Monday, March 19, 2007

When a Loaf of Bread Looks Like a Banquet...

In a Sunday opinion piece, "Cheapskate Billionaires" in the LA Times, Gregg Easterbrook contextualizes the much discussed discrepancy of wealth in America. We've heard a lot about the unfair tax cuts for the super rich, how "Income for the top 1% of Americans has more than doubled in the last quarter of a century, while that of the bottom fifth barely budged", but this focuses instead on the lack of noblesse oblige exhibited by the Fortune 400 (in which even #400 is a billionaire).

I recently went to one of Cape Town paradisaical beaches and found myself the focal point of one in a long line of anti-American discussions. The group of foreigners, some of whom ended up being South African Members of (the non-funkadelic) Parliament, remarked on how America's national debt keeps on keeping on at staggering rates in order to allow us to sustain our way of life. Not being equipped with facts and figures to justify this spending, I came to America's defense by positing that we do use some of this money to help the rest of the world. I don't know if you've found yourself in these circumstances -- if you have then you already know that my comments did not snuff out the international criticism. Turns out that we're a pretty miserly nation, relative to other first-world countries, and no better is our stinginess encapsulated than in our top 1% (also the title of a film that one of our buddies edited).

With just a quick glance at the Slate 60 (a list of America's top philanthropists), the lack of generosity -- with the exception of (the non-Jimmy) Buffett -- is evident. Also, some of the names on the list are priceless, and sort of sound made up:

T. Boone Pickens (colorful ranch hand) shelled out 171.5 Million
Mortimer Zuckerman (local butcher) handed out 100 Million
Jon L. Stryker (private investigator)

What struck me most about the Easterbrook article was the first sentence: "THERE ARE NOW hundreds of people in the United States with so much money that they will never be able to spend their net worth, no matter how many Picassos or mansions or personal jets they buy." I kept reading and kept returning to this sentence and the longing for my childhood, when life and riches were fathomable. My best friend and I used to come up with lists of what we would buy with all the money in the world. My reocurring picks were a (non-simian) Big Foot monster truck, a permanent hotel room in Disney World, and a house with a pool. In recent months I have tried to play this game with myself with depressing results. I can't think of anything to buy with my imaginary and vast fortunes. A house for my Mom, and then I run out of ideas. Maybe a trip or something, but I've already lived in Asia and Africa this year and it didn't take a million bucks.

The sad reality is that the super rich of society can't think of things to buy either and yet still decide to keep their fortunes. Maybe they're just waiting for that rainy day when a good idea pops into their heads. I just hope they bought their moms some nice houses.

1 comment:

Andy D said...

I don’t see a problem with this. I hope to one day have incredible amounts of money that I won’t know what to do with either. Of course, that doesn’t look like what will actually happen, but I can hope.

I believe giving should come from the heart and not be imposed. I donate a lot of my time to volunteer organizations. In a typical year, I donate around 120 to 150 hours to a local volunteer group. It makes me feel good, and it is my way of helping those who haven’t gotten some of the lucky breaks I have. I hope more people do this, but I don’t believe it should be forced on them.

I also don’t think my volunteer charity work would show up on an audit of my personal “wealth” (or lack thereof). I don’t keep a record of it, and I don’t turn in that information on my tax forms. I have heard co-workers criticize “rich” people before and I always caution them. You never know what someone does in their personal time.