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Hey, Silicon Valley--you can't take it with you

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks why the tech industry has spawned a generation of cheapskates, Bill Gates being the notable exception.

Another scorching summer. But not even the dog days can wilt the movable feast that is Manhattan's art scene.

So it was that during a round of museum-hopping on a recent trip to New York, my attention turned to the list of benefactors who had helped acquire and house many of these treasures over the years.

The donor roll call reads like something out of a musty edition of Who's Who in America. Names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Frick and Rockefeller recall another time and another New York. These were the folks who helped create what later became this nation's cultural capital.

My guess is that future generations won't be much exercised about Bill Gates' corporate sins, real and imagined.

Of course, in their day, none of these gentlemen was considered, well, much of a gentleman, but money has a unique cleansing effect. Millions of dollars in contributions can do wonders to rehabilitate reputations--even when the givers included some the most notorious figures from the Gilded Age.

I doubt many people these days much care whether John D. Rockefeller conducted himself like a predatory monopolist in the late 19th century. His legacy outlives the memory of his exploits in the museums and hospitals and universities that have benefited from Rockefeller funding.

In a similar way, my guess is that future generations won't be much exercised about Bill Gates' corporate sins, real and imagined, in the late 20th century. That's because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated more than $7 billion to global health, education and libraries around the world since its inception in 2000. With the foundation's nearly $29 billion endowment, Gates is going to figure as the greatest philanthropist in the nation's history.

This doesn't excuse Microsoft's bad behavior during the browser wars of the late 1990s. But unlike many of his super-rich contemporaries who became gazillionaires during the tech boom, Gates--like his robber baron predecessors a century earlier--is creating a lasting legacy by giving back to society on a monumental scale. I couldn't care less about his motivation. What's more important are the new facts on the ground he's creating.

Remarkably, few tech moguls have followed his lead. Maybe they're hoping for another tax incentive from the government. Maybe they're waiting to see how the fiscal year ends. Maybe they're biding their time until the kids graduate from college. Then again, maybe they just don't buy into all this do-gooder stuff. After all, they made it, so why shouldn't they keep it all?

The paucity of private philanthropy is connected to a bigger issue that rarely gets serious attention in Silicon Valley: Is there a social contract that ought to be honored? And if so, what responsibilities should corporations assume beyond that of taking care of shareholders?

It's not at all clear that there's much enthusiasm to go down that path in this supposedly bleeding heart corner of Northern California. The reality is that this is a post-industrial enclave of bonafide cheapskates.

Compare the tech elite's relative apathy toward helping the larger community to the active involvement of the rising entrepreneurial class that helped build New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The contrast is nothing short of dramatic.

I'm happy to see that technology writer Dan Gillmor plans to take up the issue at a public meeting next Monday in Palo Alto with Eric Benhamou, chairman of Palm, 3Com and Benhamou Global Ventures. Maybe that will kindle a conversation that needs to happen.