Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If Billionaires Really Want To End Poverty

I recently came across GivingPledge.org. It's an effort by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to have the wealthiest Americans commit to giving more than half of their wealth to charity. There are currently about 40 billionaires who have made the pledge by posting an open letter on the website. I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the letters. Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser's letter stands out:

"I suppose I arrived at my charitable commitment largely through guilt. I recognized early on, that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics (winning the "ovarian lottery") and upbringing. As I looked around at those who did not have these advantages, it became clear to me that I had a moral obligation to direct my resources to help right that balance..."

"As I addressed my charitable purposes, all of this seemed pretty clear: I was only peripherally responsible for my own good fortune; I was morally duty bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth; America's root principle was equal opportunity but we were far from achieving it..."

"I am entranced by Warren's and Bill's visionary appeal to those who have accumulated unconscionable resources, to dedicate at least half of them back to purposes more useful than dynastic perpetuation."

This is not exactly the "by my bootstraps" mantra that you hear from a lot of the American Right. In fact, I think I know conservatives who would cringe at reading this letter. It's strange how people who view themselves as upper middle class or perhaps soon-to-be rich are often more interested in justifying extreme inequality (blaming the poor for being poor) than are the super rich.

Kaiser's letter and others discuss focusing their philanthropy on the causes of poverty and not just the symptoms. What they mean is breaking the cycle of poverty for families and providing equal opportunity for those dealt a losing hand at birth. That really is good work. And its obvious from their letters that many of these billionaires are good people with good hearts. But aren't these "causes" of poverty actually symptoms of a deeper sickness?

The sickness I'm thinking of is the very social and economic system that makes billionaires possible. You cannot have a tiny billionaire class without a big, poor working class. There can be no "unconscionable wealth" without unconscionable poverty somewhere else.

What I would like to see from The Giving Pledge is a promise from America's billionaires to fund efforts for systemic change in a progressive and democratic direction: a more progressive tax system, a national living wage law, a maximum wage law for CEOs, an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans, greater taxes on inherited wealth, public financing of elections, an end to "corporate personhood," enforcement of workers' rights to organize, a constitutional amendment for full employment. These are just a few ideas to start with, and they could supplement, not replace, the philanthropic causes and charities already supported in The Pledge. Think of them as gifts that keep on giving. The point is, we could end poverty in America. We know how to do it. We could build a country where no one is poor, but it would probably mean that no one is a billionaire either.

1 comment:

laurelabreu said...

Wonderful writing. Thanks for sharing this.