December 17, 2015    Politics

Why We Don’t Need Any More Heroes: Case Against Billionaire Philanthropists

Our current culture praises charities, social services, donations, and philanthropies, but let’s not forget that they are the symptoms of our societal dysfunctions and maladies, not the solutions. It’s like Red Cross in the times of war; they can’t stop the war. And, in many ways, they perpetuate the dysfunctions because the biggest contributors to these temporary fixes are also the greatest oppressors of our societies who create the dysfunctions. Let me explain what I mean by that.

There are for instance many people dying around the world from curable diseases simply because they have no access to proper medical help. Why don’t they have access? Because they are too poor. In other words, the main culprit of this problem is the massive income inequality around the world. If they can earn a decent living on their own, they wouldn’t need any humanitarian aids from developed nations. What they need is not philanthropists giving them millions of dollars; they need these super-rich people to stop hoarding money so that they would have a fair chance of earning a decent living on their own.

We have a culture that encourages everyone to earn as much money as possible at any cost because we easily forgive and forget what they have done in the past. If people are going to forgive and forget how you became rich, you would naturally do anything you can to get there. And, once you get there, you can donate money to be a hero. Billionaires donating billions is not generosity. It’s not possible for you to personally enjoy billions of dollars in your lifetime. So what else would you do other than to donate? Even if you ate all your meals at the French Laundry for the rest of your life, it wouldn’t make a dent. This is particularly true for those who made money for the sake of making money, not for creating something meaningful with the money. Because they had no real reason for making money in the first place, all that they can think of is a cliche: be a philanthropist. They might as well buy a name in history with those billions.

Bill Gates is a good example. Unlike Steve Jobs, he was never driven by his desire to create the best possible products. Everything Microsoft has ever done is mediocre. Gates was simply driven to be rich, to make as much money as possible at any cost. Along the way, he has bullied many smaller companies, copied other people’s ideas, and killed many innovative competing products. But all that is forgiven and forgotten because now he donates a lot of money. But it is precisely this type of attitude that creates income inequality around the world, which leads to people dying from abject poverty. It also encourages polluting the earth because, to maximize profits, they would do the least they can get away with in protecting our environment. All this in turn perpetuates the need for billionaire philanthropists.

Another good manifestation of this problem is Lance Armstrong. He cheated his way through his career, and was finally busted. But at the end of the day, he is still a millionaire and is still admired by millions of people. He still has 3.8 million followers on Twitter. Why? Because he is a philanthropist who donated a lot of money to fighting cancer. But he would not have had any of this if he did not cheat. Cheating is what enabled him to get all that, but people forgive and forget. So, if you are a cyclist, you would be a fool not to cheat. Our society rewards winners no matter how they got there as long as they become philanthropists in the end. Just think of the minority of cyclists who refused to cheat. Where are they now? Do we know their names? Are they rich?

To solve the problem of income disparity, the first thing we need to do is to hold these philanthropists accountable for what they have done, and not reward them even if they donate lots of money. By hero-worshiping them, we create a vicious cycle. We need to stop respecting these billionaire philanthropists, and start seeing them for what they really are: the cause of our problems. As we gradually shift the way we look at them, we would discourage people from hoarding money to be philanthropists, and the income inequality will become less severe.

And, this is a problem that we are all guilty of to some degree, not just the billionaires. For instance, in New York City, many local businesses are going out of business because they cannot make the rent. People often blame the “greedy landlords” of jacking up the rent, but all that landlords are doing is to raise the rent to whatever the market can accept. These small businesses closed because their neighborhoods became gentrified and the market rent skyrocketed. If you own an apartment, and if you are renting it or selling it to someone, would you talk to the renter/buyer about their financial situation and offer a price that they could afford instead of checking what the market price is? I would think no. You would charge them whatever the market rate is. If so, how could you call other landlords “greedy” if you are doing the same thing?

But there are some exceptions. I’ve known some people whose landlords did not bother raising rent because they were happy with what they were getting. They didn’t care what the market rent was. These people are rare but these are the real heroes that we never hear about. This type of people never become rich, and you can see why they wouldn’t. They do what they do because they are happy and they want people around them to be happy also. They are not thinking that they are doing “philanthropy.” They don’t need to question what their tenants do with the money they saved. They believe in the good of people.

Many philanthropists are skeptical of other people. They don’t trust others to do good, so they hoard money in order to make sure that the money is used for the causes they believe to be good. When you save money for the purpose of enforcing your idea of “good” you are advocating plutocracy where the richest has the greatest influence on what is considered “good”. You are harming our democracy. Money becomes the arbiter of good and evil. You are in essence buying votes with your money. It’s a form of totalitarianism.

To address the real cause of the problem, we need to think differently about how we earn and spend money at the very basic level. Instead of being driven to be a philanthropist, treat people around you well like the example of the generous landlord above. If you try to save money in order to be a philanthropist, you encourage everyone to be protective of their wealth and hoard money also in order to control how the money gets spent. The more everyone does it, the more we are compelled and even forced to do it. We need to stop this vicious cycle. It turns into an economic war of my “good” vs their “good.”

The solution I’m proposing is not a utopian concept. This way of thinking is already happening in response to the problem of income disparity. “B Corporation” is a good example. It’s a certification for businesses whose bottom line is not ruled only by money but also by their social and environmental impact. We need more people figuring out business models that can enrich ordinary people’s lives, can free us from living the life of servitude and dependency, can solve our societal problems without asking billionaires to solve them for us. I am starting to see many small entrepreneurs and business owners trying to figure this out, and am inspired by them. I think the real change must come from the ordinary things we do. The questions that we should ask are:

  • Can your business give people rightful opportunities to earn their own living instead of forcing them to become charity cases by amassing wealth and worsening the income disparity?
  • Can it give opportunities to underdogs of our society so it would not perpetuate the privileged to become more privileged?
  • Can it keep our products and services affordable, allowing the customers to save money, instead of making more money just because it can?
  • Can it allow competitors to win sometimes or in other areas instead of trying to dominate every market it expands into?

For this type of mission to work in a sustainable way, the primary function of the business must be an ordinary one. It is not possible for our economy to sustain itself if it consisted only of charities and social services. The primary drive to improve our society must come from ordinary businesses.

My view is that having an explicit goal to do “good” and to be recognized as such leads to perpetuating “evil” because for the few to become heroes, there must be many others who are saved by them, who have to assume the subordinate and dependent positions. For us all to enjoy life independently, we need to eradicate these “heroes” who are motivated to maintain the hierarchy for their own egotistical satisfaction. If they had truly cared about the humanity, they would not have been so rich in the first place. They would have paid their employees and vendors more, they would have allowed their competitors to succeed at times, lowered the prices of their products and services, etc.. But they didn’t because they want to be recognized as heroes when they donate their wealth they amassed.

Hero-worshipping donors and philanthropists encourages everyone to accumulate more wealth than they need. We do not need more of these heroes; we need ordinary business owners who treat other humans with respect. They are not rare; they are all around us if we look carefully. It’s just that we are so busy admiring the Bill Gates of the world that we can’t see them.