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Billionaire Philanthropy Can’t Save Us

It’s just another way for the ultrarich to buy power, influence and goodwill

Why did Mark Zuckerberg want his name on a hospital?

For years, plans had been discussed to add a new acute care wing to San Francisco General Hospital, the biggest and best-equipped medical facility in the Bay Area. A gift of $75 million from Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan made it possible, and the public hospital acknowledged the gift by festooning the Facebook king’s name all over the place, for perpetuity.

It’s a normal trade-off in philanthropy to get a facility named in your honor for the great sacrifice of, well, being a rich guy with a lot of cash on hand. But San Francisco is a city full of righteous pride about progressive values, even despite the rampant gentrification that has changed the demographic of the city over the last decade.

It’s no secret that Facebook has been massively implicated as a prime cause of that economic chaos, on top of the slew of company sins involving privacy, agency, misinformation and hate speech. For a coalition of anti-Facebook activists, nurses, doctors and academics, seeing “ZUCKERBERG” spelled out in gleaming aluminum lettering was a kind of last straw given the city’s cultural history as a fiery hub of leftist activism. And as a result of their advocacy, the city kicked off the process of formally condemning the name last week.

“Condemned” sounds dramatic, as if Zuck himself is being banished from his adopted hometown or something. And yes, in practical terms, the act is merely a symbol; the hospital can’t get rid of his name without giving back the $75 million donation. But by taking on one of America’s most influential and wealthy tech barons, San Francisco is waging a very public reckoning with what billionaire philanthropy means for a society — and how all those dollars come tied to strings that pull more power to plutocrats, under the guise of generosity and goodwill.

At first glance, billionaire philanthropy can seem like the best possible outcome in a capitalistic system that thrives off inequality: A direct redistribution of resources not toward government bureaucracy, but to NGOs and nonprofits in a million different niches. What we’ve learned after a century of giving, however, is that charitable giving from the ultrarich is more mirage than real relief — an illusion that teaches us to cheer on the people who robbed us not so long ago.

The best example may be the first: John D. Rockefeller, the American oil magnate who built his obscene wealth at the turn of the 20th century through monopolization of industry, political corruption and rampant anti-worker policies. As political scientist Rob Reich details in his book Just Giving, Rockefeller, a devout Christian, did ultimately feel an obligation to return some of his wealth to the nation that had given it to him. But in 1909, when he tried to establish a foundation in his name, Rockefeller discovered that a lot of people opposed his attempts to wield influence via dollars. Washington power players and common people alike were suspicious of his aims. It wasn’t merely that Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons had earned their money through unscrupulous means, either.

“They were troubling because they were considered a deeply and fundamentally antidemocratic institution, an entity that would undermine political equality, convert private wealth into the donor’s preferred public policies, could exist in perpetuity and be unaccountable except to a handpicked assemblage of trustees,” Reich writes.

In the present, almost nothing has changed about those concerns — but the amount of charitable giving from plutocrats has skyrocketed. The number of grant-making foundations jumped by 28 percent between 2002 and 2015. Their financial assets, meanwhile, doubled over the same period. A hundred years after Rockefeller, it’s still ultrarich capitalists like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Zuckerberg and Michael Bloomberg who control the levers of the funds.

There’s no doubt that these philanthropic funds are critical to institutions around the country, be it schools, hospitals, research think tanks or art museums. But the adulation that plutocrats receive for this work is astounding given that they don’t really donate much at all, at least relative to their wealth. This has been obvious for a long time, but I was personally stunned to discover calculations that show that Bezos’ contributions during the pandemic are the equivalent of a family with a net worth of $100,000 giving… all of $85. (Gates? $283. Zuckerberg? $84. Whoof.)

The depressing math doesn’t stop there. A half-century has passed since the last round of major reforms to philanthropy in the U.S., and a bevy of glaring tax loopholes allow the ultrarich to save money while appearing to be generous benefactors, argues Chuck Collins, researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. “At its root, fixing philanthropy is vital for the future of our democracy. For every dollar a billionaire donates to charity, we the people chip in anywhere from 37 to 57 cents in the form of lost tax revenue, depending on how aggressive the donor’s tax avoidance strategies are,” he writes in The Nation.

And even without the tax-avoidance strings attached, the way that billionaire philanthropy steers industry and politics remains a threat in the eyes of experts who study the intersection of money and power. After all, back in 1909, there were no federal taxes that Rockefeller had to dodge — yet the concerns about what his foundation could and would do loomed large. As Catholic University law professor Roger Colinvaux argues: “Philanthropy will increasingly become a self-serving vanity project for one segment of society, and less worthy in a true philanthropic sense.”

We already know how the Koch Brothers’ philanthropy served as jet fuel for a cottage industry of think tanks, advocacy orgs and media projects dedicated to protecting wealth and right-wing causes. We know that Donald Trump used his foundation for corrupt, questionable but undoubtedly self-serving purposes. We know that Bezos’ climate philanthropy plan has a slew of strings and a big dose of irony, given he wants to do more business with Big Oil and doesn’t mind funding think tanks that question climate change. We hear when people like Michael Dell, the 25th-wealthiest man on Earth, says he doesn’t support taxes on the ultrarich because he is “much more comfortable” giving through a private foundation than allowing a government to use tax dollars.

That narcissistic attitude runs rampant with billionaire philanthropists, and it shows in the ways in which they willingly destroy transparency around charity. Why does the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (along with a million other foundations) have to be an LLC, a for-profit structure that greatly obfuscates where and how the money flows? Why is it that hundreds of millions of dollars can sit unused in special “donor-advised” funds while the “donor” benefits from the tax benefit? Why doesn’t anyone take Jack Dorsey’s lead and actually give a considerable sum of their wealth (in Dorsey’s case, nearly a third of his net worth)?

It’s no wonder why people are getting increasingly fed up with the dynamics and consequences of billionaire philanthropy. “What a foundation represents today is … a wealthy person who has a pile of money; does everything she can to diminish the tax contribution she makes to zero, legally speaking; complains about the effectiveness of government in producing various public benefits; declares herself willing to create public benefits or social benefits at her own choosing at the time that she prefers; takes a further tax break for creating a foundation entity; and then asks everyone involved to bend over in gratitude for her benevolence and genius in sprinkling around some social benefits,” as Reich tells Vox.

The best we can hope for is someone like Chuck Feeney, a man who has officially given away all the money he earned as the cofounder of Duty Free Shoppers, and did so completely anonymously. But how often will that come along? And how comfortable are we living with a world in which one individual wields so much agency and financial influence?

There are ways to fix the glaring problems: Lifetime caps on philanthropy (to limit tax benefits), rules requiring donor-advised funds to pay out within a certain time period and strengthening the Johnson Amendment, for starters. Still, these are reforms, not a reckoning — and thinking about Rockefeller makes it clear that some shreds of plutocrat guilt shouldn’t be what funds good causes in America. To those who believe in the myth of economic meritocracy in America, the giving of a billionaire is both a gift and an aspiration — they earned that money so they can give back, and I would do the same. Much in the same way that limp campaigns for “corporate social responsibility” attempt to belie and rehabilitate the great harm that a particular company might sow upon the world, so too does the giving of a megarich donor blur how we judge them.

It’s becoming clearer that our institutions are healthier when they rely on broader sources of collective wealth. Even former President Teddy Roosevelt knew it at the turn of the century, when he denounced the idea of Rockefeller’s massive foundation and shuddered at the thought of the baron with his hand in public services. “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them,” he declared.

No matter if it leads to a shiny new hospital building decorated with your name.