I found the comments of Peter Buffett, son of multi-billionaire Warren Buffett, in a New York Times op-ed piece from today to be worth contemplating. The article is The Charitable-Industrial Complex, and is reminiscent of the 1961 comments of President Eisenhower about things that might threaten our society. [You can watch Eisenhower give the speech.] Buffett raises concerns which one could take to question what happens to humanity when the oligarchs of wealth ensure that they maintain their positions of power over a democracy and the will of the people. In our country some believe it is the oligarchs of wealth who are responsible for whatever prosperity any others may experience. Even massive private charity (not government dole) becomes part of the way that the oligarchs of wealth dominate society and ensure a favorable political climate for themselves.
To be clear what Buffet is not calling for, he writes:
“I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.”
He is asking us all to think about what has emerged in the world in terms of wealth and charity.
“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”
He is not claiming to have the solution to the inequalities of wealth distribution, but asking us to rethink what we are doing and perhaps create something new.
“It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.
What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there.
There are people working hard at showing examples of other ways to live in a functioning society that truly creates greater prosperity for all (and I don’t mean more people getting to have more stuff).
Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”
The issue is how to “humanize” as Buffett says the entire culture. For me that means moving away from an extremist understanding of individualism and remembering that we people all share the same human nature, we live on the same planet with its limited resources. We need to live, work and play together. No billionaire is “self” made if we understand self as being totally individualistic. Everyone (at least to this point in history) no matter how wealthy they may be were born to parents and did not create themselves. And everyone benefits from the work of others, and even the needs and desires of others are the grist of prosperity in a consumer culture. The wealthiest still need engineers to design and test their products, laborers to manufacture them, miners to unearth the needed resources from the earth, and consumers to purchase the products. The earned wealth of any individual, no matter how well deserved, is the product of the work of many. Buffett’s call to humanism is one of how to understand the world’s resources, creativity and productivity as being the means to benefit humankind. Some may become wealthier in this process, but the thought that certain wealthiest individuals got their wealth on their own without the work of many and without the support of the masses and without benefiting others is inhuman. Genius is always standing on the shoulders of other giants.
Even when the wealthiest few share their wealth through charity, the effect as Peter Buffett describes it is like giving crumbs from the master’s table to the dogs, and entraps others in this system rather than empowering all to be fully human. His life work is philanthropy, and he is calling for a new vision, not socialism in a new form, but making humanism a key part of capitalism.
For Christians it is deciding to live according to the teachings of Christ that we love one another. That is to be first in our lives – not serving self, but serving others. Without that love for others, we cannot be Christian no matter how prosperous the nation may be.