A Google Search for MacKenzie Scott yields the following headline:
MacKenzie Scott, Philanthropist and ex-wife of Jeff Bezos…
Two years ago, those among the general public who knew MacKenzie Scott (I did not) described her as Jeff Bezos’ wife. Then, in July 2019, she got a whopping $38.5 Billion from Mr. Bezos (4% of Amazon stock) in their divorce and she became famous as his savvy and wealthy ex-wife. During 2020 she gave away over $4 Billion to various charities. So now, the adjective ‘philanthropist’ gets plopped in front of Ms. MacKenzie’s name before the less flattering ‘ex-wife.’ And she’s still got a hefty $30 Billion to burn.
Ms. Scott has so much money, multiplying so fast (investing her divorce settlement in lowly US Treasuries would yield over $3 million a day) she cannot possibly spend it. In giving away an amount inconsequential to her—immense though it be to the rest of us—she buys something no piece of art or real estate can procure: fawning publicity with the noble adjective ‘philanthropist’ tacked in front of her name.
Ms. Scott does not have to give her money away. Neither does Bill Gates. Nor did John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. But for each of these immensely wealthy people, giving away a proportion of their total wealth purchased them an inspiring legacy. More people know about Andrew Carnegie’s libraries than about the oppression and violence he foisted upon his steelworkers in Homestead, PA.
The United States’ social and economic system is riddled with oddities. We create tremendous wealth, and then distribute it erratically. We measure a person’s worth by the money they acquire, and then further lionize them if they give some away. Take a look at the Home page of The Giving Pledge. Headshots of billionaires, mostly white men, many with youngish wives at their sides. Their contributions may or may not improve the world. Their contributions will absolutely burnish their image.
Every person on this planet acts according to what they perceive to be their best interest. One measure of an individual’s wealth is the lens length of that interest. Poor, homeless, hungry people have a very short-term perspectives: they seek a hot meal and a place to sleep. People one paycheck away from eviction keep their eye on the job. Affluent people worry about their 401K’s and health care coverage. Billionaires worry about their legacy.
My problem with billionaire charity goes beyond whitewashing the actions that acquired wealth. It centers on the more fundamental issue: who gets to decide how we generate and allocate resources.
During my time in Haiti (a nation with the highest per capita ratio of NGO’s to citizens in the world) I witnessed the chaos of well-intentioned charity directed without broad perspective or local initiative. On the two projects I designed and helped construct, we used to joke, “Thank god we don’t have any Clinton-Bush funding,” It was well understood, on the ground in Haiti, that projects with such grandiose funding sources were bureaucratic entanglements, from which little money ever trickled all the way down.
I don’t know the social benefit that The Gates Foundation or Ms. Scott’s donations provide at the point of receipt. What I do know is that our society has ceded to Mr. Gates, Ms. Scott, and their ilk the privilege of shaping how we care for those in need simply because they are rich. Then we bestow upon them the cloak of generosity.
Instead of allowing the fabulously wealthy to create foundations that glorify themselves, we ought to make them pay more taxes, and collectively determine how to use that money to the betterment of humankind.
To be sure, that shift in wealth and responsibility requires drastic change in many attributes of society. It requires that we have a progressive tax structure as a fundamental method of income redistribution. It requires that restructuring not allow assets to flee beyond national boundaries. It requires that we collectively determine a minimum level of health, shelter, nutrition, and social benefit every person is entitled to receive simply for being here. And it requires a responsible, accountable government to provide those services, either directly or through fair contract. In short, it requires that we non-billionaires stop pretending that the rich will take care of the poor, and acknowledge that each of us is responsible for our fellow human beings.
Whew. That would be a lot of work. Especially in a society grown addicted to the notion of individual rights and allergic to collective responsibility. It’s easier to let philanthropic foundations tackle the issues they choose, pretend the super-rich have got the charity thing covered, and then laud their generosity.
Within the space of two years MacKenzie Scott has gone from being tech-wife to savvy divorcee, to icon of female empowerment, to philanthropist. That she landed $38.5 Billion in a divorce is merely an extension of the grotesque amount of money we allow a few people to make. (It’s not for me to monetize the agony of being married to Jeff Bezos, and the guy’s certainly got billions to give.) That Ms. Scott chooses to adorn her name with ‘philanthropist’ for what’s essentially chump change is such an obvious expenditure it’s hardly worth noting. What is interesting to me is that we allow it, we condone it, and we celebrate it.
Thumbs up, MacKenzie, for being rich. Double thumbs up for being a rich philanthropist.