Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have long been household names. While most are familiar with them due to their enormous fortunes – fortunes they built themselves through years of hard work – they are also well known for their charity and humanitarian projects, which is why their latest endeavor should come as no surprise. To put it simply, they have, according to Reuters, pledged to donate fully half or more of their fortunes to charity, and have convinced at least 38 other billionaires to do the same, including George Lucas and Michael Bloomberg. This should come as no surprise but, in an age of materialism, where the race to have more of everything consumes almost everyone, this generosity is more shocking than the countless stories peppering the news of shootings and corruption.
While plenty of middle- and lower-class citizens struggle to give something back to their communities, often it seems that, to the wealthy, charity is something to be used for good PR and tax deductions. This is backed up by an article in McClatchy, where they cite research by the U.S. Beareau of Labor Statistics stating that the poorest Americans give twice as much of their income to charity as the wealthiest. The amounts the richest Americans donate, while far more than what the average person could afford, seem small when the size of their fortunes are taken into account. This often unfair characterization has become so predominant that it has leaked into popular culture in characters such as Scrooge.
Unfortunately there are plenty of men and women whose actions feed into the perception of rampant entitlement among the rich. Bernie Madoff, a prime example whose crimes are detailed on his Wikipedia page, is still making news from jail. He is, according to New York Magazine, far from remorseful about the thousands of people he defrauded and is supposedly enjoying the admiration of other inmates due to his wealth and success in scamming the multitudes. Before being jailed, he worked on the boards of multiple charities and non-profits and was even trusted to handle their money. Many of those non-profits had no choice but to close their doors after his arrest froze their assets and ultimately sank them. The Madoff family donated millions of dollars throughout their lives but what they gave is dwarfed by the amount he stole, and any good he may have done is overshadowed by the lives that were ruined with his greed.
Another example of a less-than-impressive millionaire is Tony Hayward, formerly the CEO of BP. BP unleashed what was called by Carol Browner during Good Morning America the worst oil spill in U.S. history upon the United States while under his leadership. The Huffington Post has an article listing all his worst missteps. He initially downplayed the severity of the spill and, in a widely quoted news clip, he famously stated, while in the midst of trying to contain the damage, that he wanted his “life back.” Understandably, the people living along the Gulf Coast whose jobs and homes were and are still being threatened by the spill did not appreciate the statement. Hayward also found time during the crisis to attend a yacht race. In the meantime, volunteers were scrambling to rescue injured sea animals and stem the flow of oil.
Both of these stories made more of a splash in the media than the pledge made recently by a few dozen billionaires. As they gain momentum and recruit others to their cause, that may still change. Their quiet example could hopefully begin to stem the tide of narcissism that is threatening to sweep over our culture. Too many wealthy businessmen believe that success is measured only in dollar signs, and that they are failing their families, their companies and themselves if they don’t squeeze every penny possible from any given business. Buffett, Gates, and the other selfless donors are leading by example, and hoping more will follow their path.