Three cheers to both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. In the past month, both have announced decisions that can only be good for the world as a whole, and especially the poor. On the 15th of June, Microsoft announced a two-year transition period that would eventually see Bill Gates move out of his present day-to-day involvement in Microsoft into spending more time with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Less than two weeks later, the second richest man in the world (after Bill Gates) decided to donate around US$30 billion to the Gates Foundation – which already has around that amount in assets.
Both men deserve great credit for not passing down most of their money to their children but instead giving it back to society. In an interview with Fortune Magazine, Buffett said:
Certainly neither Susie nor I ever thought we should pass huge amounts of money along to our children. Our kids are great. But I would argue that when your kids have all the advantages anyway, in terms of how they grow up and the opportunities they have for education, including what they learn at home – I would say it’s neither right nor rational to be flooding them with money. In effect, they’ve had a gigantic headstart in a society that aspires to be a meritocracy. Dynastic mega-wealth would further tilt the playing field that we ought to be trying instead to level.
Jacob Weisberg wrote this of him in a Slate article:
At the moral level, Buffett does not believe anyone has the right to be as rich as he is. He described wealth on the scale he has accumulated as a “claim checks on the activities of others in the future”—claim checks that he has long ago recognized would have to be returned to society rather than passed on to his descendants.
On why he didn’t start another foundation in his name, Buffett responded in the Fortune Magazine interview:
The short answer is that I came to realize that there was a terrific foundation that was already scaled-up – that wouldn’t have to go through the real grind of getting to a megasize like the Buffett Foundation would – and that could productively use my money now.
I think this shows truly what a great man he is. That’s humility – something lacking frequently in famous people. So many foundations are named after the philanthropist. Worse still, how many Christian ministries are named after the minister?
What’s most remarkable for me, however, is Buffett’s recognition that his riches boils down ultimately to luck. Jacob Weisberg wrote:
As he made the rounds Monday, he consistently emphasized the role of chance in getting rich. “A member of the lucky sperm club” as he described himself to Charlie Rose, he happened to born in the right country, to the right parents, at precisely the right moment, to absurdly reward his special talent at asset allocation. Few successful businessmen truly believe they owe their rewards to luck, even if they pay lip service to their good fortune.
I wrote elsewhere about how I feel arbitrary factors (or luck) play an important role in the spiritual decisions of many people. I think a lot of achievements or lack of achievements we see today can ultimately be attributed to luck. Buffett understood that and that’s why he felt he didn’t deserve to keep his money for himself. Both he and Bill Gates were fortunate enough to be members of the lucky sperm club.
That some are born into this club and some aren’t – that some are lucky and some aren’t – seems to be unfair. No doubt this world is unfair in many ways. That’s not to mean that we despair. No, we ought to seek to do our best. If we do well and succeed, we ought to never forget those who didn’t. If we don’t do well, we should try to persevere to the end. Ultimately, I believe all things will be corrected in future. I trust God to dispense justice justly.