Philanthropy can do better than Rajat Gupta
Last night I was watching a YouTube video in between playoff games (both of which disappointed). Conan O’Brien was accepting an honorary patronage at the philosophical society of the University of Dublin. His speech was hilarious, and there was an extended, intimate Q&A session afterwards.
One thing he mentioned was an amended version of the (to me, very moving) words he had closed his last NBC Tonight Show with, “If you work really hard and you’re kind then amazing things will happen.” Namely, he wanted to add this sentence: “If you work really hard and you’re a huge asshole, then you can make tons of money on Wall Street.”
These wise words came back to me this morning when I read about Bill Gates and Kofi Annan’s letters to Judge Jed Rakoff regarding Goldman Sachs insider trader Rajat Gupta. The letters were intended to reduce sentencing, considering how unbelievably philanthropical Gupta had been as he was stealing all this money.
I’m not doubting that the dude did some good things with his ill-gotten gains. After all, I don’t have a letter from Bill Gates about how I helped remove malaria from the world.
But wait a minute, maybe that’s because I didn’t steal money from taxpayers like he did to put myself into the position of spending millions of dollars doing good things! Because I’m thinking that if I had the money that Gupta had, I might well have spent good money doing good things.
And therein lies the problem with this whole picture. He did some good (I’ll assume), but then again he had the advantage of being someone in our society who could do good, i.e. he was loaded. Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to set up a system wherein people could do good who are good, who have good ideas and great plans?
Unfortunately, those people exist, but they’re generally poor, or stuck in normal jobs making ends meet for their family, and they don’t get their plans heard. In particular they aren’t huge assholes stealing money and then trying to get out of trouble by hiring hugely expensive lawyers and leaning on their philanthropy buds.
The current system of grant-writing doesn’t at all support the people with good ideas: it doesn’t teach these “social inventors” how to build a charitable idea into a business plan. So what happens is that the good ideas drift away without the important detailed knowledge of how to surround it with resources. And generally the people with really innovative ideas aren’t by nature detail-oriented people who can figure out how to start a business, they’re kind of nerdy.
I’m serious, I think the government should sponsor something like a “philanthropy institute” for entrepreneurial non-revenue generating ideas that are good for society. People could come to open meetings and discuss their ideas for improving stuff, and there’d be full-time staff and fellows, with the goal of seizing upon good ideas and developing them like business plans.