Sunday, November 01, 2015

It's hard to give well

The NY Times week in review today had a piece on how Silicon Valley -- in its ultimate wisdom and arrogance -- thinks it has reinvented philanthropy. We can see it in the Gates Foundation's emphasis on metrics, Mark Zuckerberg's attempt to reengineer Newark's schools with a huge dump of cash. There's even a deeply ironic quote from Marc Andreesen saying the Airbnb lets people with spare rooms rent them out, thereby combating unequal distribution of wealth.  Which is crazy talk.

Now, I am not entirely disbelieving of this thesis. I think that Gates, in particular, has really put his back and brain into trying to figure out how to best use his riches. But overall, the technorati are definitely patting themselves on the back with selfie sticks. It's hard to give money away effectively, it's hard in general to determine what is the right way to allocate resources.

That is, in general, what we have government for, and why we elect representatives -- so we can delegate the resource allocation function to people who have made a profession of thinking about it. Now, it is understandable and understood that government doesn't always do this well, that government institutions develop their own inertia and instincts for self-preservation, and that corruption is a real and difficult problem.

But that doesn't mean that the right solution is to have technorati aggregating huge sums and then running out and solving our problems for us. I think it is reasonable that there should be a healthy tension between non-profits and government agencies. The former can move more quickly than the latter, and are more likely to innovate. Government can learn from the non-profit sector, for sure. But the idea that key governmental functions should be ceded to young geniuses just because they made a lot of money and want to feel like they are doing good is silly.

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