Steve Jobs is a genius. He is an innovator. A visionary. He is perhaps the most beloved billionaire in the world.
None of this is meant to judge Mr. Jobs. I have long been a huge admirer of Mr. Jobs and consider him the da Vinci of our time…But the lack of public philanthropy by Mr. Jobs—long whispered about, but rarely said aloud—raises some important questions about the way the public views business and business people at a time when some “millionaires and billionaires” are criticized for not giving back enough while others like Mr. Jobs are lionized.
Surprisingly, there is one thing that Mr. Jobs is not, at least not yet: a prominent philanthropist.Despite accumulating an estimated $8.3 billion fortune through his holdings in Apple and a 7.4 percent stake in Disney (through the sale of Pixar), there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity.
Never mind that Sorkin’s analogy of Steve Jobs to Leonardo da Vinci doesn’t fit Sorkin’s suggestion that Jobs should be a patron and philanthropist, as da Vinci was the object of patronage by the Medici and others rather than a patron himself. Let’s note instead that Sorkin’s critique of Jobs is twofold: on one hand, he seems to doubt that Jobs has given generously from his wealth to charity, although he concedes that Jobs may have made substantial, anonymous gifts:
…it is very possible that Mr. Jobs, who has always preferred to remain private, has donated money anonymously or has drafted a plan to give away his wealth upon his death. (There has long been speculation that an anonymous $150 million donation to the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco may have come from Mr. Jobs.)
On the other hand, Sorkin suggests that Jobs’ obligation is not only to be charitable, but to do so publicly so as to spur others to charitable acts:
Unlike Lance Armstrong and other celebrated cancer survivors, Mr. Jobs has not used his prominence to promote charitable giving.
Sorkin’s use of the occasion of Jobs's apparently severely diminished health to publicize these critiques, along with his self-congratulatory comment that others have not been brave enough to make these critiques above a whisper, are very unattractive. And, in spite of his words to the contrary, he clearly means to judge Jobs, as his column ends with this wish:
Let’s hope Mr. Jobs has many more years to make wonderful things—and perhaps to inspire his legions of admirers to give.
However inappropriate the occasion of Sorkin’ critique, the strong reactions—both positive and negative—to Sorkin’s column make it clear that Sorkin touched a nerve in the public.
Many, such as Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic, have echoed Sorkin’s critiques, especially the critique about Jobs’s lack of publicity in giving. Others, such as the Cato Institute’s Daniel Mitchell, have defended Jobs by suggesting that Job’s genius at developing products that delight and his success at leading a company that has employed thousands and enriched shareholders are more important contributions than any charitable gift Jobs could have given. Bono objected to Sorkin’s suggestion of uncharitableness in a letter to the New York Times that praised Jobs’ generosity.
Meanwhile, although new Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t publicly connect Apple’s new corporate initiative to match employees’ donations to non-profits, it seems likely that Apple’s leadership felt stung by Sorkin’s column, which mentioned that Jobs ended Apple’s corporate philanthropy programs when he returned for his second stint at Apple.
So what should we make of Sorkin’s critiques of Jobs?
Sorkin’s first critique—that Jobs may not have given to charity—is a version of the parable of the faithful servant that to whomever much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:35–48). Sorkin’s emphasis on Jobs and other businessmen carries the implication that businessmen who have profited in the marketplace have an especially strong charitable obligation to ordinary folks whose purchases provided their wealth. To that extent, Sorkin’s column is an extension of the current debate about whether millionaires and billionaires must shoulder a greater share of responsibility for America’s welfare.
If I knew that Jobs never gave from his billions to charitable causes, I would think him a miser—and I wouldn’t excuse him even though I appreciate his creative contributions to our society and the wealth and jobs he has helped to create. However, as Sorkin allows, Jobs may in fact have given very large, anonymous gifts.
Sorkin’s second critique—that Jobs has an obligation to give publicly rather than anonymously—is the more interesting and controversial of his critiques. Is it really the case that large-scale giving by the very wealthy should be made in public in order to promote the practice of charity? Certainly others agree with Sorkin: Australian millionaire Dick Smith recently declared that charitable giving by the wealthy “can’t be done secretly because it’s an obligation” and that he will start to “out” wealthy Australians who don’t make large, public gifts.
Sorkin and Smith ignore the case against public donations: that philanthropy carried out in public may be motivated by the desire to be praised for doing good rather than the desire simply to do good, and so public philanthropy can harm the donor by fanning his vanity. The potentially corrupting character of public philanthropy is behind, of course, the Biblical exhortation to give so that the left hand does not know what the right hand does (Matthew 6:3). Unfortunately, an anonymous donation is also no guarantee of pure generosity, as an anonymous donor may be indulging his vanity by privately enjoying the knowledge of his generosity. Neither publicity nor anonymity in donations can clearly reveal someone’s motives in giving.
Sorkin claims philanthropy should be public in order to prompt others’ philanthropy. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates reason that publicity can spur philanthropy, and so they have attempted to influence their peers among America’s wealthy by soliciting them to sign the Giving Pledge; recently Buffett and Gates have taken their efforts abroad to influence the very wealthy in India and China.
Sorkin, however, supposes that Jobs could influence not just fellow billionaires but Jobs’s “legions of admirers,” suggesting that Jobs’s influence could sway the many, not-so-wealthy individuals who admire Jobs and Apple. But how could these emulate Jobs? Surely they cannot emulate Jobs in the scale of potential gifts. And it’s not clear that they should follow Jobs in their choice of what charity to support, since they may find other worthy causes nearer and dearer to their hearts—nor is it clear why the example of an admired, but remote, man should be more influential than the closer examples of family and friends.
It isn’t simply obvious that public philanthropy is better than anonymous philanthropy; nor is it clear that any individual has an obligation to set a public example for others. Sorkin’s indictment of Steve Jobs is not only ugly in its timing, but fails to appreciate the complexity of motives behind how and why individuals may set an example for others’ emulation.