How to fix the billionaires' "Giving Pledge."

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 18 2010 2:28 PM

How To Fix the Billionaires' "Giving Pledge"

Show us the money—and put it to work now!

(Continued from Page 1)

Yes, I know, support for the arts is important, and the pledge as currently worded doesn't specify where the money should go. But I propose that the "Giving Pledge" establish some priorities about what the most urgent needs for charitable giving are. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, focuses on disease and poverty in the Third World. (They've almost entirely eradicated polio.) I would argue that saving starving and diseased children who need the help STAT is more important than adding another wing to the Guggenheim.

But consider the astonishing naivete of Buffett's statement to the Wall Street Journal, which reported that "[t]he group won't monitor whether the signatories meet their pledge commitments."

"I think the chances of there being any significant slippage of that are virtually nil," Buffett told the Journal.

Right, and why should we waste any money on that whole SEC enforcement bureaucracy? Just get the big shots of finance, those angelic billionaires, to sign a "pledge" to always be trustworthy. Bring the Boy Scout Oath back to Wall Street instead of all this legalistic stuff. We're dealing with billionaires here; everyone knows they can be trusted. 

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And let the billionaires decide what "the majority of their wealth" actually is. If the billionaires are serious about this, and they should be, since lives are at stake, I think we'd all feel better about it if they set up some kind of auditing system.

And might the whole Pollyanna project not backfire in an utterly counterproductive way? Doesn't it say to the nonbillionaires of the world: Hey, don't worry about charitable giving (or tax-funded government aid). Bill and Warren and their billionaire friends have got it all taken care of. Anything you give would be a drop in the bucket compared with the take from one of these "Giving Pledge" guys.

But I know how to fix the whole thing. It's true I'm a little short of a billion myself, but I know how to turn this nebulous never-never-land pledge into something that will benefit the poor it's designed to help now and actually save the billionaires half their fortune. Don't thank me now, just read on.

I got the idea I'm about to present from one of the world's leading developmental economists, Jeffrey Sachs. The Harvard-trained scholar is currently head of Columbia's Earth Institute and was an influential shaper with Kofi Annan of the U.N.'s global campaign against hunger, poverty, and disease. Sachs was also the developer of the ambitious synergistic and sustainable Millennium Villages in Africa, which might be the solution to endemic poverty if they could ever get funded sufficiently.

Let me tell you the circumstances in which he disclosed the Sachs Plan, which has the teeth, the immediacy, that the Buffett-Gates plan currently lacks.

I had been doing a profile of Sachs for what turned out to be the last issue of Portfolio magazine. I had just returned from a trip to Tokyo with him where I'd seen him try to coordinate funding for an array of anti-poverty initiatives with the bureaucrats in Japan's foreign ministry. All very polite, but—one sensed—not eager to give another yen when Japan was already one of the world's leading givers and the rest of the world was not picking up the slack. There were some side comments over sashimi about how superwealthy China is still posing as a "developing country" to avoid having to give to charities for truly needy developing countries. It didn't seem like anything was going to happen until Sachs made another circumnavigation or two of the giving centers of the globe to persuade the Japanese they weren't being taken for suckers.

That's what Sachs did with a good part of his time: circumnavigate the globe with a metaphorical begging bowl, trying to get governments, private individuals, NGOs, and the like to work together to address the most acute problem in the poverty realm: The so called  "bottom billion." These are the billion or so poor souls who earn less than a dollar a day, and are so starved, disease ridden, resource-deprived, and plagued by civil war that they are caught in a "poverty trap": too weakened by disease and malnutrition to sustain themselves long enough to escape from the trap without outside help. And not just any outside help but the synergistic combination of food, medication, improved seed stock, transport, and electricity that would allow them to produce goods, get them to market, and thus escape the poverty trap. That's what Sachs Millennium Villages were supposed to do: not just parachute in food and medicine during famine but make communities famine-resistant, sustainable. These are the people most urgently, life-threateningly in need of the Buffett-Gates "Pledge" money.

Anyway, there came a point when I was sitting across a table from Sachs in the tastefully appointed townhouse Columbia University  had provided him with and he looked just profoundly weary, and, despite his relentless can-do attitude, a bit hopeless.

It was then he disclosed his Billionaire Begathon fantasy to me. Or that's what I came to call it.

Sachs said he had just seen the new (2008) Forbes list of the world's billionaires. There were going to be upward of 1,000 people on it with assets amounting to about $4.2 trillion.

What if, he said, those 1,000 billionaires decided they'd put half their assets in an interest-bearing trust. NOT (take note billionaires) give away a cent. The money would still be theirs. But they'd have to come up with it now. And let Sachs or some trustworthy trust have the interest on it.

If they allowed him to manage their money, he said, he could show them how they could end extreme poverty all by themselves without the rest of us lifting a finger.

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