Misgivings On Giving

Wednesday night I attended a nice little event for Yes! Magazine supporters and enjoyed many great conversations. One conversation in particular, with Jule Meyer Principal of Parkman Foundation Services, revolved around philanthropy and the great Giving Pledge campaign started by Bill and Melinda Gates. Now, I should preface what I’m going to talk about with this statement: I think the world’s wealthiest donating most of their wealth to noble causes is a wonderful idea. I just have a few misgivings around the intention and the implicit idea that the giving is a sacrifice for others.

The Gates’ number one ally in getting the campaign rolling, Warren Buffett attempted to start the giving by pledging that “more than 99% of [his] wealth will go to philanthropy during [his] lifetime or at death.” At face value this appears to be quite the statement: more than 99% of his wealth given away! However, it seems to me that Buffett’s pledge might be more for show and is slightly disingenuously when labeled as philanthropy. Here’s why…

The Richest of the Rich

Perhaps it is difficult for the majority of us to actually realize how much money the top 1% of the world have in their bank accounts. A simply way to think of it: the richest 1% of Americans possess more than all the combined wealth of the bottom 90%. In Warren Buffett’s case, he’s currently valued at around $47 Billion – with a B. That’s more zeros than can fit in most calculators – $47,000,000,000. He recently fell from the #1 richest person in the world to the #3 spot, poor guy.

I wonder if there is even a concept of “enough” with this class of richest of the rich. These top 1% wield an amazing amount of influence and power with their vast sums of monetary wealth. Do they really deserve this power? Is it right for them to have so much while most of the world has hardly enough?

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The Earth Bleeds Out

If only the words “back from whence ye came” could really have magical powers and plug the mortal wound we have inflicted upon the Gulf of Mexico (and soon her bigger cousin, the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern Coastline). Whilst our human brains convince us over and over again that we are above nature, can outsmart her, or take over her services, she shows us again and again the error in our ways. From Katrina, to Taiwan, to Haiti and many more, Mother Nature is an unrelenting and all-powerful presence in our lives. This shouldn’t be seen as an unwelcomed presence – far too often we seem to run away from nature, when we are, in fact, of nature and in nature.

I have been avoiding writing about the Gulf Disaster because it seems pretty well covered: it’s everywhere, whether you read it, watch it, or listen to it. However, I couldn’t resist promoting this incredibly moving image tool: Ifitwasmyhome.com. What would the oil disaster look like if it was centered over your home? Check it out for me here in Seattle: (Thanks to nef’s Triple Crunch Blog for first showing me this site)

Gush Forth! Oh, Mighty Earth!

Imagine this were true: the largest populated area in the Pacific Northwest would be almost entirely covered in oil, even up over the Canadian border. They’re our allies, but I can’t imagine they’d be happy with that type of sharing. All of the Olympic Rainforest and National Park would be dripping wet with crude. Lake Chelan would be filled with black gold. As far south as Centralia and stretching over the many islands of the Puget Sound – all wiped out by BP’s greed for a fossil fuel. Good-bye Orcas! good-bye Salmon! Audios watersheds, fisheries, and my beautiful hometown.

They seem completely incapable of stopping the leak (some wonder if they won’t be able to do it or it might wait until Christmas). Personally, I think it is motivation to sell your car, ride your bike, and vote for a constitutional amendment outlawing corporate personhood (had this occurred prior to 1886, the government could have liquidated BP’s assets to cover everything and thrown everyone involved in jail).

All of this is the direct result of our lust for oil. We are destroying the largest fishery in the US (something like 70% of our shellfish and 30% of all our seafood comes from the Gulf), destroying priceless natural capital. For what? BP’s giant profits. This won’t finish them unless we take them to court, and even that is doubtful to have a large, positive result within a decade. At least the local economy will get a bump in GDP while everyone rushes down there to clean it up, right?

What do you think of the developments down there?

The Robin Hood Tax

Taking inspiration from economist James Tobin, the new UK campaign for a “Robin Hood Tax” is a great example of the type of social movement for economic reform we need across the world. A global Robin Hood tax is a crucial part of transition from a growth-based economy to one that is people-based. This type of financial policy can be instuted to actually help eliminate poverty and hunger, fight climate change, and put social equality into a system that rewards greed instead of good.

By taxing a minuscule amount of each financial transaction (we’re talking half a percent – 0.5%) you could raise up to $500 billion or more a year, reduce speculative investing (the kind that promoted the recent Great Recession), and put the banks in check (those guys we just bought out with taxpayer money that made $5 million bonuses).

Check out the video here:

Governance and Economy

The Wall Fell, But We Didn't Learn
The Wall Fell, But We Didn't Learn

The fall of the Berlin wall was a monumental event in history. Interestingly enough it acted as the end of a large-scale governance/economic experiment. Here we have two societies, each with similar backgrounds, but each with drastically different views of government and economics. On one side was placed a highly controlled society and on the other was placed a free market society. The prevalence of the capitalism in this instance was taken as proof of its superiority and also acted to secure it in our minds as they way for the future. However, there have not been any others to step up in competition – even if they would have been allowed socially.

So we are still locked in the same debate – capitalistic democracy or communism/socialism. Note how it is one or the other in this debate; no one seems to question that perhaps neither is the correct form for human prosperity. Given that the two extremes are both unsustainable, and the incredibly unlikely (and perhaps socially unwanted) possibility of a green, benign dictator coming to our rescue, we are ultimately left to our own devices to re-envision government So how do we make this change in the bureaucracies we have established and entrenched in unsustainable growth? How do we transition to a truly beneficial and socially just form of governance?

I would suggest we first ignore the initial pessimistic view (however likely it might seem to be) of a collapse of society in favor of an optimistic view of successfully transitioning without collapse. Why bother? Because the latter option gives us a challenge to work towards while the former option encourages laziness (and, in my case, would significantly increase my drinking habits in order to cope).

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One Trillion Dollars: A Tenth of the Bailout

I wanted to pass this video along, to give us all a little perspective on the historical amount of money our government is pumping into a failed system. We keep propping up reckless banks and corporations too large to exist, but do we ever take a second to think about how much money that really amounts to? That’s not today’s taxpayer money, either – that’s debt for our great-grandchildren to pay off, which is morally repugnant to say the least.

My thanks to Jeremy for showing me this video, as well as Phil and the people at Mint.

Financial Policy the Definition of Insanity

Abandon Ship!
Abandon Ship!

The old saying goes that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing again and again expecting different results.” There is talk now of more money needed to keep the big banks afloat. It has become apparent that Bank of America “needs” billions of dollars more (roughly $34 billion, with a B). If it didn’t work the first time, why should it now?

As we shake our heads in disbelief from that news, I should also mention the updated regarding the audacious bonuses that insurance giant AIG paid out after the government bailouts. Turns out AIG’s estimates of the bonuses paid were off by a littleby a factor of FOUR!!!

The total number is believe the be around $450 million in bonuses, given (for incredibly poor behavior) as “retention bonuses.” Seems to me their employees are not going to find jobs elsewhere, so a retention bonus is superfluous at best and deceptive at worst. That is nearly half a billion in taxpayer money given to greedy CEOs already worth more than the average American will make in their lifetime.

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Federal Reserve Transparency

The Fed is the Problem
The Fed is the Problem

The U.S. Federal Reserve is our nation’s bank, created at the beginning of the last century (big thanks to President Wilson) to centralize our banking system and stabilize our currency. It is quasi-public, having both private corporations and public agencies with controlling interest.

“The Fed,” as they call it on the street, controls our money, interest rates, “supervises” banking institutions, and has other means to inflict chaos into our economy. Despite being a blend of private and public the Fed keeps its business behind locked doors. It is hard for a government by the people, for the people to have a functioning banking system if they have no control or oversight of it. We should do something about it!

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Say No to Bonuses

AIG paid more than 20 times the average US yearly income to executives in bonuses.

We own a substantial amount of companies that were on the brink of going under not to long ago. Now they are trying to defend what they call “retaining” bonuses: extra money to keep on executives. These are not the average “good-job, here’s a grand” bonuses that most professionals might be accustom. These are more than $1,000,000 bonuses. That is 20 times the average yearly income in the US – in a yearly bonus! 52 people who received these payouts are no longer with the company.

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