Wednesday, June 5, 2019
About a week and a half ago, MacKenzie Bezos signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of her almost $37 billion wealth either over the course of her life or in her will. With her signature, she's joined more than 200 other people, from around the world, in making this promise.
In the first instance, I think this commitment to philanthropy is tremendously laudable. She recognizes that she has a disproportionate share of assets, and that she has a moral obligation to share those assets with those who don't have her fortune:
We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand. In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.
Still, I have a couple questions. The first is, as a practical matter, how she'll give. After all, the bulk of her wealth is in Amazon stock. And she gave her ex-husband voting control over her Amazon stock. I don't know exactly what that looks like, but I imagine there are some limitations on her ability to liquidate (or donate) that stock.
The second is, how quickly will she give? Half of $37 billion is $18.5 billion. If she donates to a private foundation, she can only deduct up to 30% of her contribution base (which is, roughly, her adjusted gross income). If she gives directly to a public charity, she can still only deduct up to 50% of her contribution base (or 60% if she gives cash before 2026). In other words, to fully deduct her charitable contributions, she would have to earn at least roughly roughly $37 billion.
Now, it absolutely may be that she's not worried about fully deducting her contributions. (Facebook founder Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan certainly don't seem to be.) Or maybe she'll wait until her death, when charitable donations are excluded from her estate, to fully make her contributions. (Of course, actuarial tables put her expected death about 34 years in the future, so that would be charity delayed.)
Which brings us, briefly, to yesterday's Chronicle of Philanthropy, which reports that the Giving Pledge has not, contrary to its original expectations, turbocharged charitable giving. While more than 200 people have signed, the vast majority of the wealthy have not. Nor has it inspired increased generosity by non-wealthy Americans. Charitable giving stood at about 2% of GDP before the introduction of the Giving Pledge, and it has continued there since.
That's not to say, of course, that Bezos's pledge is insincere, that she's not actually planning on giving away more than half her money, or that she won't do it during her lifetime. It is to say that, while the Giving Pledge is theoretically nice, though, if we want to increase charitable giving, or if we want to reduce income inequality, the Giving Pledge isn't the solution.
Samuel D. Brunson