Can Warren Buffett and Bill Gates save the world?
How the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's quest to get billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity, will impact philanthropy and the world's needy.
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While the next century did see the United States develop systems of public education and various forms of public assistance, as well as public safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare, its citizens have maintained a robust tradition of private giving, whether it be pocket change for bake sales or King Tut-size contributions to a new museum wing.Skip to next paragraph
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"I've interviewed Europeans and Americans on this, and Europeans will say philanthropy is an American thing, Americans write big checks," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor and philanthropy expert at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "So Europeans don't write the checks, they don't need that ego part, they say. They just vote in a way that encourages a system in which the poor aren't so poor."
Modern American philanthropy began to appear at the end of the 19th century, when new industries took root in a mostly agrarian nation. This gave rise to an unprecedented class of megawealthy industrialists. Andrew Carnegie, the simple bobbin factory worker who eventually built the most profitable enterprise in the world with U.S. Steel, wrote his famous essay, "The Gospel of Wealth," in 1889.
He assailed ostentatious living and the hoarding of fortunes by those with newfound riches, railing against the possible rise of a permanent aristocratic class through inheritance.
"By taxing estates heavily at death, the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life," he wrote. He was also one of the first to call for a progressive income tax on the wealthy. (For this reason, Buffett, Gates, and a host of others in the billionaire club have spoken out against repeal of the so-called "death tax.")
And yet, Carnegie insisted it is the wealthy themselves who are best equipped to distribute their wealth for the common good. Along with Rockefeller, he established one of the first large-scale bequests to support important civic causes. He established the Carnegie Foundation in 1905, devoting it early on to education.
The Rockefeller Foundation, however, began to define a new era in private philanthropy. Its accomplishments over the next few decades would literally change the world, not only with the breadth and depth of its scope, but its success. They funded countless projects that contributed to Nobel Prizes, revolutionized agriculture, and generated advances in public health.