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Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!

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Among the hundreds of billionaires and megabillionaires in the U.S., there are more than several enlightened persons upset by the problems our society faces who could make serious improvements possible.

The next step is breaking down a roadblock of sorts. A prominent, very rich businessman summed it up when he said to me: “Ralph, we all know how to make a lot of money but we don’t have a clue as to what to do with it, including me.” It is not as if these super-wealthy are contemplating their navels. Many do give away lots of money but wonder if their giving is a stop-gap measure, while others refrain from donating unless they can be assured that their philanthropic investments are likely to deliver results.

It helps to make a distinction between charity and justice – both noble causes worthy of donations. Charity ministers to the immediate, often desperate needs of vulnerable populations. Charities support soup kitchens, clinics, renovate or build educational buildings, add services for the elderly, provide medicines for the poor here and in developing countries, help local school systems under budget restraints, and quickly respond to tragedies with disaster relief here and abroad. All of these causes are worthwhile (when these services and donations reach the appropriate recipients).

Justice directly confronts the challenge of preventing people from ending up in vulnerable situations. What causes over 15 million children in the U.S. to go to bed hungry each night? Why don’t we have universal public health care? Why aren’t public colleges and universities tuition-free like high schools in the U.S. and most western European countries? Why are our public works crumbling and creating unnecessary obstructions for disaster relief (reaching people stranded after hurricanes)?

Will charity ever begin to catch up with the consequences from corruption, self- preserving bureaucracies, man-made environmental damages, and governments indentured to avaricious special interests and concentrated corporate power? Not a chance.

It is advocacy promoting justice that seeks the prevention of the causes that lead to so much misery, institutional harm, poverty, and the loss of human life and potential. Repairing the wreckage of wars places huge demands on charity. Waging peace and negotiating arms control agreements places huge demands on justice.

Last fall, I proposed “Birth-Year Gifts to America,” which the very wealthy could jumpstart with other Americans around the country. So, for example, people in the birth-year of 1930 or 1935 or 1937 would organize to support and endow a self-renewing nonprofit, civic institution so as to improve the quality of life of future generations.

The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy created many organizations, including the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York (a major foundation dedicated to the advancement of science). His most memorable gift was funding the establishment of over 2,500 free libraries in as many communities throughout the country. He insisted, however, that the localities provide the land to give themselves a stake. Talk about a legacy!

In my proposal, I suggested twenty-five such enduring ideas, which could be gifted to our country, that cover a large range of needed improvements in our society. Birth-years for people seventy to ninety years in age have thousands of people of means who, whether they are religious or not, really do not believe that they can take it with them.

You can view the entire list, which may stimulate you own birth-year project nationally, regionally, or locally, that advocates for justice through systemic creations or improvements of institutions at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ralph-nader/how-birth-year-legacies-c_b_6446584.html or write to PO Box 19367, Washington, D.C. 20036 for a copy of the list.

Bringing together the billionaires who want to get things moving for a weekend roundtable could kickstart a new approach to meaningful and creative philanthropy. We would be pleased to host such a historic, serious deliberation to escalate informed wishes into actions.

Most progressives express disbelief that the very wealthy would ever support fundamental changes that would shift the power from the hands of the few to the hands of the many and create a much more equitable and prosperous society. We could have a culture that focuses on prevention of problems through justice and not just reacts to the disasters and inequality caused by such problems through charity. A cynical view ignores that having the backing of majority public opinion, coupled with the financial support of the wealthy, can produce positive results. (I strove to detail this potential in my book “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” – a work of realistic political fiction.)

Nearly a century ago, the brilliant philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead declared that: “A great society is a society in which its men of business think greatly of their functions.” Today, those heeding the vision of Senator Daniel Webster, who, before the Civil War, said: “Justice, Sir, is the great interest of man on Earth,” will surprise their peers by moving from success to significance. They can begin this transition by connecting with advocates who have decades-long experience in seeking justice under dire conditions, with some success.

There are examples of the wealthy contributing to longstanding progressive improvements in society. There were wealthy philanthropists who funded many activities focused on the abolition of slavery and obtaining universal suffrage for women. The Civil Rights Movement received substantial financial backing from a handful of very rich families. In addition, numerous environmental groups today are reaping the benefits of wealthy supporters.

Now, with more wealthy individuals and families than ever, the funding of both charity andjustice has become more feasible.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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