Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one of the most successful businessmen of all time. And the richest. He has amassed a fortune of more than $131 billion. This presents a dilemma. Bezos commands far more money than any one person could ever spend, and even more than any one family dynasty could spend. So what should he do with all that money?
Last week Mr. Bezos gave a response that has generated considerable criticism: “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel,” he said in the interview. He has founded the company Blue Origin in order to build reusable rockets. Those vessels would be used to send tourists into space, and ultimately, bring about a future where heavy industry — and millions of workers — would be based out there. Mr. Bezos called Blue Origin “incredibly important for civilization long term.”
Bezos is putting his money where his mouth is. In fact, he plans to spend $1 billion a year on this gonzo space adventure. Some are even starting to worry that he will go even further and shoot much of his fortune into space. And that, many argue, would squander a staggering opportunity to serve humanity.
Last week, Harold Pollack, a professor of public health and social science at the University of Chicago, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times with some recommendations for what Bezos might do to make the world a better place with his fortune. He began by calculating that, ignoring inflation, his annual investment returns to his fortune are around 5 percent. That would mean he could spend more than $6 billion every year, pretty much indefinitely. Pollack then asks readers to consider a few obvious ways this money could “help people here on Planet Earth.” Here is his analysis, reproduced in full from the New York Times:
“If Mr. Bezos wants to strengthen America’s future scientific prowess, he could finance intensive math tutoring for about two million high school students every year — forever. Randomized trials here in Chicago indicate that such programs bring large academic benefits. They also substantially reduce racial disparities in school performance, helping to create a fairer, more prosperous America.
If he wants to nourish the high-tech sector that enabled his fortune, he could endow eight M.I.T.-size universities around the world and still have billions left over.
If he prefers to improve global health, he would barely break a sweat providing $1.50 eyeglasses to a nearsighted Indian schoolgirl, a farsighted Nigerian truck driver and a billion others. Or he could buy a $2 mosquito net for everyone in Africa who needs one. On top of that, he could double the International Rescue Committee’s annual expenditures to assist refugees, forever. He would still have enough left over to permanently double the budgets of World Health Organization programs that address communicable diseases, health emergencies, vaccinations and other global health threats.
If he wants to improve American health, he could permanently double the National Cancer Institute’s budget. Or he could triple the National Institutes of Health spending on mental health, alcohol and drug addiction.
Maybe he wants to improve opportunities for young people. He could provide summer jobs for one million high-risk youth across America, every year, forever. And he’d still have enough left over to open a $1,000 individual development account for every infant born in America from now on.
Maybe he wants to focus on climate change. He could accelerate the march of progress by awarding large cash prizes for innovations in energy storage and other technologies.
There’s no doubt that Amazon’s customers and employees have benefited from Mr. Bezos’s entrepreneurial success. But other than his admirable stewardship of The Washington Post, he has done conspicuously less to aid humanity than have many other tycoons, even those who command far less wealth. Mr. Bezos’s comments and record regarding philanthropy reflect a surprising lack of creativity and strategic vision regarding what his fortune could accomplish.
If he doesn’t want to be personally involved in such philanthropy, he can always outsource. He can simply follow Warren Buffett’s example and write a huge check to Bill Gates, who lives barely a mile away and knows a few things about philanthropy.
Over the last generation, globalization, technological advancements and regulatory policies have allowed the richest Americans to accumulate unprecedented wealth. Hey, it’s a free country. As long as they follow the law, billionaires have the right to do what they want with their wealth. Certainly Mr. Bezos is entitled to follow whatever personal quest catches his fancy. But if he’s talking about investing in the future of civilization, he and every other fabulously wealthy person has an accompanying obligation to be methodical and evidence-based — to do better at doing good.
Mr. Bezos will be remembered as a great businessman. It’s up to him whether he will be remembered as someone who used his wealth and talent to make our world a better place for his children, and for ours.”