Thursday, July 13, 2006

Buffett at the Gates

The Warren Buffett gift to the Gates Foundation makes me very uneasy. As Simon Jenkins put it, in the Guardian: "When the world's second richest man gives most of his money to the world's richest man we do well to count our spoons."

What bothers me is the risk inherent in a system that allows private individuals to amass more wealth than the public treasuries of many countries. That wealth comes from somewhere: the work of the people who comprise the public. But the rich men are not accountable to that public in any way, not even the broken way in which corrupt, donor-bought and lobbyist-deafened politicians are accountable to gerrymandered and disenfranchised voters across America. We still have telephones and bodies. When we focus our calls and visits on a few legislators, things still happen. Women with sons and husbands recovering from the trauma of service in Iraq made it to see Rep. Dennis Hastert last week, and he developed a facial tic hearing their unfiltered stories.

For now, Bill and Melinda Gates choose to spend the wealth under their control on health care and education initiatives here and abroad. But if they decided tomorrow that such projects were not worth the effort, they could immediately and unilaterally withdraw all such funding.

Public treasuries have been gutted through the deregulation, tax reduction and war policies that have enabled the wealthy to accumulate so much wealth to begin with. Public service, as a viable career choice for talented, intelligent professionals, has been undermined as well, leading huge cohorts of competent administrators to head for private industry jobs.

Warren Buffett explicitly condemned the competence of the public treasury to prioritize, fund and deliver basic human services, implicitly suggesting that private foundations are better able to do so, and basing his position on the unstated assumption that private foundations have some inherent motivation for meeting basic human needs.

But they don't. It's in the interests of private foundations, funded by the wealth of the wealthy, to maintain basic human insecurity, so as to maintain a ready supply of disempowered workers and consumers.

So when the "philanthropists" give up on these huge problems, or dissipate the funding that no one in the public ever had a chance to oversee, there will be no public system left to step in.

Ted Rall summed it up well: "One can't help wonder whether L.A. libraries and Chicago schools might be less cash-strapped in the first place if so much of our society's wealth hadn't been monopolized by America's tiny, increasingly powerful oligarchy, rather than going to city taxpayers in the form of fair wages and affordable computers."


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