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Can There Be A Bad Philanthropist? Beneficiaries Don’t Think So

October 2, 2018

This winter I will be teaching a course in our local Osher Adult Education program titled “The Philanthropy Paradox”. Here’s the description of the course:

Is philanthropy always beneficial to the well-being of citizens? Do philanthropists always make donations that support the public’s best interest? How does government policy effect philanthropy? This course will examine the impact philanthropists have had and are having on our well-being as a nation. It will draw on articles from periodicals and Winners Take All, a recent book written by Anand Giridharadas. It will invite class members to participate in dialogue on the benefits and drawbacks of philanthropy and, in doing so, examine their own contributions of time and money.

This course is an outgrowth of readings I’ve done in the course of writing this blog, many of which I’ve archived in a bookmark called “Philanthropy Paradox”. The latest article to land in that bookmark is Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article titled “Hate Mark Zuckerberg Now, You’ll Love Him Later“. The article embodies the philanthropy paradox. It describes the rapacious behavior Mr. Zuckerberg exhibits in his effort to capture and control market share in the social media sphere and provides evidence of the resultant distaste the public currently feels towards him. But Mr. Madrigal notes that Mr. Zuckerberg is following the same path as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Stanford and Vanderbilt… and… most notably the path of Bill Gates:

No matter what happens to Zuckerberg over the next few years, or how Facebook does or does not restore its image, Zuckerberg’s long-term fate is easy to predict. You, and most everyone else, will end up loving him. That may be hard to believe, but he has a close adviser who followed a startlingly similar path: Bill Gates.

Lest readers of this blog forget (or be born too early to know), when “boy-wonder” Bill Gates led Microsoft he was loathed at least as much as Mark Zuckerberg and for the same reasons: he worked hard to seize and hold onto market share. But since Bill Gates retired, he has become an iconic philanthropist who can do no wrong:

Gates, then, after serving as CEO of a despised company for 25 years, stepped down at 44. After that, he retained control as chairman with a buddy (Steve Ballmer) at the top. But from that point forward, Bill Gates began his rehabilitation from corporate demon to beloved grandpa philanthropist. Mostly, it took giving away vast sums of money while staying out of the day-to-day corporate headlines. Here, we are, 18 years on, and Gates is seen as the most admired man in the country. Also the most competent. And his “warmth” polling falls behind only Ellen DeGeneres.

I have “softly” defended Bill Gates’ forays into public education as misguided as opposed to malicious, believing his intentions, unlike those of the Koch brothers, were not anti-democratic or wrong-headed. But I do see Gates’ accumulation of wealth as malignant because much of Microsoft’s profits— like the profits of many large corporations– are based on tax avoidance. And when taxes are sheltered and unspent in banks the money cannot be used to achieve public goods as determined by democratically elected governments. Furthermore, when earnings can be shielded from taxation by being funneled into legitimately sheltered foundations it strikes me that legislators are limiting their own ability to underwrite initiatives that the GOVERNMENT should fund and allowing individual philanthropists to pay for.

But the general public seems to overlook how billionaire philanthropists earned their fortunes. Eventually their donations can buy the public’s adulation:

Like Carnegie and Rockefeller, Stanford and Vanderbilt, if you give away enough money, your name eventually becomes synonymous with goodness, charity, wisdom, competence, even warmth.

And like Carnegie and Rockefeller, Stanford and Vanderbilt, neither Gates nor Zuckerberg want anyone to remember how they came by their fortunes…. and how their avoidance of taxes supplanted democratic decision making.

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