The Rich and the Rest of Us

Forty billionaires promised last week to donate half of their riches, whether during their lifetimes or at death, to charitable causes. Here are two comments:

The Financial Times Deutschland could never imagine anything similar happening in Germany: “In the U.S., upward mobility and wealth are part of the ‘American Dream.’ Those who make it to the top are admired and at the same time they feel duty-bound to give back some of their money in the form of charity. Because this usually happens in public, the generosity also wins additional admiration for the donor.

“In Continental Europe – especially in Germany – the state is traditionally responsible for the public well-being. The state takes on the task of redistribution through taxes and social security. Not only the poor, but also the rich depend on it. Many of them feel they have fulfilled their social duty simply by paying taxes and fees…. The idea of charity must be carefully promoted in Germany. And a first step might be a more relaxed attitude towards wealth.”

In his blog, Robert Reich comments:

“Forty of America’s richest families or individuals – almost all billionaires – have pledged to donate at least half their fortunes to charity. The total is a whopping $125 billion. Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates reached out to some 80 members of the Forbes billionaires list, seeking their pledges.

“I think it’s admirable that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett give so much to charity and have corralled other billionaires to do the same.

“But I’m also appalled at what this reveals about how much money is now concentrated in so few hands. It’s more evidence we’re back in the late 19th century when robber barons lorded over the economy and almost everyone else lost ground. The Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Rockefellers made so much money they too could give away large chunks to charity and still maintain their outsize fortunes and their power and influence.

“Most telling is how much wealthier the richest have become over the past year. Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires (40 percent of them Americans) show them with an average net worth of $3.5 billion – and an average increase of $500 million in the last 12 months.

“America’s median hourly wage, meanwhile, dropped last year, and it continues to drop. That’s not even counting the 15 million Americans still out of work.

“Most Americans don’t need charity. They need good jobs.”

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4 responses to “The Rich and the Rest of Us

  1. How timely an illustration of the inequalities Tony Judt is eloquent about in his 2010 book “Ill Fares the Land”. He writes beautifully, with a long, multi-continent perspective. “Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it”, he says.

    His 7 August obituary is at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/books/08judt.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

    An NYRB article drawn from the book is at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/apr/29/ill-fares-the-land/?page=1 . More of his articles are at http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/judt-tony/ .

    • How good of you to refer to him. I have been reading him, off and on, for years. And today, at the suggestion of Horace Krever, I read his memoir of King’s College, Cambridge, in the current issue of the NYRB. Perhaps his last publication I was in Cambridge – not at King’s – twenty years BEFORE him!

  2. Elisabeth Ecker

    It is laudable for the rich to part with their money, but I am worried how it will be spent. Is introducing modified seeds to Africa going to be a good thing or will it be only profitable for Monsanto? Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett wrote a letter some time ago that the tax system is unfair to the poor. I would like to see charity to go only to things that improve the quality of life and necessities are taken care of by governments. This is why Europeans are less inclined to give to charity. They give with their taxes.