A major historical event happened this week, and though it made headlines, its significance was not duly appreciated. I submit that when the annals of history are written, this event will go down as a major milestone, marking a shift in human consciousness and leaving an impact that will reshape future attitudes.
The event is Warren Buffet’s breathtaking announcement that he would donate 85 per cent of his wealth to charity, an amount worth about $37 billion – the largest charitable commitment in history.
Let’s put this generosity in historical context.
Throughout the ages accumulated wealth was simply not given away to charity. Quite the contrary: It was always used to gain and consolidate power and influence.
In days of old and not so old huge sums of money – let alone the value of today’s 37 billion dollars, more than the GNP of over half the countries of the world today – would be used to build monarchies, wage wars, conquer lands and construct monuments of glory.
How money was used may have something to do with the way it was accumulated, largely from non-commercial sources: usually through war, pillaging, ransoms, slavery, taxation, blood-money and bride-money – forces of dominance and control.
Indeed, the history of wealth is directly linked with the history of war and violence, and even the history of religion. Finance lies at the heart of the rise and fall of the great empires and their conquests and defeats – Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Viking assault on England, the Norman Conquest, the Crusades, the Hundred Years War between England and France, the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, the aftermath in Britain of the Napoleonic Wars, the U.S. Civil War, and the financing of the two World Wars. For example: The need to transfer large sums of money to finance the Crusades (1095-1270) provided a stimulus to the re-emergence of banking in Western Europe.
Warfare, with its appalling humanitarian consequences and vast economic costs, has stimulated financial innovations from the spread of coinage to the creation of the national debt. Conversely, economic weakness and the inability to properly utilize financial resources have been causes of military defeats.
Obviously, when wealth is gained through aggressive or criminal activity it will be used to perpetuate corruption, and not serve as a force for good.
James Madison put it this way: “History records that the money changers have used every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit, and violent means possible to maintain their control over governments by controlling money and its issuance.”
And when wealth is driven by myopic, short term gain it inevitably wanes. Today it is controlled by the prevailing dominant individual or group, and tomorrow by the next vanquisher. It never lasts.
Where, for instance, is the great wealth of the Roman Empire today? Who inherited the vast holdings of the British Empire? And what about Mali, the Ottoman dynasty or the Incas – each the wealthiest empire in its time; today barely remembered?
Every conqueror coming to power – whether it was a monarch or the church – confiscated the treasures of the conquered. Constantine adopted Christianity and following his conversion, he confiscates the enormous treasures amassed over the centuries in the pagan temples throughout the empire.
Indeed, the very root of the word “money” (and “mint”) is derived from the ancient false Roman goddess Moneta, “the goddess who warns,” named after the cackling geese (no joke) of Juno that warned the Romans when the Gauls tried to take the Capitolium in 390 BCE [quite consistent with the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak’s idiom: Gelt (money in Yiddish) is the gematria of bloteh (mud)].
Some even make a case for a conspiracy amongst the global aristocracy of wealth, arguing that the top Western industrialists and institutions were behind the rise of Communism and Fascism around the world. As W. Cleon Skousen writes in The Naked Capitalist, his review of Dr. Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope: “Power from any source tends to create an appetite for additional power... It was almost inevitable that the super-rich would one day aspire to control not only their own wealth, but the wealth of the whole world.” “As I see it,” Skousen writes, “the great contribution which Dr. Carroll Quigley unintentionally made…was to help the ordinary American people realize the utter contempt which the network leaders have for ordinary people. Human beings are treated en masse as helpless puppets on an international chess board where giants of economic and political power subject them to wars, revolution, civil strife, confiscation, subversion, indoctrination, manipulation and outright deception as it suits their fancy and their concocted schemes for world domination.”
Whether you agree with this argument or not, no one can doubt the history of wealth as a force of control. Money was always synonymous with power, greed and all its corrupt consequences.
Now comes Mr. Buffett and with his unprecedented commitment turns the historical use of wealth on its head.
As long as Bill Gates was the only one to bequeath his fortune to charity the argument could be made that his generosity was an anomaly. But now that the second wealthiest man in the world has joined the wealthiest one in giving away most of his fortune to charity, it is hard to dismiss and should cause us all to raise more than our eyebrows. In contrast to the way wealth was always used for personal gain, Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates initiative should capture our attention to realize that something special is underway.
The accumulative amount of both their charitable commitments is simply staggering. Let alone that Mr. Buffet did not link his gift to perpetuating his name (as in a Buffet University or Buffet Foundation)!
For the record, mention must be made about the climate which cultivated a Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates, and the philanthropic pioneers that preceded them, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. No country in history has been as charitable as the United States of America. Its distribution of trillions of dollars in humanitarian aid is unparalleled in history. Even according to the skeptical argument that US economic interests are served by developing markets abroad, still monarchies of old chose to conquer, plunder and subordinate weaker lands not spend exorbitant amounts in supporting their health and education.
The American model in general and the present Buffett/Gates move in particular is a major event not just in the history of philanthropy (no one has ever bequeathed a larger charitable gift) but in the history of mankind in general. It is nothing less than Messianic: It is essentially a shift from being a taker to becoming a giver.
The difference between these two models of wealth – the historical model of greedy wealth to gain personal power or the model that is now beginning to take hold (let’s call it the post-Gates/Buffett era) of wealth as an opportunity to give – is not merely a difference in approach; it reflects a fundamental different attitude to life.
Are we human beings essentially takers or givers? Is life about you, or about you serving a greater cause?
A few days ago I was speaking with a community leader from a prominent city in New England, a man who has accomplished much in his life of public service. As we were speaking a mutual friend walked by, a businessman who has accumulated a fortune of approximately 90 million dollars. His sheepish look, and forced voice of interest reflected his discomfort. I sensed an underlying resentment. You see people who are takers are very uncomfortable with givers. It exposes their own self-centered lives, and lack of courage to serve. They often enjoy being cynical and criticizing public servants, so that they can be more comfortable in their own skin and not be exposed
The secret to true happiness is this: The more you give the happier you will be. The more you take the unhappier you will be.
Guaranteed. Test it out and let me know if I’m wrong.
The reason for this is because we are inherently wired to be givers – like G-d in Whose Image we are created – and not takers. Yes, we take in our early formative years, as we are provided for by our parents. But that is only a training period, preparing and shaping us to become true givers. Like a student who must first absorb the wisdom of his teachers before he becomes a teacher himself (and even as you become a teacher and giver yourself, you always remain student).
Happiness lays in the domain of givers not takers.
We take because we are insecure. Hoarding, collecting, gathering gives us a sense of security – a false sense, but it still feels like you “own” something. In truth we own nothing except our own choices. The great philanthropist Moses Montefiore once told English Queen Victoria: “The only wealth that I truly own is that which I have given away to good causes. Everything else – all my holdings – are simply under my control for the moment, but they can be lost in the next moment due to a bad decision, war, an accident or other cause which I cannot control. However the good institutions that my money has built are forever; they can never be taken or lost.”
As the train robber declares before he jumps off the train with all the passengers belongings in his bag: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please remember, it’s always better to give than to take”… Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 put it this way (in arguing that government should not be dependent upon bankers for money): “The hand that gives is above the hand that takes.”
It takes a lot more strength and courage to give than to take.
However, in our insecure world, most people have become (unnatural) takers, living in the illusion that hoarding will bring security. We live in a world of “competition” – people competing with each other for status, power and influence. And in this anxious climate, coupled with the psychological insecurities that many of us have assumed due to absentee (or worse) parents that did not cultivate our self-confidence, we seek out panaceas that will give us a tangible sense of control. Money is perhaps the strongest soothing drug of them all.
Not to suggest that money is a curse. It is actually a great blessing, but only when you don’t use wealth as a compensator for your own insecurity, and know that it is a blessing given to you so that you can use it to give to others.
And now we have the major philanthropic stride taken by Mr. Buffett, underscoring the one previously made by Mr. Gates.
[And it comes in an appropriate week: The Korach episode in this week’s Torah portion teaches us about the power of wealth – for good and for bad. Korach was undone by his wealth. And we learn from his behavior about the risks of self-absorbed materialistic abuse, and its subsequent effect of consuming the very perpetrators; yet, at the same time, this is due to mans’ weakness, not the fault of the wealth per se, which has the power to lift man to great heights, as discussed at length in another article (see Money and Spirituality)].
In a world where most people ask: “What more can I take?” there are the precious few who have taken the road less traveled and ask: “What more can I give?”
Perhaps – hopefully – this will begin a trend of giving, turning takers into givers, ushering in a new era of economics: The Economics of Giving.
Maimonides writes that the Messianic age does not necessitate miraculous or cataclysmic external change. The primary change will be from within; a radical shift of consciousness. Instead of seeing materialism as an end in itself, we will see it as a means to “knowing G-d.” This consciousness will affect our economic view. As Maimonides puts it: “Material delights will be found as dust,” which also means that the abundance of material wealth will render it valueless as dust and useless as an end unto itself. This in turn will naturally eliminate envy and competition, hunger, poverty and strife. “The business of this entire world will be to know G-d.”
Today we stand at the threshold of a new economic paradigm. The final frontier of the history of money and wealth: To see the acquisition of wealth as a means for giving and fuel for spiritual growth. Wealth, in short, will finally realize its true value: soul energy, elevating and transforming all of existence. (see Money and Spirituality)
The wealthiest men in the world today force us all to ask the question about the nature of our own wealth and its acquisition. And how it will be used: For temporary power, to be stashed away gathering dust in some Swiss account, eventually squandered, sometimes a generation or two later, often destroying families in the process, or will the wealth be used for eternal benefit, to build and improve the world.
The first reactions look promising. Just today the media is reporting that Hong Kong action movie star Jackie Chan is looking to bequeath half his fortune to charity, following in the footsteps of Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates.
Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, once said: “The history of money is the history of civilization or, more exactly, of some important civilizing values. Its form at any particular period of history reflects the degree of confidence, or the degree of trust, that market participants have in the institutions that govern every market system, whether centrally planned or free.”
I would add that money is the history of civilization because it reflects the inherent conflict of life: Will we be takers or givers?
This is the choice each of us has: Are you more excited when you make money or when you give it away to a good cause?