Elon Musk’s latest innovation: troll philanthropy

Mr. Musk did not respond to an email asking him to discuss his philanthropic giving.

The idea that the rich have a moral obligation to give is old. Philanthropic historian Mr. Soskis notes that the wealthy citizens of ancient Rome tried to outdo themselves by paying for public baths and theaters. Inscriptions on these buildings could count as a form of early donor lists.

The idea that the wealthiest might need charity to improve their public relations is also a long-standing idea, pushed into the golden age by the explosion of 1882 by railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, “Damn the public!” Which followed him to the end of his days.

Efforts to track the charitable giving of the very wealthy in the United States date back to the late 19th century, when the ranks of millionaires exploded. Soon after, the newspapers ran front-page lists of those who had given the biggest giveaways. The original duo to capture the public’s attention were John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, whose sentiments about advertising philanthropy were diametrically opposed.

Cartoons from the era showed Mr Carnegie, often wearing a kilt to refer to his Scottish descent, raining coins from huge bags of silver. “The man who dies so rich dies dishonored,” Mr. Carnegie wrote in “The Gospel of Wealth,” his treatise on giving. Mr. Rockefeller preferred to keep his gifts more private and had to be convinced to announce his gifts.

For those who think the troll started on Twitter, philanthropy has never been as polite as we imagine today. George Eastman, one of the founders of Eastman-Kodak, called those who haven’t given their money in their lifetime “pie-faced mutts.” Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company and a great philanthropist in his day, insisted that accumulating wealth had nothing to do with intelligence, adding: “Some very rich men who made a fortune. were among the dumbest men. I have never met in my life.

But the idea that donating helps reputation is only partially true at best. Donors are sometimes celebrated, but just as often the higher profile means their motivations and choices are separate. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are each worth more than $ 120 billion, according to Forbes, but none of them receive the level of scrutiny Mr. Gates does. , for example.

“If you put your head above the philanthropic parapet and say, ‘I’m interested in the environment’, or whatever the cause, people can start to question it,” said Beth breeze, author of the recent book “In defense of philanthropy. Ms. Breeze rebuffed the recent tendency to criticize philanthropists, who, she says, are routinely described as ‘tax evasion, selfish, irritating’ – criticism they can deserve, but not comments she says. consider them useful for the greater good.

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