Black Bart Nominee: Zuckerberg Brings New Look to Giving

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

There are plenty of people in the tech world who have lots of experience – and an outsized interest — in making buckets of money, but far fewer of them are talking about the best way to give that cash away.

For making that connection between the money that comes in and the good it can do for the world –- and putting his checkbook where his press release is — Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, is my choice as Californian of the year.

That’s not to say that giving money away is the focus of Zuckerberg’s life. The success of his social media giant has made him the fifth richest person on the planet, with a net worth of around $50 billion, depending on which way the market is moving.

And while the presidential election took the social media world to new heights of political visibility and influence (See Twitter and Trump, Donald), it also left Facebook as Ground Zero for the disturbing fake news phenomenon, a headache Zuckerberg still is trying to resolve.

He’s also made it clear that at age 32 he has every intention of continuing as Facebook’s boss and not retiring to spend his days sitting in the sunshine and doing good deeds.

But Zuckerberg, along with his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, represent the new face of philanthropy in the California-centric tech world, where uber-wealthy young people are interested in passing on their riches as they earn them and not waiting until their golden years to see their money make an impact.

When San Francisco General Hospital opened a new trauma center and hospital building last May, it carried the name of Zuckerberg and Chan, whose $75 million donation paid not only for a chunk of the state-of-the-art technology that fills the new facility, but also for the medical center’s beds and other low-tech necessities.

Last December, the couple announced creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, part of a pledge to give away 99 percent of their net worth during their lifetimes. The organization, which is purposely not designed as a charitable foundation, will make investments in “personalized learning, curing disease (and) connecting people and building strong communities.”

That’s very similar to the high-sounding piffle that typically spews from foundations, long on vision and short on results. Not unlike, for example, Zuckerberg’s 2010 contribution of $100 million to the failing Newark, N.J., school system, a donation which mainly transformed the lives and bank accounts of the many consultants hired for the none-too-successful effort.

But the new initiative already has helped raise $24 million to train tech workers in Africa. And in September, Zuckerberg announced that he and his wife would put up $3 billion over the next decade to help cure disease, including $600 million for Biohub, a new San Francisco research center.

Will the work cure diseases? Who knows. But the type of basic science research planned for the new center, while often disparaged by headline-hunting politicians and wealthy donors looking to cure “their” disease, has the delightful potential to lead scientists in unexpected directions and solve problems researchers didn’t even know were out there.

There already are complaints that Zuckerberg’s plan is more a tax dodge than a serious charitable effort and that he wants more control – and less scrutiny – than a traditional charitable foundation would give him. But if the bottom line is “Show me the money,” the Facebook CEO is doing just that.

Zuckerberg, and the growing number of tech industry philanthropists like him, don’t have to give a nickel of their wealth to anyone. Zuckerberg, though, has said he has a moral duty to use his money to make a better world for people like his his year-old daughter.

California has always been a home for people who were willing to take chances to build a better future. While there never were – and still aren’t — any guarantees those efforts will bear fruit, this would be a very different state without those risk takers.

Zuckerberg has a vision for the future and he’s willing to dig deep into his own pockets to bring it about.

There were plenty of other people who helped transform California in 2016.

Incoming Sen. Kamala Harris, incoming Rep. Ro Khanna and East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell are all examples of the changing of the guard in California’s political leadership.

While the 52-year-old Harris is no youthful political novice, she’s the same age retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer was when she took office in 1992. The 40-year-old Khanna of Fremont took out fellow Democrat Mike Honda, 75, of San Jose in the November election. While Swalwell, 36, entered Congress in 2012 after beating 10-term Rep. Pete Stark, his star is on the rise after being named to the House Democratic leadership team this month.

With John Burton, 84, soon to retire as state Democratic Party chair, Gov. Jerry Brown, 78, termed out in two years and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 83, still uncommitted to a 2018 re-election run, changes are coming to California.

And then, as always, there’s Brown, who showed again this year why he is the best politician in the state. Whether it’s putting himself at the forefront of the upcoming climate change battle with incoming President Donald Trump (“California will launch its own damn satellites”) or using his political capital to sink a November proposition he hated and boost to victory one he backed, he’s proving to be anything but a lame duck.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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