An Open Letter to Elon Musk

Dear Mr. Musk:

I know you’ve been getting a lot of unsolicited advice about Twitter lately but nobody is asking the question that keeps running through my mind: who will inherit Twitter after you’re gone?

Since you’re only 51, you might think the question premature, but as a behavioral economist who studies bequests, I think there is a lot to be said for considering your options sooner rather than later. In particular, if you began the process of converting Twitter into a non-profit foundation now, you could stop worrying about how to make it turn a profit and perhaps snatch philanthropic victory from the jaws of financial defeat.

I am fascinated by the fortunes accumulated by you and your Silicon Valley peers, the likes of which have not been seen since the Gilded Age, which is why I just released a podcast looking at what the wealthiest Americans of the past did with their vast wealth when they passed away to see if their stories offered any lessons about what might happen with the tycoons of today.

Since you’ve already committed to giving away at least half your wealth by signing The Giving Pledge, I assume that you agree at least in part with steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie when he wrote in 1889 that “it is no longer questionable that great sums bequeathed oftener work more for the injury than for the good of the recipients.”

But you also might want to consider another of Carnegie’s arguments: it’s better to give wealth away while you’re still alive. I therefore humbly suggest you listen to my episode about John D. Rockefeller, who around 1911 became the world’s first billionaire, a fortune by some measures even larger than yours. Like you, Rockefeller was the target of a lot of criticism but his company, Standard Oil, ushered in the Automobile Age just as you now hope to move the car into its next, battery-driven era.

Rockefeller saw the criticism turn to praise, however, when he gave away around half a billion dollars during his lifetime, the equivalent of hundreds of billions today. His problem was that he piled up so much, and was so obsessive about not wasting it, that he had trouble giving it away fast enough. He passed along another half billion to his son John Jr., trusting him to finish the job, and indeed, Junior gave away about 85% of that vast gift during his lifetime, creating between father and son the greatest record of philanthropic giving in American history.

So: if Twitter is truly to serve as America’s electronic “public square” for unencumbered free speech, surely it would be better off not having to rely on advertising or charging people to share their opinions widely? And if you’re going to give away much or most of your fortune eventually, why not inscribe your name at the top of the list of America’s greatest philanthropists ever by starting the process of turning Twitter into a not-for-profit now?

Eric J. Schoenberg

Click here to listen to Eric’s new podcast – You Can’t Take It With You: The Life and Afterlife of America’s Greatest Fortunes.

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