I suppose I should be thrilled that 40 of the richest people in the United States have agreed to give away half their money before they die. Actually, it kind of makes me sick.
The concept is called the Giving Pledge, and Bill Gates and Warren Buffet started it. The two have been on the phones this summer, dialing up other really, really rich people and asking them to sign on. I've got nothing against Gates and Buffet (well, Gates has always been into world domination, so that's a problem, but Buffet seems a decent sort for a billionaire). In fact, Buffet has promised to give away 99 percent of his $47 billion, which would leave him and his heirs with just a paltry $470 million.
Even that much money fits into New York Mayor (and billionaire) Michael Bloomberg's entirely accurate statement: "The reality of great wealth is that you can't spend it and you can't take it with you."
That's the thing: You can't spend that much money, and you can't take it with you, and the United States used to be the kind of country that disdained inherited monarchy. Bloomberg says he wants his kids to have to work for a living, which is nice, although even after he gives away half his wealth, none of them are likely to miss any meals or have trouble paying the rent. His children, and their children, and their children, will all be able to afford to go to good schools and colleges, even if the public education system in America completely collapses for lack of adequate funding.
The irony is that, for the most part, these exceptionally rich people who feel so good about giving their money to charities of their choosing (which then honor them with awards and testimonials and dinners) oppose the notion of raising taxes on high incomes.
The problem with charity is that it won't ever really reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in this country. The only way you do that is with aggressive, effective government action: by taxing the great wealth when it comes in (as income) and when it goes out (as estates) — and then, through a democratic process involving elected representatives, deciding where the money should go.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is wonderful, I guess, but it won't provide mental health care for homeless people in San Francisco. That's a government job. It also won't ensure that every kid in America gets quality preschool, good teachers, schools that aren't falling apart, and access to a college education. That's what we pay taxes for.
But wait a minute. There's never enough money for these things, because we keep cutting taxes on the rich. Instead, these guys can give money to their own pet projects — and pay no taxes at all. It's charity! It's a tax write-off!
I wanna throw up.