Income inequality, wealth disparity, the shrinking middle class, the burgeoning billionaire class and the rise of the .01 percenters — it’s all so unfair, right?
Wouldn’t we all be better off if we soaked it to the rich and super-rich, expanded the middle class and created secure, well-paying jobs for all?
Speaking as a somewhat broke journalist (there is no other kind), I like the secure, well-paying jobs part, but I’m not so sure about the rest.
Let’s ask the question in a different way: Are billionaires bad for America?
The answer may seem counterintuitive, but evidence suggests that our homegrown billionaires are not only good for our country, but are also absolutely essential to economic growth, prosperity and good public policy.
Let’s consider John D. MacArthur, who made a billion dollars or so in the insurance business. Upon his death in 1978, he bequeathed $1 billion to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Thanks to prudent investment policies, the foundation’s assets are now around $6.3 billion, and the organization gives out about $220 million annually. What do they do with the money?
According the foundation’s website, “The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions and influential networks building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. MacArthur is placing a few big bets that truly significant progress is possible on some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including over-incarceration, global climate change, nuclear risk and significantly increasing capital for the social sector. In addition to the MacArthur Fellows Program, the foundation continues its historic commitments to the role of journalism in a responsible and responsive democracy; the strength and vitality of our headquarters city, Chicago; and generating new knowledge about critical issues.”
Of the 35 largest foundations in the world, 18 were created and funded by American billionaires. Consider the Gates, Ford and Rockefeller foundations, whose combined assets are close to $60 billion. Consider our own relatively tiny El Pomar Foundation, which has given away $1.1 billion since 1937. With assets of $546 million, El Pomar isn’t a big player nationally, but it has been an amazing difference-maker locally. And no, El Pomar benefactor Spencer Penrose wasn’t technically a billionaire, but his tens of millions in the 1930s are equivalent to a billion or so today.
As a local author pointed out in a recent book, there are good titans of industry and not-so-good ones. The good ones fund colleges, hospitals, art museums and libraries, build cities and create entire industries, while the not-so-good ones make a lot of dough — and either lose it or line the pockets of generations of trust-funders.
Colorado Springs has a single more-or-less resident billionaire: Phil Anschutz. His net worth is estimated at $10 billion, which doesn’t include the $1 billion-plus endowment of the Anschutz Foundation.
The foundation, like its founder, doesn’t seek publicity — it doesn’t even have a website. It gave out more than $50 million in 2014, with grants ranging from $250 to $1 million. Its largest grant recipient appears to be the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado, to which the foundation and Anschutz personally have given $100 million.
And by the way, don’t confuse the Anschutz Foundation with the Anschutz Family Foundation, which his non-billionaire parents endowed in 1982 with a $4.5 million gift. Thanks to continuing support from the family and investment gains, the foundation’s assets now stand at $54 million.
Do the super-rich create wealth or just figure out how to grab more than their share? Are they like the fat kid at Thanksgiving who eats six pieces of pumpkin pie or the kid who grew up stealing bikes and swiping lunch money?
Sure, there are a few malefactors. There are bold swindlers like Bernie Madoff, corporate scammers like Enron founder Ken Lay, and shady characters who conspire with crooked officials to advance their interests (think Russian oligarchs).
We don’t get much of that. At worst, today’s billionaires are uncharitable jerks, but most model their behavior after Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg. Absent centi-millionaires and billionaires, many nonprofits would be scrambling to stay afloat.
Wesleyan University (my alma mater) launched an ambitious fundraising drive in 2008, just as the great recession took hold. The goal: $400 million in eight years. They raised $478 million, including many $1 million-plus gifts. They say 80 percent of alumni contributed, including two Colorado elected officials and one journalist. Partnership works — just ask Wesleyan grads Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper.
Note to Wesleyan: The journalist’s check is in the mail.