NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The annual Forbes list of the world's richest people has showcased a growing billionaire set from outside the U.S., with emerging market leaders like Russia, Brazil and China encroaching on the U.S. billionaire "exceptionalism." Indeed, much has been made of the fact that Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim edged out Microsoft's ( MSFT) Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway's ( BRK.B) Warren Buffett for the top spot among the world's richest. The globalization of the billionaires is, of course, hardly a new trend -- more like a renewed trend in 2009, as the former commodities countries regained some billionaire steam after riding out the commodities doldrums of the prior few years. What's more, the number of U.S. capitalists on the annual billionaire list increased in 2009, too. Still, one of the biggest points raised -- or, more to the point, not raised -- by the annual list is the extent to which charitable giving influences the flip-flopping at the top of the Forbes list of billionaires. We adjust for inflation, but when it comes to billionaires, Forbes doesn't adjust for charitable giving. >>Stockpickr Portfolio: The Richest People in the World At a time when the populist rage against the global wealth inequality runs high, it might be well worth Forbes' -- or someone's time -- to do an annual ranking of the world's billionaires, with figures adjusted for philanthropy. In a sense, Forbes actually provided this service, just not in the actual annual billionaires list. In a video with Berkshire Hathaway chief Warren Buffett posted on the Forbes Web site, the billionaire-monitoring magazine notes that Buffett's fortune would have been $55 billion if he had not given away $9 billion over the past five years to charity, and that difference would have earned him the top spot among the world's richest. Mexico's Slim was worth $53.5 billion in 2009, but press reports have noted that he has only given away in the range of $65 million to charity. Buffett ranked third in 2009 with a net worth of $47 billion, behind Slim and Gates.
The complicating factor is Gates, who placed second on the list with $53 billion, and also gives away a significant amount annually through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But given that some $30 billion of that foundation's wealth came from Buffett's lump-sun donation of 1.8 million Berkshire Hathaway shares in 2006, trying to separate Gates' charitable donations from Buffett's becomes problematic at best. Buffett, for his part, noted in his video interview with Forbes that the U.S. is the most philanthropic country in the world, at least among the group of largest countries, giving away more than 2% of GDP to philanthropic causes. The U.S. government, on the other hand, ranks relatively low in terms of the percentage of GDP earmarked for developing nation aid, according to an annual report from the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation. In 2008, that aid figure from the U.S. government was only 0.19% of GDP. "This U.S. philosophy extends throughout the country, and most philanthropic people drop $5 dollars on a collection plate on Sunday," Buffett remarked to Forbes. "I've never given any money away that has hurt how I live or how my family lives," Buffett added, explaining that the philanthropists he really admires are the one who give away the $5 on Sunday that they would actually need to go see a movie. Of course, there is always something grandfatherly and homespun about Buffett's faith in the U.S. and its goodness -- except when it comes to Wall Street and derivatives, that is. It may seem difficult, also, to tout America's charitable impulse while the battle over bonuses on Wall Street continues. Outside the U.S., some Mexican commentators voiced disgust at Slim's placement at the top of the list of the world's billionaires in a country still rife with inequality. And Forbes made the somewhat glib reference to "slumdog billionaires" in a write up about Indian real estate moguls on the annual list who have made a fortune rehabbing slum communities. The article was evenhanded in its treatment of the capitalist impulse at odds with social good. In the end, the tension expressed by the Indian real estate billionaire experience simply reinforced the contentious issue of highlighting such extreme wealth without passing judgment on it. What's more, there is a fine line between the inherent goodness of the charitable impulse of the U.S. capitalist barons specifically, and a paternalistic attitude that the U.S. "knows better" how to manage the world. One can look back on a figure like Andrew Carnegie, who fought raise wages for mill workers at the turn of the prior century with tooth, nail and private murderous militias, because he "knew better" how to spend the money for the good of society, than the workers who would frivolously spend any extra income.
Bufett's biggest charitable outlet, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, virtually operates with the de facto power and purse strings of a government in some African nations -- and it has attracted a fair share of anti-NGO critics, too. Nevertheless, the Buffett numbers don't lie in comparison to other billionaires. Buffett gave those 1.8 million Berkshire Hathaway shares to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway share to foundations run by Buffett family members. In all, a majority of Buffett's fortune has been given to charity in the past five years. Each July, Buffett gives 5% of the balance of Berkshire Hathaway shares to charity. Buffett told Forbes "I'm not too worried about my philanthropic legacy. You hope the money does good, and I have a feeling that every human life is equal to every other life, and I hope and believe the money will be used in fulfilling that dream." Another year, another Forbes list of the filthiest of the filthy rich. A question lingers, however: All lives being equal, should the lives of billionaires be judged equally, after having been adjusted for philanthropy? -- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.
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