In this the season of thankfulness and giving, I got to thinking about wealth. Or, more accurately the relationship between the wealthy and their wealth and the greater society and whether that relationship has changed. There’s been a lot of press lately about how the rich in the U.S. are getting richer while the middle class is staying stagnant or going backward.
At the same time, the distain for those not wealthy has grown and I can’t really figure out why that is. There’s been a lot of scholarly studying of these new billionaires and the conclusion seems to be that the age of greed is spectacularly upon us. Listen, if your goal is to be wealthy and you work for it, kudos to you. It’s the distain of everyone else part that I’m not getting.
On the flip side, the wealthy give billions to support various charities that benefit us all and there’s a movement being led by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet to get billionaires to pledge to give away half of their fortunes. Take a look at this list and you may be surprised. So maybe we should just lay off the wealthy.
I actually looked up many of the people on this list to find out how they made their money. We’re all familiar with the tech billionaires (Gates, Zuckerberg, Allen, Moore, Dell etc.) and maybe some of the financial guys (Soros, Icahn, Simons, Arnold, Robertson). I was enlightened to learn about Eli & Edythe Broad who started KB Home, makers of affordable housing; Chuck Feeney, founder of Duty Free Shopping; Hansjorg Wyss, maker of medical devices and J. Wayne & Dolores Weaver of 9 West Shoes. We’re probably familiar already with the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, although maybe not so familiar with their broad based support of charities.
Still, there’s something about this relationship between wealthy and charity and society that bugs me. A lot of people give to charity, in fact, everyone I know gives to some charity and even volunteers for charities. Difference is, we don’t receive accolades and I would venture to say that none of us are actually even looking for them.
Peter Buffett (yes, that Buffett) wrote this editorial that probably summed it up best.
I wonder how much of each of these people’s fortunes would have been reduced if more of the workers in their companies were paid a decent wage. When one of the largest employers in the U.S. has a food drive for their own workers, maybe there’s a problem here.
There was a 60 Minutes report recently about The Giving Pledge, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett’s and while the people who agreed to be interviewed were passionate and articulate, I couldn’t help but think back to Peter Buffett’s assessment.
I was particularly bothered by one South African mining magnate, Patrice Motsepe. The only black mining owner, his is an impressive rise and he is truly a self-made man and now his charity is to be admired. Still, I wonder if there is a better way than continuing to make great wealth while paying notoriously low wages for awful work in awful working conditions just to give great gobs of it away later to charities that maybe people wouldn’t even need if they had access to a better education and made better money.
Too simplistic? Afterall, you can’t just upset the balance of business and wages and change how things works and… or can you?
As part of the 60 Minutes piece there was a general acknowledgement that wealthy entrepreneurs got that way for thinking outside the box. Well, maybe changing the playing field so that more people have the ability to have their work pay off and help them get ahead and as a result fewer charities and less charitable giving is even necessary is one way to think outside the box.