You point out that the rich who give aren't just a minority--they're actually different from the majority. They are more prominent figures, perhaps, with more of an image to look after, for example...
Well, more of an image issue or more of a spiritual issue. It varies from individual from individual. It's hard to generalize about what's going on here, because the rich who are generous are generous in different ways in different times for different reasons.
But you don't think that the fact that the Giving Pledge came up when it did was an accident.
I don't think it was an accident at all. I think it was defensively conceived. It was a time when because of the economic downturn, the economic crash, '08, '09, there were certain people who were quite concerned about what this was going to mean to the rich who could be blamed in significant measure for what had happened. I think that Gates and Buffett, who conceived the idea of the Giving Pledge, did it as a strategy for pulling some of the claws of the rising discontent and dislike of the rich, among Americans. It's interesting, because it hasn't really worked all that well. I mean, if you look at the number of the Forbes 400 who have signed on to the giving pledge (and they're the group that Gates and Buffett were targeting) it isn't all that many of them.
You also point out that this has happened before--that there was not necessarily an upsurge in giving but an upsurge in public giving, both in the Gilded Age and then again in the Great Depression. So this is something of a pattern?
I think there is a pattern there. When things get palpably unequal enough, there is a response in society, which is uncharacteristic, and we do begin to look harshly at the rich and even look at their generosity as something which is in many ways essentially defensive. That has happened before twice in recent history--in the 1890s and in the 1920s. The great question is whether it's happening now, and how far it will go now. I think it's fascinating--it means every day's news is intriguing to me, because it bears so directly on this issue.
That brings us to the fiscal cliff negotiations, which came up in my mind while reading what you wrote about tax breaks for philanthropy.
It's an interesting topic, because it is certainly a way of avoiding paying taxes that some of the rich--those rich who are generous--have had the benefit of. And if you look at what they give to, not only does a lot of their giving seem to be defensive, but they give to things that the public at large does not give to. The public at large when it gives away money tends to give it to relieve immediate problems--cases of want. They give to religious causes, too. The very rich give to elegant academic institutions and museums, symphony orchestras...things that it's nice to have but not things that the population at large cares enough about to give much money to them. So there's a question, I think, as to whether or not the tax deductions that they earn have much to do--again--with, in this case, political democracy. There's a lot of money involved here. As an alternative to this system you could tax those fortunes and the public could decide for itself what it wanted to do with the money. That would be a very different model, but it's not the one we've adopted so far.