Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mega-Philanthropy for the Mega-Rich

By now, it’s old news that mega-billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates intend to prevent their heirs from inheriting their vast wealth. They’ve already announced their plans to give away their money and only leave their offspring with a comparative pittance – just something to remember them by.

But have you heard the latest twist by our surprisingly liberal top two capitalists? They’re inviting their 400 wealthiest brethren to join them in their stunning giveaway. Fortune magazine is gushing – or gagging – with the details of this grand race to the bottom of the money pile.

The idea is to encourage America’s highest-net-worth individuals to commit half of what they’ve acquired to charity between now and when they die. Buffett, Gates, and the woman who married into the Gates fortune, Melinda, have already hosted several discrete meetings with fellow billionaires, quietly launched a website, and gotten commitments from several lesser denizens of the Black Card class for the plan.

Depending on your perspective, Buffett and the Gateses are either inviting their own kind to participate in a grand legacy of humanitarian largess, or they’re strong-arming fellow billionaires with a guilt trip over their stupendous wealth. Either way, their aim is to divert as much as $600 billion from family estates to worldwide philanthropic efforts.

That's 600 billion - with a "B".


At Least Their Estate Taxes Will Be Lower

Some people find their magnanimous charity almost heroic – that self-made people like Buffett and Gates view their wealth as a tool for such noble goals as the elimination of poverty as we know it. What better way to avoid all of the corruption and inefficiencies of bureaucratic multi-national aid agencies and Third World governments than leapfrog over all of them and pump your vast resources right where it can do the most good. It kind of makes Ted Turner’s $1 billion gift to the United Nations amateurish.

Then there is the churlish proletariat, who have already unleashed a barrage of invective on Fortune’s website, railing against the absurdity of throwing money at problems that have been exacerbated by the generational hubris of industrialized countries in the first place. What about the poverty so endemic in countries which have been stripped of resources and socio-politically marginalized by the West? Who but the Buffetts and the Gateses of the world have built their fortunes on the backs of the disenfranchised and oppressed?

At this point, die-hard conservatives will leave the discussion, disgusted at the reminder that most wealth isn’t so much earned as it is acquired – a nuanced distinction, to be sure, but a distinction with a negative flavor nonetheless. (For example, Bill Gates hasn’t “earned” all of his wealth. Sure, he led a team of computer geeks who came up with the world’s most widely-used computer operating system, but his corporation actually extorted competitors and coerced patents to cobble together the system which made it the dominant player. Remember all of the anti-trust lawsuits from the dot-com bubble? Therefore, he has “acquired” wealth through not only his personal genius and initiative, but also the products, efforts, and manipulation of other people. Buffett's story is far less ethically-challenged; he's simply been diligently prudent in his investments.)

Liberal Democrats, too, will leave the discussion, disgusted that those without wealth can be so jealous of those who have it. Where is our sense of social unity? Can't we just hold hands and feel the love?

Suddenly, The Family Silver Is Looking Good

Which leaves the rest of us, I suppose, wondering if there isn’t some sort of ulterior motive in all of this. Most of us don’t necessarily begrudge anybody whatever wealth they may have, as long as it wasn’t acquired illegally or immorally (the legacy of Bill Gates notwithstanding). But giving away up to 99% of what you’ve worked your whole life to acquire, as Buffett has pledged to do?

Is there a tax dodge underneath all this charity? Is there some sort of latent guilt about the ways in which these people earned their wealth? Have these moguls already tucked away small fortunes in secret trust funds for their kids? Has the process by which they've acquired their money really just been a big game; and now that we know who the current winners are, we put the earnings back into circulation? Does this prove that wealth really can't buy happiness - unless giving it way is how you purchase happiness? Whatever happened to the old – and Biblically precedented – convention of securing a financial inheritance for one’s children?

Or, as I personally suspect, is this just the latest fad for the ego-driven super-rich to try and immortalize themselves?

And who really believes that $600 billion can come close to significantly reducing the worldwide ravages of disease, starvation, and poverty? What about the personal choices people make to engage in risky behaviors that perpetuate ills like AIDS, crime, and drugs? How much social good can be sustained in countries where political corruption strangles democratic reform?

These are all questions America’s 400 richest families will be mulling over during the summer. And they’re not particularly easy questions, either. I wonder what their kids will be saying? What a pickle to find oneself in: either to join Buffett and the Gateses and lend your family’s name to whatever posterity will be secured in this exercise, or opt out and trust your best friends don’t notice the absence of your name on whatever lists will be published in the future.

Ahhh… having so much money isn’t easy, is it?


  1. Buffett has talked for years about the "ovarian lottery" and said that he wanted to leave his children just enough that they could do anything they wanted, but not so much that they could do nothing. I think he has thought for some time that inherited money doesn't necessarily do children any favors. It's not surprising, coming from a billionaire who has lived in the same ordinary house for decades.

  2. Excellent point - and history is littered with reminders of how inherited wealth can do more harm than good.


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