‘Wealth concentration’ is one of the hottest issues in Western economics. Today, the mean household income of America’s ‘one percent’ is over 75 times that of the bottom 40th percentile. That the supremely rich garner both attention and resentment from us lowly subservients is no new development, but never before have the numbers been so damning: 20% of Americans today own 89% of the country’s wealth.
Do the wealthy tend to use their power, influence and money for good, or does man inherently need rules like taxes and salary caps to prevent that power from corrupting society? Whatever you may have argued in PoliSci 101, it seems, empirically, that money has a powerful and potentially corrupting persuasion. Even the most charitable billionaires needlessly splurge on expensive real estate, vehicles, or jet flights par-convenience, and an affluent economy expects no less. But in the last few years there has been one interesting development in the opposite direction: some celebs are voluntarily signing up to give away their fortune.
The Giving Pledge campaign founded by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates invites the uber rich and powerful to pay out at least half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. It’s not legally binding, but it is a moral and very public promise that billions of your dollars will find needier hands when you die, at the very latest. Since 2010, it’s become fashionable enough to get 122 signees as of last year — nearly one tenth of the world’s billionaires.
Unfortunately, the pledge suggests nothing about the kinds of donations and the impact they will have, not to mention loopholes that let you donate to your own family-controlled foundations. This kind of ambiguity led late hardball hedge fund titan Robert W. Wilson to call it no more than a PR scheme. But even if it is just the latest yacht club in sheep’s clothing, at least it lets us put some faces to the action and suggests some accountability for wealth inequality. Take a look at 10 prominent billionaires who’ve made the high-profile pledge to share more than half of their billions.
10. Paul Allen
Allen relinquished his post with Microsoft in 1983 after being diagnosed with Hogkin’s disease. One month after the Giving Pledge launched in 2010, the mogul signed up to depart with over half of his estimated $16.2 billion fortune. Known for his lavish spending which includes one of the world’s largest private yachts (named Octopus), the Seattle Seahawks football team, and Captain Kirk’s chair on the Starship Enterprise, Allen has publicly vowed to leave the majority of his estate to philanthropic causes with an emphasis on non-profit scientific research. He’ll probably keep Kirk’s chair…
9. Michael Bloomberg
The business magnate took a salary of $1 a year while he served as Mayor of New York City (that’s rich peoples’ way of reminding themselves – and us – how rich they are). Standing behind Michael Bloomberg’s commitment to the Giving Pledge is about $34 billion and millions in donations to education and nonprofits. He’s made his belief in giving it all away very publicly known, summed up with the excellent quote “the best financial planning ends with bouncing the check to the undertaker.” His two daughters probably find his generosity sobering.
8. Warren Buffett
Despite a net worth of around $58.5 billion, Warren Buffett lives in the same Omaha home he bought in 1958 for $31,500. He’s drawn the same base salary of $100,000 for the past 25 years from his multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, and he’s reputed to malign new technology and luxury cars. Buffett’s life of careful frugality underscores the very business philosophy that gives him the means to blow his frugality by a factor of billions. He has pledged to donate 99% of his wealth by the time his will is read, 83% of which will go directly to the Gates Foundation. It’s only fitting, as he spearheaded the Pledge.
7. Pierre Omidyar
The eBay founder has some enlightening things to say about becoming, in his words, “ridiculous rich” very quickly. As he describes it, his sudden ability to buy “not only one expensive car” but “all of them” caused him to bypass the temptations of material splurging. This partly explains his founding of the Omidyar Network in 2004 — what some call venture philanthropy — which has committed over $357 million and counting to other charitable initiatives. Omidyar didn’t hesitate to sign the Giving Pledge in 2010, which came nearly a decade after his own personally stated commitment to give away the vast majority of his wealth.
6. George Lucas
Once upon a time, Disney paid the creator of Star Wars over $4 billion for his company Lucas Films. But the film tycoon had already made a pledge to give most of it away to improve education. George Lucas’ signing to the Giving Pledge details an initiative to transform education from “an assembly line” to fostering experiences in arts and expression. Given his $175-180 million in donations to expand the film school at his alma mater alone, we reckon he’s pretty serious about this.
5. David Rockefeller
David Rockefeller’s endorsement of the Giving Pledge nearly goes without saying. Heading a five-generation lineage of immense wealth and charity, The New York Times estimated his total personal philanthropic donations at over $900 million in 2006. There’s $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art, $100 million to Harvard University, $100 million to Rockefeller University — the list goes on. At 99 years old David Rockefeller may be the first billionaire on the list to fulfill his pledge, and with a $2.8 billion estate, that would be a philanthropic landmark.
4. Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg turned 30 this year, but he’ll always remain the youngest billionaire nerd in our hearts. The only thing Zuckerberg did more quickly than make $33.1 billion was find his philanthropic spirit: as an early signer of the Giving Pledge, he’s since donated 18 million Facebook shares ($500 million) to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and $100 million to Startup:Education to improve Newark schools. But he’s still got a long way to go. What will half his fortune be worth in fifty years?
3. Ted Turner
While he’s amassed billions through founding media outlets like CNN and TBS, Ted Turner once joked his donations have left him at “the edge of poverty”. Unfortunately for his children, he also (jokingly?) plans to retain just enough wealth to cover his funeral when he dies. Making the Giving Pledge would surely help with that. Today he’s valued around $2.2 billion, but the real fruits of his fortune stand apart from his business dealings. Turner’s $1 billion donation to the United Nations literally created the UN’s public charity foundation, for which he now serves as Chairman.
2. Richard Branson
The founder of Virgin Group took the Pledge just last year with a promise to help innovation and entrepreneurism. Branson’s net worth of about $5 billion makes him the sixth richest UK citizen according to Forbes. But he’s known less for his lump sum philanthropy than for his general activism, round-the-world record attempts and two private Caribbean islands. So, a promise to shed at least half his fortune seems like uncharted territory for the adventurous tycoon.
1. Bill Gates
Just as Zuckerberg will always be that young billionaire who gave us the technology to get super-social, to many of us Gates will always be ‘the richest man in the world’. He officially held the title from 1995-2009, and in case you’re wondering he’s only the second wealthiest as of this September. But does it really matter at this point? Bill Gates is said to be worth somewhere around $81 billion today, and since founding the wealthiest charity in the world (whatever that means), the mechanics of Gates owning his wealth and giving it away are confusing at best. What we can say for certain is Bill and Melinda Gates co-founded the Giving Pledge and have publicly promised to donate 95% of their fortune. We can only hope it’ll go to the right places.