My Philanthropy Idea for Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is apparently crowdsourcing philanthropy ideas from the public at large.  I wish him well, and hope he finds some interesting and useful outlets for his excess cash.  I would however encourage him to find something whose model can grow and still remain robust.  I have found that there are many charitable activities that work great because of the passion and vision of one person, but are not easy to grow (many examples of local successful public school reforms fall in the same category).  If Jeff Bezos gives money, a charity is likely to see a huge increase in resources, both from Bezos's money and, because his decision is going to be public and high-profile, from money from others who donate because Bezos did.

Any decision he makes will likely be more to satisfy his inner need to be involved with something new and different rather than the optimal approach to help the maximum number of people.  Because he is presumably uniquely good a creating businesses, probably the best way for him to maximize the use of his money and time in improving the lives of a maximum number of people is to go start another business.  Certainly Amazon has created value for the rest of us that dwarfs the amount he has earned from it.  Taken another way, via Amazon he has hugely improved the lives of many, many people and in turn taken just a small commission for himself on this value created. He has lowered prices for us, he has saved us time, he has brought us many more choices.  He has created a platform for small businesses to sell their product that they could never duplicate themselves.  He has nearly single-handedly created the self-publishing business and provided an outlet for a ton of new authors (myself included).  He helps keep Apple and Google honest (and vice versa) from his competition with them.

Of course, he is likely tired of doing only this kind of stuff so he wants to do something more traditionally charitable, and that is fine, but I am exhausted with the notion that charity helps people but business and commerce do not.  Learning from this, one decision criteria might be that he looks for something that not only needs his money, but needs his expertise and vision as well.  The latter is likely way more valuable than the former.

If I had a billion dollars for philanthropy, I might start a new university with a totally new approach.  I would call Brian Caplan and I'd see if we could build a curriculum and an entire educational approach out of engaging multiple perspectives on each issue.   Admissions essay question #1:  "Tell us about a time you encountered a perspective or opinion on an issue very different from you own and tell us how you responded."



  1. kidmugsy:

    It would be controlled by the Left within thirty years of your death. It would probably be a better bet to use your billion towards closing down universities. Take a lesson from Henry VIII: pension off the clerics and dissolve the institutions.

  2. irandom419:

    After Zuckerberg's $100 million failed miserably, the thought occurred to me that if it was spent on FOIA's that might've helped the school more.

  3. jim jones:

    Birth control for Africa

  4. petergallagher:

    Hi Warren,

    I hope you don't give up on blogging (altogether) because this post is pretty typical, in my view, of the sort of thinking that I so much enjoy from Coyote. I've read a smattering of stuff in response to the interesting Bezos request (incl. for example Tyler Cowan). You are the only one to pick up on both the 'maintenance of focus' problem and the enormous consumer surplus (not to mention technical advances for free that his competitors have emulated) that Bezos' business skills have already delivered. Probably a big addition to undercounted GDP. He could clearly do most good by doing something similar in a different domain. Education as you suggest is a domain ripe for similar upending.

    Best wishes (whatever your decision)

  5. Recovering libertarian:

    Shutter the WaPo. Nothing else comes close.

  6. May Xu:

    what successful people do not understood is that the wealth they possessed is the result of their enormous contribution to human welfare.

    Christianity giving alms in secret is better than receiving human praise for the practice.

  7. Mercury:

    >>>>Admissions essay question #1: "Tell us about a time you encountered a perspective or opinion on an issue very different from you own and tell us how you responded."<<<<

    You’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

    Having just supervised my kid’s application and acceptance to a top school I assure you that questions exactly like this are already prevalent on applications.

    However, at present there is only one type of acceptable answer and it isn’t about the time you came to appreciate the perspective of a person high up on the Cultural Marxist race/class/gender ranking system.

  8. smilerz:

    Put a billion dollars in a trust (maybe more) and advertise that the first despot that releases their grip and deregulates achieving double-digit growth for 5 consecutive years gets the cash and a private island somewhere...

  9. Sam P:

    One way to reduce the following herd effect would be to contribute modest sums to a lot of charities, instead of a few large donations. It seems the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation is sort of doing that.

    Also, Bezos has his own space startup, Blue Origin, which has been quietly building up to orbital launch for more than a decade. Old aerospace joke: How do you make a small fortune in aerospace? Start with a large one.

  10. John Say:

    I would discourage Bezos from engaging in charity if he asked my advice.

    It is impossible for someone to do what he does without automatically helping people.

    Even merely re-investing his own money creates jobs and opportunity and wealth.

    Recently I read that Walmart saves the average american family about $2500/year.
    And it makes money doing that.

    I am actually disppointed at Gates and Buffet for getting into charity.
    Their money serves the world better with them using it to do what they do best.

    Your post notes that charities sometimes benefit if a person jumps in with enough zeal.

    And that is the problem. Charities are like government lite.

    Every for profit investment in existance imposes discipline. It requires doing whatever the task is efficiently and well.

    Standard of living is raised only one way.

    Producing more value with less human effort.

    Productive business do that. Any business that is profitable - must have delivered about 20 times the value as the profits to others - actually much more considering that there are jobs and all kinds of other effects.

    Charities do not do that. Just like government the incentives are wrong.

    I remember a clip of someone who was creating charter schools for inner city black kids.
    The film crew asked him what others could do for him.

    He answered - Do NOT give me money! That would just screw things up.
    It is the discipline forced on the program by lack of resources that makes it work effectively.

    Anyone in business should understand that - but we do not when it comes to charity.

    I remember reading about the Clinton Foundations efforts to fight aides in Africa.
    They spent an enormous amount of money getting aides medicines to africans.
    And claimed based on the money spent that they were doing some incredible good - saving lives.

    So I looked up the aides infection rates and death rates and basically all the aides statistics for africa.
    There was not a single trend line that had improved as a result of the Clinton foundations contribution.

    Part of that is because - Well the Clintons ! - basically that the Clinton Foundation is not so much of a charity as a sinecure for unemployed democrats. I do not really care about that so long as the people giving to it know what they are buying - and I am pretty sure they do. Though the CF should still probably be prosecuted for false advertising.

    But still some money did actually get directed at Charity - but it did no good.

    Why ? Because charity has little discipline to assure that what it does it does effectively.
    While this is not universally true it is still broadly true.

    We spent a Trillion dollars on aide to Africa in the past 40 years.

    During that time period China went from the bottom of the third world to the bottom of the first world - and no one sent a trillion dollars in aide to china. Absolutely nothing changed in Africa. It is as poor today as 40 years ago.

    It is my understanding that Gates spent a billion dollars on mosquito nets to reduce malaria in Africa.
    With no effect on malaria rates - because people are not using the free mosquito nets as mosquito nets.
    They are using them as fish nets or strainers or other creative uses.

    You can not make other people want what you think is best for them.

    My family still personally buys a couple of hundred meals a year and feeds them to purportedly "homeless people"
    Mostly just poor people as the shelter lets anyone come for the meals and lots of poor and elderly who are nearby and have homes come.

    Regardless, it makes me feel good. And that is the reward. I am not changing the world, and if I was really trying to help people that is probably not the most effective way.

  11. John Say:

    Volokh makes the rest of WaPo worthwhile

  12. John Say:

    I would suggest reading Julian Simons "the Ultimate resource".

    You could not harm Africa much more than screwing with its birth rates.