Give It Away Now

Gregg Easterbrook writes that the super-rich (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Paul Allen, et al.) should give away a far higher percentage of their net worth. Compared to the average American, the super-rich donate a pittance of their net worth, and keep far more than they (or all of their descendents) could ever use. Easterbrook asks,

Why do the super-rich hoard? Certainly not because they need money to spend. As economist Christopher Carroll of Johns Hopkins University points out in an upcoming paper, the super-rich save far more than they could ever spend, even with Dionysian indulgence. Gates’ fortune must throw off, even by conservative estimations, about $6 million a day after taxes. You couldn’t spend $6 million every day of your life even if you did nothing all day long but buy original art and waterfront real estate. The fortunes of Allen, Knight and others mentioned here throw off at least $1 million a day after taxes. Nobody can spend $1 million every day.

Carroll speculates that the super-rich won’t give away money they know they will never use for two reasons: because they love money, and because extreme wealth confers power. We know already that people who give their lives over to loving money surrender their humanity in the process. As for clout, Carroll quotes Howard Hughes: “Money is the measuring rod of power.” That $53 billion ensures Gates will be treated with awe wherever he goes. If he gave away 78% of his wealth like Carnegie did, he might be universally admired, but he would no longer be treated with the same degree of fawning reverence. He might even, someday, find himself in the same room with someone who has more money!

I would add another, less cynical reason why they don’t give more: it’s too hard. That may sound strange, considering the massive, obvious needs in the world, combined with the large staffs that these men can employ to find worthy causes. But the nature of philanthropy makes it difficult to pipeline hoards of money into charity.

Compare philanthropy to the stock market. If I have $1 billion, any stock broker in the country would be falling down all over himself to invest my money. Further, it would be relatively easy to tell whether my $1 billion was “working.” I could check my portfolio weekly – even hourly if I chose – and see whether my net worth was going up or down. My portfolio would be invested in one or more businesses, and there are a multitude of clear measures – such as revenue, expenses, profit, market share, sales volume – I could check to see whether the business was heading in the right direction or not.

There are no monetary returns with philanthropy, and no comparable standardized measures like market share. Even the most tangible measures – number of meals served – tell only part of the story. Maybe the charity served 50% more meals to the homeless than last quarter. But the mission is to reduce hunger. Are more meals a sign of success in feeding more people, a sign of failure because more people are hungry? Further, a stock broker would know exactly what to do with an extra $1 billion. I would argue that most charities would be at a loss over how to handle a sudden doubling of their budget. There would be no guarantee that the money would be spent appropriately, and, unless the billionaire attached a multitude of strings, no way to change the direction of the money once given to the charity. Ironically, the profit motive in business has created a model of scalability and the means to process money that philanthropy has yet to match.


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