In a savvy PR maneuver, today Mark Zuckerberg used the birth of his daughter Max to advertise to the world the fact that he’s decided to give away 99% of his Facebook shares (roughly $45 billion today) to charity (over the course of the rest of his life, not all at once). It sounds angelic, but it will probably end up being, mostly, a big waste.
We should laud the wealthy for giving away their money—I wish more of them, particularly in Silicon Valley, where so many fortunes are egregiously unearned, would do so. But read the fine print in Zuckerberg’s extremely long Facebook post announcing his all star philanthropist status:
As you begin the next generation of the Chan Zuckerberg family, we also begin the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation. Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.
We will give 99% of our Facebook shares — currently about $45 billion — during our lives to advance this mission.
In other words, this multi-billion dollar estate will go to Zuck’s own organization, rather than, say, OxFam International or something. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will of course use this money to promote causes that the couple will champion during the remainder of their natural years, of which there will be many. And what are those causes?
Our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality.
What does advancing human potential mean? What does promoting equality mean, exactly? Your guess is as good as mine, because Zuckerberg doesn’t really say, despite providing many bullet points:
Advancing human potential is about pushing the boundaries on how great a human life can be.
Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?
Can our generation cure disease so you live much longer and healthier lives?
Can we connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity?
Can we harness more clean energy so you can invent things we can’t conceive of today while protecting the environment?
Can we cultivate entrepreneurship so you can build any business and solve any challenge to grow peace and prosperity?
Some of this is just patently hellish—does anyone really want to experience “100 times more than we do today,” whatever that entails? Do you want to be “connected” to literally every “idea” and “person” in the world? This is a technocrat’s dream and an actual normal human being’s nightmare. But what do you expect from the man who made his fortune creating humankind’s greatest repository for racist memes and life-commodification?
Bill Gates, at least, has devoted his post-Microsoft life to the more tangible goal of eradicating Malaria. But Mark Zuckerberg, who struggles to grasp the basics of humanity and has become unfathomably rich by commodifying his deeply weird theories of social interaction, has a different idea of charity.
Zuckerberg’s actual track record is pretty bad, so far. In 2010, he donated $100 million to Newark’s abysmal public school system, with the ambition of remaking how all American schools function. It was a complete disaster and waste of $100 million.
A look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Facebook page doesn’t make it look like they’ve learned much in the intervening years. There are some solidly old school donations like a $75 million purchase of equipment for the San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, and $25 million to the CDC to combat ebola. But so much of it reflects the general mushiness of Zuck’s “human potential” mission statement
AltSchool is building a network of micro-schools that provides a uniquely personalized and child-centered K-8 learning experience through outstanding teachers, deep research and an innovative technology operating system. Our $15 million investment will enable this reimagined school experience to be offered to more students so they can achieve their full potential.
Facebook partnered with teachers at Summit Public Schools (also a grantee of Startup:Education) to help students reach their full potential through an approach known as personalized learning, which allows students to become active participants in their education. Facebook engineers embedded in the classroom to work with teachers and invested in the infrastructure to build the Personalized Learning Platform (PLP). The goal is to make it available for free to every school in the United States.
As part of our commitment to personalized learning, we invested $5 million in MasteryConnect to support K-12 educators as they adopt competency-based learning in the classroom.
“Micro-schools”? Putting Facebook software in public schools? Software, software, more software. If you have a headache, take a software. Jimmy can’t read? Give him software. The conceit that code can solve all social ills and free the species from the chains of aging, illness, and flatulence is the height of Silicon Valley bullshit, and Zuckerberg’s massive giveaway will clearly be predicated on that conceit.
But regardless of the intentions, it’s also an undeserved tribute to the virtues of the free market and private sector, and a vote of no-confidence in the state. We should be suspicious of $45 billion earmarked to build out this worldview, and we should remember that much of that $45 billion will benefit Zuckerberg’s peers, materially and otherwise. And perhaps we should also wonder whether instead of letting the mega-rich put their estates into “charities” of their own design, and thanking them profusely for it, we wouldn’t be better served by just taking it from their corpses.
With a 99% estate tax, would our public schools need saving from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg?
Update: BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz confirmed with Facebook PR that The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not even an actual charitable organization, but rather structured as an LLC. Unlike a charitable trust, which is compelled to spend its money on charity, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC will be able to spend its money on whatever it wants, including private, profit-generating investment.