Jim Taggart, alive and well and living in Redmond…

(Chuck’s note: I’ve gotten a little behind these days.  Grrrrr.  But I had to stop and muse for a bit on some recent news that seemed to be so appropriate to the Atlas message. . .)

I’ve been accused of being cynical, paranoid and occasionally even a captain in the Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie Brigade (perhaps, on occasion, justifiably so.)

But sue me if I think that taking everything at face value is naïve.

Like this. What’s the point of this nonsense?

I came across this on a Twitter link the other day. It made me scratch my head. (Apparently I don’t get out enough.)

It was a tweet from the Ayn Rand Center about an article written by their executive director Yaron Brook and analyst Don Watkins on “the Giving Pledge.

Apparently there is a movement afoot, sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, to get billionaires everywhere to join this, their new cause.

Go to the site and the movement’s mission is clear. Says so right on the index page…

“The Giving Pledge is an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.”

On the SURFACE, it sounds noble. We’ve all been conditioned to understand that charity is good because, well – really, it is.

Warren Buffett even says so in his donation letter…

“Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures.”

It’s a noble, moral and Christian endeavor to do something within your power to help those less fortunate than you. No matter how little, how modest.

Of course Ayn Rand would object

In typical Randian objectivist form, they rail against the implied immorality of money. After all, didn’t Francisco d’Anconia so eloquently explain that money was “the root of all good?” And nobody should me muscled into doing something with their money they wouldn’t do on their own.

And using another, fully unstated tactic often employed against the non-thinking, the pledge rightfully earns the wrath of the ARC. It gains its full moral authority from the double edged “fer-agin” implication… “if ya ain’t fer us, yer agin us.” If you don’t support what we’re doing here, you’re a cold-hearted piece of greedy shit.

But that, of course, is not the case. You may be against them. Or you just may choose not to join their charade.

Charade?

Yes, in my paranoid, conspiratorial, cynical fashion, I wondered what the point of this exercise really was.

I’d like to think about this out loud for a sec

Why do we work? Obviously — to make money.

And earning money often begs the question, how much is enough?

I have no idea. And neither does anyone else. It’s really a personal matter.

Truth is, earning more than you can consume is not a moral question. Provided I’ve earned it, I should be able to do what I want with it. Period.

So here’s another question.

Why do we give our hard earned money away?

Makes you feel good? Scores you points in heaven? We all want to help those less fortunate? (Really, no matter how modest your means, there is always someone less well off.) Because I can do what the hell I want with it?

I have nothing against giving to charity. I support a couple myself.

We all have our own reasons, but I think most people are charitable to the extent they’re able (including billionaires.)

But neither of these are the real question that’s rattling around in my head.

What’s the real purpose of this thing?

Or if I can frame it a little more pointedly, “why do we commit to giving away our fortunes in front of the whole world?”

You know, the funny thing about this movement is, it’s not even supporting a cause. It’s only supporting the idea of giving.

Which, as I supposed before, most billionaires do plenty of on their own.

(Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe somewhere there is a billionaire sitting holed up in his dark, oak-paneled study, pouring over ledgers and balance sheets, counting and recounting to balance every penny. Who wouldn’t buy a box of cookies from a starving girl scout.

But I doubt it.)

I think many (most?) billionaires already have set up foundations to support their favorite causes and charities.

Oracle chief Larry Ellison said it in his letter.

Many years ago, I put virtually all of my assets into a trust with the intent of giving away at least 95% of my wealth to charitable causes. I have already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and education, and I will give billions more over time. Until now, I have done this giving quietly – because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter.

Go to the page and read a few letters yourself. Every one I opened – some from those who earned their wealth themselves like Ellison – others were heirs to the thrones on which they sit like Hilton and Rockefeller – but to a man (and woman) almost everyone on the page says in one form or another, that giving has long been their intent and practice.

Think about it… Everyone on this list talks about their years of giving. (Nobody said, Jeez – Bill, Melinda and Buff made me see the error of my ways. Shame on me for hoarding all my zillions. I’m gonna give away half.)

So back to my question.

If they’re all giving already, why make a pledge like this in front of God and everybody? Why tell everyone else how wonderfully generous we are?

Larry Ellison took a stab at this in his letter:

So why am I going public now? Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be “setting an example” and “influencing others” to give. I hope he’s right.

Influencing others?

Well if that gang of tight fisted billionaires does exist, then maybe. But frankly that kind of giving message doesn’t resonate with guys like me.

I buy my clothes at Target and JC Penny. I give what I can. And frankly I ain’t impressed by their pledging to give away “the majority” of their wealth.

But. . . Maybe somewhere, someone might be. In fact, maybe a lot of people might be.

So here’s what I’m cynically and shamefully thinkin’

If this effort is not designed to shift a massive amount of private wealth, maybe it’s meant to shift a massive amount of public opinion.

From a “reasonable man” standard, what is the net effect of this going to be. Are billions more going to be raised for charity that wouldn’t have otherwise?

I doubt it.

Sure, their generosity will do great things in the world. But it would do the same great things without all the fanfare.

The only thing that’s obviously different now, is the direction of the spotlight. Bill, Melinda and Buff can now being sainted in the public eye as the funders of those less fortunate and saviors of future generations. Now they’re taking the credit publicly.

Hey, a spade’s a spade

Most days rich folk aren’t popular. And in light of current economic circumstances, public opinion is probably a quart lower than normal.

So what are we doing here? To me this sounds like a Jim Taggart stab at public relations – rehabbing their personas. . .

“. . . it wasn’t for myself, it wasn’t for myself at all — why won’t they believe me, those people? . . . All the newspapers said that I was a great example for all businessmen to follow — a businessman with a sense of social responsibility. That’s what they said. It’s true, isn’t it? . . . Isn’t it?”

How about “hug a billionaire” day?

Shameful and cynical? I don’t think so

I don’t see Trump, Oprah, Branson, Jobs (or a bunch of others) on this list. And frankly I hope I don’t. They’re all obscenely rich and I’m willing to bet next months church donation they give plenty. (And they get their fair share of media coverage.)

But in my mind, to join the Gates and Buffetts in this “Greatest Philanthropic Show on Earth” (apologies to another rich guy) would only diminish the good they do.

Earn money. Raise funds. Give it away. Just shut up.

Are they really planning ahead?

Of course, if you’re a Christian at all, this plan’s gonna cause some other problems for you too…

I seem recall, after 12 years of Catholic education, that somewhere in the Gospel, Jesus talks about giving privately. I’m not really a bible scholar (much less a thumper,) but finding the passage only took a few seconds (thanks to Google billionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin.)

Matthew 6:1-4
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do now let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I wonder what He’ll say when everyone on the pledge list makes their final payments.

Am I nuts? Am I right? What do you think?

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One Comment

  1. Sunnyfunny
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    You hit the nail on the head. What a bunch of hubristic horn-tooters. Lots of them apologize for their privileged circumstances (such as caring parents), some go so far as to say the point of them choosing business as their degree was to help others (I always thought that was the stock answer in the medical field…), and many of them have their own self-titled foundation already in place. All of them miss the point.