Human Capital: Investing in the Worlds First Publicly Traded Person
Three years after the Supreme Court declared corporations are people too, a 44-year-old sometimes entrepreneur named Mike Merrill is trying to prove the opposite. Merrill became the world’s first “publicly traded person” in 2008, when he created 100,000 shares of himself and sold them to friends and strangers at $1/share through a website called KMikeyM. On Mike’s website, you can purchase shares in “him,” which entitle you to the same number of votes on Mike’s day-to-day and life decisions, such as whether or not to grow a beard, register as a Republican, get a vasectomy, or date somebody. Every couple of weeks, Mike posts life updates and new decisions for his investors to vote on. I purchased 5 shares in Mike at $5.10 each; given recent, dramatic developments in his life, I think I got a good deal.
When Mike took himself public at $1/share in 2008, his implied valuation was $100,000, which is significantly lower than the FDA’s figure for the value of a human life: $7.9 million. Today, his shares are worth about $6 a piece, implying that Mike’s enterprise value has appreciated to well over half a million dollars.
After purchasing my shares, I took a look through KMikeyM’s trading history and observed some interesting patterns. On June 14, 2012, he was worth $20 a share. Six months later, he was going for 99 cents. I expanded the date range; there were fluctuations all over the place, cycles of booms and busts. An entire human drama, captured in a craggy chart that looked a lot like a heart monitor.
In some respects, I suppose the chart was not unlike a heart monitor. The trading price logged Mike’s investors’ financial and personal interest in continuing to participate in his life. I compared the trading pattern to his intermittent journals and discovered that the share price was typically unresponsive to mundane, run-of-the-mill decisions such as “Should I grow a beard?” or “Should I invest in a new wardrobe?” Looking at the journals that corresponded to the handful of big booms made it clear what the shareholders were really interested in: Mike’s sex life. In April of 2012, after lagging at around $8 a share for more than two years, KMikeyM posted a new proposal called “Shareholder Control of Romantic Relationships”—which was exactly what it sounds like. “Under normal circumstances, no one is going to complain when someone is buying flowers or going out to dinner and a movie. But as a publicly traded person with a responsibility of productivity to the shareholders, we live under special circumstances,” Mike wrote in an ungainly majestic plural. “It's been about 10 months since our romantic break-up with Shareholder No. 7 and it seems prudent to set up the conditions under which we might enter future romantic relationships.”
The price shot up to $20 in 2 months. Somewhere along the line, Mike began dating a woman named Marijke; a quick scan of her user profile revealed that she had been one of his early investors, having bought 50 shares in August of 2012. One post from January 7, 2015, entitled “Romance Contract Revisions,” hinted at the strain that radical shareholder accountability had placed onto their relationship: “K. Mike Merrill and Marijke have been in a shareholder approved relationship for more than two years and the contracts have evolved,” the proposal read. “The major effect of these revisions is less specific mandates balanced with regular accountability.” The prospect of “less specific mandates” infuriated shareholders, many of whom were particularly appalled by one particular clause (5.2) that would allow Mike and Marijike to get married without putting the matter to a vote. “Should approval of this revision also be considered pre-approval for the parties to pursue procreation if they so wish?” wrote one shareholder, egli, who voted “no.”
Mike and Marijike broke up last month. The announcement came in a post called “Mutual Release and Non-Disparagement Agreement,” in which Mike implores his shareholders to buy Marijike out: “We both believe that it’s emotionally and fiscally responsible for her to liquidate her shares.” His shareholders were only too glad to oblige (the vote passed 5,509-65) and gobbled up Mike’s ex-girlfriend’s shares at a modest, price-controlled discount. And so a five-and-a-half year long relationship came to an end, with the ratification of the following clause: “Girlfriend hereby ends the contractual romantic relationship and any positions held or once held in relation to the Project and any Affiliate Projects including, without limitation, erotic fanfiction, working groups, hot sauce ambassadorships, snack-based media websites, film, video, or books projects, and any other projects effective as of the Effective Date.”
With my five shares, I voted “yes” on the “Mutual Release and Non-Disparagement Agreement,” an exhilarating experience made more so by the fact that I had actually paid around $25, in real money, to have a say in the matter. After I clicked “yes,” I was suddenly reminded of Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book The Origins of Consciousness in Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The ancient Greeks, Jaynes claimed, were not “conscious” in the way that we would consider ourselves to be conscious today; rather, they understood their thoughts as the direct voices of the gods and simply obeyed them. I believe this imaginative and somewhat fanciful theory contains the crux of KMikeyM’s unsettling appeal. One condition of living in late capitalism is the recognition and frustration of being alienated from capital and the owners of it, which shape our lives, decisions, and identities in invisible and godlike ways. For Mike’s shareholders, the allure of KMikeyM lies in the experience of transporting themselves to the other side of this mysterious mechanism, even if on the scale of just one individual. And for this to be possible it is essential to imagine an unconscious, unquestioning Mike Merrill. That would explain the hysterically self-serious language on the discussion boards, which serves to sustain the illusion. One user who calls himself abodens3 wrote, “My thoughts are about Section 5.2. If the couple has the option to become a legally recognized relationship (engaged to be married) it would assimilate to a public-traded persons' merger.” It’s serious business indeed--the users of KMikeyM do not hesitate to put their money where their mouths are. abodens3 has a portfolio of KMikeyM shares worth over $450. Another user called aaronpk has put more than $8,000 into the project. I hope, for Mike’s sake, that he’s at least an acquaintance.
After a while, a few considerations about the imperfections of the project began to nag at me. KMikeyM’s motto is “community through capitalism,” which sounds like the slogan of a nightmarish neoliberal dystopia sprung from the imagination of Ayn Rand. The naïve ethic is appealing in its own way: privatize everything! Privatize even what is most private; the wisdom of the market will optimize everything and elevate Mike Merrill to ubermensch status through rigorous shareholder input. The problem was, Mike’s shares didn’t appreciate when the “underlying asset” itself became abstractly more valuable—through professional or personal success. They appreciated when the game became more interesting. Voting wasn’t part of the game; it was the whole game. Mike’s “investors” had little interest in his hobbies or budding entrepreneurial career; what they were after was the thrill of ownership and of living vicariously through him.
I wondered, then, whether Mike could have improved the design of the project to increase its realism. Say he had structured his stock so that each share paid “dividends” that entitled you to a percentage of his annual income. That would certainly incentivize his investors to take his professional pursuits more seriously. But then the shares would have to be more expensive, and the shareholders might demand additional rights—for instance, the right to submit their own, original proposals for the co-owners of Mike Merrill to vote on, opening a Pandora’s box of moral hazard. I shuddered at what an anonymous online community of 800 “shareholders” could come up with. It was just a matter of time before someone suggested a tattoo, and perhaps other activities far more extreme: sell your house and move to Phuket, run with the bulls in Spain, climb Mount Everest. If the game became too enticing, what would stop someone with cash to burn from staging a hostile takeover—purchasing all of the shares at a premium to seize total control over Mike’s life?
I thought it was far-fetched until I came across a vote from January of 2012, in which Mike proposed that in the event of his death, the benefits from his $100,000 life insurance policy should be distributed amongst his shareholders. The vote passed 297-10.
In 1974, the performance artist Marina Abramovic sat in a gallery in Belgrade, Serbia for six hours with 72 objects in front of her and told the audience to use them on her however they desired: “I am the object / During this period I take full responsibility.” The objects included a rose, a feather, olive oil, scissors, and a loaded gun. One participant cut her throat and started to suck her blood. Another put the gun to her head.
I often wondered who the people in Belgrade were, what they were like. I also wondered what the shareholders of KMikeyM were like, how it would feel to meet one of them face-to-face. Earlier this past week, I sold my shares in KMikeyM at $6.15 a piece—in sum, I made about five dollars.