Snarky Behavior

Bill Gates Skews Philanthropy

July 24, 2007 · 8 Comments

I’ve gotten quite a bit of reaction to my last post. Already, it’s by far the most widely read of anything I’ve previously written. The topic of “choosing” a fulfilling career path obviously resonates with you all.

On the topic of “doing good,” Rohit suggests (rather tongue-in-cheek):

do what Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, et al., did, i.e., spend your life amassing wealth (often times at the expense of the consumer—see, e.g., every crappy product produced by M$), and then donate all your excess wealth to charity.

He’s joking, but for many this has become the surrogate “American Dream.” Lacking any institutional control over run-away executive salaries, it seems we have entered a new gilded-age where personal wealth amasses on top of itself to such a degree of “excess” that the only feasible procedure of egalitarian redistribution is self-imposed philanthropy.

We’ve been here before, of course. The “Robber Baron” industrialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have literally left behind landmark institutions as a lasting tribute of their contribution to mankind: Carnegie’s Endowment, university, and hall; Vanderbilt’s university; Rockefeller’s art collection and television show; Ford’s Foundation, etc, etc.

To Gates’ credit, he certainly doesn’t have to pursue any humanitarian activities. And it’s not like he made his billions that despicably (i.e. blood diamonds, withholding patented prescription medication from the world, rationing national resources, etc.) He simply introduced the world to a technology (operating system software) that consumers adopted in droves; slapped a copyright on it, and shrewdly boxed out competitors. Gates has provided the world with a service– a technology — that the world in turn, directly compensated him for. Amply.

But what the hell else is the man going to do with his income? Put it under his mattress? Go Howard Hughes on us? Anyone concerned with their reputation and legacy (read: with a humongous ego) is of course going to seek worldly recognition…of course!

There is a phenomenon in social science called “The U-shaped income-giving profile” (see graphic) where those in the lower and higher income brackets give higher percentages of their income to charity than do the middle-class. In the chart at the top of this post (which isn’t in any way accurate, aside from the overall “U-trend”), Bill Gates would represent S2, and say, a single-mother on welfare would represent S1.

The income-giving profile blows the “philanthropy” model which Gates represents out of the water. That is to say, the assumption that you must first be wealthy and established before you can give back, or before you can “do good,” (represented by the middle dip of the “U-curve”) is clearly misguided. Remember: Gates is donating “excess” wealth. The single-mom is donating her second-hand income, provided by the government.

THAT’S trickle-down economics.

My point is: you can do good at any time in your life. The concern I was trying to express before isn’t that “doing good” and “doing well” are mutually exclusive. It was that the decision to pursue either/or in the instances in which they are exclusive is increasingly difficult to make, due to oppressive student loan obligations.

When our choices are limited, our opportunities are diminished, and our freedoms are constrained.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • Megan // July 24, 2007 at 9:21 pm | Reply

    why did you replace your face with a monkey profile?

  • Jon // July 24, 2007 at 9:24 pm | Reply

    Faraj said I looked like a “Turbo.” Maybe when I get my fan base up I’ll have an open competition for the banner. I don’t mean to piss off the president of my fan-club though.

  • Megan // July 24, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Reply

    And on a more serious note … this posting raises the question, “Does the end justify the means?” My position is no it doesn’t, but then again, I am an idealist …

  • Rohit // July 24, 2007 at 11:25 pm | Reply

    This might be sort of tangential, but it is related to something I’ve been thinking about recently: the self-imposed estate tax. Though I’m currently ambivalent about the government taking money from dead people (I don’t have any money to begin with, nor do I have anyone to give it to), I think later in life after amassing my fortune (at the expense of the consumer, no less), I might have to make the decision as to what to do with my money.

    One thing I do know for sure, however, is that I won’t be giving it to my children so they can become spoiled douchebags à la Cruel Intentions. If my kids want money, they will have to earn it themselves. All they get are the intangible benefits (privileges) my money will afford them.

    Plus, if my money helps find the cure for cancer, perhaps everyone will forget all the bad things I have (or will) do in my life as well.

  • Carlo // July 25, 2007 at 10:19 pm | Reply

    I have a couple of thoughts that may not be informative, but they are at least philosophically informed. To touch on some of the past couple of postings:

    You find yourself at somewhat of a crossroads between goodness and well-being. I want to assuage your worries further. For a whole swath of reasons, we moderns tend to emphasize the ethicality of individual actions (Who stole my cheese? Who shot Jesse James? Who sold out?). The ancient Greeks, by contrast, emphasized the ethicality of a lifetime, of living well in spite of mistakes and misfortune. I think this point is valuable, at least insofar as it reminds me that selling out is much more than a single devastating moment in my life – it’s a life-long affliction. And that makes selling out seem more avoidable. If you go to law school now, that doesn’t mean that you will be “the man’s” “biatch” forever.

    So this leads to a position intimated by Rohit, of trying to strike it rich young and then spending the remainder of a lifetime building a legacy. This was a joke, yes. But establishing a legacy (cue Brad Pitt’s Achilles) is also as old a story as selling out (cue what will be John Malkovich’s Oedpius Rex). My biggest problem with the Gates/Buffet Legacy Program is that throwing philanthropy money will neither guarantee that the said philanthropists are good, or that they will be remembered. How many philanthropists prior to the 20th century do we really remember? Medici? My suspicion is that the people we really value, i.e the good people, are the ones who actually do something, not those who pay others to do something.

    I think another (non-philanthropic) program is in order. But it shouldn’t be too involved with money. As Nietzsche put it nicely, the finances of society are the intestines. Let’s leave them at that – because if you sell out, you’ll end up in the colon.

  • Jon // July 26, 2007 at 12:47 am | Reply

    Thank you Carlo!

    Rohit has a good post right now about a lifetime of luxury versus a lasting legacy, which I encourage all to read.

    Keep in mind though that philanthropy is a relatively new phenomenon that grew together with liberalism, capitalism, industrialism, utilitarianism, imperialism, darwinism (and social-darwinism) all the way to neo-liberalism and globalization. And we do remember the philosophy kings and benevolent princes of Machiavelli before them. So yes, starting a foundation or building an institute is rather “Ozymandias” but the nature and documentation of “legacy” has certainly changed throughout history.

  • Pain Killer Mary // August 5, 2007 at 5:03 pm | Reply

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