The Billionaires' Give-away

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have recruited 40 fellow billionaire families to give away half their treasure to charity. Good?

My immediate response isn't to jump for joy. I would first like to know where they intend to deposit their fortunes. For every Bread for the World there is a L. Ron Hubbard foundation; for every World Vision, a non-profit Dress for Success. Whatever else this pledge may be, it isn't a "widow's mite" expression of sacrificial giving. It's a safe, comfortable gesture with potential for ego-enhancement, though that doesn't mean it can't serve a meaningful purpose.

It reminds me remotely of the financial heavyweights in my home town.

I grew up in a small New England industrial city where furniture magnates extracted millions from cheap immigrant labor and in return bankrolled the public library, the hospital and a showcase indoor-outdoor swimming pool.

The reflexive response among us burghers was to treat the captains of industry as demigods and pay endless tribute to their grand works of generosity to us lesser types, though the fathers of friends died prematurely of brown lung disease (never labeled as such by a collaborative medical profession) and working families scraped by in tenement houses(a museum sponsored by the state lionizes these dashing benefactors while ignoring the cogs in the machines).We were trained to honor our founders for their largesse. Today we refer to it euphemistically as "giving back." Some of us called them "guilt offerings."

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Leaving aside the ethics of how the "40" got their gains, it's possible all 40 or more signers of the Gates-Buffett pledge are devoted to the most pressing needs of the suffering race and will put their resources into fighting hunger, disease, homelessness and oppression. But in most cases, it isn't clear where the lucre will go. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have taken the high road and named their causes. But Richard M. Scaife and the Koch family set up foundations, too, to fund an array of what I consider reactionary ends like denying global warming.

So we'll see.

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