Imagine you are growing up in Moscow, part of a family of eight living in a small apartment. The Berlin Wall fell not too long ago. Four times a year, you join your siblings in unpacking large boxes of buckwheat that your mother has kept stacked against a wall. You spread the kernels, pluck out the weevils, bake it all at a sterilizing temperature, and pack it up again. You are preparing for the future.
Around you, there is piracy and chaos. But you’re enterprising, and keep to your path. At university, you hardly sleep, and you eat what you can afford. Why do you work yourself this way? It’s not as if you’re getting paid for it.
Another version of yourself, in another time, though, is. Now, living in the California sun with some success, you reflect on your poor, wan, sleepless younger self and feel a wave of gratitude, and then of prickly regret. The kid you were had different dreams; it strikes you as unfair that you sit pretty on the spoils of that person’s efforts. If you could take some of your wealth and send it backward in time, to your younger self, you would.
We usually think of inequalities as extending from bottom to top: I earn a little wealth over eight hours; Bill Gates earns much more. But there are also inequalities that extend longitudinally, from the past into the future. Your young self does labor for which your older self collects rewards. Such timing issues—how much money you receive or can spend now and later—have effects on your financial fate. In a more equal world, you cannot help but think, people would draw on their lifetime wealth throughout their lives, not merely at the pinnacle of their careers. You notice that older generations and big corporations rule the roost in the United States, but it’s not clear why this should be so.
At your day job, which deals in shareholder capital, you impress your graying superiors, while at night you talk with young friends who, beset by debt and meagre wages, feel they’re barely eking out a life. You dream of what would happen if the money from your day job could cross over to your friends at night. Imagine that this idea becomes a fixation, so much that you decide you’d risk a piece of your own future on a solution. And now imagine that, instead of being one person, you are two.
Daniil and David Liberman, two entrepreneur brothers who purport to share a single life, met me one chilly November afternoon in midtown, and we set off for a walk through Central Park. The brothers have a sandy shade of hair and a punctilious Eastern European way of furrowing their brows and making little tutting noises as they zero in on the mot juste. They were fresh from Playa Vista, California, a residential and office-space hamlet whose chief virtue is its proximity to LAX. Daniil, who is older, at thirty-nine, has a gaunt, freckled face, and when we met was wearing his hair in the long, curling style of George Frideric Handel. David, a year younger, resembles Stephen Hawking in his youth. For some days, they’d been courted by fancy investors, with a schedule that included a trip in a private helicopter, an experience they found fun but, like most things that aren’t part of what they call their “mission,” distracting. “We need to get back home so we can really work,” Daniil, who was wearing green trousers with Pokémon and flowers on the legs, told me. The brothers’ mission, they think, is chasing the future, so in one way or another they are usually playing catch-up.
Few members of the general public have heard of the Libermans or their work, which has a looping, manic trajectory, like an ant’s climb up a candy cane. Yet they belong to a rising techie class that quietly traffics novel-seeming ideas among powerful people, shaping the wider world we live in along the way. In the past decade, the brothers led the design of the 3-D-Bitmoji feature on Snapchat, helped put out a hit Russian political-satire show, and devised an approach to capping corporate returns for investors. They have a way of popping up, like a lanky, pale Bill and Ted, in the background of interesting moments, with improbable associates. One friend of theirs calls them “hilariously networked.” Another, Jerry Murdock, found them on his path toward spiritual relief.
“I was on a honeymoon in 2010 in Dharamshala, spending part of it in the palace with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and on the way out of there we met Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche, who’s the reincarnation of a saint named Pema Lingpa, and he said, ‘You’ve got to meet these two brothers I know!’ ” Murdock, a co-founder of Insight Partners, which holds one of the world’s largest venture-capital funds, told me. “So I would fly around to different cities of the world, and the Libermans would be there—London, New York, Geneva, Zermatt—and we would walk down the street and talk.” Small talk with the brothers veers toward big ideas; Murdock, having led an investment round in Twitter, asked them for their thoughts about the future of the platform. (The Libermans: Broaden it into a full-service mobile-messaging app—a role now filled by WhatsApp. Murdock: “It’s unfortunate that Twitter didn’t do that.”) Murdock boasted of a meeting between the brothers and the Dalai Lama. “The Dalai Lama seemed to like them a lot,” he said. “Then I introduced them to Richard Branson.”
The excitement that some people say they get from being with the Libermans can sound like other people’s episodes with psychedelic drugs. “There’s this blending of contrasting qualities—abstract global-transformation thinking combined with getting in there and debugging code,” Ken Caldeira, a leading climate scientist in whose guesthouse the Libermans once lived for several months, told me. The brothers’ specialty is reframing problems on a large scale by poring over minutiae, often with a turn of nerdy showmanship. (A characteristic post on their Instagram feed starts with a photograph of a shirtless Daniil and proceeds to ruminations on the second law of thermodynamics.) Born to two Soviet scientists, they wryly describe being “experimented on” during their youth, and at least one experiment—enrollment in the same grade, despite their age difference—had lasting effects. Today, the brothers answer messages, phone calls, and Zoom invites as a single entity, and haven’t been apart for more than some twenty days, then only because of a passport snafu. “We realized we are sort of a superhuman when we’re together,” Daniil said. At home, the brothers share a single king-size bed.
“In Russian, you can construct the phrase ‘thinking against’ someone else,” Daniil told me on the way to the Sheep Meadow, as I raced to keep up with them. “Or maybe it’s ‘by means of’?”
“That’s definitely been our personal life experience,” David said.
Like many people in technology, the Libermans also have personal life experience drawing financial success from a long series of failures. Their first major venture, in Moscow, was an online multiplayer video-game startup that crashed hard in the financial collapse of 2009. Chased by angry investors, they bid on a contract to animate an irreverent weekly sketch show called “Mult Lichnosti” (literally, “Cartoon Personalities”—in Russian, a pun on the phrase “personality cult”). The brothers, working with their two sisters, Anna and Maria, came up with a way of breaking down the animation workflow into tiny bits to animate half an hour of TV in just a few days. The show’s timely satire, often skewering the Kremlin, became an emblem of the loosening Medvedev years.
When it was cancelled, in 2012, at the outset of the second Putin Presidency, the brothers turned their sights to Hollywood, boarding a flight from Moscow to LAX every few weeks and scheduling back-to-back meetings. “We were meeting writers, meeting celebrities,” Daniil said. It didn’t last. “Nobody knew what to do with them,” said Josh Lieb, who, in an interlude between working as an executive producer on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the showrunner of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” teamed up with the Liberman brothers to work on animated shorts, a couple of pilots, and sketches drawn from the comic “Achewood,” none of which went anywhere. (Lieb later got them a brief gig consulting on “Silicon Valley.”) In 2014, tired of dead ends, the brothers left L.A. for the techie Bay Area.
There the Libermans launched a platform to help nonprofits be more transparent in their financials. That product flopped. They tried again with an augmented-reality startup, Kernel AR, that superimposed animated images on real-time video, and this one hit. In October, 2016, Kernel AR was acquired by Snap, which runs Snapchat. The company brought on the four Liberman siblings as product developers and created comparable technology as the basis for Snapchat’s 3-D Bitmoji, which lets users move cartoon avatars through the camera world, like a real-time Roger Rabbit. By 2018, more than half of users in the thirteen-to-thirty-four-year-old demographic were engaging with augmented-reality lenses such as 3-D Bitmoji each week, and the Libermans led a team in the company’s L.A. headquarters, receiving compensation partly in Snap shares.
That year, Snapchat inexplicably began losing users. The price of Snap stock, which, in 2017, had gone public at twenty-four dollars a share, fell below six, and the Libermans watched their compensation shrivel. Inside the company, teams were dispatched to try to figure out what had gone wrong. The Liberman siblings had access to the same data as every other team, but they took an unusual tack, considering the timing of user loss and putting everything at the feet of a major rewrite of the Snapchat app for Android, which was running like molasses. The app was streamlined, Snapchat’s user base began to climb again, and by the time the Libermans had all left, in the spring of 2021, the company’s stock was trading at approximately sixty dollars. In the eyes of some people, their insight turned the company around. “That was the game changer for Snapchat, to reaccelerate growth and success,” Murdock, an investor, said. “And it came from the Libermans’ ideas.”
Now, after years of being ideas people to the world’s ideas people, the brothers had come to New York to fund-raise for a big and lucrative idea of their own. In Central Park, they told me that, with Maria and Anna, they’d created an entity called Libermans Co. It held all the income from their enterprises; any debts, assets, and profits they might gain; and any investments they might make or companies they might start for the next thirty years. They had gathered all these elements and sold shares in the whole, offering investors, effectively, a stake in their entire financial future—shares in their life. So far, the Libermans have traded around three per cent of their futures, which investors have valued at four hundred million dollars, or about a hundred million dollars per Liberman. They spent a few months in conversation with the Securities and Exchange Commission to list themselves on the stock market, which they hope to do by 2023.
“It’s a proof of concept in an extreme way,” David told me.
“It probably sounds stupid—‘rich guys from the tech world become even richer,’ ” Daniil said. (According to the personal tax returns they show to prospective investors—the brothers live two separate lives in the eyes of the I.R.S.—each has a yearly income in the seven figures.)
Improbably, though, the Libermans see this endeavor as part of an effort to stem twenty-first-century inequality. If they can sell life shares, they think, others can, too. “We’re between worlds, and it allows us to be in both skins,” Daniil said. “In the skin of people used to the way capital usually works, and in today’s world, which requires something new.”
America is now beset by twinned and yet somewhat opposing beliefs: that the country has not delivered on its promise of financial opportunity for all, and that the institutions empowered to deliver on that promise are untrustworthy and beside the point. Seniors as a group have grown wealthier for years, while people younger than thirty-five are poorer. Student debt has roughly doubled just in the past decade; Pew finds that trust in government is falling toward an all-time low. This mistrust seems to transcend ethnicity, age, and partisanship, and its sway on ideas in personal finance is plain. Young people now create personal brands online and trade cryptocurrencies, N.F.T.s, and other unregulated direct-market products to try to make a buck. The Libermans and their idea of helping others get ahead by selling futures on the market are the avatars of this era’s desperate reach.
In Playa Vista, the brothers live somewhere called the Villas: a vast housing development, lined with palm trees and banana plants, that looks not unlike a Soviet apartment block transplanted to paradise. It was warm when I arrived one afternoon, with breezes wafting in off the Pacific. Daniil was wrapped in a scarf and a thick winter coat. He hadn’t consumed anything but water for seven days, in an effort to treat a chronic sinus infection that he attributed to earlier, more stressful periods of his youth. He had been suffering in silence when a friend claimed that water fasting helped his acne. Daniil tried it. “My nostrils were opened for the first time in seven years!” he said. Now he did a weeklong fast once every three months. “The body definitely thinks you’re dying,” he said cheerily, wiping some drips from his nose. Then, as the home chef and epicurean of the pair, he yanked open the refrigerator to fix David lunch.
The brothers had invited me to set up shop in their spare bedroom, on the premise that almost all their important work was done around the house. The proposal was irregular, but so was everything about their situation, and after some chin-rubbing conversations at the magazine it was agreed I should accept. The room was outfitted with a low berth, a desk, a paperback book (“You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What It Means to Be Human”), and a hose-like apparatus for steam-pressing suits. I peered into the closet, which had sliding mirrored doors, and found it filled with wine bottles of carbonated tea: the brothers don’t drink alcohol, and bestow fizzy tea on everyone they know, for toasts.
I went back to the kitchen. Daniil was serving David soup and cold cuts the color of wet hay. (The brothers are vegetarians, mostly for climate-protection reasons.) Except for a kitchen table, a generic gray L-shaped couch, a massage chair, and a garish hot-pink rug, the space was basically empty. “We usually leave the apartment unlocked,” Daniil said. “There’s nothing to steal, and our friends in other apartments sometimes come to use our printer.”
I asked some questions while David talked over his cooling soup and Daniil, easing off his fast, sipped a steaming, murky green fluid from a mug that said “adult-ing is hard.” The heart of their thinking, they began to explain, was a belief that younger generations were disempowered.
“This is our major idea,” David said. “But then there are a lot of projects in, uh—”
“Branches,” Daniil said, reaching out to butter David’s toast.
“—a variety of branches of this idea, which we constantly are, uh, uh—”
“—testing or experimenting with,” David went on. “If you move here from outside, especially if you want to build projects, you quite immediately experience that—”
“The opportunities are enormous!” Daniil said.
“—the market is bigger,” David went on. “Also—”
“Go eat!” Daniil told him sternly, and David bowed his head and began slurping soup. Then he popped up again.
“All the conversation was about how in debt young people are!” David said.
The brothers understood the feeling of being pinioned. Their father, Efim Arsentievich Liberman, had been a prodigy who enrolled in university early, trained as a physicist, and became—to the extent that a Jew in Soviet Russia could be—a leading scientist of his day. During the Cold War, he played a key role in engineering the guidance system for the V-750VN surface-to-air missiles that shot down the U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers. In middle age, Efim had turned to biophysics, focussing on neurotransmission, and had won the U.S.S.R. State Prize, the highest honor for a Soviet scientist. The brothers’ mother, Svetlana V. Minina, was Efim’s third wife—the Libermans have three older half brothers—and gave birth to six children in eight years while earning her Ph.D., in biophysics. (I asked the brothers how such a thing was done. “Grandparents,” they told me.)
In the nineteen-eighties, Efim’s relationship with the Soviet leadership soured; meanwhile, government funding for science dried up. The family income, never great, collapsed. The Liberman siblings began sleeping together in one room, occasionally sharing the space with habitats for snails and goldfish that their parents used for research. Around this time, the brothers said, they started feeling different from the other kids at school. They had a personal computer, a vestige of their father’s previous work, and they would stay up late playing games and trying to write code. “We broke the computer a lot, so we had to learn how to fix it,” Daniil recalled. It seemed their portal to a smarter, faster, more connected world.
For two years, during the worst of Russia’s early-nineties depression, the family relied on the food that their mother had stockpiled. In 1998, two weeks before the ruble plunged and the government defaulted on its domestic debts, she converted the family’s meagre savings to U.S. dollars. (Svetlana, who still lives in Moscow, declined to answer questions for this article.) Such desperate measures seemed to safeguard their survival. The brothers told me that their first big project, as teen-agers, was organizing their apartment block to run fibre-optic cable, and that effort grew into an Internet-service-provider company. After university, they became interested in data algorithms, including one that predicted the subterranean composition of land plots—in theory, a technology that could be useful in finding oil—and built another project around that. Russia’s Federal Security Service (F.S.B.) found the subterranean work strange, and looked into it. When the brothers protested that they were just computer geeks with a good algorithm, the F.S.B., they say, tried to enlist them for dark hacking.
The Libermans insist that they have only ever done white-hat hacking (that is, probing to find vulnerabilities that should be fixed), but they define that standard broadly. The supercomputing abilities that enabled them to run complex geological algorithms, they confessed to me, came from tapping into the processing power of idle computers on their network. The F.S.B.’s scrutiny spooked them, so they started a company around something that, in the early two-thousands, they were sure no serious people would scrutinize: video games.
The going was rough. “We’d never worked with a two-hundred-person team before,” Daniil said. “We raised more and more money without releasing the game—and then the financial crisis came.
“We kind of felt like idiots,” he went on. “How could we have missed the world financial crisis?”
Looking at the data, they landed on the same culprit as many people had: the deregulation, in the late nineties, of derivatives and related credit-default swaps. “But then we were, like, O.K., why were they deregulated?” Daniil said. “And who was the beneficiary?” The brothers coded algorithms to trawl data from the Federal Reserve. By far, it seemed to them, the biggest holders of wealth in the United States were pension funds, which collect, invest, and deliver money for people’s pensions. They concluded that the country’s pension funds together held roughly forty trillion dollars, or a sum twice the size of the entire U.S. economy.
That insight wasn’t new. In “The Unseen Revolution” (1976), the corporate theorist Peter Drucker had noted that pension funds control “practically every single one of the 1,000 largest industrial corporations in America” through their share ownership. The Libermans observed that the funds had continued to grow into the twenty-first century, which in their view explained a lot. The rising cost of education? One factor was that many educational institutions have fixed-return pension funds, so, whenever the markets underperform, the institutions go to their own pockets. The declining wealth of younger generations? Pension funds were good and necessary, the Libermans believed, but they had become ominously oversized, as had the corporations that they controlled. Wealth was draining toward major shareholders and the old.
To the brothers, this circumstance—what some people would call capitalist gerontocracy—was an example of the longitudinal-inequality problem writ large, and, as they bounced ideas back and forth, they shared an epiphany. The core of the imbalance, they thought, was an asymmetry in how we measure wealth.
When we measure the wealth of people, we tote up their cash, assets, and debts on a given day and take that as their worth—even if we know they’ll earn more going forward. When, on the other hand, investors value corporations, such as Costco, they take into account the company’s likely growth, and figure out a price for a share with that future in mind. (Costco is priced at forty times its current earnings.) Corporations are allowed to worm their wealth forward and backward in time by selling shares. In theory, people can do this through debt, but debt is psychologically onerous and rarely encourages personal risk-taking. The Libermans convinced themselves that, if you let people move their future wealth value around the way corporations do, people and businesses would be more evenly matched.
The brothers shopped the idea around for years, but it wasn’t until recently that reception to it warmed. Sam Lessin, a venture capitalist at Slow Ventures, was the first investor to buy shares of the Libermans’ future. He grew up in a prosperous family and, as a teen-ager, was struck by the fact that he could go to whatever college he wanted, while smart kids without the same financial security might be compelled to select schools on the basis of tuition and aid options. For years, he proposed to investors the idea of “venture capital for people,” to no avail. Then, as the debt crisis deepened, he noticed the wind beginning to turn. Lessin’s firm recently opened a whole department devoted to investing in human lives. To the extent that many investors remain skeptical, it is often for market reasons. “That idea might be ten years too early—or more,” Jerry Murdock told me. “We’re not in a deep enough crisis of talent.”
One Saturday morning, the brothers got in their white Tesla Model Y bearing the license plate “libermn,” and drove to Westwood to meet their friend Oleg Itskhoki, another Muscovite, who is a professor of economics at U.C.L.A. On the way, they stopped to pick up Mehreen Malik, a partner in their project, whom I already knew. When the Libermans drive, Daniil is at the wheel, and David stares out the window. Later, they say, their experiences blend, as if in stereoscope, into one memory. (The brothers also read books two by two; they each carry a bank card from a joint account.) If they ever get in a serious quarrel, they observe a brief period of silence, bracket the dispute, and get on with their shared life. What else could they do? “We understand that what we get from each other is so much more than we could get alone,” Daniil said.
Malik clambered into the car at a crowded Beverly Hills corner. “You’ve both had a haircut! I think I preferred both of your hair longer,” she said. “You could either pass for mad scientists or go to a Beck concert.”
“This is a long process,” David said. “I cut the hairs now. Then I don’t cut them—”
“They won’t be cut for another year!” Daniil declared, with American brevity. Most of their social circle in town consists of other entrepreneurial Slavic expats. (The brothers spent much of the spring trying to evacuate friends from Russia and Ukraine.) Lilian Caldeira, Ken Caldeira’s wife, who knew the extended Liberman family, describes them as being in a swirl of intellectual life in Russia—Efim, their father, was an inspiration for a character in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel of seventies Moscow, “Jacob’s Ladder”—but the brothers built their own swirl over a recurring match of Mafia, the millennial parlor game. Frequent players called themselves the Libermafia, and the term stuck to describe their ever-growing network. “You need to be three months ahead to make a reservation for their spare bedroom,” Lilian Caldeira told me.
Itskhoki, whom they met that day, recently won the Clark Medal, the nation’s top honor for young economists, for his work on exchange rates and the influence of globalization on income inequality. He was the youngest tenured economist at Princeton before moving with his wife to the West Coast when she got a job there. “I went surfing the other day. My transition to Californian is complete,” he announced as they stopped at a shaggy Westwood café. He wore a terry-cloth Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap that said “camp know where.” After a walking tour of the U.C.L.A. campus, Itskhoki led the group to a lush quadrangle near David Smith’s sculpture “Cubi XX,” where they sat in a big circle on the grass. David, warmed by the sun, gushed about Itskhoki’s research knowledge. “It’s always really interesting to, uh—”
“Find,” Daniil said, not looking up from a tiny fort he was building out of pine needles and eucalyptus buttons.
“—find what are the current ideas in academia about, for example, generational gaps in wealth and the role debt plays in this,” he said.
“There are surprisingly few,” Itskhoki said. “We think of ‘families’ and inequality between ‘households.’ We talk in terms of top ten, top one, top 0.1 per cent. We think a lot less of the unit being people older than fifty.” And yet age is crucial, he added. “Most wage growth happens in your twenties and thirties, so, if your twenties and thirties miss a time of high economic growth, you’re—statistically speaking—stuck with low wages for the rest of your life.”
That realization, he said, was part of the reason for economists’ recent academic interest in “a broad wealth tax,” to push wealth created in periods of high economic growth into the valleys.
The brothers were quiet for a long moment. A wealth tax, in fact, could disrupt their scheme: young people, valued by shares in their own futures, would be taxed as wealthy before they’d ever been rich. Finally, David said, “We’re on the side of, yes, maybe something will change in regulation and taxation, but how can you rebalance it from the market perspective? Adding a new type of security to help young people get wealth is another approach to the same problem.”
Redistribution—the idea that grossly imbalanced wealth should be spread to help the needy become less so—has traditionally been the province of the political center and the left, which believe in taxes and a safety net administered through the state. The Libermans say that their market-based approach can potentially move more wealth (the big money has been known to resist taxes, but is all in for investment) and weave its own networks of support. In one conceivable scenario, an aspiring folksinger of twenty-two decides, like the Libermans, to offer shares in her life. The shares are cheap—the monetary value of her future is uncertain—yet they attract some investors, because maybe she’s the next Taylor Swift: she’s high-risk, high-reward. Thanks to the investments, she can now afford a new head shot and the time of a well-connected producer. She has a bit of cash left over, so she buys a share (also cheap) in the future of her best folksinging friend. Ten years pass, and her work pays the rent. She sells a few more shares, at a higher valuation: her future value is now a vector based on measurable success.
A decade later, she releases her fifth album, full of candid songs about middle age. The album speaks to a generation and goes platinum. The price of a share in her future has now gone through the roof.
Or maybe it’s her friend who made it big. Our folksinger is envious all the way to the bank. She sells the share in her friend she bought long ago at a profit of a few hundred thousand dollars, and makes a down payment on her first home. Now it’s her friend’s success that’s keeping her creative life afloat.
Or—the likeliest of all—nothing happens, and so she finds a job in another line. Investors, as they would do with the stock of any pivoting company, might decide to hold or to sell at a loss; she owes them nothing, though she got some extra funding on the way.
The Libermans’ theory is that, in terms of stuff that America’s big wealth can invest in, people are more appealing than the current catalogue of middling venture-capital funds, shipping firms, and companies selling toothbrushes by mail. Instead of putting money into a fund for startups, investors would be free to find an ingenious entrepreneur and invest in her entire career. Rather than buying shares of Spotify, a fund could buy into a portfolio of the futures of emerging hip-hop artists, all of whom would get that cash. Most of us are more excited about our brilliant friends than about the companies they work for. And while the average age of an S. & P. 500 company is approximately twenty years—most die young—people do better. The stronger their boost off the blocks, the longer they can keep trying, increasing their odds of success.
Some new egalitarians speak of “basic capital” models (as opposed to basic income), the idea being that it’s more equalizing to grant people an early chunk of capital that they can grow than a steady drip. But the idea is old. In 1750, Dr. Johnson described a supposed tavern friend of his who observed that “it was not worse to have ten thousand pounds at the age of two and twenty years, than a much larger fortune at thirty; for many opportunities, says he, occur of improving money, which if a man misses, he may not afterwards recover.” People generally give up their dreams not because they’re sure they’ll never realize them but because money pressures close in. That those pressures are uneven—a scion with a trust fund gets more tries at making it in a risky but rewarding venture than an orphan with monthly rent to cover—is one way inequalities compound.
Juliana Uhuru Bidadanure, a professor of philosophy and political science at Stanford and the faculty director of the university’s Basic Income Lab, told me that she finds the Libermans’ model interesting in its premise, “especially if you live in a society that’s very unequal in terms of wealth, like the U.S., where a lot of life plans aren’t possible if you don’t actually have cash early on.” In her recent book, “Justice Across Ages: Treating Young and Old as Equals,” she assesses differences between the generations both in the long arc (between the lifetime experiences of young and old) and in the moment (how the young and the old relate). But although Bidadanure thinks the Libermans’ model is attentive to the first kind of age-based inequality, she told me, she doubts its effects on the second, especially when everyone is jockeying for an investment. “If the young have to present themselves in a particular way to the older generations so that they will find their life trajectory appealing, I could totally see how there could be a social hierarchy you typically just have between benefactors and those who receive those funds,” she said.
The Libermans’ idea echoes one examined by Milton Friedman, in 1962, and has many other siblings. In 1997, David Bowie famously issued so-called Bowie bonds, ten-year securities offering shares in his future royalties, and raised fifty-five million dollars that he used to buy back old songs, theoretically increasing his future value. Income-sharing agreements, in which organizations fund aspiring young people in exchange for a portion of their lifetime income, are gaining popularity, especially in professional sports. And, at the height of the crowdfunding craze, a scheme known as human-capital contracts let investors give money to promising youths—usually through middleman companies such as Upstart—in exchange for a percentage of their future incomes. The traditional knock against such schemes has been that they’re exploitative or worse, a form of indentured servitude; what the authors of all these contracts share is being powerful and rich. The emeritus Yale economics professor and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, who has written such books as “Finance and the Good Society,” notes that other, related ideas, such as loans that don’t have to be repaid below certain income points, are designed to let risk be borne mostly by those who can afford it.
The Libermans’ own life-shares deal—a prototype for their model—does not involve income sharing. Direct liquidity happens when the Libermans cash out (say, to buy a house); at that point, there’s a proportional distribution, meaning that if I own two per cent of the Libermans I get two per cent of the cash. (This works a bit like a dividend and is a reason you might still want to hold stock when the Libermans are old and less productive.) When they die, everything is distributed, unless the shareholders vote to keep their life operation going. Otherwise, shareholders have no vote in anything the Libermans do.
“The only thing we say is ‘Please, be successful!’ ” Daniil said. When I asked him what would keep people from selling shares and going to drink Daiquiris on the beach, he told me that presumably a few will. But that’s unlikely to faze high-risk, high-reward investors, who expect some promising cards in their deck to end up duds. Nor is this the wisest move for the Daiquiri drinkers, because the initial money would run out, and the shares of an inveterate beach bum are hardly an appealing investment. In the short term, though, sometimes a beach sabbatical is a wonderful thing. When you’re investing in a whole career, insuring health, happiness, and stamina is good business.
Practice seldom matches theory. One economist told me he doubts that normal people, even with technical protections, could be free of shareholder influence. (“There is reason to expect that a system that starts out that way will evolve under pressure from investors,” he said. “We saw this with changes in bankruptcy law in 2005 that gave the holders of credit-card debt more power vis-à-vis credit-card debtors by making it harder to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7.”) As most C.E.O.s know, not even success brings freedom from shareholder pressure.
“When a founder takes V.C. money for their company, they suddenly have pressure to make the company, and the financial return for the investors, as big as possible,” Arielle Zuckerberg, a general partner at Long Journey Ventures (and a sister of the Facebook co-founder), told me. “Some individuals, I think, continue trying to make a company something that it shouldn’t be.” She committed to buying shares of the Libermans’ future at her previous firm, because she thought it would help them break from this pattern. Yet for Zuckerberg it is the brothers’ willingness to cast themselves endlessly back on the grindstone that makes them worth investing in. “The question is, does this individual have almost uncapped upside—because they’re addicted to building, have tons of ideas?” she said. Or are they merely aiming for comfort? “Some people have a number.”
expected to find the Libermans living in either zany techie excess or monkish monomania, but their days in Playa Vista were predictable and quiet. The brothers like to get eight hours of sleep a night (“our sweet spot,” David told me). They generally rise sometime after eight, do calisthenics, breakfast on porridge or yogurt with berries, and start on the day’s work, which involves video meetings and hunkering down into the details of coding software. Lately, they have been drafting an introduction-to-coding book based on an online class that David teaches. (Coding, they think, is too often taught at an overly technical level, so instead they show people how to read the full code for familiar apps, edit it, and then write programs of their own.) Most days, at 4 p.m., they walk along the same route: through a fancy office park called the Campus; past a soccer field, a playground, and man-made ponds; and on to an overgrown creekside trail that leads them to the house where their sister Maria, known as Masha, lives with her husband and two children.
With long dark hair, big glasses, and a calm, wise-child manner, Masha struck me as resembling the heroine of a Roald Dahl book as drawn by Quentin Blake. For a long time, she told me, she wanted nothing to do with her weird brothers; as a young woman in Moscow, she had founded and run a respected N.G.O. for Russian-Jewish studies. Then, around 2007, she joined their businesses. At her table, she served us delicate fruity tea and a sharlotka, apple cake in the crisped, fluffy Russian style. David wolfed it down.
Within the family, Daniil and David are understood to be the public faces of the Liberman brand—jet-setting, social-media-influencing—while Masha and her sister, Anna, who is based in London, work from home at the Liberman companies, increasing value. (The sisters tried being limelight-dwellers for a while, but disliked the scrutiny and the travel.) When I asked the brothers whether they, too, aspired to marry and multiply, they told me yes, but there were obvious challenges. Most sane people didn’t enjoy being perpetual third wheels to the brothers’ all-consuming intellectual, professional, and domestic partnership. “There’s kind of a jealousy, usually—like, ‘You spend more time with your brother and your family than with me,’ ” Daniil reported. “Our answer is ‘Come join the family!’ ” Unsurprisingly, this never works.
The brothers call Masha the mastermind, and she’s the one working with lawyers to steer the life shares through the S.E.C., a process she describes as smooth so far. (The S.E.C. declined to comment.) Libermans Co. is a holding company incorporated in Delaware. All four participating Libermans assign the holding company their current rights, titles, interests, and major intellectual property. (Notably, they don’t turn over all their previous personal wealth.) They commit all their startups, private-market investments and sales, salaries, bonuses, commissions, and equity in the next thirty years, but there are exceptions: each Liberman is allowed to purchase his or her own real estate, to hold on to up to three hundred thousand dollars in income each year, and to put money in public stocks and mutual funds. (The sisters, who have children, worried about gambling everything on a thirty-year experiment.) For the moment, there is double taxation, but the hope is that, if the model catches on, it will get its own tax rules.
Masha poured more tea and checked in with her brothers about a meeting they’d had on behalf of their company Product Science. Within the big holding company, the Libermans run several smaller startups, all of which have comically bland names, like a Bond villain’s corporate front. They built Product Science after leaving Snap, and it centers on an algorithm that plants flags to help engineers accelerate app run times. One of the brothers’ parlor tricks for prospective clients is to show videos in which they cold-launch popular apps on an older phone with a stopwatch running. Snapchat and other Libermanized apps load in less than two seconds. Investors were told that if they wanted in on Product Science they really should buy shares in Libermans Co. By this spring, twenty-five investors had put a total of $17.5 million into Product Science, which has greatly boosted the return on the Libermans’ four lives.
Not long afterward, the brothers rose early and drove the Libermobile to LAX, for a flight to visit friends and colleagues in San Francisco. “I’ve been having the strangest dreams,” Daniil said as he drove. “Last night, I dreamed that David and I were working in a factory, making some new, magical plastic. I woke up and started Googling ‘plastic’ and discovered in Nature magazine an article about a new kind of polymer.” They had changed their clothes for the first time since I’d arrived in town, and Daniil was now back in the green Pokémon florals, with golden high-tops.
The “magical plastic” dream was typical; by then, I’d come to recognize a quixotic strain in the brothers which was characteristic of Silicon Valley, but also of their family line. In the late fifties, Efim Liberman claimed to have figured out how the ocular nerve transmitted different colors to the brain with a pattern of impulses over time. This tiny fact, in his view, had big implications, because an interval signal, being a system of encoding, implies computation—something we’re taught happens across neural networks, not in single cells. Efim and Svetlana became convinced that computation did happen in one cell, and devoted their late careers to a theory, which they called chaimatics (as in “L’chaim! ”), based on the idea that the encoding of proteins is just one part of a larger DNA- and RNA-based information-processing system. In time, chaimatics grew into a sort of theory of everything, drawing in quantum mechanics, cognition, and ideas about consciousness. The theory lacked adherents when Efim died, in 2011; Rava Azeredo da Silveira, a physicist who works on cognitive science and theoretical neuroscience at the École Normale Supérieure and at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology, in Basel, told me that, while much of Efim’s early experiments and speculations were “well guided,” the later neuroscientific and cognitive ideas peeled away from engagement with scientific literature, drifting out toward notions “described in such vague, if not esoteric, terms that they border on the meaningless.”
On the plane, a flight attendant passed by with drinks, and Daniil ordered tea, black, with a water. He held up two fingers without looking: same again for his brother.
“And cookies,” David said.
On the curb at the San Francisco airport, they commandeered another white Tesla, this one rented through Turo. In their own car, the brothers liked to play Billie Eilish’s “My Future” (“I’m in love with my future, / can’t wait to meet her”) and bob their heads, but now they talked about being early advocates of the so-called sharing economy, and Airbnb in particular. They’d grown circumspect about the company when it did little to discourage landlords from buying up several apartments and running them as unofficial hotels. The brilliance of the Airbnb idea, in their view, had been its use of what was already available to meet other people’s needs, lowering the cost for everyone—
Suddenly, the rented Tesla was gaining speed in self-driving mode, doing eighty miles per hour in the left lane on the soft bends of 280, and the brothers were talking over each other, trying to explain what their foray into the sharing economy had taught them. Didn’t doubling, tripling, quadrupling of use—and therefore benefit—exist for many things? Consider software. It takes a lot of time and effort to write the program Microsoft Word, but, once it exists, millions of people can use it, at a cost of basically nothing to the company. Or consider the movies: a lot of work and money go into making one final cut that is then copied endlessly. It’s one big climb, followed by easy street, and it characterizes digital production. When you held that model against the current marketplace, you noticed misalignments. “For example, Netflix was growing its audience, but at the same time it was growing its subscription price,” David said excitedly. “It made no sense.” (Consumers have lately seemed to agree: the service has lost users.) “The only reason Netflix is able to do that is that it has a monopolistic position provided by a social agreement—the copyright!” Daniil exclaimed. The Libermans envisioned capping movie profits at a sum—say, a hundred million dollars—after which a film would enter the public domain. This would let copyright owners know what they were getting, and get it faster, because now everyone had a shared interest in pushing a movie toward public ownership.
The brothers first experimented with profit capping at one of their companies in 2015. But the soaring idea came down to earth for them in 2019, when OpenAI, an artificial-intelligence nonprofit co-founded by one of their friends, Greg Brockman, raised a billion dollars in funding, and capped its investors’ returns. (Everything beyond the cap goes to the nonprofit.) Investors liked the idea, because it let an enterprise like OpenAI compete with companies such as Google in research without selling out its nonprofit principles: a big boon for recruitment, among other things.
At a vegan-sushi restaurant in San Francisco, the brothers met with Marina Mogilko, an upbeat Russian-expat YouTuber in whose life they themselves have bought shares. At twenty-one, she had co-founded a kind of Expedia for language-immersion packages. Now, as a thirty-two-year-old influencer, she taught foreigners how to speak and act like Americans. (“You’re going to exaggerate your happiness a little, because that’s what America is about,” she instructs.) She has more than six million subscribers, and the Libermans bought part of her future at a total valuation of around thirty-four million dollars. At first, she didn’t know what she would do with the money, but in time she hired producers, a Parisian stylist, and a P.R. manager, and this staffing brought her success of a sort. Mogilko was about to fly to New York to be photographed in a yellow bodysuit for the cover of Bulgarian Glamour. “I feel as if I’m playing a game and keep rising to another level,” she told me.
Aprinciple known as the Modigliani-Miller theorem says that, in a perfect market, a company’s value will be the same whether it finances its growth only by selling shares or by also taking on debt. By this logic, Mogilko would have got the same boost through a loan. (Practically, in fact, she might come out ahead: most debt financing costs less than venture capital.) The Libermans say that the difference is psychological, and in where the money is coming from. But their model isn’t so much digging young people out of their predicament as replacing one kind of weight with another. The vulnerable are still vulnerable, and it remains a long way from the bottom to the top.
The life-shares model supports people like the Libermans and Mogilko, who find a spark in dreaming and are able to climb career ladders. In their case, access and connections will pay off. For millions of Americans struggling to find a basic job, the prospect of locating willing investors and deal lawyers seems a moon shot, and the big money will stay out of reach. A top-level librarian earning a hundred thousand dollars a year will have an income value of three million dollars over thirty years. Given the growth of money over time, an investor would put that life’s current value at around four hundred thousand dollars, or, for a five-per-cent share, twenty thousand dollars—small recompense for a piece of one’s lifelong daily work.
“Yes, if you’re the kind of person who wants to work at a job you love and it’s predictable how much money you’re going to make, it’s a bad instrument,” Sam Lessin, the venture capitalist, told me. “It works only when someone can squint and say, O.K., you’ll probably fail, but if you work we’re going to make a ton of money.” The dream is big, in that sense, but the group of the lucky is small, and it is probably not a good thing that everybody else—librarians, teachers, nurses, civil servants—are the people who hold a society together. Those in desperation reach for desperate measures, sometimes with destabilizing results.
The period when the Libermans’ parents’ idea of chaimatics took its most audacious public turn, toward a theory of everything, was the period when the family’s finances began to approach collapse. Their children, half a world from that tiny Moscow apartment, still think that Efim and Svetlana are right about their science—they had never known their parents to be seriously wrong before. The implications of cellular computing, if true, could be enormous, they believe, but proving that could take decades: too long to woo investors seeking returns. The value of the idea was one that the market couldn’t hold.
The brothers told me that they planned to use the wealth they got from Libermans Co. to fund a lab for chaimatics—a continuation of the work their family had begun long ago. The idea was outlandish, but they were used to that. The work might seem too interdisciplinary, but so was everything their family did. It had occurred to the brothers that, after decades of research, their parents could be proved wrong. But that was O.K., they said; that was the thrill of science. All the money in the world could carry you only so far.