-- The Post Buffett and Gates Era: A New
A major historical event
happened this week, and though it made headlines, its significance was not
duly appreciated. I submit that when the annals of history are written, this
event will go down as a major milestone, marking a shift in human consciousness
and leaving an impact that will reshape future attitudes.
The event is Warren Buffet’s
breathtaking announcement that he would donate 85 per cent of his wealth to
charity, an amount worth about $37 billion – the largest charitable commitment
Let’s put this generosity
in historical context.
Throughout the ages accumulated
wealth was simply not given away to charity. Quite the contrary: It was always
used to gain and consolidate power and influence.
In days of old and not
so old huge sums of money – let alone the value of today’s 37 billion dollars,
more than the GNP of over half the countries of the world today – would be
used to build monarchies, wage wars, conquer lands and construct monuments
How money was used may
have something to do with the way it was accumulated, largely from non-commercial
sources: usually through war, pillaging, ransoms, slavery, taxation, blood-money and bride-money
– forces of dominance
Indeed, the history of
wealth is directly linked with the history of war and violence, and even the
history of religion. Finance lies at the heart of the rise and fall of the great
empires and their conquests and defeats – Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire,
the Viking assault on England, the Norman Conquest, the Crusades, the Hundred
Years War between England and France, the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru,
the aftermath in Britain of the Napoleonic Wars, the U.S. Civil War, and the
financing of the two World Wars. For example: The need to transfer
large sums of money to finance the Crusades (1095-1270) provided a stimulus
to the re-emergence of banking in Western Europe.
Warfare, with its appalling humanitarian consequences and vast economic costs,
has stimulated financial innovations from the spread of coinage to the creation
of the national debt. Conversely, economic weakness and the inability to properly
utilize financial resources have been causes of military defeats.
Obviously, when wealth
is gained through aggressive or criminal activity it will be used to perpetuate
corruption, and not serve as a force for good.
James Madison put it this
way: “History records that the money changers have used every form of abuse,
intrigue, deceit, and violent means possible to maintain their control over
governments by controlling money and its issuance.”
And when wealth is driven
by myopic, short term gain it inevitably wanes. Today it is controlled by
the prevailing dominant individual or group, and tomorrow by the next vanquisher.
It never lasts.
Where, for instance, is
the great wealth of the Roman Empire today? Who inherited the vast holdings
of the British Empire? And what about Mali, the Ottoman dynasty or the Incas
– each the wealthiest empire in its time; today barely remembered?
Every conqueror coming
to power – whether it was a monarch or the church – confiscated the treasures
of the conquered. Constantine adopted Christianity and following his conversion,
he confiscates the enormous treasures amassed over the centuries in the pagan
temples throughout the empire.
Indeed, the very root
of the word “money” (and “mint”) is derived from the ancient false Roman goddess
Moneta, “the goddess who warns,” named after the cackling geese (no joke)
of Juno that warned the Romans when the Gauls tried to take the Capitolium
in 390 BCE [quite consistent with the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak’s idiom: Gelt
(money in Yiddish) is the gematria of bloteh (mud)].
Some even make a case for a conspiracy amongst the global
aristocracy of wealth, arguing that the top Western industrialists
and institutions were behind the rise of Communism and Fascism
around the world. As W. Cleon Skousen writes in The Naked
Capitalist, his review of Dr. Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy
and Hope: “Power from any source tends to create an
appetite for additional power... It was almost inevitable
that the super-rich would one day aspire to control not
only their own wealth, but the wealth of the whole world.”
“As I see it,” Skousen writes, “the great
contribution which Dr. Carroll Quigley unintentionally made…was
to help the ordinary American people realize the utter contempt
which the network leaders have for ordinary people. Human
beings are treated en masse as helpless puppets on an international
chess board where giants of economic and political power
subject them to wars, revolution, civil strife, confiscation,
subversion, indoctrination, manipulation and outright deception
as it suits their fancy and their concocted schemes for
Whether you agree with
this argument or not, no one can doubt the history of wealth as a force of
control. Money was always synonymous with power, greed and all its corrupt
Now comes Mr. Buffett and with his unprecedented commitment turns the historical
use of wealth on its head.
As long as Bill Gates
was the only one to bequeath his fortune to charity the argument could be
made that his generosity was an anomaly. But now that the second wealthiest
man in the world has joined the wealthiest one in giving away most of his
fortune to charity, it is hard to dismiss and should cause us all to raise
more than our eyebrows. In contrast to the way wealth was always used for
personal gain, Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates initiative should capture our attention
to realize that something special is underway.
The accumulative amount
of both their charitable commitments is simply staggering. Let alone that
Mr. Buffet did not link his gift to perpetuating his name (as in a Buffet
University or Buffet Foundation)!
Andrew Carnegie fulfilled this ethos of generosity to its
fullest extreme. In his 1889 essay “Wealth”
(later named “Gospel of Wealth”) – which
reportedly had a strong influence on Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett
– presents a powerful argument that “the duty
of the man of wealth” is to serve as a “trustee”
for the larger community. The wealthy should not give their
wealth to their children but to administer it for the benefit
and common good of the public, and thereby create the “ideal
State, in which the surplus wealth of the few will become,
in the best sense, the property of the many”. Carnegie
believed, as he wrote in another article in 1908 that “wealth
is not chiefly the product of the individual…but largely
the joint product of the community.”
The American model in general, and Carnegie’s philosophy
and the present Buffett/Gates move in particular is a major
event not just in the history of philanthropy (no one has
ever bequeathed a larger charitable gift) but in the history
of mankind in general. It is nothing less than Messianic:
It is essentially a shift from being a taker to
becoming a giver.
The difference between these two models of wealth –
the historical model of greedy wealth to gain personal power
or the model that is now beginning to take hold (let’s
call it the post-Gates/Buffett era) of wealth as an opportunity
to give – is not merely a difference in approach;
it reflects a fundamental different attitude to life.
Are we human beings essentially
takers or givers? Is life about you, or about you serving a greater cause?
A few days ago I was speaking
with a community leader from a prominent city in New England, a man who has
accomplished much in his life of public service. As we were speaking a mutual
friend walked by, a businessman who has accumulated a fortune of approximately
90 million dollars. His sheepish look, and forced voice of interest reflected
his discomfort. I sensed an underlying resentment. You see people who are
takers are very uncomfortable with givers. It exposes their own self-centered
lives, and lack of courage to serve. They often enjoy being cynical and criticizing
public servants, so that they can be more comfortable in their own skin and
not be exposed
The secret to true happiness
is this: The more you give the happier you will be. The more you take the
unhappier you will be.
Guaranteed. Test it out
and let me know if I’m wrong.
The reason for this is
because we are inherently wired to be givers – like G-d in Whose Image we
are created – and not takers. Yes, we take in our early formative years, as
we are provided for by our parents. But that is only a training period, preparing
and shaping us to become true givers. Like a student who must first absorb
the wisdom of his teachers before he becomes a teacher himself (and even as
you become a teacher and giver yourself, you always remain student).
Happiness lays in the
domain of givers not takers.
We take because we are insecure. Hoarding, collecting,
gathering gives us a sense of security – a false sense,
but it still feels like you “own” something.
In truth we own nothing except our own choices. The great
philanthropist Moses Montefiore once told English Queen
Victoria: “The only wealth that I truly own is that
which I have given away to good causes. Everything else
– all my holdings – are simply under my control
for the moment, but they can be lost in the next moment
due to a bad decision, war, an accident or other cause which
I cannot control. However the good institutions that my
money has built are forever; they can never be taken or
As the train robber declares
before he jumps off the train with all the passengers belongings in his bag:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please remember, it’s always better to give than to
take”… Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 put it this way (in arguing that government
should not be dependent upon bankers for money): “The hand that gives is above
the hand that takes.”
It takes a lot more strength
and courage to give than to take.
However, in our insecure
world, most people have become (unnatural) takers, living in the illusion
that hoarding will bring security. We live in a world of “competition” – people
competing with each other for status, power and influence. And in this anxious
climate, coupled with the psychological insecurities that many of us have
assumed due to absentee (or worse) parents that did not cultivate our self-confidence,
we seek out panaceas that will give us a tangible sense of control. Money
is perhaps the strongest soothing drug of them all.
Not to suggest that money
is a curse. It is actually a great blessing, but only when you don’t use wealth
as a compensator for your own insecurity, and know that it is a blessing given
to you so that you can use it to give to others.
And now we have the major philanthropic stride taken by Mr. Buffett, underscoring
the one previously made by Mr. Gates.
[And it comes in an appropriate
week: The Korach episode in this week’s Torah portion teaches us about the
power of wealth – for good and for bad. Korach was undone by his wealth. And
we learn from his behavior about the risks of self-absorbed materialistic
abuse, and its subsequent effect of consuming the very perpetrators; yet,
at the same time, this is due to mans’ weakness, not the fault of the
wealth per se, which has the power to lift man to great heights, as discussed
at length in another article (see Money
In a world where most
people ask: “What more can I take?” there are the precious few who have taken
the road less traveled and ask: “What more can I give?”
Perhaps – hopefully –
this will begin a trend of giving, turning takers into givers, ushering in
a new era of economics: The Economics of Giving.
writes that the Messianic age does not necessitate miraculous or cataclysmic
external change. The primary change will be from within; a radical shift of
consciousness. Instead of seeing materialism as an end in itself, we will
see it as a means to “knowing G-d.” This consciousness will affect our economic
view. As Maimonides puts it: “Material delights will be found as dust,” which
also means that the abundance of material wealth will render it valueless
as dust and useless as an end unto itself. This in turn will naturally eliminate
envy and competition, hunger, poverty and strife. “The business of this entire
world will be to know G-d.”
we stand at the threshold of a new economic paradigm. The final frontier of
the history of money and wealth: To see the acquisition of wealth as a means
for giving and fuel for spiritual growth. Wealth, in short, will finally realize
its true value: soul energy, elevating and transforming all of existence.
The wealthiest men in the world today force us all to ask
the question about the nature of our own wealth and its
acquisition. And how it will be used: For temporary power,
to be stashed away gathering dust in some Swiss account,
eventually squandered, sometimes a generation or two later,
often destroying families in the process, or will the wealth
be used for eternal benefit, to build and improve the world.
The first reactions look
promising. Just today the media is reporting that Hong Kong action movie star
Jackie Chan is looking to bequeath half his fortune to charity, following
in the footsteps of Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates.
Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve,
once said: “The history of money is the history of
civilization or, more exactly, of some important civilizing
values. Its form at any particular period of history reflects
the degree of confidence, or the degree of trust, that market
participants have in the institutions that govern every
market system, whether centrally planned or free.”
I would add that money
is the history of civilization because it reflects the inherent conflict of
life: Will we be takers or givers?
This is the choice each
of us has: Are you more excited when you make money or when you give it away
to a good cause?