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Where philanthropy matters

Alan Brauntholtz

Warren Buffett’s gift of $30 billion or so to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, while generous, shouldn’t be astounding. He’s always come across as a very bright and decent, down-to-earth guy. His speeches at Berkshire Hathaway meetings showed a philosophy of life anyone could admire.Many wealthy individuals through history have also given up their wealth. One of the first in industrial U.S., Andrew Carnegie stated that fortunes flow from society and should be returned. This fits nicely in with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, who has estimated that social capital (organized infrastructure, technology, regulation, education etc.) is responsible for 90 percent of income in wealthy countries. People don’t work less hard in poor countries. The social capital isn’t there to leverage their efforts and skills. Without a system to value and trade in securities, Warren Buffett’s skills and hard work would be worth little.Arguments against taxes of the “it’s your money” are philosophically incoherent. Civilization depends on taxes, and without civilization there would be no money. How taxes affect an individual’s incentive to contribute is better resolved by experimentation and observation than philosophical debate.”Your kids should have enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing” is one of Buffett’s great quotes. If the argument against helping the poor out is it creates a welfare state, a culture of laziness and dependency, then surely inherited wealth falls under the same criticism.The children of the wealthy already have the advantages of their high quality up-bringing and education. Repealing the estate tax aims to turn this country into an inherited aristocracy instead of a meritocracy where all children have a chance to succeed and where the brightest and best end up running our country. Aristocracies have a history of putting idiots on the throne. We didn’t like them in 1776. Why choose one now?The Gates foundation spends money on U.S. schools working to give more children a semi-equal start. It also focuses on health issues, looking for solutions to diseases that plague the developing world. Malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS are the big three. These and other devastating diseases are often overlooked by Western pharmaceutical companies, as there’s little money to be made. Diet pills, daily baldness cures and regular treatments for promoted personality disorders are much more profitable.Capitalism is a great system for creating solutions and advances, but it doesn’t distribute wealth or the rewards of these advances well. The trickle-down effect is largely a myth. The Gates Foundation is a significant effort to reduce the unconscionable difference between how we live and how they (the truly poor) live. Hopefully, the publicity of Buffett’s gift will motivate other individuals, and perhaps corporations, to give more than they might have.As a nation we don’t give as much as we like to think. In a survey the average American thought that 24 percent of the federal budget went to foreign aid. The actual number is 0.9 percent. We give 0.11 percent of our GDP – rated last among developed countries – while Denmark gives over 1 percent. Our aid also goes to countries we have a strategic interest in. The top four in 2001 were Egypt, Pakistan, Columbia and Jordan. Denmark’s top four were Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam and Mozambique – all countries more in need of aid. We also pressure aid agencies to buy U.S. goods at inflated prices. Effectively 70 percent of our foreign aid quickly returns home. In terms of development aid, we give much less than we did in the 1980s.Five percent of individual and corporate gifts go to religious groups, compared to 2 percent going to international aid. Fairly or unfairly, I’m suspicious of religious gifts, since much of it is self-serving. FEMA listed Operation Blessing second on its charity list for Katrina relief. Pat Robertson runs Operation Blessing, and guess what? Operation Blessing gave half its donations to the Christian Broadcast Network, where Pat Robertson is chairman. Even when it males it to places actually in need, religious aid comes with ideological strings. Faith-based opposition to birth control and family planning is hindering the fight against AIDS in Africa, not to mention poverty. It’ll be interesting to see how the new vaccine for teenage girls to prevent the STD that causes cervical cancer is received. Expect opposition from those that see it only as an enticement to premarital sex rather than a chance to save a lot of girl lives in the real world.Buffett’s gift makes me feel guilty. How much can I afford to give? Personally, I feel if you don’t notice it, then you’re not giving enough. Forsaking a new toy, fancy dinner, etc., is a small price to pay for saving someone’s life. Time is a great gift, too, as time is valuable to everyone. Anyone who volunteers has my respect.Few people would refuse to wade into a muddy pool to save a drowning child because it’d ruin their expensive clothes or their bike might get stolen if they left it. The only difference between a child drowning in poverty somewhere in the world is the distance. We know its happening! It’s in some small story every day in a newspaper and we know that money in the right hands will help. The Gates Foundation would be a good one to choose, if you’re looking.Ted Turner, Gordon Moore, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates – none of these mega philanthropists seem to want much back. No names on arts centers or libraries. Maybe their actions will help save a continent or even the planet. Heck, a functioning world is a much better memorial than a brass plaque.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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