Flashbacks August 2006

Too Rich for Their Money

Articles from the early twentieth century to the present comment on the philanthropy of the superrich

Baker had more money than he knew what to do with, but while he was constantly implored to make donations to various causes, he tended to reserve his biggest gifts for already-wealthy institutions like Harvard Business School. Bullock did not at first understand the logic of this. But one morning when she was staying as a houseguest at Baker's summer estate, the difficulty of finding worthy and legitimate recipients was brought home to her.

When I went into his room the mail had just come. Such a pile of it.

"And not one real letter in the pile, probably all begging letters. I'll tell you what I'll do. If you will read them to me I'll do whatever you say about every one."

"Really and truly?"

"Cross my heart."

"All right. I have $300,000,000 and I'm going to grant every request."

"Very well. Go to it."

I remember the first one. It was from a young man who was studying to be a doctor. He had invented a machine that could be put on the back of a patient's neck where it would automatically register what ailed him and also what the cure should be. His uncle owned a piece of land on top of the Palisades and he wanted Mr. Baker to buy the land for $150,000 and build him a hospital there so that he could use this machine for the great benefit of mankind.

Regretfully I put this letter into the wastebasket. Even with three hundred million at my disposal I couldn't do that.

A great many of the letters were second or third attempts and merely threatening. "This is my third letter, and if this isn't answered in one week I shall shoot your son" or "kidnap your five-year-old granddaughter." Some of these appalled me but the old gentleman was unmoved and only beckoned them all toward the wastebasket.

I remember one from a young girl in Spokane. She said she was eighteen and her husband had recently died. He was eighty-four and his children had managed to keep all his property from her by saying that she wasn't really married to him, but she had the specifications for a patent the old man had once thought of taking out. Now her boy friend, who was a lawyer, said that if Mr. Baker would send him $50,000 at once he would start working on getting the patent.

By this time I was getting discouraged and I considered this briefly, but I couldn't quite make it, and this letter followed the others into the wastebasket.

I had saved till the last a letter whose sender was plainly a poor woman — cheap envelope, green ink — and I promised myself I would grant this request no matter how silly it was. The writer was the widow of a streetcar conductor in Chicago who was killed in an accident. The streetcar company was paying her a pension, comfortable enough, but she had five children and she wanted Mr. Baker to adopt them all and bring them up as his own. So my morning as a great philanthropist ended in a no score.

A more optimistic take came in 1959, with Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr.'s essay, "Our Ten Contributions to Civilization." He listed "Voluntary Giving" as number eight. While some commentators had quibbled over the relative merits of donations to private vs. public causes, or speculated about the self-interest possibly lurking behind such donations, Schlesinger reminded readers that they were fortunate to have to worry about "too much" philanthropy:

Foreigners have always criticized the American for his pursuit of the almighty dollar, but have seldom gone on to note that he has in unparalleled degree returned the fruits of his labors to society. If he has been hardheaded about making money, he has, so to speak, been softhearted about spending it. This constitutes the American version of the Old World concept of noblesse oblige carried to a point the Old World has never approached. Even long before Carnegie and Rockefeller amassed their colossal fortunes, men and women of modest means gave freely to schools, churches, foreign missions, colleges, hospitals, charities, and other projects for social betterment.

Not all Americans, however, are inclined to part with their fortunes. As a study cited in the October 2003 Primary Sources makes clear, generous billionaires like Buffett and Gates are in fact the exceptions rather than the rule.

Why tax the well-off? Because, two recent studies suggest, it's practically the only way to persuade them to spend money on anyone but themselves. Philanthropy isn't the answer: a survey from The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that Americans making $70,000 or more dispensed a paltry 3.3 percent of their earnings to charitable cuases; in contrast, those making $50,000 to $69,999 gave 5.6 percent, and those making $30,000 to $49,999 gave 8.9 percent.

But for those who do go in for charitable giving, some have been taking a more active role than in the past. In "Finance: The Unifying Theme" (July 1993) Brendan Murphy profiled George Soros, a man not content to sit back and simply write checks. Soros preferred instead to try to seize the helm of history—investing in Eastern European democracies and extra-governmental groups the world over, with a view to toppling communist regimes and instituting a new reign of openness, education, and democracy.

A man like Soros, of course, who began life with little and managed to amass a large fortune through his own efforts, could have simply decided to revel in the fruits of his labor. So the question was —why give it away?

To Soros, the answer was straightforward. In response to that question, he offered an anecdote—paraphrased by Murphy—about his time in hiding during World War II:

Holed up in a Budapest cellar at one point, he passed long hours with his father and brother playing games, a small cache of candies being the stakes. He and his brother saved up the sweets they won—but Tivadar Soros [George's father] ate his winnings. "The point is that you have to do something with the bonbons," Soros said. "You can't just play with them and you can't just eat them all."
—Ryder Kessler
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Ryder Kessler is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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