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Ali: Is Wealth Deserved?

11/30/11 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(Host) Commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali has been reflecting on how the Occupy Wall Street Movement can connect us to the holiday spirit of philanthropy.

(Ali) If there is any core lesson from the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that gross inequality cannot be ignored indefinitely. Yet there appears to be an inexorable tendency in America to believe that wealth is somehow deserved by those who have it and hence inequality is an outcome of merit. As the holiday season of giving and receiving gets under way, let’s reconsider the matter with candor.

Let’s be frank. Often for the hyper-wealthy giving up millions - which may seem a huge sum to us - is cognitively inconsequential to their lives. I recall meeting CNN founder and philanthropist Ted Turner at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona three years ago, and he admitted that setting up the United Nations Foundation with a gift of a billion dollars was fairly painless for him. Nevertheless, Turner deserves praise for creating a transparent and professional organization which evaluates philanthropic priorities based on an unusual public-private partnership arrangement.

There are other notable exceptions to the pervasive culture of painless and parsimonious giving. Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as Warren Buffett, have been particularly generous. To urge other hyperwealthy to give more of their wealth for philanthropy, Gates and Buffett initiated the "Giving Pledge." This initiative seeks commitments from billionaires to donate at least 50% of their wealth to philanthropy. However, so far out of the 461 billionaires in America only 69 have signed up. Some argue that they would rather give their wealth anonymously. For example, last year I had an opportunity to have breakfast with Walmart heiress Christy Walton, who has not signed on to the Giving Pledge but donates generously to many causes without much fanfare.

However, a Center for Philanthropy panel study revealed that in fact the poorest segment gives a greater percentage of their earnings to charity than the richest segment. Another study by Google and Indiana University notes that of the $250 billion in annual donations, less than $78 billion explicitly targeted poverty-related causes.

Even entrepreneurs who make their wealth through innovation acknowledge some level of financial stability is likely to have played a role in their success (for example, Bill Gates' father was a successful Seattle lawyer, and Mark Zuckerberg had an elite education because his father was a dentist). Narratives of rags to riches, such as those of Oprah Winfrey, are but marginal exceptions. The element of luck and a non-meritocratic confluence of circumstances usually play an essential role in meteoric success. Hence, those who are so blessed have an undeniable obligation to those for whom fortune may not be so aligned.
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