As a co-founder of LibraryEndowment.org, calling for the establishment of a national library endowment funded by the super-rich, I'm eager for the next Carnegies to come along even if I'm hardly a fan of his darker side.
Now, I'll add some major caveats in my enthusiasm for philanthropy from those most able to afford it. Despite the famous Giving Pledge, for example, the super-rich aren't giving nearly as much as they could, especially to causes for the non-elite. Billionaires often favor elite universities and other causes that directly benefit them and their children. Harvard's endowment of about $40 billion dwarfs the several billion or so total of public library endowments and equivalents. That's hardly the only issue here. Either voluntarily or if need be through laws, the largest philanthropic efforts should include a wider range of board members who aren't wealthy or from the philanthropic elite--for example, well-informed advocates for the poor.
Done right, especially when certain social-services budgets are tight, philanthropy can fill major gaps that will be inevitable even if the Democrats regain control of the Senate and White House. Government at all levels isn't as responsive as it could be, and competing demands abound. Too often, for example, the issue for local politicians is, "Librarians and books vs. police and firefighters." And thousands of school libraries have closed for lack of funds. No, billionaires couldn't and shouldn't pay for everything. But they can help-both through cash and by not lobbying for outlandish tax breaks at any level of government.
At least in money and material things, imagine how much richer we are than our ancestors, thanks to inventions ranging from the electric light and television to the automobile and the cellphone. We are healthier and live longer, too, partly due to drugs and medical technology that required many millions to develop. The creation and growth of wealth needn't be a zero-sum game. The benefits of inventions and research go far beyond the elite.
In a related vein, here's a question to ponder. Would we have been better off if, say, Thomas Edison had had to rely on some Central Economic Coordinating Committee? Even the Chinese government, the ultimate collection of control freaks, in recent years has let tech billionaires and others flourish as long as they pay due obeisance to The Party and the right corrupt people within it.
The Hive Mind and groupthink have their limits. I want geniuses such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to be free to develop their own space companies. Where would the United States be if we'd simply depended on NASA alone to advance the technology? Now we have competing vendors with visions of Mars settlement and other examples of long-term thinking. The grand plans may or may not succeed. But I'm glad the billionaires are persisting, given the desirability of finding possible new homes for the inhabitants of Planet Earth amid all the apocalyptic possibilities in the long term.
While never forgetting the need for tough regulations-whether in drug-price control, worker-safety protections, antitrust law or guaranteed political freedoms for future Mars settlers-we should be grateful that certain billionaires are around. I'm not saying to bow down to Bezos and Musk three times a day or exempt them from regulation. It isn't as if they are saints. They are simply doing what comes naturally, often with surprising benefits for society when they act on their better instincts.
Bezos, for example, rescued the ailing Washington Post, one of the major bulwarks against the aspiring dictator in the Oval Office. Remember, he bought the Post as an individual. The purchase didn't make full sense for the usual corporations in this area, with the possible exception of greedy hedge funds more eager to milk the Post dry than reinvigorate it. Bezos even has turned the Post into a profit center. I wish he were more enlightened toward the unions there and paid certain people better, but at least the Post has survived.
Alternatives to a billionaire ban
Instead of a billionaire ban with, say, a 100 percent tax on assets above that amount, let's bring on:
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