Tech billionaires tackle politics the way Batman fights crime

Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham

For more than a decade, people who follow Washington politics have wondered when the tech industry was going to start taking politics seriously.

This week, the tech industry made two big moves that show that tech — or at least its most successful billionaire founders — is beginning to understand how much political power it commands.

Characteristically, these tech billionaires are not taking the traditional approach of hiring lobbyists, making donations to Congressional campaigns, and funding Super PACs. They are putting vast sums of capital to work in order to work with governments, or if necessary around them, to solve the global problems they consider most pressing.

Consider first the announcement by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan that they will be donating 99 percent of their Facebook stock to help promote equality and increase human potential around the world. That amounts to about 45 billion dollars, making the newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as large as the Gates Foundation in eventual capitalization. (It also leaves a healthy $450 million in Facebook stock in the Zuckerberg-Chan’s family pockets, not to mention almost $2 billion in other assets that they already own, so don’t worry too much about young Max being cheated out of a rich inheritance.)

Notably, the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a limited liability corporation, not a nonprofit. Analysts have pointed out that this means it’s not subject to the usual rules of transparency that govern most nonprofits. It’s freer to spend (or not spend) its capital as it sees fit. It can back political candidates and make political contributions. And, for that matter, it’s free to turn a profit, I suppose. All of those differences mean that the CZI will have a good deal more flexibility in pursuing its aims than most philanthropies.

But the Zuckerberg philanthropy news is only the second big move by billionaires this week. At the beginning of the week, a consortium of billionaires, led by Bill Gates, pre-empted the Paris climate talks by announcing a $2 billion pledge to stimulate innovation in clean energy. Joining Gates were Virgin founder Richard Branson, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, and HP CEO Meg Whitman. It was a joint announcement, in which 20 governments also pledged to increase their investments in clean energy. But I couldn’t help but notice that the initiative seemed to have been led by Gates, who, as with his philanthropic work on fighting malaria and educating the world’s children, seems eager to “route around” the kind of slow, bureaucratic processes that characterize government work.

Taken together, these two events point to a reinvention of not just philanthropy, but of what it means for billionaires to “give back.” Today’s billionaires are not content to wait until their seventies and then disburse their billions to charities like museums, libraries, and hospitals. They’re not patient with slow change. As with the businesses they built, they want to disrupt things and stimulate rapid, transformative change — and they’re deploying their philanthropic money accordingly.

In short, like Bruce Wayne, they’ve grown frustrated with the official ways of fixing problems of pressing public interest and have invented their own, maverick solutions.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I won’t venture to say, yet. I applaud Zuckerberg and Chan for making such a massive commitment so early in their lives. I welcome the help of Gates and his fellow billionaires in trying to address the most massive planetary change since the dawn of humanity.

There is, I suppose, the possibility that these are cynical power plays and attempts to grow the market for their products, an accusation that has been leveled, fairly I think, at Facebook’s Internet.org initiative. There is also the possibility that philanthropy and politics desperately need to be reinvented, and these guys are doing it.

The proof will be in the execution, and in what kind of difference these organizations actually make in the coming years.

Originally published on VentureBeat

Tech billionaires tackle politics the way Batman fights crime