The thing about billionaire philanthropy is that it’s the worst possible system for getting things done that governments can’t be bothered with — except for all the other ones.
This is a recurring theme here at Future Perfect. We’ve written about how abortion and contraception access worldwide is almost exclusively billionaire-funded — indeed, major and crucial advances in safe abortion and contraception were developed through billionaire-funded research, not publicly funded research.
We’ve written about how in the early months of Covid-19, billionaire-funded Fast Grants got money quickly to promising research into treatments and vaccines, even as the expedited NIH approval process for funding still left many talented researchers with no way to get the money they needed for crucial Covid research.
In a piece grappling with the billionaire philanthropy dilemma, my colleague Dylan Matthews pointed to other cases from the past, like Julius Rosenwald, the Sears tycoon who funded schools for Black children in the Jim Crow South a century ago.
The unifying theme: Sometimes the ultra-rich are able to ensure that critical work for the people who need it most gets done, especially when the government — and the voters who put it in power — are unwilling to do it.
So that’s the good side. Then there’s the bad side.
Billionaires are high variance
To start a ludicrously successful company in the US these days, and not sell it to Google or whoever and retire quietly with a sizable fortune, you need to be an unusual sort of person.
Elon Musk’s greatest fans and greatest critics would presumably agree on this much: He is a particularly vivid example of just that. He’s clearly great at some of the fundamentals of running a business — most people, after all, could not leverage the investor capital he received into multiple successful businesses in tough industries. He also makes costly, terrible decisions all the time.
It’s quite possible these tendencies go hand in hand — the precise traits that made him decide he could do spaceflight better than anyone else are also the ones that made him decide he could tweet out a harebrained solution to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And while we’ve most recently weathered a lot of Elon Musk drama surrounding his acquisition of Twitter, I’d say that Musk is unusually visible rather than unusually unique. A lot of billionaires are weird people, and their shenanigans often affect the rest of us.
It wasn’t long ago that a lot of tech company valuations were skewed wildly due to the eccentric betting of SoftBank billionaire Masayoshi Son, whose Vision Fund lost $27.4 billion last year. Some of the biggest obstacles to last night’s reelection of New York’s Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul were the contributions of Ronald Lauder, a billionaire who may be motivated in part because he wants to kill a wind farm near his house.
I think Musk’s Twitter activities will ultimately be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Twitter will probably be fine. (Or at least as fine as Twitter can ever be.) The people addicted to it will still be there.
But some of his other decisions have been far more meaningful. He co-founded OpenAI on the principle that AI was a terrifyingly powerful technology, but the company went on to develop unprecedentedly powerful AI systems and releasing them to the public. (Musk stepped down as chair of OpenAI in 2018; in the meantime, the company has been doing a lot of developing of unprecedented systems, and is somewhat walking back the “releasing them” for a combination of safety reasons and profit concerns.)
That’s a big bet on something that could go very, very wrong, and the damage it could cause would be far worse than Musk’s efforts to charge people for verification on Twitter.
Where high variance is good — and where it’s really bad
There are some billionaires who I think are doing incredible good, like Bill Gates or Dustin Moskovitz, both of whom have literally saved millions of lives through their global health giving. There are some, like Musk, who manage to do both world-transforming good — like basically inventing the electric vehicle sector with Tesla — and world-transforming bad at the same time. There are some billionaires — many, really, though they often fly beneath the radar — who mostly try to get politicians elected who’ll represent their interests and lower their taxes.
The point is that there’s extremely high variance here. The difference between the best and the worst of billionaires is very large.
In some areas, variance is good. With scientific grantmaking, for example, I think the fact billionaires are often eccentric and working off their own theory of what matters in terms of what to fund is a straightforward plus. If they’re right, critical progress might happen that would never have happened otherwise. And if they’re wrong, worst case, they just lose their money. If the downside is limited, variance is good.
In some areas, though, variance is extremely damaging. With dangerous technologies, for instance, I am not so excited about a world where every billionaire is able to do whatever they want. I don’t think Musk founding OpenAI was a good idea, and I definitely don’t want any billionaire to be able to build super-powerful AI systems just because they can.
Likewise, it’s far from ideal for a small number of people to be able to take down or save banks and stock markets, as the cryptocurrency industry seems to be realizing recently, if belatedly. (Disclaimer: Future Perfect has received funding from Building a Stronger Future, a family foundation run by crypto philanthropist Sam Bankman-Fried and his brother Gabe.)
This seems like a good rule of thumb for where I’m pretty supportive of billionaire philanthropy or activism, and where I’m against it. Is the downside risk basically just that they’ll waste their money? I’m all for it.
Is the downside risk that they’ll inflict costs on tons of other people that we have, as a society, no way to make them pay for? I’m much less excited.
Is the downside risk that they’ll quite literally kill us all? I’m out.
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