Reactions to Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge of $45 billion in Facebook stock sound like the inverse of the Borscht Belt joke: In this case, the portions are too large.
That two private individuals have $45 billion worth of capital to pledge is galling enough to some, emblematic of the absurdly skewed distribution of wealth of this Second Gilded Age. That Chan and Zuckerberg will remain in control of this money’s distribution and direct it to their own pet projects, rather than democratically selected public priorities, and that grants made from these shares will provide further tax deductions to the couple, round out the indignation.
These points are important; we need constant reminders that public policy, including tax breaks that have sequestered this money as both corporate returns and individual philanthropy, protects private capital at the expense of the public good. The Chan-Zuckerberg commitment dwarfs, many times over, recent controversial gifts like Steve Schwarzman’s $150 million to Yale and John Paulson’s $400 million to Harvard Engineering School. At a minimum, this pledge should galvanize a movement to repeal or severely reduce the charitable-giving tax deduction.
The section on technology as a tool for human progress is troubling for several reasons: “personalized learning” software sounds like a marketing pitch for slick educational technology products. The assertion that increased Internet access will simultaneously reduce poverty, prevent disease, and educate children is ludicrously arrogant “solutionism” (to borrow Evgeny Morozov’s apt term).
But this type of self-congratulatory benevolence is arriving right on schedule. The most apt historical precedent comes from the first Gilded Age, with the advent of “scientific philanthropy.” The plutocrats of eras past harbored similar delusions of dispassionate research in lieu of personal connection and sentiment, as the hot new thing in private capital saving the world. What’s actually remarkable about Chan and Zuckerberg’s announcement is where it diverges from that well-marked precedent.