How To Stay Together

My amazing playwriting aside, the Jeff Bezos/MacKenzie Scott divorce is an illuminating tale for people committing to one another for the long haul.

The conventional wisdom is that a lack of money and related money fights explain why so many relationships fail. That’s certainly true, but not the whole story. Even people with money can have devastating money disagreements because everyone has a unique money history and no two people will ever think about it the same way.

The bottom line. Couples don’t explore their “money compatibility” nearly carefully enough in the early stages of their relationships. The key is to figure out whether you and your partner are more similar in your thinking about saving, spending, gifting, and investing than not. No, that’s not particularly sexy, but do you want to measure your relationship by decades or not?

One little complication, by which I mean, huge complication. People change over time. Maybe MacKenzie didn’t know Jeff wanted to be the richest person in the world because he may not have wanted to be until his first or one hundredth billion.

What to do about the unknown? Anticipate that your thinking about money will change over time, not radically, but moderately. Similarly, anticipate that your partner’s thinking will change too. Meaning “money compatibility” is always a work-in-progress. Talk about saving, spending, gifting, and investing with some regularity or run the risk of serious differences creating dangerous cracks in the foundation of your relationship.

A One Act Play

The setting: Jeff Bezos’s and MacKenzie Scott’s Medina, WA kitchen. After working together to make Kraft macaroni and cheese with hot dogs, they serve themselves, grab two cans of Mountain Dew, and sit down at their formica dinner table. It’s one of their last dinners together as a married couple. A few days following this meal, they decide to pull the plug on their marriage. 

Jeff: Mac and cheese with dogs never gets old. [laughs uncontrollably] 

MacKenzie: No, it doesn’t. [inner voice. . . but your laugh has sure started to] 

Jeff: What did you do today?

MacKenzie: I spent most of it journaling. Which helped me realize I don’t want to help you turn Amazon into the world’s retail store anymore. I think $182 billion is enough money. I want to make the world a better place through writing and giving my share of our money away.

[All the while, Jeff texts Lauren Sanchez under the table.]

MacKenzie: [Softly, sadly, and with a deep sense of resignation.] Did you hear me?

Jeff: Yes, you said you want to help me make Amazon into the world’s retail store. 

[MacKenzie stares at Jeff in silence]

Jeff: [Head in his lap.] Can you pass the applesauce? 

 

My Person Of The Year

A New York Times primer for anyone who doesn’t know MacKenzie Scott, the eighteenth wealthiest person in the world.

“Ms. Scott, who was formerly married to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, has pledged to give away most of her wealth. Her shares in Amazon were valued at about $38 billion last year but would have gained value during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Scott isn’t letting the pandemic stop her from making true on her pledge. Quite the opposite. Last week she revealed she was “the one behind the donations to dozens of colleges and universities, part of nearly $4.2 billion she had given to 384 organizations in the last four months.”

As impressive as the amount Scott’s given away is is how her team did it.

“The money came after weeks or months of hush-hush conversations in which Ms. Scott’s representatives reached out to college presidents to interview them about their missions, several of the presidents said on Wednesday. When they learned who was behind the effort, it was a surprise to them, too. But it could not have come at a better time — when the pandemic was hitting their student bodies hard, they said.

‘I was stunned,’ Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Prairie View, Texas, said of learning that Ms. Scott was giving $50 million, the biggest gift the university had ever received. She thought she had misheard and the caller had to repeat the number: ‘five-zero.'”

Scott is the antithesis of most ultra wealthy philanthropists who almost always give to their alma maters, most of which are already flush with nine or ten figure endowments.

“Ms. Scott’s latest gifts bring her charity to almost $6 billion this year, an extraordinary amount. In another unorthodox touch, she announced them in a Medium post on Tuesday. ‘This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,’ she wrote. ‘Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty.'”

Experts on philanthropy were surprised to see Scott associate herself with institutions that were “much more humble and, indeed, needy.”

“To these institutions, a $20 million donation was the equivalent of several times that to a Harvard or Yale, and could have a disproportionate impact.

‘One of the things that’s so incredible about this massive grouping of gifts is that she does not have a personal connection to most, if any, of these universities,’ said Kestrel Linder, chief executive of GiveCampus, a fund-raising platform that works with colleges and universities.

Ms. Scott made gifts to more than a dozen historically Black colleges and universities, as well as community and technical colleges and schools serving Native Americans, women, urban and rural students.”

Dare to be different. And hella generous.

Being A Billionaire Is Hard

No, I don’t have first hand experience, I’m basing that conclusion on this headline.

Jeff Bezos is getting slammed for his donation of $690,000 to the Australian wildfire recovery, which is less than he made every 5 minutes in 2018.

The critics are forgetting that Bezos went through a divorce last year, so in 2019, it probably took a lot more time, maybe 7-8 minutes of work.

I wonder how many of the critics have given to the recovery.

One woman said she raised nearly twice what Amazon pledged by selling nude photos online.

To which I have no comment.

Abolish Billionaires?

There are about 2,200 billionaires in the world, about one-fourth of those are U.S. citizens.

Farhad Manjoo recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that engendered more than 1,500 comments. Most simply, he argued, we should abolish billionaires through much higher taxes and related policies.

When it comes to billionaires, I’m of a mixed mind. On the one hand, given rising inequality, I’m surprised more people aren’t agitating against members of the three -comma club. Not just writing commentaries, but taking to the streets Occupy Wall Street style.

On the other hand, as the philosopher Peter Singer points out, some billionaires are giving away the bulk of their wealth to philanthropy. Bill Gates, in particular, plans to give away 99.6% of the cash money I paid him back in the day for successive versions of Microsoft Office.

Of course, as Manjoo points out, we have to analyze whether the billionaires’ charitable giving is having positive effects or not. Anand Giridharadas style. As Manjoo explains, Giridharadas argues that many billionaires approach philanthropy as a kind of branding exercise to maintain a system in which they get to keep their billions. Especially when they put their largess into politics.

“. . . whether it’s Howard Schultz or Michael Bloomberg or Sheldon Adelson, whether it’s for your team or the other — you should see the plan for what it is: an effort to gain some leverage over the political system, a scheme to short-circuit the revolution and blunt the advancing pitchforks.”

Gates might be an outlier, but his giving is so exemplary, I’m less inclined to order a pitchfork from that billionaire with the online superstore.

Maybe I’m Wrong

These days, when it comes to narcissism in the (dis)United States, maybe resistance is futile. Maybe I should go full-Trump and embrace myself even more fully.

And start a gofundme campaign. I have many legit needs that are definitely profound and kinda social if we’re being honest. For example, I’m running a little low on Christmas lights. Even more critical though, the Good Wife and I need to burnish our environmental credentials. Among our leafy friends, the Honda Pilot is a bad look.

So please help us buy a Rivian R1S SUV when it comes to market in late 2020. Read all about it here. Because I am not greedy, I am setting the target at the base MSRP price of $72,500. If your largess exceeds that, I will purchase roof racks, insurance, and electricity.

What do you get in return? The peace of mind that comes with knowing you have helped meet an unmet need of the fastest highest order. Thank you in advance.

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Go Fund Yourself

Narcissism takes many forms, some relatively subtle.

Like taking a perfectly good idea—direct person to person charitable giving—and ruining it.

Consider some scenarios:

  • Someone dies suddenly and the remaining partner is overwhelmed at the thought of providing for the children. He/she seeks funding for anticipated expenses including college tuition.
  • A non-profit seeks funding to buy tents for local, houseless men and women.
  • A land conservancy group seeks funding to buy and preserve even more environmentally fragile acreage.
  • A young man, from a family of limited means, seeks funding to study abroad.
  • A woman seeks funding to leave her job in order to be a professional triathlete.
  • A young woman is getting married abroad, but accidentally books the wrong tickets for two of her best friends. Now she “needs $1,200 to fix this mistake and encourages people to “Help spread the word!”

The first three, too legit to quit. The last three, distinctly illegit, well past time to quit.

For those still not clear on the difference between profound social needs and individual wants, here are eighteen more, cringeworthy, gofundme campaigns.

 

 

Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.

 

 

The Truth About the Ultra Rich

They’re very different one from another. Too often, people paint them with a broad brush.

The Buffets, Gates, Bloombergs, Allens are intent on contributing to the common good. Big time. In the case of the Gates Foundation, they seek to enhance global healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in America, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.

Then there’s the oil billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Read what motivates them, in “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country“.

“The Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways.

One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs’ conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts. Even as Americans for Prosperity opposes public investment in transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.

‘Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry,’ said Ashley Robbins, a researcher at Virginia Tech who follows transportation funding. ‘But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them.'”

The Koch brothers oppose whatever slows their fortune from growing ever larger. Things like low income people gaining mobility and conserving natural resources.

David Koch’s networth is between $50 and $60 billion. How much is enough? Based on his actions, no amount.