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Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and the New Heroic American Capitalism

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Last Monday, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, spent $250 million of his many billions to buy The Washington Post. Yesterday, in a strangely synchronous bookend, Elon Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, published his vision for the future of mass transportation -- the instantly famous Hyperloop -- in an open-source PDF on his blog. Today, he said he will likely fund a demonstration model of it himself.

Superficially, these events are totally unrelated. Bezos is investing in a venerable institution with dicey economics, and will attempt to leverage his skills at digital disruption to reinvent it for the 21st century. Musk -- who has poured millions of his fortune into Tesla Motors and SpaceX -- is more of a dreamy imaginer than Bezos, and thinks it would be "cool to see an alternative form of transport."

But as different as a newspaper is from a rail system in which passengers will hurtle 800 mph in solar-powered electromagnetic tubes, Bezos and Musk represent a new breed of heroic American capitalist. They're marked by a boldness and anti-insider stance that proclaims the sky -- literally -- is the limit.

It's to be expected. Today's billionaires - Internet billionaires at least - made their fortunes outside the system, in fact, often by kicking the system in its butt - and they are possessed by restless intelligences and vast ambition. They are serial world-changers. The Jetsons is their shopping list.

This radical imagining goes beyond Bezos and Musk. Two other two-founders of PayPal, Peter Thiel and Max Levchin are also investing with panoramic vision. The Thiel Foundation is supporting research in long-stretch initiatives ranging from anti-aging -- with the Methuselah Mouse Project - to establishing "permanent, autonomous ocean communities." Levchin just launched Glow, a pregnancy app with an innovative pay-it-forward model to help fund fertilization for those who cannot be helped by the app's data-driven model.

You can add Jeffrey Skoll to the Marvel compendium of superheroes; Skoll who was the first employee at eBay is worth over $3 billion, and funds movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman through his company Participant Media.

And let's not forget the elder statesman of heroic capitalism, the original geek Bill Gates, who reinvented himself from a Justice Department target to the world's most generous benefactor. They are all models of a new generation of Heroic American Capitalists, who combine big dreaming with an intense, hands-on entrepreneurial style. (CNET notes that Musk pulled an all-nighter before the Hyperloop press conference; can you imagine the CEO of any Fortune 500 possessed by the joyful, youthful enthusiasm to do that?)

In a sense, what Bezos, Musk and their peers are doing for society is returning the favor that society did for them. And when I say "society" I'm not speaking of the leaden, conventional sources of capital. Amazon, PayPal and the other disruptive businesses started by our new Heroic Capitalists were birthed by the ability and willingness of venture firms -- not traditional banks -- to see their vision and invest behind it.

In fact, there's something deeply telling about the Bezos and Musk stories appearing at virtually the same time as the traditional centers of American banking wallow in self-imposed muck and mire. JPMorgan Chase continues to struggle with its "London Whale" problem; Goldman's Fabrice "Fabulous Fab" Tourre got nailed by the SEC; and a potential new round of civil charges against Bank of America is looming.

You won't find the fingerprints of these Wall Street bastions of power on anything that Bezos or Musk have created. Our leading financial institutions -- the ones that were bailed out, that S&P warns are still too big to fail -- don't make money by supporting entrepreneurs who create industries, jobs, and provide America with its only sustainable economic edge.

They make their money by high-frequency trading -- making millions by buying and dumping futures or equities in less than a nanosecond. That's not Heroic Capitalism, that's Heroin Capitalism. That's why Time calls it "Wall Street's doomsday machine." Never in history has so much been made with so little social benefit.

Ironically our new Heroic Capitalists have more in common with their predecessors than they might realize. Yes, it's true that the first generations of Big Capitalist Dudes -- the Morgans, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts didn't work outside the system; in fact, they owned and created and manipulated it for their own benefit.

But they did think grandly. It's well known that they created the structures of modern philanthropy. And they did make bold investments, some of which worked and some which didn't. And that, surprisingly, brings us back around to Musk and Bezos, to the eponymous Tesla and newspapers.

J.P.Morgan actually invested in both of them. In 1900, "Morgan invested $150,000 in Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower, a high power transatlantic radio transmission project." Unfortunately, Tesla ran out of money and Marconi beat him to the punch with a less expensive technology. (Tesla is a personal hero of Musk, and he recently invested money to save his lab from destruction.}

A few years earlier, the owner of the Chattanooga Times approached Morgan about obtaining funding to buy a financially struggling newspaper. The Chattanooga Times was owned by Adolph Ochs, and the newspaper he ended up buying, thanks to Morgan, was The New York Times.

So the heroic history of one of the world's richest men bailing out a newspaper turns out, after all, to be a headline we've read before.