I can’t give my money away
What would you class as too wealthy? Or, I suppose, what threshold would you need to reach to achieve such fabulous wealth that you literally couldn’t give your money away?
Wealth inequality is a hot topic right now; the UK Labour party had its strongest results by virtue of vote share in more than half a century off the back of promising to redistribute wealth. The Democrats in the US, galvanised somewhat by the popularity of Bernie Sanders, appear to be following a similar path. It’s also not unreasonable to surmise that the recent rise of right-wing populism owes its success to tapping into working class and middle class anxiety about growing globalism and wealth distribution – even if it offers few answers.
One way to convince the masses that you’re not a selfish metropolitan elite is to engage in philanthropy; the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.
Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and richest person in modern history, has recently applied for his full membership to a club that probably counts Bill Gates as its most recognisable and popular member. According to Business Insider Bezos announced a philanthropic goal recently, launching a $2 billion fund to support homeless families and education programs in underserved communities. The Bezos Day One Fund will form a support network for homeless families and build early education programs that Bezos called "full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools."
The stumbling block to Bezos garnering true good will from the public for his ventures is the not wholly inaccurate argument that the $2 billion he’s promised towards education probably would have ended up there anyway if Amazon had paid its fair share of taxes, but that’s an argument for another article.
By most calculations Bezos probably couldn’t spend his entire wealth in a lifetime even if he spent every minute of every day buying things, due to the fact that his income would outstrip almost anything he could spend. So whilst philanthropy is most likely the noblest way to use your wealth, there appears to be an odd and paradoxical moment that the ultra-wealthy must contend with – being so wealthy you literally can’t give it away quick enough.
Having already highlighted Bill Gates as a prominent philanthropist, his colleague and much less famous Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen died this month of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sadly, the businessman only reached the age of 65 before succumbing to that which comes for all of us, rich or poor.
A fascinating figure regardless, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Allen’s life was the fact that he reached the paradoxical wealth threshold we’re talking about. In an obituary in The Atlantic, they noted that in 2012, The Chronicle of Philanthropy named him the most generous living donor in America, after he gave away $372.6 million in 2011. He gave $100 million to launch the Frontiers Group, which funds unconventional scientific research; pledged $100 million to fight Ebola; and launched a school of computer science with a $50 million endowment. In 2016, he gave away a total of $295 million, or 1.6 percent of his total wealth, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. In total, he gave away $2 billion to charitable causes.
Here’s the crux of the contemporary dissatisfaction with modern capitalism though - Allen signed the Giving Pledge in 2010, set up by Bill Gates, which made him one of 40 people to agree to give at least half their fortune to philanthropy. When he signed it Allen was worth $13.5 billion. When he died eight years later, despite trying to give away as much wealth as possible, he was worth $20 billion, representing a staggering 48% increase in his wealth.
So here lies the paradox - by most people’s standards Allen was a good man. He worked hard, he was honest, he played by the rules and he took it upon himself to improve the lives of others with the wealth he’d accrued due to benefitting from the mechanisms of capitalism. And yet…he somehow became even richer than before.
The cognitive dissonance of it is that we consider Allen to be an intrinsically and inarguably good man whilst he also re-enforced and contributed to the mutation of a system he benefitted from to – essentially create an extremely small and shrinking population of the super-wealthy. Microsoft were a ruthlessly efficient capitalist machine sweeping aside anybody in their way, often buying and hollowing out competitors with questionable practices.
Like Bezos’ philanthropy, could it be considered that, actually, Allen was just repaying what he owed back to a system that allowed him to become almost offensively wealthy whilst pulling up the ladder on those who, should they try to emulate him today, would almost certainly fail?
Is it not true that, actually, through fair and practical taxation, that neither Bezos nor Allen would even need to be philanthropists at all?
That, I suppose, is a moral question for our individual conscience as we seek to navigate a world increasingly divided and more concerned with fairness than ever.