How to look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan accompanied the birth of their daughter Max with an open letter announcing their broad social agenda for the future. Here are a few brief things worth considering:

  1. The letter written by Chan and Zuckerberg is very thoughtful and it’s meaningful that they’re using their platform to explicitly mention issues like systemic racism and structural biases. And of course it’s wonderful news that they have a happy, healthy new daughter.
  2. The announcement of their intention to give away 99% of their massive fortune to advance human potential and support equality is obviously good on its face, and is undoubtedly motivated by a desire to have a positive impact on the world.
  3. The structure by which they will give away their money is clearly flawed in its initial version, but it’s impossible to know how much of those flaws are about ulterior corporatist goals and how much are accommodations of arcane regulations. For example, almost all non-profit organizations are founded as conventional corporations and then converted after the fact, so starting as an LLC may not be an indicator of future purpose. Similarly, being an actual non-profit doesn’t guarantee an organization will be effective or efficient. It’s worth taking a skeptical look at where the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative evolves as an organization, especially once we know how it is staffed.
  4. The incentives for the family to give away their wealth are enormous, and noting this fact does not undermine whether their intention is generous or not. In fact, it is necessary to properly understand the incentives to make sure that a generous intention is matched with actual results that benefit others. It is certainly positive that there is social pressure from their oligarch peers to honor the Giving Pledge. It may not be as positive that American tax code so aggressively encourages the formation of these kinds of foundations by the ultra-rich, but some such foundations have been effective.
  5. It is absolutely fair and necessary to be critical of Zuckerberg’s philanthropic efforts, both past and present, to ensure that this gift of $45 billion dollars is put to good use. That is because the default dispensation of the money will be to waste it. For example, Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark schools to almost no effect, in a gift that was revealed to have been explicitly managed by Sheryl Sandberg to be timed to offset the negative publicity surrounding the release of the movie The Social Network. Given that track record, our default assumption should be that this is a similar move, though obviously this announcment being coupled to the birth of their daughter makes such assumptions seem churlish or rude.
  6. There are several incorrect but unspoken assumptions in (what we can see of) the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s plans, which are deeply troubling when we consider the impact they could have on major systems like education. As Zuckerberg’s own acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram for Facebook show, the most meaningful innovations are happening by others outside of his organization, and don’t spawn from within his leadership. However, the Initiative’s investments in education have gone to very conventional tech-focused organizations that all have deep ties to the Silicon Valley economic infrastructure where Zuckerberg occupies a central role. We already know that community has a deeply exclusionary history and a strong bias against solutions that include the most vulnerable.

I do believe that Mark and Priscilla want to have a meaningful positive impact on the world, and I am unapologetically enthusiastic about the fact they’re articulating that vision in a way that will lead others. I am also grievously concerned about the greatest threat to those intentions: The culture of Silicon Valley. Many of the loudest, most prominent voices within the tech industry, people who have Zuckerberg’s ear, are already thoughtlessly describing smart critique of the Initiative as “hating”, absurdly dismissing legitimate concerns as jealousy.

Here’s the truth: No matter how good their intentions, the net result of most such efforts has typically been neutral at best, and can sometimes be deeply destructive. The most valuable path may well be to simply invest this enormous pool of resources in the people and institutions that are already doing this work (including, yes, public institutions funded by tax dollars) and trust that they know their domains better than someone who’s already got a pretty demanding day job. That may not be as appealing to the cult of disruption within the tech echo chamber, but would be exactly the kind of brave and unexpected move that might offer Max a great example of how to engage with the real world that the rest of us live in.