Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is it bad if Bill Gates gives away half of his estate?

That's the question I tackle with Ben Boychuk in our column for Scripps Howard News Service. You already got an early version of my take on this blog, so I'll give the floor to Ben.

The problem here isn't charity. The problem is Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Americans tend to disdain the gaudy rich and ostentatious displays of wealth. Gates and Buffett are what might be called ostentatious donors. Through his family foundation, Gates has donated tens of billions of dollars to causes ranging from education reform to vaccinations for poor women in third world countries. Buffett has given $8 billion alone to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Have they helped people? Probably. Have they shaped public policy? Almost certainly. The question is whether those billions have shaped policy for the better.

To the extent Gates and Buffett have pushed for reforms that expand the scope and reach of national governments, that's not positive change. Gates and Buffett both have used their power and fortunes to advocate, among other things, greater federal say over corporate governance, choice in health care, and public education.

Americans may or may not agree with Gates and Buffett. I don't. Happily, Americans remain free to support charitable causes that advocate other points of view.

And the fact is, Americans are amazingly generous with their time and money. Despite the recession and high unemployment, Americans in 2009 gave more than $303.75 billion to charitable causes, according to Grenzenbach Glier and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in nonprofit philanthropy.

Self-described conservatives are especially giving. Arthur Brooks, who is now the president of the American Enterprise Institute, published a terrific book in 2006 called "Who Really Cares." In that book, Brooks provided data showing conservative families in 2000 gave about 30 percent more money per year than liberal-headed families on average, while earning 6 percent less income.

Brooks is careful to say it's not simply a matter of conservatives being more generous than liberals. Religion, family, source of income and beliefs about the role of government all influence how people give. But clearly charitable giving is not a "bottomless pit." At its best, it can be an investment in life-saving work or world changing ideas.

I think it's somewhat funny that Ben suggests the root of the complaint against Buffett and Gates is -- partly -- that they're "ostentatious givers." Step on a university campus sometime and you'll have a difficult time making your way around without seeing any number of buildings named for the donors. Is it ostentatious? Darn tootin'. I'm OK with that: vanity philanthropy is still philanthropy, at the end of the day.

The other part of the complaint, I suppose, is that Gates and Buffett tend towards the liberal side of things and put their money to use accordingly. I guess I have a similar complaint about the Koch Brothers. But I don't think -- and wouldn't be silly enough to say -- that David Koch's funding of the New York City Ballet somehow is a betrayal of capitalism.

To be fair, I don't think Ben would say that either. This'll probably sound condescending, but he's smarter and more generous of spirit than a lot of the people he's putatively called upon to defend in this week's column. He's better than they deserve.

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