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You Can Take It With You

In the late 1950s CBS produced a television show, titled the Millionaire, which ran for 206 episodes. Each episode began with a tour of a magnificent estate followed by a voiceover explaining the premise of the show.  It described the actions of a billionaire and his assistant, Michael Anthony, who each week gave a way a million dollars to a stranger and observed the events that followed.

My name is Michael Anthony, and until his death just a few years ago, I was the executive secretary to the late John Beresford Tipton, Jr. John Beresford Tipton, a fabulously wealthy and fascinating man, whose many hobbies included his habit of giving away one million dollars, tax free, each week — to persons he had never even met.

The fictional John Beresford Tipton was not a very good philanthropist. He used money to examine its effect on people's lives.  Tipton he was not a very edifying example insofar as he treated people like lab rats, even though he occasionally intervened to prevent injustice from befalling a beneficiary.

But not even the fictional John Beresford Tipton can do justice to the real thing. Rich Americans give away money on a colossal scale. Take Bill Gates. "Having already given away $28bn, Bill Gates intends to eradicate polio, with the same drive he brought to Microsoft," says the Telegraph. That's enough for enough money for 28,000 episodes of the Millionaire.

The question is why.

Pressed to explain why he gave away money in such staggering sums Gates explained that he had more money than he could consume.  He had to find other uses for money besides spending it on himself. "Once you get beyond a million dollars, it's still the same hamburger," he said.

The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College after doing a study on such motivations concluded that in many cases the rich gave away money for the same reason they got it in the first place. They wanted to do something meaningful to themselves and make their mark on the world. For some people the main use of money is to achieve a sense of accomplishment; not to disport themselves with starlets, buy expensive cars, a string of mansions or collect art.

They acquired money by way of pursuing a dream, as a byproduct.  But even in the world of philanthropy there are all kinds. A publication called The Philanthropy Round Table examined the case of two rather unusual examples -- even by the eccentric standards of American philanthropy.  Alan and Eric Barnhart of Tennessee and Leo Linbeck of Texas were looking to give it all away.

In 1986, Alan Barnhart was 25 and planning to go into business with his brother. An evangelical Christian, he wondered what Scripture had to say about the profits he hoped to make. So he combed the Bible for whatever advice it had to offer about money. That’s when he came across verses like this:

“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…”

“It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven…”

No matter where he turned, it seemed to him that Scripture was sending a very clear warning: Money can be dangerous. “I read all these verses, and I thought: ‘I want to be good in business, and I’m competitive,’” Barnhart says. “But I didn’t want to make a lot of money if doing so would damage my life. And I could see where it really could.”

So Alan and his brother Eric decided to do something unusual: They vowed to cap their income, earning no more than the middle-class members of their Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday school class did, and give much of their company’s profits to charity. In their first year of business, they gave away $50,000—more than Alan’s salary.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the results are even more tremendous: The Barnharts oversee a $250 million crane and rigging company, and they’ve donated nearly $100 million of its profits to charity. Moreover, in 2007 they decided to go even further. They gave the entire company away. Though they still run its daily operations, the National Christian Foundation (NCF) now owns Barnhart Crane & Rigging. The brothers will never reap its accrued value; they kept none of it.

Leo Linbeck III, who some of you may have heard of,  planned on giving back to his community, Greater Houston.

The Greater Houston Community Foundation owns about 12 percent of local businessman Leo Linbeck III’s construction, real estate, health care, and education firm, Aquinas Companies, which earns $500 million in annual revenues. The plan, Linbeck says, is to transfer more and more of the company to a supporting organization of the foundation. By the time he dies, if not before, he wants the foundation to own it all, though the Linbeck family will still steer the firm and run its day-to-day operations....

Linbeck, a devout Catholic, calls that a tithe. His idea of stewardship, he says, emerges from a Catholic worldview in which wealth and work should be dedicated to human relationships more than to personal consumption. Yet he is matter-of-fact about his generosity. “There are not that many branches in the decision tree,” he says. “When you’ve got enough to consume, and you’re satisfied, and you don’t want to consume anymore, you’ve got to do something with it.”

For most ordinary people, earning money to give it away might seem slightly crazy. A normal person can understand the charitable impulse, yet who but a fruitcake would give the whole works away? Part of the reason its so hard to understand is psychological. Most of us are daily short of a little something -- a vacation, a car to replace the beater; a decent pair of shoes, a new computer and so on.  Money seems so hard to come by that we can hardly imagine giving it away.

But if we were suddenly relieved of our immediate needs our perspective would change instantly. We might rush out and buy a new car, and a new widescreen TV at first. But after a couple of weeks shopping would get to be a drag.  Consumption beyond a certain point is curiously unsatisfying. We'd suddenly be faced with the problem of a dog that catches the car.

Blaise Pascal argued the biggest casino consisted of how you gambled your life. All the rest was penny ante. In his Pensees Pascal wrote:

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.  ... Since you must choose, let us see which ... "That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." ... and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.

When you think about it, the most valuable thing each of us possesses is his life: what we do, learn and achieve.  A friend pointed out to me that the Barnharts and Leo Linbeck were not so unique. Each of us bets the farm.  We can't help it. So perhaps the rational thing to do is to make that bet count, and quit worrying about looking crazy.  On a visit to my mother some months ago she mentioned in passing having provided some assistance -- a cup of sugar or some such -- to her neighbors. I had never met or noticed them, so I idly asked her who they were.

"Oh they're a couple in their 80s who've been taking care of their crippled son for the last 40 years.  He was paralyzed in an accident and they gave up their employment to take care of him."  We think billionaires are interesting? Well they certainly are, but no more interesting -- or less interesting -- than the rest of us.  Did the old couple resent their situation? Or did they rather consider that they had a great chance?

Perhaps the great difference between freedom and oligarchy lies actually in this. You can get rich under both systems. But you can only bet your life according to your lights under one of them.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific

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