Thoughts on Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy
A CEO, a Tea Party member, and a teacher are sitting at a table. In the center of the table is a plate with 12 cookies. The CEO takes 11 of them and turns to the Tea Party member and says, "You'd better watch that teacher, she wants your cookie."I go back and forth on the question of wealth distribution. It's to a large degree inconsistent with the American Dream, which says if you work hard enough you can realize whatever you wish. I like the American Dream...I like to work hard...and I like to believe it will get me to the place I'd like to be.
I guess the problem I have with our country at the moment is that the place far too many people would seem to like to be is to have more money than they could ever dream of spending smartly. It's not comfort, security, or even mere luxury they seem after...it's excess for its own bragging rights. More money, more power, more of everything, even when they already have one (or more) of everything.
Actually, it's power. That's what they're after. That's what the CEO with four homes, 8 cars, a private jet, a yatch, and more in the bank than the GNP of many countries find they want more of...Power. More power than their neighbor CEO, more power than their direct competitors. More power than the government.
I've spent enough time listening to CEOs discuss competition to know many feel power is simply another means of protecting their investors. This is a convenient and transparent excuse for their gold-plated toilets if ever there was one. The truth is (I would bet) they want power for themselves...it's an entirely addictive and corrupting force. But it's a driving force and, I suspect, the ultimate culprit in the widening gap between poor and rich in this country. CEOs occassionally dump impressive sums that look like they must hurt to you and me for this or that charity, but by evidence of how their wealth is accumulating, it's clearly chump change in the overall scheme of things. The uber-wealthy are not hurting, and they're not really sharing the pain the rest of the country is feeling. As this chart shows, 64% of all income growth since 1979 has gone to the top 10 percent.
Clearly, the rising tide has not lifted all boats equally. And that would not seem to be the universe's (nature's, God's, whatever) way, so it doesn't sit well with me.
To rethink Power is the key, I believe, to sorting out the inequality. Once someone has more power/money than they can wisely spend.. (“The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while” -- Albert Einstein)...once their goals move from financial success to obvious excess...the nation should do more to reward a different sort of power: the power to change lives for the better. Excess should be mocked and shunned consistently, and not celebrated in mindless TV shows aimed at teenagers. Philanthropy should be celebrated as the highest social achievement. Rather than tacky drivel like MTV Cribs treating excess as if it were heroic, warping the expectations and values of the next generation, the glossy magazines and talk shows should make heroes of the people who use their money to improve the lives of others. And also point out when they're not doing so.
Let me start. Last year was a pathetic year for Philanthropy in the US:
Yes, times are tough, but of Forbes list of the 400 Wealthiest Americans each of the top 20 people got richer in 2010. (Did you get richer in 2010?) So left to its own devices, making more money doesn't necessarily lead Americans to give more away.
The year 2010 brought a lot of talk of philanthropy by the super-rich—but not much giving.
Despite more than 50 billionaires announcing last year that they would ultimately devote at least half of their wealth to charity, few made big gifts in 2010.
Just 17 people on The Chronicle’s annual list of the 50 most-generous donors also appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.Over all, the donors on The Chronicle’s list—which actually numbered 54 this year, thanks to some ties in the rankings—committed a combined total of $3.3- billion, the smallest sum since The Chronicle began to track the biggest donors in 2000.
But let's turn this around and celebrate generosity.
Which Americans gave the most in 2010? Who is America's greatest Philanthropist? It will probably disappoint Glenn Beck fans to learn it was George Soros, who gave away $332 million in 2010. Second was NY City mayor Mike Bloomberg; followed by Denny Sanford; Irwin M. and Joan K. Jacobs; and Eli and Edythe L. Broad.
Each of these people has their supporters and critics, but for a moment, just stop to appreciate that none of these top philanthropists is one of the top 5 richest Americans, and only Mike Bloomberg breaks into the top 10. There is no direct correlation between wealth and philanthropy. It's a free country, I know...but the more we collectively celebrate philanthropy, rather that conspicuous consumption, the more we might encourage a direct correlation.
Today, I thank the nation's top Philanthropists (you can see a list here). Keep up the great work! You're heroes for your generosity.