Thanks for nothing, 1 percent! A selfish Silicon Valley must learn from history

Heed the words of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. Wealth is not its own reward; it's what you do with it that counts

Published August 9, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)

Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos       (AP/Paul Sakuma/Reuters/Lee Jin-man/Stephen Lam/Shannon Stapleton)
Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos (AP/Paul Sakuma/Reuters/Lee Jin-man/Stephen Lam/Shannon Stapleton)

Bill Gates has never been a man who sugarcoats his opinions. While discussing his philanthropy goals with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Brad Stone earlier this week, Gates made no effort to hide his disdain for billionaires who choose to fritter away their wealth on cool toys.

Question: There are other successful businessmen who are orienting their extracurricular interests around space exploration. Is that interesting to you? Is that worthwhile for humanity?

Answer: Everybody’s got their own priorities. In terms of improving the state of humanity, I don’t see the direct connection. I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.

Somewhere, Andrew Carnegie is nodding his head in sage approval. The late 19th-century steel tycoon would surely have applauded Gates' efforts to eradicate diseases like polio and malaria, reduce child mortality, and improve educational access. Carnegie believed that the wealthiest members of society had a profound responsibility to spend as much of their riches as possible -- during their own lifetimes -- "to produce the most beneficial results for the community." For Carnegie, that meant public libraries, institutions of learning, concert halls, and even pension funds for college professors.

Rocket ships? A clock designed to last 10,000 years? Fancy light displays on big bridges? Super-fast sailboats? Probably not.

How about purchasing a historically important and influential newspaper?

That's where the conversation gets interesting. We don't know yet what made Jeff Bezos decide to buy the Washington Post. It would be nice to believe that the billionaire feels a responsibility to the culture -- that he thinks there is something intrinsically worthwhile in keeping the Post alive ... "for the community." But he's been tight-lipped about his motivations. Maybe the paper is just an expensive bauble, a vanity play like his Long Now clock. More cynically, perhaps it's just another way to exert influence on behalf of Amazon in the halls of Washington power. At this point, we just don't know.

What we do know, however, is that the Post purchase has refocused attention on how a new generation of tech billionaires view their responsibility to society. And that's hugely important. The technological advances of the last few decades have led directly to the concentration of billions of dollars of wealth in a remarkably small number of hands. What, if anything, are Bezos and Zuckerberg and Brin and Page and Ellison going to do with all their money? Will any of them, outside of Bill Gates, follow Andrew Carnegie's stunning example, and set themselves to the task of doing everything in their power to ameliorate the gross inequities in the distribution of wealth that their version of the Industrial Revolution has precipitated?

Here's a recommendation. The moguls need to form a book club. They're all very busy, so we'll keep the first reading recommendation quite short: Andrew Carnegie's amazing statement of noblesse oblige, "The Gospel of Wealth."

* * *

Published in the North American Review in 1889, when Carnegie was 54 years old, "The Gospel of Wealth" is an extraordinary document, from the first line: "The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship" to the last: "Such, in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined some day to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring ' Peace on earth, among men Good-Will.'"

"The Gospel of Wealth" struggles mightily with a question as relevant today as it was during the Gilded Age: What social responsibilities inhere to those lucky few who have amassed great wealth?

Carnegie's tract is on the one hand a fierce defense of social Darwinism, of the natural and inevitable accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of the most talented members of society. Peter Thiel has nothing on Carnegie in terms of libertarian survival-of-the-fittest ideology.

Yet at the very same time, Carnegie argues for an almost socialist sense of responsibility for the larger society. His moral fervor is full-throated: The rich must use their wealth for the direct betterment of society.

The political contradictions are fascinating. Carnegie was no fan of intrusive government, but he had absolutely no problem with massive estate taxes. Quite the opposite. Inherited wealth, he believed, would only spoil the inheritors. The government had every right -- in fact, it had an obligation -- to seize as much wealth as possible from the estate of a deceased tycoon.

The growing disposition to tax more and more heavily large estates left at death is a cheering indication of the growth of a salutary change in public opinion. The State of Pennsylvania now takes -- subject to some exceptions --one-tenth of the property left by its citizens... Of all forms of taxation, this seems the wisest. Men who continue hoarding great sums all their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the state, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share. By taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.

Silicon Valley would have loved Carnegie's vigorous defense of the notion that men of talent pursuing their own self-interest are the engine powering the overall advancement of society. But one suspects that some members of our little mogul reading club could only be abashed after reading Carnegie's evisceration of those who waste their wealth on frippery and conspicuous consumption.

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community -- the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

Spending $4.5 million on faux-medieval ruins in a redwood grove for a wedding? Andrew Carnegie would not be amused.

The towering arrogance in Carnegie's words is impossible to ignore. One of the reasons why he believed the wealthy should spend their riches during their own lives was because he believed the wealthy were the best equipped to spend their own funds most wisely. We hear echoes of Carnegie's confidence in contemporary Valley rhetoric every day. But there's a difference. Silicon Valley's best and brightest appear to believe that their wealth-generating "innovations" will do all the hard work of changing society for the better; that competition, unfettered by regulation, is the engine of prosperity. Carnegie would not have disagreed that society in general benefited from such market competition, but he also understood that the class stratification that results from "disruptive" redistributions of wealth also needed to be addressed. There are things that the market doesn't fix. A contemporary version of Carnegie wouldn't be waiting for venture-capital-funded MOOCs to provide wider access to education or free market competition to give everyone broadband access. After making his billions, Carnegie would cut straight to the chase. Free Wi-Fi for everyone! (The man built over 3,000 libraries, after all.)

Poor and restricted are our opportunities in this life; narrow our horizon; our best work most imperfect; but rich men should be thankful for one inestimable boon. They have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives. The highest life is probably to be reached, not by such imitation of the life of Christ as Count Tolstoi gives us, but, while animated by Christ's spirit, by recognizing the changed conditions of this age, and adopting modes of expressing this spirit suitable to the changed conditions under which we live; still laboring for the good of our fellows, which was the essence of his life and teaching, but laboring in a different manner.

Carnegie was 54 when he wrote "The Gospel of Wealth." He was still 12 years away from selling his steel interests to J.P. Morgan for $480 million (in today's dollars, around $13.2 billion) and staking a claim to the status of richest man in the world. He spent the last two decades of his life almost entirely dedicated to his philanthropy. By that stage, he had a perspective that some of today's younger tech moguls haven't had time to achieve. So maybe we can be patient. It's entirely possible that the Zuckerbergs of today will mature into more responsible players, just as Bill Gates made his startling transition from callow youth to a philanthropist obsessed with reducing child mortality and improving access to education. The most optimistic way to interpret Jeff Bezos' purchase of the Washington Post is as a hint of a larger shift to come, the beginning of a recognition that there are more important, worthwhile ways to spend your life than simply accumulating billions through building a better widget.

Earlier this year, I made fun of a writer who argued that the "hoodie-and-jean"-wearing Zuckerbergs of today's Valley lacked the sense of noblesse oblige that would instill a sense of "obligation -- to culture, to the future, to each other." At the time, I responded by writing that I thought there was something un-American about depending on the rich to take care of our culture.

After having become more intimately acquainted with the current class antagonisms working themselves out in Silicon Valley, I've come to regret my mockery. I would still rather our society figured out a more democratic approach to the distribution of wealth than a dependence on the whims of the wealthy. But Andrew Carnegie's sermon, read in full, is a good reminder that there are different ways to be wealthy. At the very least, the moguls who have made their fortunes in Silicon Valley should be ensuring that there are no homeless people in Northern California and every worker could make a living wage and the University of California was fully funded. They've got the money to do it. Carnegie's example is a reminder that history will have the last laugh. Who will end up being remembered as having contributed more to society? Steve Jobs, responsible for the production of a great many stylish gewgaws, or Bill Gates, who can argue that his foundation has made a significant impact in lowering child mortality rates across the globe?

Will Mark Zuckerberg be recalled as a latter-day Carnegie, or Sergey Brin?

Who writes the next "Gospel of Wealth"? A selfish libertarian? Or a benefactor of millions?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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