Thursday, August 5, 2010

How much do we really need?

Posted by lea at 5:00 PM
The media is buzzing with the news that over 40 US billionaires have pledged to give away half their fortunes to charity in their lifetime. I'm stoked - good on them!

Here's the goss:

Dozens of U.S. billionaires pledged on Wednesday to give at least half their fortunes to charity as part of a philanthropic campaign by two of the world's richest men -- Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Based on Forbes magazine's estimates of the billionaires' wealth, at least $150 billion could be given away. Among the rich joining The Giving Pledge campaign are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, media moguls Barry Diller and Ted Turner, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, "Star Wars" movie maker George Lucas and energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

The campaign asks U.S. billionaires to give away at least half their wealth during their lifetime or after their death, and to publicly state their intention with a letter explaining their decision.

"I've long stated that I enjoy making money, and I enjoy giving it away," energy tycoon Pickens, who is worth about $1 billion, said in his Giving Pledge letter. "I'm not a big fan of inherited wealth. It generally does more harm than good."

Source: Reuters 

I'm thrilled to hear about this, because giving is something I've been thinking about a lot lately- not on the billionaire level, but on the average person's level. How much do we really need before need turns to want turns to excess?

It's easy to say, 'Oh they're billionaires - they can afford to give away that much'. But like the story of the widow and the two mites*, it's all relative. They can afford to give away BILLIONS of dollars and we can't, but surely we can still afford to give away tens of dollars... maybe hundreds even, and you're in a very good position if you can afford to give away thousands.

It's great too to hear that it's happening in the secular field of business, because for too long, charity has been the domain of churches and religion. Say what you will, but religious people are givers. A review from Stanford University showed that the average religious person is 25% more likely to give financially and 23% more likely to volunteer their time than a demographically identical nonreligious person - and this includes giving to nonreligious causes (source: Hoover Institution Publications).

Much of this can be attributed to exposure and opportunity: churches regularly focus on needs and causes from around the world and give opportunities to the congregation to give towards them. It can also be attributed to the widespread religious belief that it is our duty to help our fellow man, which is based in the root of most religions: love. This is what caused Mother Teresa to go into the slums of Calcutta, and what an example she is.

Not everyone can be a Mother Teresa, and not everyone will be motivated by love. I'd find it hard to believe that most of these billionaires are giving their money out of love. I'd believe that many of them are giving out of compassion and generosity, but in most likelihood, I imagine most will do it just because they can. And frankly, that's not a bad motivation.

How much do we really need, apart from shelter and clothing and some luxuries that give us enjoyment? How much before our wealth becomes a burden and not a joy? I don't advocate giving out of guilt - if you work hard for your money, you should be able to spend it however you want. BUT it's worth remembering, before we buy the latest model of the gadget we already have, that a single dollar can feed a hungry person in another part of the world, and that a few dollars more can prevent a child from being sold to a pedophile.

Okay, enough preaching. If you don't know enough charities to give to, try TEAR's gift-a-month, which allows you to give to a different charity every month. Great idea.

* Mark 12:41-44 in the Bible - a wealthy man and a poor widow give money, and the wealthy man is pleased with himself because he gave so much more than the widow, however in God's eyes, what the widow gave was worth far more because she gave from her lack, while he gave only a tiny portion of his wealth. This is Einstein's theory of relativity at work.


Caesar on August 6, 2010 at 12:30 PM said...

Count me unconvinced. The basis of this post is that there's a whole bunch of people who got rich through the liberal application of capitalist ideals. The religious model however, is a socialist approach asking the average schmuck to give, and give early. The millionnaires maximised the value of their assets by using it to generate future wealth, whereas the socialists encourage it to be spent today, foregoing future gains to meet today's needs.

Another way of looking at it would be that this cash tsunami in one short span of time, outweighs all charitable giving by religious institutions over a much longer period.

The parable of the Widow's Mite should be combined with the parable of the Talents - those who have the ability to invest and generate wealth should do so with a high degree of autonomy (i.e. without moral persecution for their "greedy" capitalist ways), and those who don't should give to those who are better able to use it.

Or something.

lea on August 7, 2010 at 11:07 PM said...

@Caesar: Not at all. The basis of the post is that it's good to give - however you've gained your wealth and however much you have of it.

And by no means does the religious model encourage spending/giving today at the expense of future gains. Case in point is Pastor Brian Houston's book 'You Need More Money', which basically says the more wisely you invest and generate wealth, the more difference you can make in the world. It's actually an approach that's seen the church cop a lot of criticism, as if religion and wealth don't go together, but the church's view of wealth has changed a lot in recent times. The point is not the gaining of wealth as much as it is the giving of it (ie. what you do with it).

And this can totally be linked to the parable of the talents, b/c that's about being a good steward of what we're given. Taken in the Biblical context, it's not just for the sake of generating wealth, but again, what it's actually for. You're not a good steward just for making a lot of money if all you do is spend it on crack cocaine. There's always a purpose behind these parables, and the Bible is always about 'love your neighbour' 'be generous and give the cloak off your back' and 'help the widows and the orphans' - it's always about others.

Caesar on August 10, 2010 at 2:49 PM said...

Sure, I agree with that. It comes across very differently in your original post though.

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