“Charity”: Let them eat cake, not the crumbs off the table …

Business and media circles are agog at “the most significant development in philanthropy” for many decades.

Forty US based billionaires have pledged to give half of their wealth to “charity” while living or on their death.

The “Giving Pledge” was initiated by two men said to be the richest in the world, Bill Gates founder of Microsoft, whose wealth is estimated to be about $40 billion and Warren Buffet coming in at $37 billion.

The pledge makers have earned expressions of gushing gratitude for their “generosity”. The Irish Times is mightily impressed. An Editorial declared that the pledge “set alight” the world of philanthropy and then, appealing to “the many wealthy people in Ireland”, declares that, “the impoverishment of our society due to dwindling government funds makes their involvement in thoughtful philanthropy all the more important”.

It would be much more enlightening if some thoughtful journalism had replaced the paeans of praise. Hard questions should be asked on the nature of the global economic and political systems that puts such enormous resources in a few private hands.

In his “Philanthropic Pledge” letter, Warren Buffet explains how he got rich. “My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest… My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results”. He refers to the skewed values of that system: “I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious”.

The distribution of long straws, however, is determined not by fate, but by the workings of international capitalism which elevates corporations and individuals to positions of predominant economic power in society which many use to speculate and profiteer at will. In this way, fabulous wealth was accumulated by banks, hedge fund operators and various other speculators.

This system allows a massively disproportionate share of wealth to be narrowly concentrated. Why should this be so? As Warren Buffet himself poses it, why should speculation on the Stock Market and on the financial markets yield inordinate wealth in contrast to the performance of critical roles in society like that of the nurse, the teacher or those who keep the water and sewage systems working?

Worldwide wealth is created by the combined labour by hand and brain of hundreds of millions of human beings. The current economic and political systems allow a tiny minority to control the lion’s share of that wealth. That is why we have billionaires while most people struggle to make ends meet and hundreds of millions live in abject poverty.

The resources of the billionaire philanthropists were created by social effort in the first place and in a rational economic system those resources would be available as of right for the good of society and not dependent on the whim of private individuals. Schools and health clinics starved of adequate public funding, whether in the United States or in very poor countries, would not then depend on being accidentally favoured by private billionaires.

Other glaring contradictions stand out. Michael Dell, the billionaire Chief Executive of the Dell Corporation has his very own philanthropic foundation devoted to “children’s causes” and health issues in the US and India. The same gentleman, however, did not hesitate to throw 1,700 workers on the unemployment queues in the Limerick Region by shifting his manufacturing base to cheap labour countries in search of greater profits.

Some billionaires outsource their business to China. A company called Foxconn hires tens of thousands of young Chinese to produce many of the technological products for companies like Apple, Dell and other US and EU companies.

Foxconn has been in world headlines recently and not because of its philanthropy. Many young workers have committed suicide on its premises in recent months, pushed over the edge by the slave wages and its brutal working conditions akin to those of battery hens. Likewise, Bill Gates’ Microsoft has engaged Chinese companies severely criticized for bad treatment of workers. Incidentally, we should not forget our own crop of billionaires who swan prominently around charity events while living in tax exile!

Instead of relying on any billionaires to distribute the wealth created by the labour of millions of workers and the purchases of hundreds of millions of ordinary people in all continents, that wealth should be allocated democratically according to need. Moreover, by socializing the major means of producing such wealth, massive extra resources could be generated to meet all the needs of humanity for food, shelter and a decent life.

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August 2010