OMAHA, Neb. (
) -- Should philanthropy be a benchmark for our capitalist titans? It's a question that is as old as the issue of unequal wealth distribution, which means it's a question more or less as old as the earliest human civilizations.
Think that's an exaggeration? In fact, some of the earliest writings in Egypt by the pharaohs detail the donations made by the ruling ancient Egyptians at times of mass crop failures and famine.
The huge concentration of wealth at the turn of the 20th century also led to a huge boom in philanthropy, a boom in industry and charity that today is still apparent in the names of some of the biggest global non-profit organizations, from the Ford Foundation to various Carnegie foundations and endowments, and that has been repeated time and time again, most recently with the
In the aftermath of the latest financial crisis, there has been more pressure on financial firms like Goldman Sachs to consider the social aspect of wealth generation. "God's work," as Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein described the investment bank's mission, should include some of the loftier goals associated with divinities and royals, such as lifting up the lives of the poor mortals.
list of the world's richest people, on the other hand, provides the "heartless" roll of the filthy rich, without any accounting of the social component of wealth concentration. It's just the top-to-bottom richest of the world's billionaires, just the numbers, no criticism or analysis.
For the latest set of billionaire numbers, though,
included a footnote about philanthropy. It turns out that if Berkshire Hathaway chief
has not already given away a majority of his fortune to the Gates Foundation and various Buffett family charities, he might still be the richest man in the world, as opposed to only third on the list behind Mexican telecom mogul
Slim received a lot of scrutiny from the Mexican press about his lack of a big, charitable heart when
announced the annual list earlier in March. Slim's wealth represents 2% of Mexico's GDP, by some estimates, and he has a virtual monopoly on telecom rates in Mexico. Even ahead of Slim being ranked No. 1 among the world's richest rich, he began a campaign in mid-2009 to give away more, much more, to charity, to fend off the intense criticism he was feeling at home in Mexico as his wealth ballooned.
For the past 10 years, Slim's Telmex Foundation built up a $1.2 billion endowment. Slim's family philanthropy, the Carso Foundation, also doubled its size in 2008 to $2.5 billion. That may seem small compared to the more than $30 billion that Buffett's gifts are estimated to be, however, Slim has increased his focus on charity. Some say Slim's new softer side is no more than a way to deflect pressure from Mexico's government aimed at a company that's value is half the value of the Mexican stock exchange, and that charges what are considered very high telecommunications rates.
doesn't account for charitable giving in its annual ranking, but given the populism post-financial meltdown, we wondered if such an accounting was important to
readers. Specifically, we asked,
Who is actually the world's richest man?
Maybe it's just a matter of national pride, or even a matter of national billionaire prejudice, but survey respondents indicated that they did think charitable giving should be taken into account in measures of the man, or at least, the richest men in all the land.
Approximately 61% of survey takers said that Warren Buffett was "their richest man," and that charitable giving should be taken into account by annual rankings like the
What's more, 19% of survey takers indicated that they believed Bill Gates was really the richest man in the world based on his charitable giving -- the amount of which was sufficient to lower his net worth behind that of Slim in the annual billionaire ranking.
Of course, this wouldn't be capitalism if there wasn't at least a fair share of people who believed that a billion is a billion is a billion, and it "trickles down" throughout society in ways that are inherent in wealth generation, without requiring showy displays of philanthropy. Approximately 11% of survey respondents said that Carlos Slim is not only No. 1 among the world's richest, but should be, regardless of charitable giving levels.
As for the survey respondents who did not believe any of these titans of capitalism to deserve high marks for either purely money hoarding or charitable giving reasons, it seems some socialists found their way mistakenly to this poll, as 9% answered that they "hate billionaires; we should give all their money to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez."
Those "fellow travelers" among us who hate billionaires might be displeased to know that Venezuela's richest man actually increased his wealth and rank in the
list last year.
-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.
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