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What Mike Bloomberg's giving says about Mike Bloomberg

Illustration of an origami man made from paper money.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

To learn what most presidential candidates care about, you have to ask them.

  • But with Michael Bloomberg we can simply look to his philanthropies —which have given away some $8 billion — to get a good idea of his priorities.

Bloomberg has pledged to give 'nearly all" of his fortune to good causes. Most billionaires, including fellow media mogul Rupert Murdoch, tend to keep their money and leave it to their descendants.

  • Bloomberg explicitly uses his philanthropy to to spur actions that he thinks governments should be doing, but aren't. In his 2019 annual letter, he wrote that "proposing ideas for 2021 isn’t good enough. We need to get things done in the here and now, and I’m lucky enough to be in a position to help do that."
  • The urgency of getting things done before 2021 was also, he wrote, why he had decided not to spend the next year running for president. (As we now know, he ended up changing his mind on that one.)

Between the lines: Bloomberg does spend billions on traditional rich-people things. He likes to fund art organizations like The Shed in New York and the Tate in the U.K., and has made enormous gifts to the university he attended (Johns Hopkins).

He also channels money toward major global issues that fall squarely within the traditional government domain, but mainly in much poorer countries than his own:

  • Tobacco: Bloomberg has put more than $1 billion toward trying to reduce tobacco use. As mayor of New York City, he famously banned smoking in public areas, though most of his charitable funds have been directed at the developing world.
  • Climate change: Bloomberg has pledged $500 million to Beyond Carbon, a campaign he initiated that's part of a broader attempt to tackle climate change globally.
  • Road safety: Traffic deaths are a major global problem with scientifically-tractable solutions, and Bloomberg Philanthropies has donated $259 million over 12 years. Clearly-definable acts can save millions of lives if implemented in conjunction with governments around the world, but the issue generates very little in the way of headlines or mass activism. (See also: drowning prevention and maternal mortality, areas where Bloomberg has also spent hundreds of millions.)
  • Cities: The cities we live in can be viewed as complex machines. Bloomberg spends millions to try to help those machines run more smoothly.

What they’re not saying: Bloomberg spends very little time talking about the values that underlie his philanthropy, and he's also very quiet on the perils of inequality. He's a data-driven technocrat, not an ideologue.

  • The hand-picked board of directors for Bloomberg's charities includes CEOs, academics, mayors and arts celebrities, as well as his daughters. Among the boldfacest of names are Ken Chenault, Robert Iger, Sam Nunn, Samuel Palmisano, and Hank Paulson.

The big picture: Most of Bloomberg's philanthropy is focused outside the United States. In that respect he is an outlier; Americans overwhelmingly prefer to give money to domestic causes.

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