As a former user of pc’s and various other non-Apple tech products, I still have the fervor of the newly converted. I love my MacBook Pro, my iPhone and iPad, and think everything Apple is faster, more intuitive, less buggy, and just, well, better in every way. It is easy to join the chorus: Steve Jobs was a genius, and our technological lives are better and more beautiful thanks to him. But there is at least one way in which Jobs’ northern rival surpassed him. Jobs, unlike Bill Gates, was not a public philanthropist. During his life, Jobs did not make it known that he gave money to charity, and was subject to criticism as a result. Even in death, it is not clear whether Jobs donated any of his vast fortune. By contrast, Bill Gates is famous for his giving, both personal and corporate. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives away at least $1.5 billion each year. Less well known are the ways in which Microsoft funds pure research by, for example, providing grants to academics who work in areas with no immediate market value or application. Apple is known for the opposite– a conspicuous absence of corporate giving.
In light of these facts, should we be celebrating Jobs’s life so uncritically? As Elizabeth Warren would point out, he did not make all that money on his own. Yes, he was a genius, but was he more than that? If he gave anonymously, about which there is much speculation, we may never know.
Yet, speaking of Elizabeth Warren, her solution is not to rely on the individual philanthropic preferences of the fabulously wealthy. Her solution is to tax them fairly for the ways they have benefited from the historical and present benefits of a peaceful, safe, secure, and, until now, well-infrastructured society. Warren Buffet agrees. So maybe we should not be critical of Jobs. Maybe instead we should think about why philanthropy of all kinds, including by off-the-charts rich people, seems to have replaced the role of governments.
There are tremendous upsides to philanthropy, just as there are upsides to allowing for the accumulation of some degree of wealth. But they are no substitute for the shared and universal investment by all the people that can be made through good government. Here are some institutions that are not making up the difference through philanthropy: public schools, social services, and environmental protection agencies. And that’s leaving out basic services not traditionally associated with philanthropic giving, such as transportation infrastructure and policing. (On the perils of turning to a philanthropy-driven model for public schools, see Diane Ravitch’s article in the Sept. 29, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books. For a few killer facts (sadly, literally so) about the effects of underfunded environmental regulation, see Peter Maas’s review of books about the BP oil spill in the same issue. And for a broad-side and elegant critique of the general withdrawal of the state from its role as safeguard of the common good, see the late Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land.)
This is part of what the 99% are protesting.
So, in the wake of Steve Jobs’ recent passing, maybe we should criticize our political leaders instead of Jobs. We may think less of wealthy people who choose not to give away some of their money. But ultimately the fault is ours as a nation for failing to recoup what we have invested in them, thereby putting ourselves in the vulnerable position of pining for their beneficence.