Just in time for Christmas (or maybe Chanukah) another billionaire has pledged to leave half his fortune to charity. Not that Facebook CEO and Time magazine's "Man of the Year" Mark Zuckerberg needed any arm-twisting. He was -- he texts -- happy to spread half the wealth. It's right there on his Facebook page.
At only 25, Zuckerberg is already worth about $7 billion, give or take a few million. It used to take guys like Andrew Carnegie or George Hearst a lifetime to amass that kind of fortune. The Carnegies first had to sell the chickens and borrow £20 from relatives to immigrate to America. In Pittsburgh, young Andy worked his way up from bobbin boy. Zuckerberg, by contrast, was a spoiled computer prodigy from the get-go, always with the best tutors and teachers. No stoking boilers in a textile factory twelve hours a day, six days a week for this Harvard grad.
What gets missed in these self-serving headlines is the remarkable generosity of not-so-wealthy Americans. Americans who earn less than $20,000 a year give twice as much of their income to charity as those making $100,000. If you earn less than $25,000 you probably give 4.2 percent of your income to charity. That's a big deal even though Zuckerberg probably tips his doorman more than that. My not very subtle way of saying that for most of us, our 4.2 percent hurts a LOT more than Zuckerberg's 50 percent, which doesn't hurt at all.
IT IS BELIEVED the United States has 170 billionaires. So far 60 have taken the Giving Pledge, which is what you sign on to when Bill Gates or Warren Buffett calls you up during dinner and shames you into giving away half your fortune, preferably before your soup gets cold. And it won't do any good to get an unlisted number. Bill Gates has your unlisted number -- unless you make under $25,000 a year or own a Mac, which is pretty much the same thing.
What did billionaires do with their money before Bill Gates packed his bags for his little guilt trip? Well, it seems 19th and 20th century billionaires also gave away their fortunes. Yes, even the Captains of Industry -- dubbed "robber barons" by the pro-slavery, proto-fascist and "insipid muddlehead" (Nietzsche's phrase) Thomas Carlyle -- were civic-minded and generous. Carnegie put charity at the heart of his Gospel of Wealth, warning that "the man who dies rich dies disgraced." Meanwhile, old skinflint John D. Rockefeller confessed: "I never would have been able to tithe the first million dollars I ever made if I had not tithed my first salary, which was $1.50 per week." These men didn't believe it was enough to be incredibly successful or to create millions of jobs, or figure out new, innovative ways to make everyone's life better.
In fact, Carnegie went into poor, underserved areas and established schools in places where the government proved -- not surprisingly -- incapable. Carnegie was a meritocrat who wanted to give hardworking Americans "ladders within reach upon which the aspiring can rise." Zuckerberg has done likewise in Newark, New Jersey, only he's giving $100 million to failing public schools so they can continue to fail students for another decade and turn out another generation of doomed illiterates (by which I mean the incompetent teachers and administrators). Sort of the educational equivalent of propping up corrupt third world dictators with U.S. foreign aid.
The "robber barons" also established free libraries and art museums because they wanted to bring culture to the plain people, mostly because every time they holidayed in Europe they had to listen to some boring Brit lecture them about how uncivilized Americans were. Today their money is being used to fund exhibitions of shock-the-bourgeoisie art, because board members of these charitable foundations get a kick out that. Makes them feel superior. If that's not exactly what John D. had in mind, tough titty. He's dead.
Personally, if I had $7 billion I would use it a bit more constructively. I would buy MSNBC and fire Keith Olbermann. Then I would order the station manager to play nothing but Green Acres reruns. I would take the other $6 billion and place a $6 billion bounty on Osama bin Laden's head. And none of this dead or alive stuff. I want him Bonnie and Clyde dead. Eventually, one of his inner circle will succumb to the temptation and push Osama and his donkey (also named Osama) off the side of a cliff.
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