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Philanthropy

07/13/06 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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(HOST) Billionaire Warren Buffett recently announced that he'll contribute the bulk of his wealth to the Gates Foundation, and commentator Madeleine Kunin applauds his decision.

(KUNIN) The rich are getting richer, but a few of the rich are getting more generous.

The decision by Warren E. Buffett to donate thirty-one billion dollars to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is remarkable on several fronts.

First, he did not put his name on his own foundation. He saw what Bill Gates was doing well and was willing to become part of an existing successful foundation.

Second, Mr. Buffett decided to give most of his money away - eighty-five percent of his forty-four billion dollar fortune.

Buffett is unusual in another respect: he does not believe in handing down his fortune to his children, except to start their own foundations. He said, "I don't believe in dynastic wealth." Children who inherit wealth are "members of the lucky sperm club."

He is opposed to eliminating the Estate Tax because "it is offensive to the American tradition of meritocracy."

Known as a straight talker, he said he's upset with his country club friends who complain when welfare mothers get food stamps - but are "substituting a trust officer for a welfare officer" for their children.

The philanthropic actions of Gates and Buffett follow a tradition set by Andrew Carnegie when he wrote "The Gospel of Wealth" 117 years ago. He said that "the man who dies rich dies disgraced." He gave away more than 370 million dollars to charity, including the funding of many town libraries in Vermont.

Some observers believe that rich people give away their wealth to atone for their sins and assure their place in heaven. Not necessarily so. Buffett and Gates don't fit into that category. Rather, their generosity serves as a good example for other billionaires, including the Walton family, which owns ninety billion of Wal-Mart stock but gives a small portion of it away.

Unlike Buffett, most billionaires are busy lobbying for the repeal of the estate tax, and, unlike Buffett, the wealthiest Americans have reduced their charitable gifts significantly in the last ten years.

One could argue that in a democracy the poor, the hungry and the sick should not have to count on charity for survival. That's the government's job.

True. We must continue to work for a more equitable society, in which the poor are not left behind. But we cannot stand on the principle that this is solely government's job, as long as there is suffering in the world that can be alleviated - like malaria and HIV-AIDS.

We can be thankful that there are individuals who have accumulated great wealth and are passing it on - not to their heirs - but to the community from which they garnered their fortunes - and to the wider world.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.
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