Philanthropy With Other’s Money


Controllers of Your Tax Dollars

I like giving away money to worthy causes. I have probably given away a million dollars for research and development in the field of power electronics.

None of it mine, much of it yours.

I may have been doing it earlier without realizing that you can be be a philanthropist with no money, but the idea crystallized in the 1970’s in San Diego, California, when I was a member-at-large of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) San Diego Section Executive Committee.

When the Student Chair of the  San Diego State University IEEE Chapter came to a meeting I attended asking for support in obtaining dumb terminals to allow students to connect to the University PDP11-45 computer, the Committee voted to provide $50 in funds.

I couldn’t believe the piddling amount they proposed on donating, but apparently this was the standard amount given to such requests.

San Diego was a very popular place for IEEE conventions, and the Committee had a very well trained and effective group of volunteers who would support the conference for a 50% cut in the profits. It was worth it because the volunteers were experts in negotiating the best contracts with the local hotels and doing all that was needed to put on a successful conference, whether it was several hundred or several thousand attendees. Their bank account was always at or beyond the maximum allowed by IEEE regulations for a non-profit, being several hundred thousands of dollars.

I successfully lobbied to get the Committee to donate $1,000 for the purpose, and the student chair was able to get Hewlett Packard to match the funds. The dumb terminals were purchased and placed in a narrow room in engineering with a small brass plate on each terminal thanking the IEEE and Hewlett Packard.

It felt good, very good!

And it started me on my path of spending other people’s money by furthering research and development in power electronics.

Working for the U.S. Government at the time as the head of the Power Electronics Branch at the Naval Ocean System Center (NOSC)  in San Diego, I became interested in how money flowed from the top down by buying the multi-volume government budget each year and tracing the flow of the money from budget line items, through the various DD forms, down to the one that I filled out to fund the projects of my own branch. As the money trickled down it would quickly disappear. For example, where I proposed $10K to $60K for a unit of work, it would show up as $600K further up the line, and at the end of the year the only progress report was the work my branch did. Between $540K and $590K disappeared. Usually I could find out where it went and who got it and what it was spent for, but there was nothing I could do about. If I complained the $10K to $60K I got would disappear. This was block-funded money and 80-90% could be used for outside contracts, unlike project money which had to be spent internally. Project money was easy to come by while block-funding was very difficult for me to get because my main sponsor was syphoning off almost all of it into a slush fund for his own purposes.

By not recognizing how much government money is wasted and how hard it was to get block funding for electronics research, one NOSC project manager shot himself in the foot by under-running his budget and returning the surplus money to the Government General Fund. There, it probably ended up helping to fund a three million dollar toilet on the top of some remote mountain top in a congressional district or some other form of pork barrel spending. His fellow project managers figured that if he was so dumb he couldn’t find better use for his surplus funds than some congressman, he didn’t deserve to run any future projects.

I used almost all of the block funding I could get to fund needed research, almost all at universities, but some at private contractors.

One of the things I was proudest of was that instead of writing a government report, if a paper was written on the research and presented at a conference in the U.S.A, the contractual government report could be a cover letter enclosing a copy of the paper.

This may not sound like a big deal, but most research not restricted by classification, is still unavailable outside the government. This is done by designating the report as test and evaluation and limiting distribution outside the government. If you know about the report, you can request a copy, but the request is often refused and the time period to get it can be long even if approved. One report that I wrote, which did not contain any test or evaluation but was so designated, took me over a year to get a copy of my own report by going through normal channels. The result is that much of the research paid by your tax dollars is buried in file cabinets and are sometimes read by no-one, not even the people who sponsored the work.

Getting unclassified government research published where engineers could use the results of your tax-payer-funded research was a big deal.

Also, as head of a committee that reviewed research being done by all government agencies to avoid duplication, I got to influence how money was planned to be spent at NASA and other government agencies, including places you night not normally think of, such as the Bureau of Mines, and the Intelligence Agencies monitoring cold-war-era Russian research.

Later, I did the same thing in the corporate world by working to direct Corporate Industry/University Funding Grants into programs that would benefit power electronics research. This work was automatically published in the open literature.

Many of the details of this work is reported elsewhere, primarily in a tribute to Caltech Professor Emeritus R. David Middlebrook, a man whose long time influence had a profound effect on the design and analysis of power electronics. This additional material on the flow of philanthropic funds is on a website where his many students and associates paid their respects.

Middlebrook Remembrance July 10, 2010, Caltech

So what’s the moral to this story? You don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist, just exercise your talents as an entrepreneur. You may even find it more enjoyable to spend other peoples money — many politicians do.

But you don’t have to be a politician to enjoy spending other peoples money. If you figure it out, the odds are highly in your favor that you will do a better job of it.

Another story told over coffee and biscotti during our morning talks.