Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Purpose of Wealth

Marc Benioff has a message for his rich tech friends: "Give back or get out". (San Francisco Magazine, 19 April 2014)

One man obviously doesn't need this message. "Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, has told a conference his children will not be left billion-dollar trust funds, despite [his] having amassed a personal fortune of $76 billion (£46 billion). The Microsoft founder was speaking at a TED conference in Vancouver when he announced that most of his wealth will instead be left to the family's charitable organisation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The charity works to improve health care, education and reduce extreme poverty around the world." (The Independent, 20 March 2014).

Interviewed at the same conference, Larry Page outlined an apparently different idea about the purpose of wealth. Asked about a sentiment that Page had apparently voiced before that rather than leave his fortune to a cause, that he might just give it to Elon Musk. Page agreed, calling Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars “to back up humanity” a worthy goal. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” he said (Wired, 19 March 2014). In Business Insider, this story is headlined as "I’d Rather Leave My Billions to Elon Musk Than to Charity" (Business Insider 19 March 2014, Slate 20 March 2014).

But surely Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars is a cause. And as Page understands the word, it is a "philanthropic" cause. He presumably doesn't want to give lots of money to Musk just so Musk can set up trust funds for his own children.

I have no idea whether Page actually believes what he says in public about charity. Obviously rich people like Gates and Page have an endless queue of optimistic people asking for money for this or that charity. One way of managing this queue is to set up a Foundation, and refer all requests to this Foundation. Another way is to put on a public show of disdain for charitable causes.

Technology entrepreneurs sometimes compete to display their philanthropic credentials. In a recent interview, Marc Benioff expressed scorn about a large donation by Mark Zuckerberg, and hinted that this was merely a politically motivated tax write off.

Where’s it gone? What good is it doing now? What are his targets? What are his philanthropic interests?

If Page wants to give his money to a company, the obvious choice would be Google itself, There are precedents for a company founder to give his shares back to the company and/or its employees in perpetual trust. Google could then invest the cash in a number of interesting and even "philanthropic" ways. Such as buying into Musk's company (Tesla Motors).

Indeed, Google's much mocked slogan, "don't be evil", would imply that all Google's cash should be invested in missions that Page would regard as "philanthropic". But then I can hear the unmistakeable voice of the late Tony Benn asking Larry Page five questions:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

This post was originally written in March 2014 about the difference between Bill Gates and Larry Page. Updated 19 April 2014 to include the difference between Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg,

See also Andrew Leonard, Tech titan throws some shade at Mark Zuckerberg (Salon 17 April 2014)

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