As loyal readers know, the theme of most of my newsletters results from an article or news story, and this edition is no exception. I read an article recently on CNBC.com about Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, announcing that his company will donate $690,000 to wildfire relief efforts in Australia. While this story isn’t particularly noteworthy, what struck me was all the criticism Bezos has received due to the size of this donation relative to his extraordinary overall net worth. Is the value or significance of charitable giving dependent upon the overall wealth of the giver? Was Bezos decision to give, actually an indication of stinginess, since he could have given so much more? Why does any of this matter?
Wealth creation, one of the primary goals within a free-market capitalist system, is under attack. We hear daily that the wealthy are responsible for many of our country’s ills, and that if they would only pay their “fair share” every problem would be solved. Those that have wealth, or are in the process of creating it, are on the defensive. They may not quite be embarrassed by their financial success, but they would prefer nobody know about it either. In some respects, remaining humble despite amassing wealth has its virtue. But feeling guilty about it, can have far-reaching negative impact on the next generation as well as our country’s future. Moreover, it is a complicated issue, with multiple viewpoints and ramifications. Let me explain.
By vilifying billionaires like Jeff Bezos, we are essentially saying that they should not be role models for the next generation. Instead of admiring their intellect, creativity, work ethic, and willingness to take risks, they are being demonized because of their wealth. Moreover, there is a political faction demanding they turn over more and more of their accumulated wealth to the government, for whatever use it sees fit. To some, it is unjust for billionaires to even exist. But for every billionaire, like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there are millions of successful people who were inspired by what these two icons and many others like them have accomplished. Success, in any realm and to any degree, if it is achieved honorably and ethically, should never be a source of embarrassment and ridicule. But there is more to this…
God loves a cheerful giver… Individuals should give generously and freely to others in need. That is a key principle supporting every healthy community as well as our country, and it happens every day. United States citizens give more to charity than the rest of the world combined. Private charity usually comes from the heart, not from a sense of guilt or political purpose. However, this dynamic changes when wealth creators are under attack. Their giving becomes more political and less heartfelt. Gone is the motivation to do more and the inspiration to others to do more as well.
And still more… Virtue and honor cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Becoming a billionaire, or striving to become one, can be done virtuously and honorably. Moreover, true, lasting character is only forged through struggle and the pursuit of extraordinary accomplishment. In this sense, invaluable life lessons, can be learned while striving for financial success, even if success isn’t realized. In short, it isn’t outcome dependent. There need be no apology for any achievement done honorably and with integrity. At the same time, effort and attitude, are much more character defining than the final score.
One last point… From a different perspective, it is a fair question to ask – Are billionaires like Jeff Bezos, the right kind of role model for our country? It may be unfair, but people with his level of notoriety are role models whether they want to be or not. Extraordinary talent and achievement comes with a greater level of responsibility. Throughout our nation’s history, many extraordinary individuals have embraced this role while others have shunned it. In either case, it doesn’t change the fact that they remain impactful. The decision is whether the impact will be positive or negative.
It would be a step in the right direction if we measured every person, rich or poor, not for just what they did, but for the motivation behind their actions. Does our conduct serve the greater good or are our actions self-serving? Often a difficult and complicated question, but one that should be asked often, and not answered without serious reflection.
Michael Kayes, CFA