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Learning from the master

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You can’t accuse Elon of being a half-assed Trump acolyte:

Mr. Musk, the world’s second-richest person according to Forbes, presides over SpaceX, Tesla and other companies that are pushing the boundaries of technology, while also controlling a social media platform, now known as X, through which he promotes his often-polarizing political and social views.

At the same time, he runs a charity with billions of dollars, the kind of resources that could make a global impact. But unlike Bill Gates, who has deployed his fortune in an effort to improve health care across Africa, or Walmart’s Walton family, which has spurred change in the American education system, Mr. Musk’s philanthropy has been haphazard and largely self-serving — making him eligible for enormous tax breaks and helping his businesses.

Since 2020, he has seeded his charity with tax-deductible donations of stock worth more than $7 billion at the time, making it one of the largest in the country.

The foundation that houses the money has failed in recent years to give away the bare minimum required by law to justify the tax break, exposing it to the risk of having to pay the government a substantial financial penalty.

Mr. Musk has not hired any staff for his foundation, tax filings show. Its billions are handled by a board that consists of himself and two volunteers, one of whom reports putting in so little time that it averages out to six minutes per week.

In 2022, the last year for which records are available, they gave away $160 million, which was $234 million less than the law required — the fourth-largest shortfall of any foundation in the country.

Mr. Musk is under no obligation to have a charity, and he has made clear that he believes his for-profit enterprises will change the world for the better far more than any philanthropic venture could. But once he set up a nonprofit and filled it with tax-deductible gifts, he was required by law to ensure that his foundation served the public, and that it did not operate for the “private benefit” of its leader.

A New York Times analysis found that, of the Musk Foundation’s giving in 2021 and 2022 — the latest years for which full data is available — about half of the donations had some link to Mr. Musk, one of his employees or one of his businesses.

While this doesn’t excuse the bad actors, this also demonstrates that charitable deductions are yet another part of the tax code that are way too easy for wealthy people to exploit.

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