At a recent TED talk, Google CEO, and member of our not-so illustrious list of least generous tech givers, Larry Page, said that rather than leaving his vast fortune, which now stands at $32 billion, to a philanthropic foundation, he may just leave most of it to Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who Page hailed as a visionary, and believes could better use Page's capital for social benefit than any traditional charity.
Ostensibly, much of the money would go toward Musk's goal of "backing up humanity" by putting a colony on Mars. Just in case some unthinkable event decimated life on earth. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” Page told interviewer Charlie Rose.
“Most people think companies are basically evil. They get a bad rap. And I think that’s somewhat correct,” Page said. “Companies are doing the same incremental thing that they did 50 years ago, 20 years ago. That’s not really what we need. Especially in technology, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.”
While revolutionary change may be necessary, Page's philanthropic vision is somewhat troubling. First, there's the obvious fact that no matter how much a company strives to be socially beneficial, it is ultimately beholden to its shareholders, who are usually more interested in turning a profit than they are in social benefit. It's not necessarily uncommon for the two to be in conflict, either, and when that happens, it's invariably the social benefit that takes the hit.
Forget for a minute that Musk's project would require trillions of dollars to complete, and is so massive that it could likely only come to fruition if a consortium of national governments were to take a leading role. Not that private money wouldn't be helpful in kickstarting such a venture, but without government involvement, the project would run a real risk of being subjected to the whims of a few funders, which could easily jeopardize its intent.
The real problem here is that philanthropic dollars are a finite resource, so how they are spent is exceedingly important. And being a numbers guy, Page should know that the odds of an event so catastrophic that it wipes out all of humanity happening in the next hundred, thousand, or even ten thousand years is astronomically low. So low, in fact, that you're probably more likely to win the lottery, get struck by lightning, contract smallpox, get bitten by a shark, and broker an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace deal all in the same day.
Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of the world's population lives on less than $1.25 per day, over 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and tens of millions die from starvation, and easily preventable and treatable diseases every year. And while the sorts of for-profit social ventures that Page advocates have increasingly helped to address these problems in recent years, if the free market really was adept at solving them, wouldn't it have done so by now?
Imagine if every philanthropist thought like Page: We'd have a lot of grandiose plans for solving problems that don't really exist while the more pressing issues get ignored. So through this lens, it starts to look less like philanthropy, and more like some rich kid's fantasy. And besides, if he's really serious about the whole global catastrophe thing, a high-tech laser defense system targeting asteroids and aliens, and a sustainable deep underground bunker would likely be cheaper, and save more lives.
On the up side, Page's foundation, named after his dad, had assets of $539 million in 2012, and a recent securities exchange filing shows Page transfered another $177 million in Google stock to an unnamed non-profit organization last month, so he is apparently not putting all his eggs in one basket. Still, compared to many tech givers, it's a relatively small sum, especially considering his net worth.
For more on Larry Page, read our IP Profile.