Just how bad is Mike Bloomberg’s $75 million donation to The Shed?

Image via The Shed

Today in rich people giving their rich-people friends millions of dollars to do rich-people things: New York’s Number One Rich Person, Mike Bloomberg.

Mr. Bloomberg on Wednesday added $60 million to a $15 million contribution he had made to the Shed in 2012, which was previously undisclosed.

“I’ve always believed the arts have a unique ability to benefit cities by attracting creative individuals of every kind, strengthening communities, and driving economic growth,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a prepared statement. “The Shed will help New York achieve all three goals.”

The chairman and president of The Shed, it’s important to note, is Dan Doctoroff, an extraordinarily rich man (if maybe not a billionaire in his own right) who used to be the president of Bloomberg LP, Mike Bloomberg’s multi-billion-dollar financial-information empire. Before that, he was Bloomberg’s deputy mayor, and before that, he worked on Bloomberg’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. If anybody can wring an eight-figure check out of Bloomberg for his pet charitable cause, Doctoroff can.

This donation is certainly a long, long way from what anybody might consider optimal from an effective altruism perspective. As Hamilton Nolan says,

For $75 million, Mike Bloomberg could have restored eyesight for 1.5 million people with curable blindness or prevented 25,000 human deaths from malaria. Do you think that an 8-level rolling art space adjacent to multimillion-dollar condos is as good a use of charitable donations as those things? It’s not! “But that’s his choice.” Yes—his choice is bad.

Narrowly, I agree with Hamilton: bed nets are, objectively a better place to give your money to than The Shed is. The question is: What is the best way to maximize the flow of money from Bloomberg’s pocket to areas of real need? The point here is that Bloomberg has so much money that giving $75 million to The Shed in no way precludes or diminishes his ability to give $75 million, or even $750 million, to fund cataract surgery or malaria prevention. What if Bloomberg’s cultural donations end up increasing, rather than decreasing, his life-saving philanthropy?

After all, Bloomberg clearly does care about saving lives in an efficient way. When he was mayor of New York, his ban on smoking in public places was unpopular, but also had significant public-health benefits. When me moved back into private life, he took his anti-smoking campaign international, worked on other public-health issues like obesity and drowning prevention, and also gave $125 million to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities in ten major cities around the world.

Traffic deaths are incredibly low-hanging fruit if you’re looking for ways of saving lives at low cost: something as simple as a sticker in public buses, asking people to speak up if they think their driver is acting dangerously, can have significant reproducible effects. At the same time, however, they’re a pretty messy and unrewarding area of philanthropy to get into. There’s always a lot of local politics, it’s incredibly difficult to draw nice clean causal relationships between inputs and outputs, and indeed most of the time it’s almost impossible to even quantify the outputs in the first place. For these reasons and many others, most philanthropies have avoided the traffic-deaths space, and it is to Mike Bloomberg’s credit that he has stepped in to this wide-open space with such a big check. After all, while small donations can make a real difference when it comes to things like cataracts and bed nets, the traffic-death space right now is one of those areas which really needs really big checks.

For that matter, so is The Shed: Doctoroff isn’t going out there trying to drum up $100 donations, and there isn’t even a donate button on its website. It makes sense that billionaires would be attracted to “go big or don’t bother” projects, just as it makes sense that Bloomberg would personally be attracted to projects where he has some kind of personal attachment, whether it’s as an arts lover, as a friend and former colleague of Doctoroff, or as a former mayor of a major world city.

So: How do we get Bloomberg to give even more money to public health? One way of looking at his giving, which is probably implicit in Hamilton’s post, is that the Bloomberg Philanthropies have some finite amount of money to give away, and that every dollar they spend on frippery like The Shed is a dollar they don’t spend on important issues like maternal and reproductive health.

But I’m not sure that’s the best frame. Here’s the opposite frame (which is equally oversimplistic): Bloomberg Philanthropies gives some percentage of its money to the arts, and some other percentage to public health, so the amount of money it spends on public health will rise in lockstep with the amount of money it spends on the arts. If you want Mike Bloomberg to give more money to public health, one way to do that is to persuade him to give more money to the arts, because then he’ll have to raise everything else in order to keep his overall asset allocation constant.

My view is a bit different, and it’s that Bloomberg’s arts giving should be considered a consumption good, a way to give him some kind of psychic reward for his philanthropy. Hamilton says he’s sick of rich people “trying to pass off their own personal neighborhood improvement projects as philanthropy,” and I am too. But the thing about being as rich as Mike Bloomberg is that you get to have your cake and eat it. You have your multiple homes and your private island and your private jets and all the luxury that money can buy, and precisely because giving away billions of dollars makes no dent in that lifestyle, you go ahead and give away billions of dollars, too, which also makes you feel good.

Bloomberg’s donation to The Shed is part of his being able to do things which make him personally happy – he’s been donating to the arts for many years, and all of us like to be able to write a check when our friends ask us for a favor. The happy glow that Bloomberg gets from this donation is going to be felt across all of Bloomberg Philanthropies, even in the much less sexy areas like traffic deaths. In turn, at the margin, one can expect Bloomberg to give more money to the philanthropies, and to spend his philanthropic funds more quickly – both of which would be very good things.

All billionaires are different: as the saying goes, “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.” But by the same token, all billionaires are motivated by something. So while I am not going to applaud Bloomberg’s $75 million donation to The Shed, I’m slightly more hesitant than Hamilton to outright condemn it. Because I suspect that this kind of gift is an ineradicable part of what makes Bloomberg give so much money to the kind of causes that Hamilton and I would unstintingly admire.

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