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Can billionaires save the world? Some are skeptical

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The spectacular downfall of crypto firm FTX has had many ripple effects, though not all of them are financial. It also affected a movement known as effective altruism. FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was a big booster of effective altruism. He said he aspired to make as much money as possible so that he could then give it away. But with FTX in bankruptcy proceedings and Bankman-Fried now facing a federal inquiry into market manipulation, that movement is now in turmoil. To help us understand how the FTX fiasco has affected this emerging form of philanthropy, I spoke with Rutger Bregman. He's a historian based in the Netherlands and the author of "Humankind: A Hopeful History." Bregman started by telling me how effective altruism began.

RUTGER BREGMAN: It actually started with very poor students, basically, who, quite impressively, were giving, you know, away a big part of the little money that they had to highly effective charities. It's just that, since the movement has been growing, they've been able to recruit rich people as well. They started to realize that, if you want to do a lot of good, money is quite helpful.

MARTÍNEZ: So then where does effective altruism stand? I mean, is it in a crisis mode? Is it something that somehow people can trust again?

BREGMAN: I think it's pretty heartbreaking to see what's been happening. I know quite a few people in this community, and so many of them are, you know, very morally ambitious - give away a huge part of their income. Almost all of them are vegan. Many of them have donated their kidney to a complete stranger. So these are quite often quite impressive people. But now, it turns out that they were receiving money from this, you know, completely fraudulent person. And, you know, many of the actually great causes they were working on are maybe now tainted as well.

MARTÍNEZ: If billionaires around the world paid taxes at a level that's probably more fair, would we need effective altruism?

BREGMAN: So I don't think I've ever made it a secret that I'm not a big fan of billionaire philanthropy, actually. I think billionaires shouldn't exist. I think that most billionaire philanthropy is just a scam, you know, to distract people from their corrupt business models and their tax evasion and their tax avoidance.

I do think, on the other hand, that you also have to acknowledge that, in a world where governments are just not spending enough - not nearly enough on things like pandemic prevention or, you know, the risk of artificial intelligence or, you know, malaria bed nets, then I'm pretty happy that there are people like, say, Bill Gates, for example, who are doing a lot of work there. And even if you're, you know, on the far left, you just have to acknowledge that foundations like that have been saving millions of lives. So again, it's complicated. My simple answer would be like, first, pay your taxes. And then, by all means, if you're still rich, give it away.

MARTÍNEZ: Have the world's governments, though, maybe relied too much on billionaires to maybe help fix some problems that they don't want to fix or can fix?

BREGMAN: Sometimes that's absolutely the case. But sometimes also - I mean, recently, the United Kingdom slashed its foreign aid budget. And I can't remember, you know, people getting really, really angry about this. The sad truth is that even most of us are mostly focused on problems of rich people and rich countries. And most people in rich countries don't realize just how rich they are. So for example, if you earn a median wage in the United States, you're already part of the 3% richest in the world. Especially if you're highly educated, middle class in the rich world, you are - you know, you're part of a global elite.

MARTÍNEZ: Is this a movement, do you think, that can recover? I mean, it has a tarnished kind of name right now. But once we get past everything that's happened with FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried, is this something that can reestablish its credibility, so to speak?

BREGMAN: The honest answer is I don't know. The blow has been very, very big. I think that the movement was already big enough that, at least in some form, it will have to survive. There are many, you know, EA-ish (ph) institutions and foundations and charities and you name it. And there's just thousands of pretty morally ambitious people around the globe who became connected because of this movement. But, I mean, the principle itself of quite often young people, you know, in their 20s and in their 30s who realize they're highly privileged and want to make a big difference in the world for the good - I think that, in itself, is something that we should be cheering on.

MARTÍNEZ: That's historian Rutger Bregman, author of "Humankind: A Hopeful History." Rutger, thanks.

BREGMAN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.