There are almost 500 Americans today who have fortunes of more than one billion dollars. One estimate of their aggregate net worth, in January, put the total at $6.4 trillion. A lot of money.
There are many people -- and I am not one -- who would like to tax away all the billionaires' fortunes and drop each rich person off at a homeless shelter to find his or her way from there. Unfortunately, the federal debt is now $87 trillion if you count Medicare, Social security and other unfunded commitments. It's a fun fantasy, but bankrupting the billionaires would do almost nothing to bail us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.
I am not a billionaire myself, but I have met several wealthy people over the years. It is my impression that, once your net worth reaches a certain high point, your life changes. Here are some of the ways:
-- You are surrounded by people who suck up to you. They tell you that you are really smart, actually the smartest person ever. Nobody ever tells you "no." Nobody ever criticizes anything you say, even if it is patently ridiculous. Over time, you come to believe this blather.
-- You have to worry about your security. You, your spouse and your children are potential targets for kidnappers seeking huge ransoms. You and your relatives are irresistibly attractive to people who would like to marry you for your money. Just about everybody wants to be your friend, and you realize that this is mostly because these people hope some of your wealth will rub off on them. You become suspicious of the people you meet and their motives.
-- You lose all connection with people of lesser means. You never fly commercial. You never shop for groceries or worry about the size of your medical insurance deductible. You never have to save up money to meet a goal. You live in a gated estate, or possibly several of them, each with a property manager. If you buy a condo in a New York City building, there will be separate entrances -- one for you and the other rich people and another for the affordable-housing tenants.
The Giving Pledge
In 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates and another billionaire, Warren Buffet, started a special club for billionaires. It is called the Giving Pledge. They solicit promises from billionaires to give at least half their net worth to charities during their lifetimes or when they die.
The founders say they founded Giving Pledge to promote philanthropy. They have a website where you can find pictures of the Giving Pledge signers and letters they have written explaining their reasons for joining.
Last May, the Giving Pledgers held a convention in Seattle to discuss among themselves what to do to improve the world. I'm sure it was a fun to rub shoulders with other really nice rich people, but something about the whole business struck me as a bit creepy.
Here were a bunch of rich people -- with virtually no experience of poverty or bad schools or basic science or the arts -- discussing among themselves how best they could use their money to fix the world's problems. Hilarious if you can get past the pomposity of it.
Two personal qualities were much admired back in my formative years during the Paleolithic period. One was modesty, not holding yourself out as important. The other was humility, not taking yourself too seriously, and empathizing with others and their life situations.
You don't hear these terms much anymore, but I like them and I plan to examine them from time to time.
Back to the billionaires and their pledges. Here's my thought: If you die with a billion dollars and you give away only $500 million of it, you aren't doing nearly enough.