The problem with billionaire philanthropy is that it’s the worst possible system for getting things done that the government can’t care about – other than everything else.
This is a recurring theme in Future Perfect. We’ve written about how access to abortion and contraception around the world is almost exclusively billionaire-funded.
In the early months of COVID-19, we’ve written about how billionaire-funded Fast Grants quickly funded promising research into treatments and vaccines. Money needed for critical Covid research.
In an article tackling the billionaire philanthropic dilemma, my colleague Dylan Matthews explained that a century ago Sears funded schools for black children at Jim Crow South. He pointed to other cases in the past, such as that of Julius Rosenwald.
Unifying theme: The ultra-wealthy may be able to ensure that important work is done for those who need it most. Especially if the government and the voters who put it in power are unwilling to do so.
That’s the positive side. Then there’s the downside.
Billionaires are highly volatile
To launch a company that has recently enjoyed ludicrous success in America, not sell it to Google or anyone else, and to retire quietly with a sizable fortune, you need to be an extraordinary person.
Elon Musk’s biggest fans and biggest critics would probably agree on this one. He’s a particularly vivid example of just that. It is clear that there are After all, few people could leverage the investment money he received into multiple successful businesses in a tough industry.
It’s entirely possible that these tendencies go hand in hand — the exact traits that made him decide he could fly better than anyone else, what made him decide he could There is also Tweet a smart solution Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
We’ve been through a lot of the drama surrounding Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter these days, but Musk is far more striking than very unique. Many millionaires are weirdos and their pranks often affect us.
Just recently, the bizarre bets of SoftBank billionaire Masayoshi Son, whose Vision Fund lost $27.4 billion last year, significantly distorted the valuations of many tech companies. Some of the biggest obstacles to New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s re-election last night were the contributions of billionaire Ronald Lauder.
I think Musk’s Twitter activity will end up being a lot of noise and anger that doesn’t mean anything. Twitter is probably fine. (Or at least it’s as great as Twitter.) There are still people out there who are into it.
But some of his other decisions made far more sense. Developed and released the most powerful AI system ever. (Musk said he stepped down as chairman of OpenAI in 2018. During that time, the company has been developing a number of unprecedented systems, and for a combination of safety reasons and profit concerns, it was decided that “they “Release” is somewhat set back.)
This is a big bet on what could go very, very wrong, and the damage it could cause is far worse than Musk’s attempt to challenge people to authenticate on Twitter.
Where high variance is good and where it’s really bad
I think there are billionaires like Bill Gates and Dustin Moskovitz who are doing incredibly good things. Both have literally saved millions of lives through their global health donations. Some, like Musk, are simultaneously doing both world-changing good (like basically inventing an electric car division at Tesla) and world-changing evil. There are some billionaires — in fact, they often fly under the radar — but many try to get politicians elected to represent their interests and lower taxes.
The point is that there is a very large variance here. The gap between the highest billionaires and the lowest billionaires is huge.
In some areas the dispersion is good. For example, in the case of scientific grants, the fact that billionaires are often eccentric and have their own theories about what is important in terms of what they fund is a simple plus. If they’re right, important progress may happen that otherwise never would have happened. Variance is good if the downside is limited.
However, in some areas the dispersal is very detrimental. For example, I’m not all that excited about a world where every billionaire can do whatever they want with dangerous technology, and I don’t think it’s a good idea that Musk founded his OpenAI. I don’t want billionaires to be able to build super powerful AI systems just because they can.
Likewise, as the crypto industry seems to have belatedly realized recently, it’s far from ideal for a few people to bring down or save banks and the stock market. Funded by Building a Stronger Future, a family foundation run by monetary philanthropist Sam Bankman-Fried and his brother Gabe.)
This seems like a rule of thumb between when I’m pretty much in favor of billionaire philanthropy and activism and when I’m against it. Is it just to do? I’m all for it.
The downside is that they put the cost on so many others, is there no way, as a society, to get them to pay?
Is there a downside risk that they will literally kill us all?
A version of this story first appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!