NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Mexico's telecom mogul Carlos Slim bested the best of the U.S. billionaires -- Berkshire Hathaway's ( BRK.B) Warren Buffett and Microsoft's ( MSFT) Bill Gates -- for the top spot among the filthiest of the global filthy rich. The annual Forbes list of the world's richest people was released to the usual bank account-voyeurism and press ruckus on Wednesday evening. Indeed, much has been made of the fact that
Carlos Slim edged out Bill Gates and Warren Buffett . Less has been made of the fact that Warren Buffett would have still been richer than Slim if he had not donated so much of his fortune to philanthropic causes since 2006, let alone try to account for the percentage of personal wealth that Bill Gates has poured into his family's global foundation. The flip-flopping at the top of the Forbes annual list is influenced year-to-year by a billionaire's approach to philanthropy, or lack thereof. We in the markets adjust for inflation, but when it comes to billionaires, Forbes doesn't adjust for charitable giving. Buffett 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. Buffett meant U.S. citizens. 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. Buffett gave 1.8 million Berkshire Hathaway shares to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, estimated at a value of $30 billion. According to the Forbes video interview with Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway chief also provides tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shares to foundations run by Buffett family members. Each July, Buffett gives 5% of the balance of Berkshire Hathaway shares to charity.
At a time of violent Greek union protests in Athens, continued efforts to curb the excesses of the U.S. financial system, and global inequality of wealth that verges on seeming synonymous with capitalism, it might be an interesting experiment to rank our billionaires not just by their personal bank accounts, but by taking into account their approach to philanthropic giving. If Buffett's charitable giving was taken into account, Buffett would actually be ahead of Mexico's Slim in the annual ranking of billionaires. Slim's net worth in 2009 was estimated at $53.5 billion, versus Buffett's net worth of $47 billion. The complicating factor is Bill 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. Still, given that a significant portion of the Gates Foundation philanthropy is funded by the regular selling of Buffett's donated Berkshire Hathaway shares, it's not the simplest exercise to do the math of the billionaire set's No. 1 philanthropist. Some Mexican commentators voiced disgust at Slim's placement at the top of the list of the world's billionaires, as Mexico is still rife with inequality -- though, which countries, other than Scandinavian icebergs with a population in the low millions, and maybe Luxembourg, aren't rife with income inequality? There will always be a social tension inherent in the billionaire experience, and it's tough, especially after years of capitalist excess and widening inequality even in an advanced capitalist nation like the U.S., to rank extreme wealth without feeling the urge to assign to it some metric of social value. Goldman Sachs' CEO famously (infamously?) claimed to be doing god's work, in response to a constant barrage of negative press. There is a long theoretical line stretching back to the early 20th century and Max Weber's classic economics work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that aims to make sense of economic systems and social thought. Buffett may not spend much time reading Weber, but he happily assigned a social value to his own charitable giving in the Forbes video interview. It doesn't measure up, in the Oracle of Omaha's opinion. Buffett is also famous for his meager annual salary of $100,000. The details (or lack thereof) of
Buffett's 2009 pay were released on Thursday , and it always makes for a stark comparison with the pay packages of many corporate executives.
In typical Buffett self-effacing fashion, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO said, "Most philanthropic people drop $5 dollars on a collection plate on Sunday. I've never given any money away that has hurt how I live or how my family lives." Buffett explained 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. That said, we don't want to make too much of charitable giving as some perfected tangent of capitalism. There is a fine line between the inherent goodness of the charitable impulse of private citizens, and a paternalistic attitude among the rich that they "know better" how to manage and mediate the global income inequality with which their wealth is sometimes seen as being synonymous. Andrew Carnegie may have paid to construct a lot of libraries across the rural U.S., a philanthropic calling that allowed future CEOs to migrate from farm childhoods to the corporate board room. However, Carnegie also hired the private army of the Pinkertons to murder striking steel workers rather than raise worker income. Buffett'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, who say NGOs like the Gates Foundation have become too powerful and are simply recreating the paternalism of the colonial era by another name. The sun will never set on the Billionaire Empire, more or less. Buffett told Forbes that he wasn't "too worried about my philanthropic legacy." Should we be more worried, and be ranking our billionaires differently? Instead of simply feigning amazement at the numbers that Forbes rolls out every year, should we be looking between the lines for the links between billionaires and issues of social good? Or does that lead us down the slippery slope to Hugo Chavez' socialist dreamworld of Venezuela. (Notable in this year's Forbes list was the increased wealth of Venezuela's richest man, and capitalist thorn-in-the-side of Chavez: food conglomerate chief Lorenzo Mendoza).
In a sense, Forbes already does investigate the social ills of the world as it relates to the billionaire rankings -- in fact, it may be unavoidable as more of the wealth is created in the developing world. Among this year's list was a father and son billionaire team from India whose real estate fortune is linked to the rehabilitation of slums in India. And we wouldn't suggest an army quoting chapter and verse from the Hugo Chavez scripture and trying to nationalize Slim's telecom holdings, as Chavez has attempted to do with Mendoza's food empire. Somewhere in between those two extremes might make sense, though. In fact, it all begs the question, do you think Carlos Slim should be considered the richest man in the world? Or who, after taking into account all of this, do you truly believe to be the world's richest? Take our poll below to see what TheStreet thinks, and don't be afraid to leave a comment below. After all, you never know which billionaire could be reading.
-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.
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