. On a hidden pier, workers are unloading one of the boats that run constantly, supplying the island with everything, including sunscreen and an energy drink called “Pussy.”

Only a select few dozen people have received an invitation to the Necker Island summit. Originally, the group included no women. All had to undertake a strenuous journey, as the island lies on the easternmost edge of the British Virgin Islands, two hours east of Jamaica by plane. The entry fee alone is several thousand dollars per day.

In his opening speech, Branson invited his guests to rate their business plans in terms of “Scale of Effect on Society.” This was accompanied by a musical interlude by star cellist Zoë Keating, who spent the rest of her stay on Necker Island excitedly posting snapshots of Branson’s giant tortoises on Instagram.

From the rooftop hot tub, I walk past a few terraces to reach a hall with a ceiling high enough to accommodate full-size palm trees. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling. It seems this is where the main events are to take place. A few books with titles like An Optimist’s Tour of the Future or An Experiment in Industrial Democracy lie strewn across the landscape of cozy couches.

We live in an age obsessed with progress, comparable to the end of the 19th century, when new technologies such as the railroad and the telephone were changing everything and generating previously undreamt-of riches. Our age, like that one, has seen an explosion in the number of the super-rich. Today, the Rockefellers are Zuckerberg, Page, Gates, and – one of the first of them – Richard Branson. There are currently around 1,800 billionaires, as measured in dollars. In the past few years, their fortunes have increased so massively that they have begun wondering what to do with all the money. At the same time, there is a valley near San Francisco full of technology entrepreneurs who need money for their business ventures – lots of money.

The goal of these entrepreneurs is to rebuild existing industries with new technology, monopolize the market, and watch the profits roll in. They call this “disruption” – as Airbnb has done in the hotel industry, or Uber in the realm of taxis. The larger the target industry, the better. Google has a secret laboratory for testing so-called “moonshots”: ideas so megalomaniacal that anyone would consider them impossible – anyone who did not have a few billion to spare on their realization, that is.

It is just such a project that Richard Branson has in mind. On the other side of the bar, several rows of wicker chairs are set up facing a flatscreen emblazoned with the words: “Blockchain Summit – The Vision.” It is clear to me that this is a gathering of a bunch of people whose time is short and expensive. Such people do not meet just for fun, but perhaps also for fun.

Nor is Branson’s choice of residence accidental. The British Virgin Islands – or BVI, for short – of which Necker is one, are the most popular offshore tax haven in the world. By developing a complicated network of BVI companies, Branson has succeeded in confounding the English authorities to the point that he pays almost no taxes at all in his native land. Every English child has heard of Necker Island. It is a dream island that represents the idea that an individual can beat the state.
Summit participants enjoying the hot tub on top of Branson's main villa. MIT's Brian Forde, Digital Currency Director, middle left, with Tina Hui, entrepreneur, consultant, advisor, and philanthropist (self-described), middle right, and one of the organizers of Estonian/Ukrainian company Bitfury, a Bitcoin Blockchain infrastructure provider, right.

Summit participants enjoying the hot tub on top of Branson’s main villa. MIT’s Brian Forde, Digital Currency Director, middle left, with Tina Hui, entrepreneur, consultant, advisor, and philanthropist (self-described), middle right, and one of the organizers of Estonian/Ukrainian company Bitfury, a Bitcoin Blockchain infrastructure provider, right.

To moderate the summit, Branson has booked one of the most renowned writers on finance technology, Wall Street Journal columnist Michael J. Casey, who recently published The Age of Crypto-Currency, a book on digital currencies like bitcoin and its underlying programming principle, the “blockchain.” The blockchain, Casey explains in the book, is simply a register, a vast bank-book, a digital ledger, that lists every individual transfer of money. In contrast to our current money system, in which every bank maintains its own centralized register to verify whether the correct quantities of money are being moved, the blockchain decentralizes the verification, thereby creating a “shared common ledger” that operates on every connected computer. Thus, the blockchain allows every bitcoin user to take on the functions of a bank. But this is just incidental. The blockchain does not only make digital money impossible to forge. In principle, Casey prophesizes, the technology could even replace companies, law firms, and agencies whose main job is to manage assets.

Under a sun canopy on the beach, I encounter a bunch of men in their 30s. All are in shorts, rather pasty, with the beginnings of a paunch. A bearded giant by the name of Oliver Luckett plays rap on the kind of small, tube-shaped boombox often used by teenagers in parks. He tells how he recently bought a $ 10,000 Rolls Royce on Craigslist, only to torch it with flamethrowers for the rapper’s video. It went viral, since all the video’s participants already had so many followers on the web. “A bargain, right?” he asks. The others nod.
Your humble correspondent in pink shorts and white shirt, front, with Brock Pierce, middle, and co-organiser Bill Tai, Hon Kong-Chines Investor.

Your humble correspondent in pink shorts and white shirt, front, with Brock Pierce, middle, and co-organiser Bill Tai, Hon Kong-Chines Investor.

For turning the rapper into an Internet celebrity, Oliver is paid by the musician’s label. Luckett’s company, the Audience, also ran Obama’s social media campaign for a time. Before that, he worked for Disney. In the digital empire, he is the Minister of Propaganda.

Over on a sandbar, I see a catamaran with a dozen people next to it. Perhaps Branson is there. “Do you want to try something?” one of the beach beaus asks. He leads me over to a shack filled with surfboards, sails, and snorkels. On the wall hangs a photo of Branson, grinning broadly for the camera. He stands on a surfboard, holding a kite-sail in front of him while a nude model hangs on him like a backpack.

A Dutchman in his 50s, who introduces himself as Marc, wants to try paddleboarding. I decide to join him. Marc invests in startups. He flew in from Vancouver. “Why did you come?” I ask him. The trainer positions the board on some calm water for us. “Bitcoin is gradually turning into a serious thing,” Marc says as he tries to stand on the wobbly board, “Look at who’s here – a president of Samsung, a chief strategy officer of Ernst & Young. Did you hear that Obama’s favorite economist, Larry Summers, has gotten involved with a bitcoin bank? And the founder of Visa?”

In the tropical pub, I run into Michael J. Casey. He looks like one of those classic American war reporters on TV with their oversize microphones, only that he is Australian. We order Painkillers, an excellent coconut-based cocktail, and start chatting. “Since the crisis in 2008,” Casey says, “the financial system has been completely broken. They’ve tried to camouflage the fact by printing more dollars, but money is just a product, and now there’s a surplus of it. Look what’s happening in Switzerland. Negative interest rates. You’re actually paying to give someone money. Of course, people are looking to other assets, houses or whatever. But what are they supposed to use for currency?” Casey shakes his head. “The fundamental problem of the financial crisis was that everything was too interconnected. Centralization. Insanely enough, it’s gotten even worse. Meanwhile, the entire in-ternational economy depends on two central banks. Do you call that stable? Bitcoin is the alternative to this broken money system.”

It is nearly time for the evening cocktail reception. I walk back from the tropical pub to Branson’s villa with Luckett and an Australian man. The Australian takes us to his room, which costs just over $ 2,000 per night. It’s a good price – usually one has to rent the entire island for $ 65,000 a day. For this budget rate, the Australian has to share the room with the elderly futurist Marshall Thurber. Out on the balcony, Casey is filming the sunset. “It’s such a thrilling time,” he says. “Imagine experiencing the birth of the Internet. That’s about how big this is.”

Though the first guests arrived yesterday, the meeting on Branson’s island officially began with a session in the big hall this morning. No one is really clear on the specifics of the program. We go over to the big hall to drink sundowners. Casey plops onto a sofa next to a plump bald man in a wine-red polo shirt. He is just telling the story of how he wrote the constitution of Peru. This is Hernando de Soto. His business is advising governments. When De Soto has a question about Russia, as Casey explains it, “Hernando” just calls Putin – and he picks up. Bill Clinton once called De Soto the “greatest living economist.” To ensure that Hernando could get to the meeting on time, the premier of the Virgin Islands personally faxed him a visa. De Soto has frighteningly strong, hairy arms, which he moves like a crab’s pincers. This morning, the Peruvian had primed the participants for their mission: to bring capitalism to life. For true capitalism does not yet exist.
Left to right, Bites founder Elizabeth Rossiello, economist Hernando de Soto, prominent figurehead of libertarian economics, and Georgian entrepreneur George Kikvabze, vice chairman of the board of Bitfury, co-organizer of the summit, and great fan of de Soto

Left to right, Bites founder Elizabeth Rossiello, economist Hernando de Soto, prominent figurehead of libertarian economics, and Georgian entrepreneur George Kikvabze, vice chairman of the board of Bitfury, co-organizer of the summit, and great fan of de Soto

Poverty, according to the theory that brought De Soto international fame, is not exploitation, but exclusion. In other words, people are unable to participate in capitalism because they have nothing to bargain with. Slum residents, for example, build huts but cannot own them, as there is no place and no law that will register them. If they had some kind of official paper, a certified claim to the property, a title, the hut would be worth something. They could sell it, or take on debt to start a business. To raise people out of poverty, therefore, their valuables must somehow be linked to them as individuals. They must have property rights.

In most countries, this is next to impossible. De Soto opens a folder of papers: the three dozen applications necessary to register a company in Peru. A “physical blockchain,” he says, that takes hundreds of days to process. If such situations were remedied, world poverty would end, and true capitalism would blossom. The participants were rapt.

Next to De Soto sits Brian Forde, a quiet man who served until recently in the White House as Obama’s technology advisor. Now he is working to set up the Digital Currency Initiative at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as traveling around the world convincing governments and companies to give the blockchain a try.

We are greeted at the dinner party by hundreds of screeching flamingos. A fire is burning, chefs stand at the buffet, and a long, white table has been prepared. Other than the employees, almost no one followed the dress code “Evening in White.” Most are wearing shorts. Suits are the mantel of civilization, too confining for these people. Suddenly, a shark fin appears in the sea behind the buffet. One of the guests giggles and tosses a chicken drumstick into the water. “Save Water, Drink Champaign,” his shirt reads.

I am seated across from Paul Brody, a slim executive from San Francisco with short, greying hair. Cheerfully, he speaks in a nasal voice of being wiped off the tennis court by Branson at seven in the morning, “Impressive for 65!” Brody has been trying out all of the island’s personal trainers. A little morning weightlifting, “all-inclusive.” I ask how much he paid to come here. “Hmm,” he calculates, “the company paid. My rate, which would be $ 36,000 for three days, plus the flight, plus accommodation here on the island, 8,000 … the participation fee. About 50,000.”

Brody is a minor star in Silicon Valley. His husband negotiated Facebook’s purchase of Instagram. Brody himself had 6,000 people working under him at IBM, where his focus was the Internet of Things. Now he is the American “Strategy Leader” for Ernst & Young. Somehow we get onto the subject of cycling. “I love it!” he says, “I used to ride a lot until I was hit by a car. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t get on a bike again until there are only self-driving cars.” Our tablemate nods enthusiastically: “People are too fallible. We have to take them out of the equation.”

Next to Brody sits Jeff Garzik, one of bitcoin’s core developers. At the moment, he is looking for investors to help him put mini-satellites into orbit for a special bitcoin network. “No government in the world would be able to control bitcoin anymore,” he says. Later, I run into a group of people who are lounging on a sofa, passing around an e-cigarette filled with liquid marijuana. Some are part of Branson’s service team. One of them tells me that it takes 120 people to keep the island running every day. He earns $ 1200 a month: Brody’s hourly rate.

Around nine o’clock the next morning, there is a breakfast buffet: bacon, eggs, tomatoes, croissants, and kale juice to detox. Here, fair-trade granola bars meet champagne bottles with a golden label reading, “Sir Richard Branson’s Private Island.”

Over at the muesli bowl, I find myself suddenly face-to-face with Richard Branson. “Hi!” he says with a friendly smile. He has a surfer’s lion-gold mane, almost neon-ish, which goes well with his large mouth and huge teeth bordered by a darker goatee. Branson is tan and wears a grey Nike t-shirt and swim trunks. He grabs a glass of fruit juice and walks away with his muesli. I follow him to a veranda with a long wooden table, plenty big enough for the thirty people who are staying in Branson’s villa.

The life of a billionaire, I am beginning to understand, is like a reality TV competition. De Soto, Forde, Casey, and Luckett sit around Branson, all of them trying to sell him on their projects and plans in as few sentences as possible. This is an “elevator pitch”: the 90 seconds one has to try to convince the investor of a lifetime to join in a business venture. Branson, with an estimated worth of five billion dollars and a reputation for wild business ideas, is an amazing opportunity. An elevator manufacturer once suggested to Branson that he install one here on the island expressly for elevator pitches.

Branson listens calmly, eating his muesli and sipping coffee. Now and then, he asks a question in his gentle voice. His pronounced stutter is well under control. When he tries to go back to the buffet, he cannot make it more than a few meters without being detained, to listen to a new idea or to pose for a photo that will immediately be posted online, thereby increasing the market value of the person posing with him.
Michael J. Casey, Wall Street Journal senior columnist, left, and author Hannes Grassegger, right, enjoining the sunset from a balcony on Necker Island.

Michael J. Casey, Wall Street Journal senior columnist, left, and author Hannes Grassegger, right, enjoining the sunset from a balcony on Necker Island.

At around ten, we arrive at the main event. The 35 attendees, who include five women and one black man, gather around the flatscreen in the big hall. Some of them have prepared short presentations. Brody, the star executive, explains that in the near future practically everything will be online. “Every toaster will have a chip like this one here,” he says, holding up his iPhone charger. “This chip has more processing power than the first iPhone,” he says happily. “This device could connect to the net. And what happens to things when they go online? We record their usage, start measuring their capacity, and try to increase it. Like fitness, thanks to Fitbit wristbands that count our steps. Like apartments, that we sublet on Airbnb when we’re away. Like cars, that you can rent when they’re not being used.”

“Unused potential is everywhere,” Brody continues. If there were a method for indexing this potential and trading with it, the market would be “tremendous, unbelievable.” The blockchain is precisely the tool to manage an “internet of value,” in which “everything” would be tradeable. De Soto beams.

The blockchain would finally allow capitalism to move into the realm of the Internet. This has always failed in the past, because in digital environments, everything is so easy to copy. Therefore nothing is scarce, which is why digital content, like music, images, and text, is almost always free, or extremely protected. The blockchain’s comprehensive ability to allocate each piece of code within its system could completely eliminate the possibility of copying a song, for example, because who has which digital copy when would be traceable. A digital magazine based on the blockchain system would have unique copies, just like a printed magazine. It could be bought and sold like a physical object.

A long-haired computer scientist named Patrick Deegan demonstrates one of the idea’s applications. He has used blockchain to create digital passports that allow people to register their possessions. Deegan talks about “smart contracts”: digital agreements that execute themselves automatically, like leased cars that will not start if the installment has not been paid. Administrative staff would be unnecessary. Deegan is optimistic. Blockchain, it seems, could automate bureaucracy. It could replace millions of employees. A moonshot.

All of this dramatically serves the common good, most of the speakers say during their presentations. One speaker invokes the visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, a kind of Abraham in the epic of Silicon Valley. He hands out Fuller’s bible, Spaceship Earth, and tells how “Bucky” passed on his mission in his last days: “On personal integrity hangs humanity’s fate.” He then presents a rating system for humans in which people are continually evaluated. Like the taxi service Uber, where customers rate drivers and drivers rate customers, but for all of life, visible to everyone. To conclude, Luckett – the Rolls Royce burner – demonstrates that the development of the Internet and the blockchain is not only spiritually correct, but deeply natural: nature too is organized in networks. As proof, he shows pictures of networks of mushrooms next to visualizations of social media networks. The applause is frenetic.

During a short pause, the participants gather on the giant chess terrace for a 3D group picture. As the picture-snapping drone approaches from the blue skies, everyone raises their arms and cheers it.

At lunch, served in the lower pool, the mood is euphoric. As I sink into the water, a girl launches a little boat laden with drinks in my direction. “Sake cocktail?” Next comes a flower-bedecked kayak filled with sushi. A French star-chef serves cuisine in his swim trunks. From the palm-leaf-covered pool bar I hear electro-pop from the band Ratatat: “Cream on Chrome.” A slackline is stretched across the pool. The sinewy Hong Kong investor and summit co-organizer, Bill Tai, is the first to give it a try, but falls after two steps. Then Will O’Brien, a 33-year-old from Palo Alto, sets his sights on the far side. A few people clap and holler. He starts, runs two or three steps, the line swings, and he slips, for a moment horizontal in the air, then hits the line with his chest. The splash when he hits the water reaches my sushi boat. For a second everything stops, then O’Brien surfaces. He immediately tries again.

Over coconut water at the bar, I talk to an investment banker with gelled blond hair. He is high. “Fantastic, man! My business is number one at getting money out of China. It’s complicated as hell, nothing but regulations, transparency, and limits. Huge monitoring costs … I think efficiency is going to increase tremendously.” “How?” I ask. “When everything goes through blockchain … I could fire half my team,” he beams, “lawyers, notaries, bankers – they just do what blockchain does automatically.” Then a woman in a tight black dress with a huge floppy hat steals his attention. The party guests for later have arrived.

I grab a sushi roll. The fresh fish is excellent, and must have been flown in from far away, as a strange virus has made the fish around here inedible. A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties paddles near me. He trades in bitcoin and commutes between London and France. His eyes gleam: “Huge sectors of government do nothing but manage assets and execute contracts. Not just the central banks, but the passport agencies, registration offices, land registries for real estate. All of that will be unnecessary.” As a senior venture capitalist sinks into the water next to us, still holding his Blackberry, the man whispers conspiratorially, “C’est une revolution.”

We climb out of the pool, and a thin young Arab man stands before me, his moustache more fuzz than hair. “Salaam,” he says with a benevolent smile. “He’s from the Emirates,” my new friend explains as we walk towards the beach. “He could be the first big blockchain investor from there. He might be richer than Branson. In any case, Branson forbid him from bringing his bodyguards to the island.”

On the beach, I grab a snorkel. I swim along the ocean floor, passing a ball-shaped creature. It is half a meter wide and it is pulsing. Strange, large fish are everywhere, it seems.

The “final dinner” is about to begin. It is around seven, and I am waiting for Tina Hui. She runs a social media site about bitcoin. She posts updates constantly, even while doing her makeup. “I can’t ever look bad,” she says, “I’m always online.” Tina is one of the few women who were added to the guest list after the organizers were criticized for inviting only men. The others include an astrophysicist who works for Branson’s spaceship company, a famous attorney, and Elizabeth Rossiello, who is working on a social project for bitcoin in Africa. This is great for the currency’s reputation, as bitcoin will never be adopted by the masses as long as it is seen as money for Internet gangsters. To the same end, this morning an inconspicuous gentleman with an extreme comb-over and an apricot linen shirt – previously employed by the Department of Justice – had suggested cooperation with “state agencies.” A strategic cease-fire, so to speak.

We make it to the tropical pub just in time. The chef has prepared a Moroccan-style meal, perhaps in honor of the young sheikh. The table is U-shaped. There are now some seventy guests on the island. I see Brock Pierce, Michael Zeldin, and several ladies in dresses. Torches are stuck in the sand. Rosé from New Zealand is poured. Across from me sits Ted Rogers, who looks like the coxswain of a rowing team. Rogers is president of the bitcoin vault Xapo, which Larry Summers just joined after ending his candidacy for president of the Federal Reserve. Bitcoin entrepreneurs have to get out of the pirates’ islands, Rogers says, and into clean countries. Xapo has one of its legal headquarters in Argentina, another one in Switzerland. “Switzerland could become the home of bitcoin,” he suggests. He finds the culture of privacy and the hands-off government optimal. “And the legislators are reasonable, too. You can talk to them.” He has just explained that there is an important community of bitcoin supporters in the Swiss town of Zug when Branson appears.

Cello music wafts over the tennis court and the guests recline on pillows arranged in a semi-circle, while Branson sits enthroned on a sofa with the sheikh to his left. The cellist Zoë Keating leaves the stage. De Soto stands, his act is next.

For a brief moment, Branson is alone. “Sir,” I say. He bows. “You signed the Sex Pistols.” He nods, baring his teeth to smile. At the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, Branson chartered a boat on the Thames, on which the punk band famously mocked the monarch. The police got involved, of course, and the media was there, filming everything. The scandal put the Sex Pistols’ single on the charts and made Branson a lot of money.

There are two kinds of billionaire. One makes money off the system. Branson makes money off its destruction.

“Is it still all about the same thing as back then?” I ask. “Against the state, against banks?” Sir Richard grins and raises his hand for a high five. “Sure, man. You got it.”

“Capital!” cries De Soto. He makes a fist, scanning the crowd. “The word comes from Caesar’s head on Roman coins – from ‘caput’ – head.”

His voice is strong, and even the cellist is listening. “This head is the power.” De Soto raises his fist. “And this head is you.”

Branson looks like a boy seeing his model airplane lift off the ground for the first time. De Soto points to his audience.

“You’re part of the creation of a new capital.”

There is a brief silence.

“Yes!” Branson says from his divan. “Yes!” and he begins to clap. The others join him and the applause fills the island.

The closing beach party was a flop.
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