Photo: AP

Mike Bloomberg (net worth: $52 billion) modestly announced in a New York Times op-ed yesterday that he is donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University to enable need-blind admissions. Congratulations, Mr. former mayor... you suck at charity.

Every time a disgustingly wealthy person makes a showy donation like this, the conventional wisdom of what the public reaction should be is: “Thank you, kind sir, for making this generous donation. Whether or not it was the best donation you could have made, we can all agree that it is certainly nicer than setting the money on fire, or simply buying cocaine with it. Cheers!”

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That is not a good standard.

First, accumulating a multibillion-dollar fortune is a symptom of the grotesque failure of capitalism. It is immoral, should be illegal, and if anyone does find themselves with such a fortune, they are obligated to give it all away. Giving away a small portion of it in return for widespread congratulations is not something to be applauded. It is a small and insufficient step in the right direction.

On top of that, that money is valuable. That money can save lives. Yes! It can save human lives. It can provide medical treatment for people who would otherwise not receive it. It can eradicate diseases. It can fund operations to help people not go blind. It can give homes to the homeless. It can help resettle refugees. The decision about how to save millions of lives—and yes, with $50 billion, you can plausibly save or meaningfully extend millions of lives—should not be in the hands of one guy (who really liked stop and frisk). Decisions that important should be in the hands of, you know, a democratically accountable institution. But if one guy is going to make the decision, he is obligated to make the decision with the knowledge that whatever he spends the money on must be weighed against what the money could be doing—saving lives.

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Sure, education is important. You can reasonably argue that education is a long-term investment in the widespread improvement of lives. We need education. It is not purely an either/ or choice. Fine. If you want to invest in education in a way that will maximize the value of the investment and help the most people, you could, for example lobby to increase public investment in public education; or, if you are focused purely on higher education, you could direct funding towards community colleges, which are the prime higher education entry point for low income people, or you could fund public universities, which, on a broad scale, is what the government needs to do to improve access to college for everyone.

Instead, Mike Bloomberg chose option three: He gave $1.8 billion to the elite college that he personally attended. His money will go to pay for tuition at a school where tuition costs $54,000 per year. Imagine—I don’t want to get too wild here—if he had given the money to public universities that cost much less. He could have helped many more students. Imagine, even crazier, if he had thought about how to reduce the price of college in America, period. The benefit of that could have been amazing! But no. Instead he is simply writing a check that will certainly help a number of extremely lucky young people attend Johns Hopkins University, but will do virtually nothing to change the systemic dynamic that keeps higher education out of reach of millions of low income kids.

What else might Mike Bloomberg have done with that $1.8 billion? A few simple ideas from The Live You Can Save, a service that evaluates charities based on their ability to do the most good:

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  • Enabled the Fred Hollows Foundation to “Perform 5,680,488 cataract operations in addition to training health workers and other interventions.”
  • Allowed Evidence Action to provide safe water to 1,440,000,000 community members for one year. (This is a number of people greater than the entire population of Africa.)
  • Funded 72,000,000 months of basic income for participants in GiveDirectly’s basic income project in Kenya.
  • Helped the health charity Living Goods save 514,285 lives in Uganda.
  • Helped the Against Malaria Foundation save 522,344 lives.

But nah elite college admissions at your alma mater are important too.

Thank you Mike Bloomberg for deciding that you can make it through life with only $50 billion.

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[See what your charity money can do at The Life You Can Save.]