On Charity and Billionaires

It’s nearly impossible to go a day without hearing about how Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are giving away half or more of their amassed fortune to charity.

The skeptic in me asks “why is this such a great story”? I’d argue that it’s not.

I look back at the thousands of lives and companies that were ruined in the wake of Microsoft’s competitive business practices in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and think “why bother competing so hard if you’re just going to give it all away later”. And giving it away in an area that’s not their core competency (you could argue their business experience makes them a better judge of how to make donations, but it’s too soon to prove).

One of the things that has made the past decade or more in silicon valley great is “coopetition”. Meaning that instead of trying to destroy every company anywhere near your space, you find companies you respect and work with them, and together you build something greater than if you were each stepping on each other and trying to destroy each other. For example, the iPhone features a lot of Google services (though our government decided that too close of a friendship between these companies was anti-competitive, so now they’re competing against each other when it’s really not a good use of resources in my opinion).

Competition is great and drives us to do better (see Ajax toolkits), but imagine how much further ahead the world would have been if Bill Gates had been driven to truly create the best, most innovative computer ecosystem in the world, rather than a monopoly. Or if we hadn’t driven all of our manufacturing overseas through policy, regulation, and business tactics, effectively destroying the US middle class. Perhaps the world just doesn’t work that way.

I’m a capitalist through and through. However, a winner takes all system isn’t great for the future of the world. Hopefully, the past decade in the valley can change that, rather than it just becoming about how Zuckerberg, Brin, and Page win all and donate half of their amassed wealth at the expense of every other company in their wake, with the rest of the world hoping for a handout.

One Response to “On Charity and Billionaires”

  1. on 05 Jan 2011 at 14:03Michael J. Ryan

    I’d say you aren’t so much a capitalist, as not necessarily a socialist or communist. I consider myself a libertarian minded pragmatic. I’d love to start a “Pragmatic” party here in the US.

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