Will capitalists, who compete, become passionate?
By Rev. Jack Van EnsSpecial to the DailyMicrosoft’s founder, Bill Gates, expressed reservations about the capitalistic system that made him into a megabillionaire. Speaking recently at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Gates challenged wealthy capitalists to invest in compassion for the poor. Gates knows he is a recipient of the free-enterprise system that delivers the goods to many capitalists. The rewards are unleashed creativity, rewarded risk-taking and personal initiative that governmental restraints don’t crimp. Stockholders gain hefty increases in their portfolios.Gates isn’t ready to ditch capitalism but is adamant about improving it. He’s wary of too few benefiting from the labor of many. He’s concerned when capitalism’s competitive spirit curtails wealth’s distribution from countries whose economic turbines roar to countries where fiscal engines sputter. Gates believes capitalism can do better in sharing wealth with impoverished countries.Flying home from a vacation in New Zealand earlier this year, Gates scratched some convictions on a yellow pad. The computer whiz finds troubling facts in an industry he helped create. Where capitalism succeeds, the standard of living rises and more prosperous people join the middle class. Gates believes, however, that rapid technological advancement, aided by discoveries in medicine and education, largely make prosperous nations even richer. Who’s overlooked? The poor.”The rate of improvement of the third that is better-off is pretty rapid,” he concludes. “The part that’s unsatisfactory is for the bottom third – 2 billion of 6 billion.”Lest critics dismiss Gates as a utopian idealist, he practices what he preaches. Encouraged by his wife, Melinda, who shares similar convictions about capitalists soft on compassion, he started eight years ago the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006 investment guru Warren Buffett decided to add his estate, then valued at $31 billion, to what Melinda and Bill had contributed. Now the corpus is more than $70 billion. This formidable sum is used to counter disease and remedy despair in Third World countries. Within a half-century of the deaths of Melinda and Bill, Gates wants this money used up in bolstering compassionate capitalism.His motto echoes the Apostle Paul, who instructs Christians about how piety relates to pocketbooks.”God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work,” II Corinthians 9:6. Not merely giving to needs, but our need to give is the key. We are transfer agents for the funds God provides, not bank accounts in which money is hoarded.When capitalism shifts into overdrive, its virtues act like vices. For instance, private gain overlooks public obligation. Special interests erode the common good. Fame and celebrity status conferred upon successful capitalists spawn get-rich-quick schemes. Individual achievement trumps family ties. Greed becomes good in a Gilded Age. Selfishness and excess replace compassion and frugality. When capitalism sharpens a competitive edge, compassion’s nerve is cut. Then what spreads is fiscal irresponsibility through quick-buck scams. Witness the subprime real estate schemes. Bill Gates’ voice resonates with President Theodore Roosevelt’s, who whipped the robber barons into a frenzy. They feared one of their own would rob them of wealth. Because capitalism’s benefactors didn’t distribute their wealth as the new century unfolded, Roosevelt lambasted them as “malefactors of great wealth.” After leaving office, he went on an African safari. Wall Street tycoon J.P. Morgan gave a cutting toast at Roosevelt’s departure, “America expects that every lion will do his duty.”As his presidency entered its final years, Teddy Roosevelt chipped away at the concentration of wealth among a favored few. He promoted an estate tax and an income tax, not to bleed the wealthy but to protect our republic from entrenched power. If a moneyed aristocracy were allowed to pass on untaxed inheritance to their families, royal dynasties would reign in a weakened republic.The Wall Street Journal in January 1907 concisely caught Roosevelt’s call to arms against “gross and corrupting extravagance, the misuse of swollen fortunes, the indifference to law, the growth of graft, and the abuses of great corporate power.”Roosevelt expressed a manifesto, the spirit of which Bill Gates shares.”I am amused by the shortsighted folly of the very wealthy men and … how large a proportion of them stand for what is fundamentally corrupt and dishonest,” Teddy exhorted. “Every year that I have lived has made me a firmer believer in the plain people – in the men who gave Abraham Lincoln his strength – and has made me feel the distrust of the over educated dilettante type and, above all, of … the plutocratic type.”By lambasting robber barons as “plutocrats,” Roosevelt meant those who amassed wealth for their own aggrandizement, hated any government control over their destiny and spent their wealth in lavish amusement.Like Roosevelt, Bill Gates challenges his peers to forsake plutocracy in favor of a republic that globally spreads compassionate generosity. The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.