Just when I wonder what to talk about today . . .

the New York Times hands over the following plum: a story about the parallels between the millionaires of the Gilded Age and today’s gazillionaire philanthropists.  There’s so much in this story that everyone in our field should read every word of its four pages, including the fact that income distributions are more skewed now than at any time since before enactment of the income tax (except for one brief period just before the stock market crash that precipitated the Depression, which probably should give us some historical-parallelistic pause); but here are two particularly tasty morsels:

  • Andrew Carnegie’s view, shared today by Bill Gates, that he owed money back to society for his good luck—"not in higher wages for his workers, but in philanthropic distribution of his wealth."  Funny how people hysterically opposed to corporate philanthropy on the grounds that shareholders shouldn’t be deprived of a penny of value through gifts of "their" money are perfectly pleased to deprive employees for the same purpose.
  • Sanford Weill’s observation that  “I want to give away my money rather than have somebody take it away,” as though his personal preference were an appropriate basis for tax policy in a nation where he and his few comrades (and their families)–the top one-one-hundredth percent of the population–already control 5 percent of the national income.

Philanthropy is great and we’re grateful for that of Gates and Weill and the others; but if they imagine that it’s actually better to have them do voluntarily a portion of what the government used to tax them to do they don’t understand that social justice can’t be created by individuals–by definition, it has to be the product of our whole society. 

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