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.

Help Me

Help others.

When Mother Dear died two years ago, my brothers, sister, and I inherited what was left in her charitable foundation. Meaning every four years I get to give away some money. This year it’s my turn and I’m not sure whom I should give the money to. Leaning towards a few non-profits that work with the homeless in our fair city.

How do you decide whom to give to? My thinking is guided by two important things. First, the gifts have to be ones moms would’ve made. Second, the gifts should have a lasting impact.

The first principle is a breeze because Mother Dear was profoundly generous. Unlike me, she didn’t overthink things. Instead, she instinctively gave when made aware of obvious needs. No paralysis by analysis.

The second principle is where I need your help. Consider this philanthropic case study. Tom and Christy Lee deserve lots of credit for their selflessness and for helping me refine my philosophy of philanthropy. Consider the math, $5,495 donated to forgive the school lunch debts of 262 families. An average of $21 per family.

It’s possible that an unexpected $21, like tiny micro-loans that have received so much positive press, could make a meaningful difference in a low-income family’s struggle to turn an economic corner. But if the families who received the unexpected loan forgiveness don’t address any of the underlying causes that resulted in them falling behind on their children’s school meals, won’t they be in the exact same place in a year’s time? Does the $21 have a lasting impact? I’m skeptical.

And isn’t the same conundrum even more pronounced for the organizations I’m considering giving to? If the organizations I’m considering giving to feed, clothe, and shelter the most vulnerable members of our community, but don’t also provide substance abuse and mental health counseling or job training and low income housing, won’t the numbers of homeless continue to tick upwards?

So is the answer to give to “both/and” organizations, non-profits that both meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable and work equally hard to remedy one or more of the underlying causes of institutional homelessness?

Also, how do I assess the relative efficiency of the local organizations I’m considering? The overhead of medium and large sized non-profits are carefully scrutinized by excellent websites, but not smaller, grass-roots ones. How can I know whether 50 or 90 cents of every dollar ends up directly benefitting those in need?

Ultimately, how might I maximize the long-term benefits of these gifts, honor my mom, and extend her legacy?