7.14.2006

charity

I have problems with philanthropy. Certain kinds of philanthropy, anyway.

Gazillionaires who give away large sums of money to charitable causes don't make my list of heroes, no matter how many people benefit from their largesse. I'd rather live in a world without gargantuan extremes between have-nots and have-too-muchs.

I admire people who try to change the power structure and economic systems that keep so much of the world in various degrees of desperation - not those who, after exploiting the inequities of the system (that is, unchecked capitalism), find themselves with more money than they could ever spend in ten lifetimes, and dump some of it on the deserving poor.

I've done some fundraising, both in the arts and in activism. I know full well how important money is to worthwhile projects. People who say we shouldn't "throw money at problems" probably don't care if those problems are addressed or not. Money counts. You can't do much without it. We should all give as generously as we can, to whatever moves us. That's the responsibility of everyone who has just a little more than anyone else.

But Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are modern robber barons, not candidates for sainthood.

The Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations do a world of good, but none of it helps the people John D. and Andrew exploited - the businesses they forced to close, the unions they busted, the lives they devastated as they accumulated their vast wealth.

In Collapse, I just read about a hideous, brutal dictator who was also a tremendous environmentalist. He prevented the destruction of forests and rivers. He also tortured and massacred.

Without the Phillip Morris company, arts organizations in the US would probably shrink by half. But its donations don't negate the fraudulent advertising and corrupt marketing that contributes to the death of millions.

I'd rather Wal-Mart pay and treat its employees fairly than fix up the ballfields in communities they help impoverish. A foundation for sick children is less valuable than providing health insurance to the largest sector of employees in the US.

In the mainstream media - and in too many people's imaginations, I think - once someone unloads millions of dollars, he is an angel, and we need look no further. I disagree.

Ted Rall disagrees, too.
Factoid: the average member of the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans has seen his income rise 3.5 times--from $800 million (adjusted to 2006 dollars) to $2.8 billion--in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, real income for more than half the population increased...zero. Nada. Zip.

To his credit, Buffett acknowledges the rising income disparity. "What has gone on in this country in recent years is a huge benefit to the very rich and not much that relief to those below," he told Fortune in 2005. But philanthropy won't slow the United States' slide into Third Worlddom. And it doesn't help the philanthropists' victims. All things considered, a $45 million lout like Ken Lay hurts America less than a $44 billion one like Bill Gates.

Consider a burglar who boosts your TV and then, thinking better of it, donates it to an orphanage. His act of generosity beats the alternative--keeping it for himself. But you'd probably prefer that he'd returned it to you, or better yet, never stolen it at all.
Read Gates and Buffett: 1000 Times Worse Than Ken Lay.

7 comments:

James said...

For some perspective, when Buffet gave away 80% (or whatever it was) of his net work, he still had $10,000,000,000 left to play with. That would pay the salaries of an awful lot of teachers.

On the other hand, Bush just asked for 10x that to futher his favourite Adventure in Iraqiland, bringing the total to $400,000,000,000.

L-girl said...

For some perspective, when Buffet gave away 80% (or whatever it was) of his net work, he still had $10,000,000,000 left to play with. That would pay the salaries of an awful lot of teachers.

An elderly person on a fixed income who gives $10 to a local charity may be the more heroic donor.

James said...

An elderly person on a fixed income who gives $10 to a local charity may be the more heroic donor.

This is a matter that I've often butted heads with libertarians over. The ones I've dealt with can't seem to acknowledge that, to survive, your income has to exceed a certain minimum (which varies according to location, but there's always one); and that there is a maximum above which any further (personal) income is superfluous.

If you are raking in $40,000,000 a year, you aren't hurting if you lose half of that to taxes. It is impossible to have a rough life on $20,000,000 (at least as far as meeting one's basic needs is conerned).

On the other hand, if you're pulling in $10,000 a year, then a 17% flat tax is going to ruin you.

I always find it curious that US conservatives seem so keen on getting back to the way things were in the 1950s -- except where income taxes are concerned, since the top bracket back then was 90%.

Tresy said...

"Consider a burglar who boosts your TV and then, thinking better of it, donates it to an orphanage."

Sounds bad. Evidence?

"Buffett and Gates may not have broken any laws"...

But they are still burglars, don't you know, worse than Ken Lay (let's put it to a vote of Enron employees vs. Microsoft employees, what say?). Does anyone wonder why Ted Rall is a third-rate cartoonist and not, say, a moral philosopher (let alone an economist)?

And let's once again remind wmtc readers that Rall is the delightful chap who pioneered Ann Coulter's rhetorical trick of implying that the 9/11 widows (and Marianne Pearl, Danny Pearl's widow) enjoyed their notoriety.

Wonder how much of his income Rall gave away last year?

L-girl said...

Does anyone wonder why Ted Rall is a third-rate cartoonist and not, say, a moral philosopher (let alone an economist)?

I think Rall is an excellent cartoonist, and a fine philosopher. That's why I post his material.

And let's once again remind wmtc readers that Rall is the delightful chap who pioneered Ann Coulter's rhetorical trick of implying that the 9/11 widows (and Marianne Pearl, Danny Pearl's widow) enjoyed their notoriety.

Whether or not that's true, it's utterly irrelevant.

Wonder how much of his income Rall gave away last year?

He may have given away quite a bit of it. We wouldn't know. He doesn't have to broadcast it, anymore than you do.

L-girl said...

On the other hand, if you're pulling in $10,000 a year, then a 17% flat tax is going to ruin you.

Flat taxes are completely regressive. Yet so many otherwise-progressive people seem not to understand that.

In addition to the crux of it, which you've explained above, there's the issue of what gets reported as income. Wealthy people have no trouble converting income into assets that can then be excluded from taxation.

But if all your assets are paycheques from Wal-Mart, you don't have that option.

James said...

Flat taxes are completely regressive. Yet so many otherwise-progressive people seem not to understand that.

Not only that, but all the "17% flat tax" models out there wouldn't actually generate enough revenue at that rate, they'd have to be higher.

Another great math trick that's been used to promote a regressive tax scheme was in a recent "replace income tax with sales tax" plan that called for eliminating all income tax and replacing it with a 23% sales tax on everything (no exemptions).

Only, what they called a "23% sales tax" was what anyone else would call a "30% sales tax", because they calculated the percentage as "tax / (tax + cost)" rather than the usual "tax / cost".

The "23% sales tax" on a $1.00 purchase would be $0.30, for a total of $1.30. You or I would call that 30%, but the proposal takes the view that $0.30 is 23% of $1.30, so it's a 23% sales tax.

How's that for spin? (And regressiveness, of course.)