Beware Billionaires Bearing Gifts - Pacific Standard

Beware Billionaires Bearing Gifts

This new wave of high-profile donations from tech moguls may be generous, but it is not a win for populism. It's the modern Carnegie.
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The Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center is Zuckerberg's latest philanthropic venture. (Illustration: Susie Cagle) 

The Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center is Zuckerberg's latest philanthropic venture. (Illustration: Susie Cagle) 

Not long ago, Silicon Valley was looking particularly greedy. Exceptionally low rates of local philanthropic giving and open hostility toward the poor and homeless were the norm, and it was not flattering. The tech industry looked like a sore winner.

But as the trend waned, as trends are ought to do—class war began to appear gauche.

At the end of 2013, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a large and much-celebrated deposit of $1 billion to a donor-advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a pledge of great, local public giving that would directly impact the lives of those who had already felt the Bay Area’s skyrocketing cost of living. Earlier this month, he and his wife pledged $75 million of that fund to San Francisco General Hospital.

Since then, more and more of tech’s top profiteers have turned toward open and dedicated philanthropy. Once declared to have some of the lowest rates of local giving, the tides are shifting in Silicon Valley.

To most, Andrew Carnegie’s libraries are his legacy. But he amassed his wealth by using child workers and busting labor unions. A philanthropist is not a populist.

This new wave of high-profile donations may be generous, but it is not a win for populism—rather, it is a new age of Savage Wealth in the grand industrialist, libertarian tradition of venture philanthropy and social reform.

Andrew Carnegie built some beautiful, functional libraries. But the thrust of his Gospel of Wealth wasn’t that public libraries are great, but that the self-made rich were more adept at handling money than the government and established charities, and that they should put it toward projects intended to help the masses better themselves.

For the most part, donations are managed, not given. Education, job training, Wi-Fi and iPads, not affordable housing, public transportation, childcare, or groceries.

There are exceptions: Zuckerberg’s hospital, Google’s homeless donation, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. But they are almost always investments in social status and lasting legacy, made with great spectacle: press conferences, appearances on Oprah, institutions renamed after oneself.

Several signatories of the Giving Pledge originated by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates nearly 10 years ago include liberally minded tech wealthy, including Larry Ellison, Steve Case, Elon Musk, Pierre Omidyar, Sheryl Sandberg, and Zuckerberg. Benioff openly chastises those who don’t give. They appear chastened, after a time. Philanthropy is made “cool.”

Taxes, on the other hand, are not cool. Many of the corporations these tech elite have founded or work for avoid those by stashing profits outside the United States. Why give it to the government when you can better direct the spending yourself? Never mind that as the founder of a social networking site, you may not know the best way to spend $100 million on a long-broken urban public school system.

To most, Andrew Carnegie’s libraries are his legacy. But he amassed his wealth by using child workers and busting labor unions. A philanthropist is not a populist.

The elite may attempt some social reforms, bankrolling hospitals, homeless shelters, and poor schools. But they can still be counted on to oppose political reforms that would threaten their personal and corporate wealth. Sean Parker is one of the country’s top philanthropists, and a big donor to GOP candidates. Google hosted a fundraiser for Republican Senator Jim Inhofe. As he tries to build his hyperloop test track in Texas, Elon Musk is donating big to local conservatives.

Of course: Spending money on others is nice. A lot of rich people don’t do it at all. Some things would probably be better if they did. But no amount of trickle-down economics will fill this wealth gap.

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