I think it may be helpful to view criticisms of billionaire philanthropy as “insulting the meat” rather than abstract judgment.

So: most things, criticizing can serve multiple social functions - it its case, most obviously both discouraging the behavior and lowering the status of the target. All else being equal, we would prefer money go to malaria nets than yachts; so billionaire philanthropy should be encouraged.

But raising people’s social status can be dangerous, especially if they have a lot of other non-reputational powers to draw on as well. David Boehm writes about the forager practice of “insulting the meat,” where a really skilled and charismatic hunter will catch some great game and everyone will immediately talk about how dogshit it is. This is obviously a dubious strategy as far as meat maximization goes, but it preserves the liberty and equality human foragers enjoy (and most other primates, and larger-scale human societies, lack.)

You might argue that the calculation here is wrong. However, you could probably imagine scenarios where that calculation went the other way: imagine a billionaire politician throwing out wads of his own cash at rallies. That cash has higher marginal utility for its recipients than its donor, so naively it’s a good thing, but I presume you would criticize it.

(There’s also something to be said about how charity can move money from lower-social-leverage sectors to higher-social-leverage sectors, but that’s more example-specific.)

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No one is insulting meat here. Billionaire wealth is not dogshit.

There are three use cases – specific examples if you like - luck, oppression, and care for the commons, none of which are addressed by Richard or metaphysiocrat above, which allow criticism to point toward wealth rather than philanthropic consumption – an alternate, if not opposite, argument to Richard’s thesis. We don’t need to redraw reality to put credence to prudence.

Examples provided on request, and by necessity as charity implies knowledge of affect, time, and effect. Giving money away is not charity in all cases, and certainly not at rallies. Yes, I do criticize Oprah for giving away cars, congress giving away tax breaks, and remote workers receiving Covid funds. Billionaires are people, governments are representative, and opportunists are wealthy. Yes, I do criticize wealth without adding insult.

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Great post! Do you have any thoughts on the desirability of a wealth tax? This idea has started to get more traction. My biggest concern is that it ignores the potentially crucial role that billionaire philanthropy has played in promoting effective altruism and concerns about existential risk.

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So long as the charitable tax deduction is uncapped, it wouldn't seem a problem?

I'm not an economist, so can't speak to the risks of unintended consequences, but as a general rule I'm in favour of the ultra-rich paying more tax (unless they donate it first).

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Wealth taxes haven't worked in Europe, but they seem to work in China and Russia regarding billionaires. If there is a middle ground, economists might find it in retrospect, if not theory. Mostly that middle ground is somewhere offshore.

No Billionaire will accept wealth taxes as philanthropy, just as no one donates their wealth to pay down the national debt. Did anyone get back to Richard on that... crickets. When that debt is created with unpaid tax cuts for the wealthy, we can stop integrating the ultra-rich on a Platonic middle ground, and there is no such space.

The difference a couple of zeros make from a billionaire to a near trillionaire is meaningful (to a billionaire if no one else.)

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Aug 14, 2022·edited Aug 14, 2022

Hmm... There is a good bit of strawman in this post. If you are calling out 'People, ' we should call them out, at least to set the stage. There are many examples to choose from with different outcomes; none are black and white.

A certain amount of one's wealth should be reserved for personal growth, family welfare, and pet projects. After that (and the specific amount is a cultural object that defies unilateral definition) effective altruism is the expectation.

Realism is never defined well enough to make 'effective' meaningful to all. Looking after the commons (environment and nature) and human welfare are paramount, but what is a 'real' and 'needed' project? what is the priority of need? - these are questions best not left to a billionaire. Creating wealth is not a process that makes one necessarily good at answering needs and priority questions. To the extent wealth is garnered by luck (either by windfall or birthright), it should be more stridently critiqued in its consumption (personal or public.) But the reality of a billionaire is not the reality of a slumdog.

Here are two examples.



Both are billionaire philanthropic projects aimed at helping similar causes. The consumption is never the same comparing two projects, but this points to a flaw in your post? Consumption matters, but so too do the circumstances from which wealth was generated.

Philanthropy is an economic object, best left to a cadre of economists who can remove personal views if by nothing less than their rancor.

Democracy is not an object worth pursuing without examples. It doesn't exist without practice.

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This post is very convincing, but I can’t help make a quibble. Although the way you use your terms is clear, charitable giving is a form of consumption. One has income, which one can consume, invest, or save. Perhaps “personal consumption” would have been less ambiguous.

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