Thursday, August 12, 2010

Marshmallow diamond crusades

Recently, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates got together and decided to shame America’s billionaires into pledging at least half of their wealth to charitable causes. The website set up for their initiative, The Giving Pledge, lists 38 billionaires who have already signed on to give up a majority of their money during their lives or at their deaths.

It sounds almost like a new era in American philanthropy. A century and more ago, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller’s huge monetary endowments were perhaps anomalies, aberrant blips in the honored timeline of estate-building.

Realistically, of course, even today those 38 pledges represent only a small fraction of the billionaires in the US. And after reading through their pledge letters – which are available on the Giving Pledge website – I see that many of them had made up their minds to give away large amounts of their wealth even before Buffett and Gates made their public drive. Whether The Giving Pledge represents a sea change is very much yet to be determined.

Still, the pledge letters made for interesting reading. A few were amusing in their sheer disconnectedness; one signee praised himself for having “only three luxuries: My Atherton, CA., home, a San Francisco luxury apartment 600 feet above sea level and a luxurious home on Pineapple Hill in Kapalua, Maui.” Which I guess is pretty Spartan for someone who can, at least, afford to spend $30 a second until this time next year.

Some were more promising. Many of them hit on the same basic tenets:
  • Estate-building is a waste and undermines American principles of independence and self-reliance.
  • It is the responsibility of the rich to share their wealth.
  • The discrepancy between the rich and poor, in the US and around the world, is largely due to chance, not an extraordinary personal effort on the part of the former.
  • Modern philanthropy demands not just handing out money, but using funds to create sustainable and responsible projects that address real problems.
This last is the real key, and it raises the most questions. This is Big Money, and many of the donors are using it to address Big Issues like health and education – areas that pretty objectively need money in order to progress. Bill Gates talks about the need for vaccine research; Eli and Edythe Broad focus much of their pledge letter on the problems facing the American public education system. Some of the focal points are personal: Jon Huntsman waxes poetic on cancer research, fallout from the death of his own mother to cancer.
All that sounds great. Regardless of whether personal agendas lurk behind these pledges, the issues are real and solutions elusive.

But some of the pledges are more troublesome. Thomas Monaghan promises his wealth to Catholic education. It’s his money and he’s free to do what he wants with it – but some might take issue with his stated desire to “share this truth with others.” Some of the other billionaires whose concerns include education plan to give or have already given huge endowments to institutions of higher education. Perhaps this money will go to areas of real need. But I recently looked up my own college, Pepperdine University, and saw that they had just completed renovating large chunks of a campus that was already functional and quite beautiful. While I was still a student, a debate raged about (possibly only apocryphal) large sums of money being shelled out for palm trees. I will be honest, I’ve never quite understood donating money for frivolous purposes to an institution that already took a lot of it from you. Perhaps I’m only being skeptical.  But these billionaires have already made clear their intentions, and if for no other reason than to balance out the PR benefits they reap from their public philanthropy, skepticism is a healthy thing now.

The fact is that agendas exist – and often they’re wrapped in the most passionate packaging. I saw this often at Pepperdine, which put a serious emphasis on the value of service: the school’s motto is “Freely ye received; freely give.” And people gave, but too often it was only to fulfill their own vision of an ideal world. Like marshmallows with diamonds concealed inside, the products of their spinning were sugary, palatable cocoons around what ended up being, in the end, only their own irreducible nuggets of truth. I’m talking about the people who somehow assumed, from their cushy thrones in Malibu, that they knew what poor Africans needed. Or the ones who, to much self-produced fanfare, supported trendy upperclass initiatives that in turn tossed a pittance in the charity urn. Or the privileged many who applauded social causes from afar, while ignoring the drain their new cars and jewelry and jet-set mentality placed on resources that, well, they didn’t really have to worry about themselves.

And Pepperdine, like any community, had its honest, socially-concerned people who didn’t assume they knew anything about the causes: people committed to learning before doing, the ones who didn’t publicize their intentions with vague taglines about “justice” or “change." (Ah, that’s a common one: the change-the-world mindset. How often does that result in “change” becoming a vague end in itself? How many of these do-gooders couldn’t articulate that “change” from the beginning of their crusade? You can change a lot and not improve anything.) No matter how paradoxical the following sentence seems, I’ll write it anyway: I learned a lot about social causes from my time in Malibu. There were good people mixed in with the hypocrites and the deluded.

And so, I’m sure, it is with these billionaires. Giving is good when intentions, knowledge and plans are too. And the essential idea of The Giving Pledge, shoving these promises onto the public stage, should ideally not only influence others to give, but also focus public scrutiny on the pledges that have been made. Transparency is a good thing; its sometime offspring, accountability, is even better.

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