Smells fishy: Is Elon Musk $2 billion Tesla share donation as wholesome as it looks?

By Mason Berlinka

Published Feb 15, 2023 at 01:33 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Billionaire donations always make the headlines. From Jeff Bezos giving $100 million to Dolly Parton to spend as she pleases to the founder of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard giving away his wealth, if it involves a billionaire and their bank, you’ll definitely hear about it. Just like how you’re now being bombarded with news regarding Twitter despot Elon Musk’s recent $2 billion donation of Tesla shares to charity. It sounds so dutiful on the surface, but we all know there’s more to the story.

With billions spent yearly on charitable donations and supporting progressive foundations across the board, is the narrative of the greedy elite outdated? These philanthropic endeavours are surely proof that their wealth is justified and that high tax margins only serve to impede their good nature. But of course, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it’s never that simple.

Filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission showed that Musk gifted about 11.6 million shares between August and December of 2022. The recipients of these donations are not listed in the document, so your guess is as good as mine as to exactly where the money went.

Billionaires actively benefit from making altruistic donations thanks to tax write-offs and gift loopholes, and Musk’s donation of Tesla shares is no different. In the US, you do not have to pay capital gains tax on donated shares—something you would have had to do if they’d been sold normally.

Okay, so some money has at least gone to good causes, right? Well more often than not, these billionaires have active control over the organisations they donate to, like in the case of Chouinard whose donation last year went to a charity ran and controlled by his own family. Musk also donated $5 billion in 2021, the majority of which went to his—you guessed it—own foundation.

What is actually happening is that the super-wealthy are moving as little funds as they can, as a means of paying as little as they can to government or otherwise altruistic endeavours. A 2022 report from The Guardian highlighted that a lot of these donations go directly back into elite organisations too, actively fuelling a classist cycle and denying people from lower incomes the charity and support they need—support they could get from government welfare systems.

While the government may have its own problems, the idea that we shouldn’t tax the rich actively puts strain on working-class citizens and takes money away from the societal infrastructure that the government makes possible (like roads, schools and hospitals).

That’s not to say that no amount of charity is ever good. Money from billionaires can go to the right places and have positive impacts, although the good that comes from it rarely outweighs the extensive carbon footprint of the one per cent, nor does it outweigh the inequalities and injustices their global workforce faces.

The private jet-flying, yacht-owning elite are always desperate for a bit of good PR, and the gift giving, tax write-offs that these donations provide are a match made in heaven. It may seem like they’re doing the noble thing in the face of big government, but if they were, they wouldn’t bust worker unions, and they’d pay their taxes, like the rest of us.

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