The current issue of The Atlantic has a lengthy essay about “Davos Man”: that is, the new class of super-rich elite who are, we are told, more meritocratic and philanthropic than their predecessors, but also more likely to concentrate those philanthropic efforts elsewhere, who care little for America’s domestic troubles. There’s some interesting reaction pieces, too. The whole thing got me thinking about my own experiences rubbing shoulders with elites, particularly as, in the universe of the Atlantic essay, contemporary elites are highly geographically localized: financial innovators in New York City, and technological innovators in Silicon Valley.
What struck me is that I actually have a rather unique experience not simply of having lived on both coasts amongst the two types of elites, but of having attended, as an undergraduate, two separate institutions, each known for producing a different type of elite. Caltech, where I spent my freshman year, was full of insanely smart, hyper-analytical kids, largely from middle-class families and public schools, entirely immersed in scientific thinking. Georgetown, to which I transferred, focuses itself on international relations, social sciences, languages, humanities, and theology. My peers were also highly intelligent, but less often prodigiously so; largely upper-class, often from private schools (ever heard a “private school” chant break out at a college party? I have!), well-traveled and interested in social service in the genteel, humanistic sense, gravitating towards programs like the Peace Corps or USAID. Georgetown takes the social mission of a well-rounded education as implicit; if Caltech has a social mission, it is only to solve scientific problems. And while my peers at Georgetown were more likely to have come from old money on the East Coast, it is my classmates from Caltech who are, as the Atlantic essay describes, more likely to compose the new elite on either coast.
This is surprisingly unremarked-upon in both the initial essay and in the reaction pieces, but the truth is simple: the Davos Man’s most salient trait is his (and it is almost universally a “his”) scientific, analytical outlook. A super-rich hedge fund manager might not hold a PhD in physics himself, but he almost certainly has hired numerous highly-paid quants who do, and — more significantly — he has probably built most of his business around their models. Quantitative thinking has in many ways replaced old-school glad-handing as the entry into business success. What does this have to do with the locus of philanthropic efforts shifting from inside America’s borders to the third-world? Well, put simply, many the developing world’s problems are — or at least seem to be — more solvable.
Given the scale of global poverty, this may sound counterintuitive. But my point isn’t that the sum total of third-world problems are easily solvable; rather, I’m suggesting that there are many problems in the developing world which are not simpler, but which are — crucially — easier to simplify. To wit: vaccinations, which have been the subject of a hearty effort from the Gates Foundation. The biggest hurdle in many diseases that remain in the third-world has already been cleared: first-world research and development led to the discovery of a vaccine, and to a mechanism for its mass-production. What remains are common issues to anyone who has ever been involved in scaling a business: cheaper production, broader access, complete market penetration — in short, it’s a numbers game.
This is, obviously, reductive, and to truly address the issues and causes involved in third-world poverty demands a trek through anthropology, colonial history, and all the manner of arcane trade laws. But providing vaccinations doesn’t demand that much. By isolating a singular issue — and in the developing world, there are many to choose from — the Davos Man reduces variability and complication. The behemoth of global poverty, thusly reduced to subsets, becomes a collection of potentially solvable problems, in the Caltech sense of the phrase.
Domestically, though, this doesn’t hold as much water. The persistent problems of the developed world demand more money, more time, and more resources than those of the third world; whether or not they are ultimately more complicated at their origin is moot, because so many pressing social issues within America have become inextricable. It’s why, for example, charter schools produce such wildly variable — and often poor — results: the issue isn’t merely subverting unions and reducing bureaucracy. Educational attainment in the US is closely tied to a whole host of socioeconomic factors, themselves deeply entwined with issues of race and ethnicity, which leads then into a conversation about urban planning and health care and history and the Supreme Court and on and on and on.
My point is: if you’re a mega-billionaire looking to make a real difference, where are you going to concentrate your efforts? Think like a Davos — or a Caltech — man. Are you going to be predominantly interested in extremely poor areas where basic services that we already know how to provide — vaccines, clean water — can be implemented cheaply and offer a large population a significant increase in their quality of life? Or would you rather dive into an interconnected web of social problems with no clear solutions in your own country, where your wealth will be able to impact a much smaller number of people? If you were attempting to maximize the positive impact of your wealth, which would you choose?
Whether or not this emphasis on global giving is even a real problem — even amidst this Great Recession, it is hard to feel that America’s issues are more deserving of money than, say, malaria net-distribution programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and better the Davos Man than the idle rich — is an entirely different matter. But as regards the anti-tax attitudes of the super-rich demonstrated in the Atlantic essay, perhaps their sense of civic obligation — not merely to their fellow man, but to their fellow American — would be well-served not by more analysis, but by a healthy dose of humanism. A little less Caltech, a little more Georgetown, if you will.
In the meantime, perhaps we can take a moment to acknowledge that real change in America is not only a top-down game. There are wonderful change-makers working in communities across the country to make beautiful things happen, whether they’re foundation-funded or just fueled by the dream of a better tomorrow.