The Annual Gates Letter and the Limits of Philanthropy

When we talk about Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron, we pronounce his name CAR-neg-ie. Yes, that was the guy who had his steel workers doing 12 hours days/7 days a week. When you hear his name spoken on NPR radio, however, it’s Car-NEG-ie. That’s the guy who founded and funded libraries, museums, and so much more. Carnegie – however you pronounce it – felt a moral obligation to give away his fortune for societal benefit. Ah, good ol’ philanthropy – a fantastic builder of common good, even if the utilized fortune was questionably attained.

John Rockefeller Sr. is the greatest philanthropist in the history of the world, not only because of the sheer volume of his giving (more than $1.5 billion during his and his son’s lifetimes – close to $20 billion in today’s dollars), but more so because he was the first mega-philanthropist wanting to get at the root causes of societal problems. As quoted by biographer Ron Chernow, Rockefeller explained his mature view of philanthropy: “Our guiding principle . . . to benefit as many people as possible. Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished” (Titan, Vintage, 1998, p. 314). The Rockefeller foundation has uplifted the common good by various accomplishments: eradicating hookworm in the southern US and in fifty-two countries across six continents, developing a vaccine for yellow fever and other diseases, supporting minority and higher education, establishing medical and social science research centers, among many others.

bill-melinda-gates-425ce

Melinda and Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum – Davos, Switzerland

Bill and Melinda Gates have followed in Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s paths and readily share their enthusiasm for philanthropy’s continued upside. Bill and Melinda Gates, quite simply, are in Rockefeller’s category as philanthropists. They are committed to fighting inequity, and have joined with investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet to form the Giving Pledge, encouraging fellow super-wealthy to commit to give away more than half of their fortunes through philanthropy during their lifetimes or in their wills. Through their own foundation, established in 2000, the Gateses battle hunger, poverty, and disease and also uplift education. You might not know as much about Melinda as you do about her husband. A native of Dallas and 1982 valedictorian of Ursuline Catholic Academy, she has both an undergrad degree (in computer science) and an MBA from Duke University; she began to work for Microsoft in the late 1980s. After dating for six years, Melinda French and Bill Gates married in 1994. They have three children; she is a practicing Roman Catholic and has her husband’s support in raising their children in the Catholic expression of the Christian faith.

The Gates’ 2015 annual letter makes a bold claim: “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s . . . These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.” Wow – that’s pretty ambitious. For the most part, I think they are right.

The long-running industrial era with its call to work and accompanying rewards has lifted so many from the grips of poverty (including, for those reading this blog, most of our own ancestors). And that process continues today in poor countries – look what’s happened in China and India in the last twenty-five years, and most recently in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The improvements that can be made in underdeveloped countries are astounding and are enhanced by today’s technological possibilities.

Have you heard of the term technological optimism? It refers to a type of thinking that expects the problems of the world – economic, social, political – to be solved, or at least, assuaged, by technological advances. Bill and Melinda Gates, unequivocally, are technological optimists.

For the large majority of us in developed countries, living with the benefits of industrialization, technological advances are less advantageous. Being able to watch a movie on one’s phone – an example of technological advance – is not a life-or-death issue. In the developed world, we more so deal with something called the energy-complexity spiral (see Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek’s excellent book, Drilling Down, Springer, 2012). The availability of incredibly cheap energy (coal and oil) has made possible – literally, fueled – the industrialized development of society. As we try to solve problems in the advanced world (how to play a movie on a hand-held device, or how to make a new anti-cancer drug less nausea-producing) more energy, knowledge, and money are typically required. Remember when the thermostat in your living room had a simple on-off switch and a dial temperature control? Now your “climate control device” houses a mini-computer and you often need to consult the manual, or call a technician, in order to manipulate it. Part of the energy-complexity spiral is that problems and solutions tend to get more complicated (and costly) as time marches forward.

The Gates’ annual letter says we’ll need to figure a way “to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide.” Agreed – but, unfortunately, we are a long way off. We’re still drilling and burning oil like never before and the waste sinks on this poor planet get more exhausted all the time. The temporary low price of oil – mid-2015 near a five-year low – doesn’t help the situation. At the very least, we need to utilize an additional tax on gasoline to restore a sense of value to this precious commodity.* And because we’ve not yet backed off of oil, we’re stalling on the technological advances that will help produce better energy sources for tomorrow.

The main problem with an economy-produced fortune, like Rockefeller’s or Gates’, is that it necessarily comes imbued with technological optimism. I’m a supporter of technological advance, but I’m also wary of its allure and promises. Skyping on my phone is cool, but face-to-face relationships that create trust are the foundation of a good democratic society. Drought-resistant seeds in Africa, more cell phones for the women of Bangladesh, and widespread vaccine coverage for children in Nigeria is good . . . but we can’t duplicate developed world devices, machines, and technologies for the rest of the world based on how much fossil fuel we currently use. It would be a carbon emissions melt-down and waste sink nightmare. Perhaps we could also have some major philanthropic support to fund studies and projects that look at steady state economies, inclusive of how to slow down American consumerism while considering the disparate state of standards of living around the globe. Is there a current technology to remind us that less can be more?

Philanthropy is good, but it’s not the highest good. If philanthropy is understood to be the highest good we can produce, it then becomes no more than a paternalism that perpetuates the status quo. Creating systems of economy that are thoroughly just – where people don’t get left behind or left out – is the highest good. Capitalism in the 21st century is very good, but it can be and it can do better. We are responsible for making it better for today and for tomorrow.

At the end of the Gates Foundation letter, Bill and Melinda make an invitation to readers to join the movement by becoming “world citizens.” I’ve joined. The end of the letter calls for the “expanding of compassion” among world citizens. Part of that expansion, ironically, is using less – a mindset which absolutely cuts into grain of today’s conventional wisdom that more is better. How to get more out of less – that’s not only efficient, but also compassionate.

* Proceeds of an additional energy tax could be used to fix crumbling American infrastructure and support development of better energy sources.

 

The views expressed in this blog are reflective of my work in the 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.  

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

Click here for Summary Version and Study Guide from the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, ideal for book clubs and community of faith study groups.

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