Lay was bad, but Gates and Buffett are worse
Ken Lay was a rotten potato, but he was a relatively small rotten potato, compared to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Lay allegedly bilked Enron employees and customers out of $43.5 million, but Gates and Buffett are worth $50 BILLION and $44 BILLION respectively. How did they "earn" all that money?
Buffett and Gates may not have broken any laws (although the Clinton-era Justice Department believed Gates had cheated millions of Americans by violating anti-trust laws), but their billions may be just as ethically wrong as Lay's misbegotten millions. As columnist Ted Rall says, "Sorry, but 'working hard' doesn't cut it. I don't care if you stay late at the office every night, work weekends and holidays, or you never go on vacation. It doesn't matter how smart, imaginative or lucky you are. It just isn't possible to earn $44 billion in a single lifetime. Not honestly, anyway."
Gates and Buffett have created a lot of pain and misery on their way to "earning" their combined $94 billion. Gates scammed his billions overcharging his customers and underpaying his employees. Buffett profited by investing in corporations that downsized, exploited, and impoverished their workers.
And now we're supposed to be impressed that Buffett has given $37 billion - about 85 percent of his net worth - to Bill Gates' foundation. Why? Let's take a look at where some of the Gates Foundation money has gone recently:
$100,000 for the museum at Pearl Harbor
$241,500 "to provide sustainable public access computer hardware and software upgrades" to libraries in Los Angeles
$21 million "to provide curriculum and support for teachers as a part of a transformation that aims to prepare...Chicago public school students for success in post-secondary education."
"Good causes all," Rall says, "but maintaining Pearl Harbor is one of the reasons we pay federal taxes. Why does a national war memorial need help from Gates? One can't help wondering 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."
The average member of the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans has seen his or her income rise 3.5 times - from $800 million (adjusted to 2006 dollars) to $2.8 billion - in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, real income for more than half the population hasn't increased at all.
To his credit, Buffett acknowledges this disparity. "What has gone on in this country in recent years is a huge benefit to the very rich and not much relief to those below," he told Fortune magazine in 2005. But his philanthropy, however generous, won't slow our slide into Third Worlddom, and it won't help the people he exploited while accumulating all that wealth. And, as Rall points out, such philanthropy is more than a little disingenuous:
"Consider a burglar who boosts your TV and then, thinking better of it, donates it to an orphanage. His act of generosity beats the alternative - keeping it for himself. But you'd probably prefer that he'd returned it to you, or better yet, never stolen it at all."