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Should Steve Jobs Give Away His Billions?


More than 50 investors, entrepreneurs and corporate execs have signed the Giving Pledge. Steve Jobs isn't one of them.

If you assumed that all billionaires were the same, you might be surprised to hear this. After all, the pledge was started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Case (AOL's (NYSE: AOL) co-founder), Larry Ellison (Oracle's (NASDAQ: ORCL) founder), George Lucas (yes, the same George Lucas that created Star Wars), Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn, and Michael Milken have all signed the pledge. Why wouldn't Jobs jump on board?

Andrew Ross Sorkin has published a piece on the matter, in which he admits that he had reservations about “even raising the issue given [Jobs'] ill health, and frankly, because of the enormous positive impact his products have had by improving the lives of millions of people through technology.”

(To read about how the iPhone 5 will be drastically different from the iPhone 4S, click here.)

Still, Sorkin says that despite his estimated $8.3 billion fortune (a number that I personally feel is very conservative), there is no public record of Jobs giving money to charity.

But is that really a bad thing? There are several arguments on both sides, along with the “he could be donating anonymously” assumption. Whether or not that assumption is true does not really matter. The heart of this debate is whether or not Jobs should give away money publicly. If he does it privately, nobody will ever know. This prevents the public from judging him. And the public loves to judge.

Sorkin kept his piece neutral, providing facts – not commentary – on Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and its founder. Did you know that Jobs shut down all philanthropic efforts at Apple when he returned to the company in 1997? He apparently did so to help boost the firm's bottom line, which was suffering at the time. On the flip side, Jobs successfully pushed California to become the first state to create a live donor registry for kidney transplants. Was this a fair trade? Were the lives that were potentially saved – and those that could be saved in the future – worth the loss of 14 years of philanthropy at Apple?

(Read about how Apple saved Greece $140 billion by clicking here.)

Perhaps it is better to consider what those efforts may have been and weigh them against the live donor registry. A lot of companies claim to give back. But for every McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), which has multiple charitable programs, there are corporations that give to causes that merely sound good on paper.

Sorkin is not oblivious to this fact. He notes that many billionaires give away their money to buff their image. Since Jobs already has a good image, there is no marketing incentive for him to give away his wealth.

Of course, one might assume that a man with excess capital should be willing to share at least some of his fortune. That's a hard thing to argue against. Jobs could simultaneously maintain his staunch work ethic while giving away a large sum of money. And he could do so without feeling the burn financially. While some billionaires love to blow their money, Jobs isn't one of them. He is, from what we can tell, sitting on a pot of gold.

The question is – and this is why the debate will continue – should he give away his wealth? Never mind the 50% to 80% that Zuckerberg and other Giving Pledge signees are supposedly donating. Why should Jobs have to part with money he worked hard to accumulate?

(Does Apple need a "supernatural" being to replace Steve Jobs? Find out by clicking here.)

Let's look at it from another angle. If Jobs is or has seriously considered the prospects of charity, then he needs to think long and hard about the source of his wealth: everyday consumers. While his Windows (NASDAQ: MSFT) nemesis has made billions selling products to corporate clients, Apple has made the majority of its wealth by selling hardware directly to consumers. Aren't they worthy of something in return?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no rule that says they are. But with companies like Target (NYSE: TGT) bragging loudly and proudly about its charitable donations, consumers have begun to believe that if they shop at Store X, they're helping society.

This, unfortunately, is the source of criticism against Jobs and other billionaires. If corporations and wealthy individuals didn't make the art of charity look so darn appealing, it wouldn't get so much attention, and people wouldn't automatically expect Jobs to give back.

But even if charity wasn't the “cool” thing to do, one question remains: should Jobs be more charitable? Frankly, I am not one of those people who believe that Apple's innovations are so great and so important to this world that they are all the charity we need. It's not as if Apple made these products for the sake of giving back; it did so to make a profit!

(To see which companies Apple is teaming up with for the iPhone 5, click here.)

At the same time, I think it's silly to force Apple or Jobs into philanthropy. If their hearts aren't in it, what's the point? If consumers knew that Company X was only giving away money to improve its image and to build up its marketing efforts, would they be happy? Probably not. They'd prefer to go on living with the belief that Company X actually cares.

Whether or not Jobs cares, we don't really know. He could very well be one of the most charitable anonymous givers on Earth. Publicly, however, he does not want to give. And unless he truly wants to, he probably shouldn't.

Update 5-24-12: Read My Follow-Up - Does Apple's Steve Jobs Prove Greed is Good?

Follow me @LouisBedigian


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