Are you Zuckerberging me?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician and philanthropist Priscilla Chan, pledged to donate 99% of their wealth (over their lifetimes) to a philanthropic LLC they're setting up, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. There was some rather vitriolic criticism of this endeavor, which seems both somewhat predictable-in-hindsight but also rather strange at first blush. Do the criticisms have merit? What about the "debunking"? As you might expect, I think there's something missing here.

I.

As philosopher and Effective Altruism guru William McAskill (whose book Doing Good Better I read and reviewed) noted:
“Couple decides to give majority of their earnings to charity” is hardly a headline that you’d expect people to take umbrage at. But when you replace “couple” with “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan,” suddenly everyone goes crazy. Even though the majority of commentators have been positive, a significant proportion of people have reacted with anger or even condemnation to the news this week that the first couple of social media will be donating 99% of their Facebook shares (some $45 billion) to a new charitable initiative.
I can see how the Effective Altruism community might be a bit rankled by this. They've taken their fair share of (often misguided) heat over being "just a bunch of tech nerds giving to phantom causes"—which really only applies to the artificial intelligence monster-prevention side of EA, and not the (equally elevated) global health and animal welfare sides. Certainly the eradication of malaria is not a phantom cause. And yet in particular the methods of EA, a very scrupulous and somewhat idiosyncratic data-driven approach to finding the most effective charities, not just the ones that make you feel good, can seem strange to outsiders. The EA approach passes over some pretty famous charities, sometimes at considerable (one might say disdainful) speed.

So naturally McAskill wrote up some counter-criticism, as did my friend Lauren, who's very active in the Seattle rationalist/EA community. And I wonder if Sydney will weigh in eventually.

But can I co-sign McAskill's conclusion?
Yes, Zuckerberg and Chan are still among the richest people in the world. Yes, they could do even more than they’re planning to right now. But given that few of us would make the same decision were we in their position, I think we should have nothing but praise.
No.

What about Lauren's note?
This allows me to figure out what kind of article I would write to convince people that... maybe Zuckerberg is actually doing a good thing.

And it would not look like the article linked below [from McAskill]. While useful and informative, that article is more likely to make people who already agree with it feel good that they are on the "right side" of the debate. It does little to assuage the concerns from detractors.
There's still something missing, I think. Well, two aspects to this put the entire discussion on the wrong track.

First, we have the claim that "Zuckerberg is doing a good thing" and "I think we should have nothing but praise." What, exactly, are we praising?

Second, we have the criticism. What, exactly, are they criticizing?

And the combination of these two: Is there anything unsaid that we should be criticizing?

II.

McAskill and Lauren do a pretty good job locating specific criticisms:
  • "It's just a tax dodge!"
  • "Creating an LLC isn't really a donation!"
  • "They should donate it to the government instead!"
  • "Mega-philanthropy is non-democratic!"
  • "Ultra-rich people don't need our praise!"
  • "I don't like Silicon Valley / Facebook / Zuckerberg!"
  • "I don't like blatant PR moves!"
  • "I don't trust people with massive decision-making potential and very little philanthropic experience!"
And while all of these criticisms are somewhat expected, if not agreeable, I don't think they're the best criticisms of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Do we expect the best criticisms to come from Reddit, BoingBoing, Anil Dash at Medium, and the Guardian?

Well, hold on a minute; I don't know that McAskill was being all that charitable in his "debunking." The very word implies that the criticisms are mostly wrong and overinflated by those who submitted them.

Okay, the "It's just a tax dodge" critique comes from Reddit, so odds are decent that they miss something about how the real world and real tax laws work. Plus (because Reddit) it's all massive speculation, with everyone stroking their hate-boners over what nefarious schemes Zuckerberg might carry out through his shiny new LLC.

The "It's not a donation" critique comes from BoingBoing, and seems kinda like pedantry. At least devoting more than a few sentences might be a bit pedantic. There might be some value to avoiding the word "charity" and its considerable affective load, to ensure a more level-headed criticism. Of course, the word is already out there so you're just setting yourself up for Internet Arguments. Anyway it's not factually wrong: creating an LLC, even with an open letter promising how charitable that LLC will be, is not in itself an act of charity. We just have to trust Zuckerberg until he actually does it.

Now we get to Anil Dash's criticism, which McAskill characterizes as "They should just donate it all to the government!"
Others say that by giving all their resources to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (another example would be the Bill and Gates Foundation), the couple is presuming to know how to better allocate the money than the governments that exist to represent the needs and aspirations of the general public. If he really wanted to help the American people, why didn’t they give their money to the US federal government? The US Treasury accepts donations from anyone.
Which he then proceeds to debunk by noting that almost nobody donates money to the US Treasury, and that the Gates Foundation does charitable work with people in extreme poverty while the US federal government spends less than 1% of its budget on such causes.

Except that Dash didn't actually recommend that course of action.
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.
The American educational system has a lot of problems. Not living-on-two-dollars-a-day problems, but as McAskill himself notes in Doing Good Better, even a working-class American is better off than the vast majority of the world. So think of it this way: if we're not optimizing our educational system(s) to create better citizens, who will earn more and, you know, donate to charity, we're letting the rest of the world down, in some sense. Not to mention letting the kids down, if they end up jobless or jailed.

So why is it that the growing wisdom for Big Problems Abroad is often "just give cash, the people over there know how best to use it," whereas the wisdom for Big Problems At Home is "make a 'disruptive' new thing to change a bunch of parameters at once, off to the side, and hope it works and scales and revolutionizes everything"? Why are at-home efforts seemingly stuck in the PlayPump stage of social reform?

Take a look again at what Dash is recommending. "Invest [...] in the people and institutions that are already doing this work [...] and trust that they know their domains better than someone who's already got a pretty demanding day job." Isn't that more or less exactly the Effective Altruism advice?

That's not to say that outside views are useless, for example. Effective Altruism itself is a great example, with great potential to shake out the PlayPumps and promote more Against Malaria Foundations and Schistosomiasis Control Initiatives and so on. But I'd say that it's bad to anchor the "this isn't working, so it needs an outside opinion" heuristic. Why isn't it working?

A while ago I read a book called The Smartest Kids In the World, about how other countries—specifically Poland, Finland, and South Korea—radically revamped their educational systems and saw significant improvement by their 15-year-old students on international standardized tests. The biggest takeaway for me—other than that South Korea seems like actual Hell for Koreans until they land a job somewhere—is that something as simple as "demand intensive training for teachers, and pay them like goddamn professionals" probably makes up for a lot of the difference between Finland's schools and America's.

Oh, and that Americans don't really care about learning, by and large.

III.

Tangent time!


It's been long enough that I don't want to review The Smartest Kids in the World as its own post, but it's worth digging into a bit because the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative specifically highlighted "personalized education," Zuckerberg has a previous dalliance with education philanthropy, Dash made a point of criticizing it, and McAskill made a point of "debunking" it.

It also makes me a bit... disproportionately frustrated, given that I've only been peripherally involved in the professional side of education, and my own K-12 education was, on the whole, pretty darn great. Did you, dear reader, hate middle and high school? I didn't. Enough said.

But once I read The Smartest Kids in the World I couldn't help but notice, in other articles and blog post, an astonishing sort of cowardice from administrators, parents, and community members about education. (That's not counting the people with some insane ideas about what students should learn or not learn.)

They rail against substandard performance but harrumph about Common Core standards out of pure ignorance.

They quickly suggest MOAR TESTING to the point of insane disruption of useful class time, but just as quickly shy away from actually making the tests matter in any significant way.

They bemoan the state of the educational system but can't be bothered to pay teachers enough to actually hire enough for the school year.

Oh, but they can buy gadgets! Who wants to learn math on a computer? (Not using a computer, mind; that might be useful.) I sure as hell don't. Especially when, contrary to PR, it's often used as a crutch by substandard or shoehorned math teachers, in lieu of actually doing their jobs.

It's sort of like an institutional version of the sub-optimal and even self-sabotaging economic behavior of the working poor.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg already donated $100 million (matched for a total of $200m) towards fixing education, and it came to absolutely nothing.
AltSchool is building a network of micro-schools that provides a uniquely personalized and child-centered K-8 learning experience through outstanding teachers, deep research and an innovative technology operating system. Our $15 million investment will enable this reimagined school experience to be offered to more students so they can achieve their full potential.

[...]
Facebook partnered with teachers at Summit Public Schools (also a grantee of Startup:Education) to help students reach their full potential through an approach known as personalized learning, which allows students to become active participants in their education. Facebook engineers embedded in the classroom to work with teachers and invested in the infrastructure to build the Personalized Learning Platform (PLP). The goal is to make it available for free to every school in the United States.

[...]
As part of our commitment to personalized learning, we invested $5 million in MasteryConnect to support K-12 educators as they adopt competency-based learning in the classroom.
Technology.

They are aware that the kids who need the most help often don't have a computer or Internet access at home, right? That not all parents are equally "unavailable," so giving them a cell phone app might not help?

Not "increase the competency of teachers," or "pay teachers a professional salary," or "provide free lunch to all students" or "fund co-curricular programs like music, design, or shop" or any of that. It's just serving the fetishes of the upwardly-mobile upper middle class suburbanites that feed their children into, well, the tech industry. That is, if the kids don't commit suicide first.

Technology.

Is technology really the most effective intervention for improving school performance?

If not, what does this say about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's initial quality?

IV.

The Guardian piece is also mostly speculative or abstract, although I think this point worth discussing a bit:
Simply by creating and overseeing the world’s largest social network and one of the most influential corporations on Earth – by gathering and selling untold amounts of data under the protection of inscrutable legal jargon, by implementing shaky harassment and reporting policies that permit certain kinds of abuse, by employing 68% men and fewer than 50 black people in a company of more than 10,000 employees (to say nothing of the unholy spectre of gentrification) – Mark Zuckerberg himself continues to reproduce the inequality he and his wife are taking aim at with their pledge.
One of the tools of Effective Altruism is the idea of an "offset donation," where, rather than changing some bad behavior entirely, you instead donate to a cause that's exactly counter to that behavior. For example, if you worry about the effect your beef consumption has on climate change, calculate a rough estimate (err on the side of worse outcomes) of your impact on the climate, and then donate to a cause like deforestation prevention, in proportion to how much that effort will prevent climate change.

Zuckerberg would do well to direct his Initiative towards goals that more directly offset Facebook's outsize negative impact on the society around it. Not some lame "technology is making us lonely" crap, but some of the actual bad outcomes noted by the Guardian writer.

I don't think McAskill addresses that point in his rebuttal:
This complaint might be a reasonable if Zuckerberg and Chan were planning to sway political processes via their donations. But, as far as we can tell from his statement at least, they plan to use the money to alleviate disease, improve education, and fight poverty. These are goals that are unequivocally good: A healthier, richer, better educated populace allows the poorest in society to have more of a voice. Ideally, such donations are actually a force for democracy rather than against.
Yeah, so they say. And "unequivocally good" goals didn't make a bit of difference for PlayPump—it still sucked as an intervention. Overall it's a pretty weak rebuttal.

There's also this note by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich:
I think that’s great. But for every dollar they allocate to these causes, about 70 cents will actually be from them and about 30 cents from the rest of us -- since they’ll deduct the contributions from their taxable income, and other taxpayers therefore will be paying a bit more in taxes to make up the difference.

As more and more of America’s new Gilded Age billionaires give to the causes of their choice – on a scale of charitable giving we haven’t witnessed since the first Gilded Age more than a century ago -- we’re now in effect privatizing society’s decisions about what good causes deserve the highest priority. If you’d rather that our 30 percent of Zuckerberg’s and Chan’s huge contributions go to, say, Alzheimer’s research or a cure for AIDS, you’re out of luck.
This is worrisome only to the extent that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donates to causes that American governments spend any money on. But it feeds into a larger point about accountability and open discourse. Should we not be even more critical of private actors when they donate in the name of the public good? After all, it's not like we can affect their decisions in any other way but yelling about it.

V.

So after writing four sections I've come to the conclusion that McAskill's rebuttal is really not that good, verging on crappy. But it's not helped by the fact that some of the criticism just isn't very good.

As I'll probably expand on in a future post, I think it's important to consider closely the bad arguments for positions we agree with. I think it's also important to know what the weak men are for other positions, just in case you find yourself arguing against them and not the men of steel.

Reddit makes bad arguments against Zuckerberg's philanthropy. It seems motivated, as Lauren noted, more by generalized animus against the (0.00)1% than by any specific details so far.

McAskill, in my view, makes bad arguments for Zuckerberg's philanthropy. I think he might be motivated, at some level, by a need to defend Effective Altruism, given how close the EA movement is to Silicon Valley philanthropy in concept-space.

What does Zuckerberg deserve praise for? What has he actually done? He's created an LLC to fund causes he and his wife deem to be pro-social, and promised to invest 99% of his wealth into it.

Is that... good? Is it bad? (Is it weird that Gawker has the best criticism I've seen so far?)

I think it's just money-shuffling, at least for now. It could be good. It could be an unfortunate waste. It could be a self-caused disaster. Who can say, at this point?