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Bezos, billionaires and the problem with big philanthropy

From coronavirus to climate change: why the rich can’t save the world

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made headlines this year for his pledge to donate $10 billion of his fortune to fight climate change. The money sounds like a lot, and the announcement did compel the usual flurry of media articles that trail in the wake of any big gift announcement from household billionaire names. But the tone of the media coverage this time was more sceptical than in the past.

Something’s changed in the world of big philanthropy. More people today are hesitant to assume that billionaires can solve the problems that face us globally, from deepening inequality, to growing numbers of refugees, to the climate emergency. Why can’t they solve them? Because the mega-wealthy can’t save us from problems their business practices have compounded in the first place.

The mega-wealthy can’t save us from problems their business practices have compounded in the first place

From tax avoidance to lobbying for self-regulation in the area of international business supply chains, today’s billionaires have often grown rich from corporate abuses of power. Just look at Microsoft: the source of famed philanthropist Bill Gates’s wealth, the tech giant was and remains a king of subcontractor labour. From the 1980s on, the company has been at the forefront of hiring legions of ‘permatemp’ workers who have few labour rights or protections, including sick pay.

This helped to normalize an immoral way of treating a workforce, and for all we hear about billionaire philanthropy, large companies are not treating their workers any better today. If anything, the precarious gig economy has gotten worse, while government austerity in wealthy countries over the past decade has left many households even worse off than they were in 2000 (the year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was established).

The idea that billionaires are the world’s best hope was popularized in a series of books written in the mid-noughties, just before the 2008 global financial crisis. One of them was Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. The book hails the Gates Foundation as a pioneer of the new philanthropy because of Gates’ oft-stated belief in ‘creative capitalism’, which he defines as using business solutions to meet global development goals, including reductions in hunger, poverty and global diseases.  

It sounds good on paper. But back in 2008, in a review of the book for the British magazine The Spectator, I suggested that asking Bill Gates to narrow inequality was like asking an arsonist to hose down the house he’s just set on fire. It’s foolhardy, in other words, to expect people who have won big from economic inequality to reverse the corporate practices that have perpetuated the worsening problem.

I’ve often been told this argument is too ‘mean-spirited’, as Fast Company put it, and I can understand the criticism of my criticism. It strikes many people as odd or Scrooge-like to suggest that billionaires shouldn’t give away their wealth. Fast Company went on to suggest that ‘it’s doubtful if people receiving polio vaccines and anti-malaria netting care much about the arrogance of their benefactors’.

But lately the ‘Overton window’ – the spectrum for which arguments gain mainstream traction or not – has shifted, and today more people agree that billionaires’ gifts, however jaw-dropping they seem at first, often come with strings attached.

The first problem is that a pledge is simply that – just a pledge. There’s no law mandating Bezos to actually come good on his claim to give away $10 billion. Not simply that, but when Vox and other media outlets asked Bezos to confirm the structure of his gift – whether it would be housed in a traditional philanthropic foundation or limited liability company (LLC), the vehicle that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg uses for his ‘philanthropy,’ Amazon refused to comment.

A pledge is simply that – just a pledge. There’s no law mandating Bezos to actually come good on his claim

This, at root, is the problem with big philanthropy: the ability to pick and choose which media questions to answer. Democratic governmental disbursements, at least in theory, are subjected to citizen demands for transparency. When it comes to Amazon or Facebook, we’re reliant on the media to ask tough questions that are, too often, easily dodged.

With the for-profit LLC that Zuckerberg set up, the problem is even worse, because his organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is not subjected to the same transparency rules as the Gates Foundation. So, we don’t know where Zuckerberg is ‘gifting’ his money unless he volunteers the information—he could, in theory, be giving most of his ‘charity’ to himself, and still calling it philanthropy.

So what? some might say – it’s still good to give. Think of all those polio vaccines. But is it always ‘good’ for billionaires to give at their own whim, in ways that are not accountable, nor subjected to democratic oversight? I argue no.

Take a disease such as polio. We can all agree that reduced cases is an excellent goal, but in their zeal to eradicate the disease rather than simply control it, the Gates Foundation aggressively pursued vaccination campaigns at the expense of initiatives championed by health experts in poor nations, who often call for universal healthcare strengthening, rather than what’s called ‘vertical’ disease targeting (campaigns focused on eradicating single diseases). Today, polio cases are spiking and resurfacing in countries that were once thought to be polio-free. The cause? Vaccine-induced polio, a rare but troubling side-effect that might be attributable to an over-zealous effort at eradication when polio control was long seen by many health experts in countries such as India as a safer and more prudent use of scarce resources.

As we’ve seen with terrible clarity recently with coronavirus, health crises can hit even the wealthiest nations. When it comes to viruses, even the rich aren’t safe, but they’re much better protected because they can afford to self-isolate without sick pay, avail themselves of private care whenever public systems are beleaguered, and can bulk-buy for months and even years.

When it comes to viruses, even the rich aren’t safe, but they’re much better protected

In part because they expose a society’s deepest vulnerabilities, health crises are also a time when private philanthropy tends to appear, at first glance, to be most welcome. Both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for example, announced funding to improve diagnostic testing for coronavirus, leading to much praise in the media. Vox journalist Teddy Schleifer, one of the most insightful reporters now covering the expanding ‘big philanthropy’ beat, applauded them for ‘stepping in’ during times of government failure.

But articles such as this only get things half right. During the unfolding coronavirus crisis, Gates is not simply ‘stepping in’ to help with government failure; he is also doing a little bit (and compared to his overall fortune, it is only a little bit) to offset his own business failures: the failure to treat his workforce as they deserve to be treated. He’s placing a plaster on the gaping chasm of healthcare support and sick-pay protections for America’s poorest citizens that his own corporate policies played a fundamental role in creating. Sure, it’s good to applaud home-test kits. But today, the US and other wealthy nations are suffering from problems of wide-scale labour precarity fuelled by anti-worker attitudes at places like Microsoft over the 1980s and 1990s.

Media articles that talk about government failure should do a better job of apportioning blame where it’s due. A lot of blame for coronavirus failings does lie at the feet of governments, but it also lies with industry magnates whose wealth is built on labour exploitation that renders the poor the most vulnerable to a deadly virus.

This is why billionaires won’t save us: because they created the problem in the first place.

 

Some links:

1)      https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/2/19/21143107/jeff-bezos-earth-fund-questions-climate

2)      https://www.thehindu.com/books/eliminating-polio-was-a-singular-achievement-for-india-thomas-abraham/article30940853.ece

3)      https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/3/10/21173864/mark-zuckerberg-bill-gates-coronavirus-billionaire-philanthropy

4)      https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/06/28/534403083/mutant-strains-of-polio-vaccine-now-cause-more-paralysis-than-wild-polio

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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