As you may have read in the news, multibillionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates' Giving Pledge organization has obtained pledges from 40 of the richest people on the planet--many of them boomers--to give away at least half of their fortunes to philanthropic and humanitarian causes.
Professional investor Buffett, who is leading the way, actually has promised to donate 99 percent of his wealth, which is currently estimated at about $40 billion. While it's difficult for most of us to imagine giving away virtually our entire personal worth, Buffett doesn't see it as such a big deal. In a letter on the Giving Pledge web site, he explains his thinking:
"Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day. Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.
"Moreover, this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time. Many people, including--I'm proud to say--my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money. A struggling child, befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check. My sister, Doris, extends significant person-to-person help daily. I've done little of this."
Even so, that noble sentiment doesn't answer the inevitable nagging question: Why spend most of your waking existence for decades in the pursuit of a mountain of money if being fantastically rich isn't what you really want out of life? How does one justify the inescapable moral and ethical compromises involved? (Buffett, as his critics note, was heavily involved in the gambling on complex derivatives that caused the 2008 financial system meltdown, which inflicted great suffering on millions of ordinary folks.) Beyond that, if Buffett really thinks that it's more noble to give time than money, why didn't he retire years earlier, when he still was pretty rich, and donate his brainpower and organizational acumen to helping the less fortunate? If he could go back in time, would he do that instead?
Just because we wonder about these things doesn't mean we should reject Buffett's extreme generosity and castigate him about the implicit conflict he must feel about having amassed all that wealth. To the contrary, at a time when the American public is ideologically polarized and our elected officials seem too paralyzed by politics to agree on fixes to the nation's and the world's most pressing problems, maybe we need a few altruistic billionaires to act on their own and get something done. After all, Bill Gates doesn't have to get anyone's vote or some TV commentator's blessing to help people in the developing world get access to safe drinking water. While the rest of us argue about abstractions, he can use his economic power and influence to actually make a difference in people's lives.
And spreading a lot of money around here and a little bit there can have a huge impact. The activism by Buffett and Gates makes me think back to my childhood in Pennsylvania's Monongahela Valley, and all the afternoons I spent in the exotic-looking stone castle that housed the local Carnegie Free Library. I particularly loved the oldest books on the shelves, the ones so heavily used that their disintegrating bindings had been replaced by furnace tape. They described a vanished world of steamboats, biplanes, and European monarchs in plumed helmets and lush beards inspecting the armies of empires that no longer existed.
Those volumes, which dated back to the early 1900s, had been paid for by the original $50,000 endowment by Andrew Carnegie, a Gilded Age steel baron who had once been the second richest man on the planet. Just as I am assuming that Buffett is conflicted about wealth, so was Carnegie. He had been relentlessly efficient in building his steel empire, to the point of crushing his competitors with wily wheeling and dealing and squeezing every last drop of blood out of his workers. Some difficult-to-explain compulsion to succeed drove him to do all that, even though money, which he regarded as the great debaser of the human soul, made him deeply uneasy. To reconcile those clashing urges, he developed a philosophy that he articulated in this 1889 essay. Carnegie decided that the purpose of amassing wealth was to be able to use it to help others.
"The man who dies leaving behind many millions of available wealth, which was his to administer during life, will pass away unwept, unhonored, and unsung," he warned.
That certainly didn't happen to Andrew Carnegie. He left behind 3,000 libraries in the United States, Canada and other countries, many of them minor architectural masterpieces. He helped found several universities, including Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, one of the top technological incubators in the world. He underwrote New York's Carnegie Hall, one of the world's great cultural centers, and helped African-Americans obtain access to education and business opportunities by backing the Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League. An opponent of the popular Spanish-American War, he even tried to help prevent future conflicts by founding the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Here's hoping that Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and their wealthy friends will accomplish even bigger things.