Looking a gift hobby horse in the mouth

Mark Zuckerberg's headline offer, when viewed more closely, reveals a tax-efficient move which is miles away from the common notion of self-sacrifice. Picture: AFP/Getty

Mark Zuckerberg's headline offer, when viewed more closely, reveals a tax-efficient move which is miles away from the common notion of self-sacrifice. Picture: AFP/Getty

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Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to give away his Facebook fortune is not all that it seems, writes David Robertson

The Messiah has come! He is bringing great gifts. “A world without suffering from disease... People will be connected so that we have access to every idea, person and opportunity. All people will be of equal value. We will advance human potential. Everyone will be empowered. Everyone will have the same opportunity. Everyone will live in inclusive healthy communities”.

No these are not the ravings of some idealistic religious cult leader, unless you call Facebook a cult. These are words from Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, written in an open letter to his newborn baby daughter, Max.

Zuckerberg announced he was going to give 99 per cent of his Facebook shares away in his lifetime. Given he has $45 billion of shares this has been hailed as a generous and outstanding act of charity.

But all is not quite what it seems. Zuckerberg is setting up the Chan Zuckerberg initiative – a private company not a charitable trust. As such it can spend its money on what it wants, including investments generating more profit, paying its owners generous salaries, funding political efforts, or whatever takes the Zuckerbergs fancy.

In other words this “gift” is a transfer from one company to another. And it is a slow transfer. Zuckerberg will give no more than $1 billion to this new company a year and that he intends to retain control of Facebook for the foreseeable future.

So far most of the funding from the new initiative seems to be tied in with “connecting” people (thereby having the benefit of adding to Facebook’s business).

The initiative also means Zuckerberg can transfer his money without paying capital gains tax and his heirs will not have to pay estate taxes after his death. If he transfers $1bn to his own company he can save up to $330m in tax.

Speaking of tax, I am reminded of the words of Clement Attlee: “If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his tax gladly, and not just dole out money at a whim.”

Facebook paid just £4,327 in taxes in the UK last year.

This is the trouble with this kind of “giving”. It appears generous but in reality it is giving the giver more than they give. Despite the fine words about equality for all, this means that wealthy philanthropists can retain more wealth than any human being needs, while gaining political power and preening to the whole world as they release media spin through outlets they own telling everyone how generous they are.

It is a dangerous fantasy exemplified by Zuckerberg’s boast that “every member of the Facebook community is playing a part in this work”. The next time you post a picture of a cat just think about how you are helping to save the world!

Rich people using their wealth in this way can set the political agenda or the moral climate without any reference to a higher authority. In the meritocratic view, they are the obviously deserving ones.

Instead of more “equality” they are creating a world in which the rich get richer (whilst talking about equality in ways that don’t really affect them) and the poor have to be grateful for the crumbs from the master’s table.

The Messiah has come! From the riches of heaven, to the poverty of a byre in Bethlehem. Born of a teenage virgin. Raised as a carpenter’s son. Losing his father as a boy. He was not famous, he had no money and when he began his “ministry” he had no media outlets to tell the world. When he was born it was the minimum wage, social outcast shepherds who heard the announcement from angels.

He was followed by a ragtag bag of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, religious misfits and militant nationalists. He failed miserably. After a brief spell of popularity, the mob turned on him, the religious establishment despised him and the political authorities crucified him. What did he give?

He gave himself.

Through his self-sacrifice he provided the gift no money could buy, the gift that all of us need and that really does change the world – the forgiveness of sins and the rebirth of humanity. He connects people as brothers and sisters throughout the world, not just disembodied “friends” on the internet.

He empowers his people through the gift of His Spirit. He realises our human potential in a way that we can only imagine.

He paid his taxes, “giving to Caesar what is Caesars”. He gives us access to the mind of God. He created us all equal. Blessed are the poor. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Maybe this Christmas we need to decide which gift we want to receive?

• David Robertson, Solas CPC www.solas-cpc.org

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