David Brooks on Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge Letters!

Dear Commons Community,

David Brooks, in his New York Times column this morning, examines the Giving Pledge letters, which billionaires write when they join Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge campaign. They take the pledge, promising to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime, and then they write letters describing their giving philosophy.  He starts by reviewing several of the letters as follows:

 “I suppose I arrived at my charitable commitment largely through guilt,” writes George B. Kaiser, an oil and finance guy from Oklahoma, who is purported to be worth about $8 billion. “I recognized early on that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics … and upbringing.”

Kaiser decided he was “morally bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth.” But he understood the complexities: “Though almost all of us grew up believing in the concept of equal opportunity, most of us simultaneously carried the unspoken and inconsistent ‘dirty little secret’ that genetics drove much of accomplishment so that equality was not achievable.”

His reading of modern brain research, however, led to the conclusion that genetic endowments can be modified by education, if you can get to kids early. Kaiser has directed much of his giving to early childhood education.

Most of the letter writers started poor or middle class. They don’t believe in family dynasties and sometimes argue that they would ruin their kids’ lives if they left them a mountain of money. Schools and universities are the most common recipients of their generosity, followed by medical research and Jewish cultural institutions. A ridiculously disproportionate percentage of the Giving Pledge philanthropists are Jewish.

Older letter writers have often found very specific niches for their giving — fighting childhood obesity in Georgia. Younger givers, especially the tech billionaires, are vague and less thoughtful.

Brooks concludes by “fantasizing” what he would do if he had a billion dollars and describes establishing social collectives to help reweave the social fabric in neighborhoods and communities throughout the country.  Each collective would have 25 people who would meet once a week to share and discuss life, go on retreats, and celebrate life events.

The Giving Pledge includes letters from the likes of Michael Bloomberg, George Lucas, and Paul Allen.   Very interesting! And a very noble fantasy on Brooks’ part!



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