How to think about charity: my response for Jeff Bezos

by on June 16, 2017 at 2:09 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

I was sent an email asking what I myself thought of the recent Jeff Bezos charity query, and that email contained a number of questions.  I’m not at liberty to reproduce it, but with some minor edits I think you will be able to make sense of my responses, as given here:

  1. Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many “good enough” charitable ventures.
  2. The rate of abandonment is high for charitable support.
  3. Often the key is for a super-productive person, with lots of stimulating opportunities at his or her disposal (if only running the status quo businesses, or say meeting other famous people), is to find something charitable that will hold his or her interest.  But how can it possibly be as fun as the earlier successes and extending them?
  4. I disagree with your descriptions of the philanthropic strategies offered in your email.  I suspect that most or all are attempted examples of my #3, namely what is actually short-run thinking.
  5. They are all super short-term strategies, once the attention constraint is measured.
  6. In this regard, there is nothing strange about Bezos’s plea and expressed desire to do some good in the short term, except its transparency.
  7. Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward. That made it easier for them to keep up enthusiasm for truly long-term projects.
  8. I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.
  9. Cultivating one’s own weirdness, or having a lot of it in the first place, is one way to ease the congruence I mention in #8.
  10. Even truly smart and wise people often “give to people” rather than to projects.  This is for one thing a strategy for keeping one’s own interest up.

So to tie this all back in to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know what he should do.  I don’t know him personally, nor do I even have an especially strong knowledge of the second-hand sources about him.

But I think he is exactly on the right track to be thinking about what motivates him personally, and what is likely to hold his attention.  And I don’t think his approach is any more “short term” than most of the other philanthropy of the super-rich.

1 Purpleslog June 16, 2017 at 2:31 am

He should create prizes for things inspired by the former 12-year old Science Fiction fan inside him. These could be in the $500 million range each. Examples: Valid medical/business plan for the use of phages instead of anti-biotics; [2] method for constructing new home (of a reasonable size) for 1/5 the current cost (see some of Scott Adams ideas).

2 Oli5679 June 16, 2017 at 4:36 am

Why doesn’t he create a Nobel Prize equivalent for open source software, and a Macarthur genius grant for young people to work on it. He could also directly fund less sexy open source projects that he judges as being particularly valuable.

3 Enrique June 16, 2017 at 10:43 am

I second Oli5679’s idea for a nobel-like bezos award; in addition for an award for open-source software, there could be awards in open-source robotics, open-source AI, etc.

4 Purpleslog June 16, 2017 at 2:34 am

[3] Space Elevator/beanstalk biz model and prototype
[4] SoLar Power Satelite bizmodel and prototypoe

There could be as hold list of this and one pile of money until gone. Give $X for the first and 1/4X for second, Third place gets a $50 amazon gift card.

5 Gj June 16, 2017 at 3:10 am

How about saving the Amazon (forest)? Save a few bits or swathes of it at a time, microbiotopes, outstanding sites or features, local communities or species – a constant source of challenges and interesting short-term mini projects within a long-term frame. Tech, non tech, you name it. And absolutely great for his brand image. He could even say that it had been his plan all along.

6 Ray Lopez June 16, 2017 at 4:04 am

Like a line in a Milo Manara comic book once said, after a lot of implausible and frantic action, “none of this is going to save the Amazon”

Does this post mean TC emailed Bezos and he responded? That’s pretty cool…

7 Enrique Guerra-Pujol June 16, 2017 at 4:27 am

As Robin Hanson might say: philanthropy is all about signaling how great the philanthropist is. If Bezos really wants to help the greatest number of people, he would start another new business venture.

8 Crandall June 16, 2017 at 9:34 am

[ “philanthropy is all about signaling”]

Very true for all big-name donors mentioned in the media… and most lesser ones. This latest Bezos question on philanthropy is all about — BEZOS. (Look at me! Look at me! I’m a great compassionate person!)

Anonymous charity donations deserve the most respect.

Of course, all American taxpayers give heavily to charity. Federal/state/local government spends a Trillion Dollars every year on a wide assortment of charity/welfare programs. These government programs are so effective… it’s hard to imagine that there are any unmet charitable needs for private donors to address.

Poverty and need have almost been totally eliminated by the American government — so Bezos should target all his philanthropy overseas.

9 Bisches Myron June 16, 2017 at 5:47 am

Offer $10,000 (or however much money) and procedure-expenses-paid to men in order to get a vasectomy, or women to get their tubes tied, under some age cut-off… or $ amount could be a function of age and sex.

The population who exercises this option would be self-selecting themselves for low-IQ and high-impulsiveness, on average.

10 TMC June 18, 2017 at 9:04 pm

How about, starting at 14, give girls $50 /mo for taking the monthly birth control shot. Do until they are 25. Saves everyone a lot of money and grief.

11 dearieme June 16, 2017 at 5:53 am

I’m impressed by those groups who manage to rescue men who’ve been jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. So if I were hugely rich I’d copy them, but in the other direction – aiming to get men who richly deserve it into jail. The double jeopardy law need not impede my cause much: the Al Capone manoeuvre comes to mind. One might deal with corrupt DAs by funding opponents to replace them.

Of course, I can see why many rich men might shy away from this idea.

12 Vorodoch June 16, 2017 at 6:18 am

The greatest legacy we can leave is a legacy of liberty.

“In the circumstances, what better heritage could you bestow than some understanding of the principles of freedom and, perhaps, a will for freedom?” -Frank Chodorov (1950)

13 Jan June 16, 2017 at 6:32 am

I’d spend my money assisting China in becoming a stronger, more sustainable state and economy. This would include strategies to decrease economic risks from things like desertification in its west and the coming plunge in the worker to retiree ratio.

The rationale is that the US is ceding its international leadership and China is most likely to step into that role. Although Naxos is unlikely to have much effect on their disdain for human rights or lack of a democratic government, we might as well help our new overlords workable a state as possible.

14 rayward June 16, 2017 at 6:43 am

Jeff Bezos saved the Washington Post from irrelevance, restoring that once-great newspaper to its former greatness. He should assure its greatness in perpetuity by creating and funding a charitable organization to provide necessary funding and direction. The model already exists with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times), which is owned by the Poynter Institute, created by the former owner Nelson Poynter to assure the greatest of the Times. And the Times is a great newspaper for the size of the community it serves. We live in an age when facts are malleable, when truth is more of a slogan or belief than reality and the knowledge on which reality is based. Reason cannot exist absent reality and the knowledge on which it is based, and nothing could help preserve reason and America’s greatness than a great newspaper like the Washington Post dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.

15 prior_test2 June 16, 2017 at 7:11 am

‘if only because their times were so primitive and backward’

Love the perspective – apart from the fact that 1900 was not so primitive or backward as to create a difference in people between them and now – why, their robber barons acted pretty much the same way ours do.

16 Ted Craig June 16, 2017 at 7:19 am

As to the fun aspect, I read an interview once with a major philanthropist and he was asked why most other rich people gave away so little money. He said writing checks was much more boring than whatever they did to make the money. That’s probably why people like Gates and Zuckerberg are creating these ambitious foundations. I’m not sure they’re a great idea, though. I get the feeling they might be more interesting for somebody like Gates, but possibly less productive than just giving the money to somebody else.

17 Floccina June 16, 2017 at 8:53 am

“I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.”

To me it looks like people will be richer in the future so the opportunities to enhance lives with money are greater now.

18 Anonymous June 16, 2017 at 9:23 am

Guess you didn’t like the suggestions in the comment section? I don’t blame you, most were terrible ideas.

19 Nigel June 16, 2017 at 9:25 am

Fight the use of high fructose corn syrup in the American diet – maybe he could start by purchasing Whole Foods… ?

20 Marc June 16, 2017 at 9:44 am

Transparency is a terrible idea, especially if he’s looking for short term projects. Too must rent extraction from intermediaries. Too much good to be done that requires action that one may not want public.

Lots to be done with stacks of cash and secrecy. At a charity dinner 10-15 years ago, a major bank CEO, while chatting with my wife, brought up one of the current tragic events in Africa at the time. He seemed genuinely distressed that the US govt couldn’t do anything to help. I suggested the names of three people whom he could easily call, and proposed they each put $50 million toward fixing the immediate problem with the help of “private contractors” and no one needed to know.

What armed conflicts around the world could Bezos slow or stop at a burn rate of say $1 billion a year?.

21 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 9:46 am

Establish a foundation to train a large number (hundreds) of high achievers to become elected officials. Provide resources and support to the extent possibe.

22 Ted Craig June 16, 2017 at 9:49 am

Why not just give the money to Harvard, then?

23 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 9:55 am

1. I think you want to be looking at more like 35 yr olds than 19 yr olds.
2. I don’t think rthere is any evidence that the Ivy League is doing a good job at this.
3. The concept woud be to train and pay them to specifically learn how to get elected.
4. They would be selected to have political views coincindent with some broad agenda of Jeff Bozos who is paying for it.
5. It could be a way to launch a third party, or fix one of the other parties.

24 Jan June 16, 2017 at 10:52 am

“They would be selected to have political views coincindent with some broad agenda of Jeff Bozos who is paying for it.”

Well they wouldn’t likely get elected then.

25 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 12:23 pm

I think if you ran a candidate in every open seat nationally with a well funded, reasonable third party campaign you might make some headway. Politics would be socially liberal, economically conservative, third-way type.

26 msgkings June 16, 2017 at 1:29 pm

@Sandia: so basically the Libertarian party. But well funded, and “reasonable”.

27 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Probably more targeted at the middle 50% of the electorate, liberal republicans, conservative democrats, etc. not libertarians.

28 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-business, pro-market oriented solutions, anti-identity politics, pro-immigratiion but anti-illegal immigration. Traditional foreign policy skewing towards less intervention in no-win situations in the middle east. Etc.

29 msgkings June 16, 2017 at 2:40 pm

@Sandia: I hear you but that’s basically libertarianism, just not taken to the extreme. It’s selling libertarianism pragmatically. Might work but Libertarians never make headway, perhaps because they don’t know how to be pragmatic or hide their kookier adherents.

30 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Rt – open borders, legal heroin, privatizing roads all gotta go.

31 Dan June 16, 2017 at 9:54 am

RE: “Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many ‘good enough’ charitable ventures.”

Tyler, I think that’s basically the rationale for higher individual taxes, right? So why not support higher individual taxes?

32 BC June 17, 2017 at 5:39 am

Actually, the rationale for higher taxes depends critically on a belief that government is better at allocating resources than private individuals and charities. Interestingly, those that advocate for higher taxes almost never try to make that case, for whatever reason.

Also, if it’s truly the case that a person’s marginal value of extra consumption is zero, then that person will voluntarily give away that money, as Bezos is doing. If that person doesn’t give the money away, then marginal value of consumption must not be zero.

33 Tom T. June 16, 2017 at 9:59 am

If indeed the marginal value of extra consumption by him is essentially zero, and the rate of abandonment if charities is high, then perhaps the best option is simply to cede the bulk of his wealth to the community, via additional voluntary tax payments to the Treasury, and lobbying efforts for higher income and wealth taxes upon the super-rich. Assuming, of course, that he’s sincere.

34 Jacob Kearns June 16, 2017 at 10:24 am

Doctors without Borders seems like it would fit the bill already. Immediate short term significant impact for those lucky enough to get treatment.

35 Anon June 16, 2017 at 12:54 pm

+1.
Easily one of the best out there.
Also appropriate as it would be coming from Amazon without Borders(the bookstore).

36 mulp June 16, 2017 at 4:15 pm

Half of all “go fund me” money is for individual medical costs.

Simply funding a portion of thousands of such appeals for help paying medical bills is very short term charity giving. It will be self perpetuating because no one will fund prevention, but will fund helping diabetics who become blind due to lack of maintenance treatment to prevent blindness, amputation, etc.

37 collin June 16, 2017 at 10:53 am

How about treating the Amazon workers better? Do a real Undercover Boss without all the selective cases to make CEO ‘look’ like they care about employees. We are hearing how ‘tight’ the labor market is and yet potential workers trust their corporate leaders as far as they throw them. (Despite this job keeping is at all time high.)

Considering how we are hearing about the greatest of blue collar apprenticeship ideas, at my kids local high school, the programs are still considered ‘jokes’ and that companies are not looking to build careers here. Conservatives love the idea of more blue collar apprentice jobs but the programs are not good career builders.

38 Lanigram June 16, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Amazon is notorius for their snitch culture. Perhaps the CEO measues high in psycopathy.

This isn’t about charity, this is about excercising the tremendous power he has as a result of his monopoly. Without some change in course, it will be our destiny to be ruled by unelected elites who control the private sector via corporate monopolies, the public sector via campaign finance, the NGO sector via massive donations, and the populace via “news” ownership – Washington Post and more to come. They will impose their twisted will upon the rest of us.

I suppose this will get deleted like my other posts.

It’s good to be the king.

39 Lanigram June 16, 2017 at 12:29 pm
40 JR in Raleigh June 16, 2017 at 12:00 pm

Any excess profits earned through American customers should be returned to American people in need, and those who made the profits possible by building a country. Bezos claimed he owes everything to his mother, and now is the time for him to put his money where his mouth is by providing support to entities serving impoverished American seniors: Meals on Wheels, Nursing Home watchdogs, Consumer Protection for the Elderly, etc.

41 Willitts June 16, 2017 at 12:04 pm

I disagree, or at least fail to be compelled, with the premise that marginal utility of consumption for the super wealthy is low. Charity is a form of consumption. So are political donations. Acquiring more wealth appears also to have value in an of itself. While your marginal utility for luxury yachts diminishes rapidly after the first unit, there is always some goods and services heretofore not purchased that have high marginal utility.

Wants are indeed limitless.

42 Larry Siegel June 16, 2017 at 1:01 pm

>Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward.

Carnegie lived in my grandfather’s day, not Thomas Aquinas’. My grandfather, who was not particularly rich, traveled throughout almost the entire world, read thousands of books, and socialized with the rich and famous. He did not lack for opportunities for fun, nor did Carnegie. For the rich, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primitive mostly in terms of medical care; otherwise, they were modern times.

43 msgkings June 16, 2017 at 1:32 pm

Oh yeah? Let’s see Carnegie live tweet The Real Housewives of Atlanta!

44 Master of Fish June 16, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Regarding #7, H. L. Mencken noted that the super-rich of the early 20th century failed to take advantage of the available opportunities for fun. From “A Chance for Millionaires”:

“…It is years since any American millionaire got his money in any new and stimulating way, and it is years since any American millionaire got rid of his money by any device worthy the admiration of connoisseurs.

“Setting aside the pathetic dullards who merely hang on to their accumulations, like dogs hoarding bones, the rich men of the Republic may be divided into two grand divisions, according to their varying notions of what is a good time. Those in the first division waste their funds upon idiotic dissipation or personal display. They are the Wine Jacks, social pushers and horsy fellows — the Thaws, Goulds and so on. Those in the second division devote themselves to buying public esteem by
gaudy charities and a heavy patronage of the arts and sciences. They are the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Morgans, et al.

“The second crowd, it seems to me, are even more dull and unimaginative than the first, and show less originality. One never hears of them doing anything new; they are forever imitating one another in something old. They build hospitals, or establish libraries, or collect works of art, or endow colleges, or finance some scientific institution or other — and after that their fancy is exhausted…

“…Their primary motive in pouring out millions is to gain the good will and adulation of ihe general public, which is to say, of the general mass of dolts and noodles, and so they are restricted to enterprises which fall within the comprehension of such noodles, and excite their admiration. This bars out at once all schemes that are likely to appeal to a civilized man, for it is a peculiarity of such a man that he is usually in favor of whatever the mob is against, and against whatever it is in favor of. The millionaire who would make a genuine splash with his money must reject this common motive and adopt a contrary motive. That is to say, he must set himself to do, not what is popular, but precisely what is most unpopular. So far not one of die fraternity has shown imagination enough for that business…

“I often think of the noble divertissement that John D. Rockefeller could have got by giving $100,000,000 to the Mormons, first to finance a nation-wide campaign in favor of polygamy, then to buy legislation authorizing it from the State Legislatures, and then to pay for a fight to a finish before the Supreme Court of the United States, with all the leading barristers of the nation for the defense. The combat would have been gaudy, thrilling, incomparable. Millions of Americans would have been converted; the newspapers would have fallen one by one; in the end it might have been possible to put through a constitutional amendment not only authorizing polygamy, but even making it obligatory. John got no such fun out of the Rockefeller Institute, nor out of his gifts to Baptist missions in Cochin-China. Carnegie got no such fun out of his libraries. Morgan got no such fun out of his squirrel-like hoarding up of dingy paintings and moth-eaten old sofas.”

The whole thing’s at: https://wikilivres.ca/wiki/A_Mencken_Chrestomathy

45 msgkings June 16, 2017 at 1:32 pm

That Mencken dude could bitch with the best of ’em

46 Cooper June 16, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Eastern, Central and Western Washington State each have over 10K students and endowments below $60 million.

The flagship University of Washington has an endowment of nearly $3 billion.

If he wants to be a local hero and help out the young people in his own state, a big donation to each of the lower tier public universities could make a huge difference.

47 dearieme June 16, 2017 at 3:20 pm

It might be wiser to pay for the closing of many universities – provide the funds to pension off the staff.

48 Rimfax June 16, 2017 at 5:33 pm

The single most charitable thing a rich person can do is to open legitimate mining company in the Congo, and do whatever it takes to keep it legal and open. It could lift 5% of the world’s population out of poverty in 5 years.

49 Rimfax June 16, 2017 at 5:35 pm

Bad math. 1% of the world’s population.

50 Sandia June 16, 2017 at 9:35 pm

On a more controversial note: a global planned parenthood offering free sterilization.

51 Ricky Tylor June 17, 2017 at 7:35 am

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52 Mark Bahner June 17, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Many of the worst places in the world to live are those involved in civil wars. So a charity that somehow reduces the damage from civil wars would be an “immediate impact” charity. Of course, getting involved in civil wars is potentially incredibly dangerous charity work.

P.S. There are obviously already charities that get involved in reducing the damage from civil wars as part of their work, e.g., Doctors Without Borders and Red Cross. But I’m thinking about a charitable group that tries to bring the different factions together for political solutions or tries to at least reduce the danger to civilians.

53 Taeyoung June 17, 2017 at 4:59 pm

He should set up a charity to, on a one time basis, pay back-rent for indigent people who are about to be evicted from public housing because they have neglected to pay their rent for the past two or there years. On a pro bono basis, I have represented people in this position from time to time, and almost from the moment I started, I thought the whole business of pro bono representation of deadbeat tenants represented a ludicrous misallocation of resources, particularly given that the amounts in question were so trivial. In literally every case, the efficient outcome would have been for me to donate the value of a couple hours of my time to paying the back rent — the fact that these cases come before judges who often seem motivated to excuse deadbeat tenants just results in capricious, arbitrary, and all around bad law. The problem is exacerbated when dealing with public housing, where tax dollars are paying for the city’s attorneys to defend these suits.

Another suggestion I would have is paying for guards for homeless shelters. A lot of homeless people don’t want to stay in homeless shelters because they’re unsafe (this is America after all), and guards — or perhaps some other less invasive public safety innovation — would go a long way to curing that. The shantytowns you see around American cities like LA are an eyesore. Somewhat relatedly, I think offering neighbourhood security escort services could also be worthwhile in some neighbourhoods. I remember those stories a few years ago about Chicago residents protesting that their failing schools were being closed. It wasn’t that they thought their failing schools were wonderful, so much as that their children were going to have to risk their lives every day crossing gang borders (or something) to get to their new schools. That’s awful. Security escorts for children and the elderly are something one could set up right now, that would provide an immediate benefit in quality of life.

54 jorod June 18, 2017 at 11:45 pm

We need to worry less about good intentions and worry more about good results.

55 jorod June 18, 2017 at 11:50 pm

How about a sustainable charity: It’s called a business.

56 Tomorrowland 2017 July 12, 2017 at 10:44 am

Tomorrowland 2017

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