July 20, 2006

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if rich people weren't all bad? Maybe it's just jealousy that makes us common folk tend to resent the rich, but whatever our motives, we tend to mistrust those that are more fortunate than we are as far as income is concerned.

Of course the snobbish behavior of some millionaires helps fuel the common man's contempt for the world of the rich and famous. History has played a role as well, as throughout time royalty bred contempt for the wealthy by living off the people. One can't blame the peasants of France for being a little miffed when the Chateau of Versailles, one of the world's largest homes was built as a royal palace, while the common people barely had enough to eat. Does anyone really need 700 rooms?

Most of us can't even imagine seven rooms - that's a lot of dusting. Then again, if we had the money, how many of us wouldn't splurge a little on our homes, our vehicles and other luxuries? What would you do with a million dollars? That's a question most people just dream about as they stand in line to buy a lottery ticket. How about a billion dollars? How about $40 billion dollars?

The shopping lists are rolling around our heads as we fantasize about all of that money. Of course, most of us cannot even truly understand how much money that really is, let alone spend it all, but we sure would enjoy trying.

I'm already on the airplane, fresh off of retiring at age 35, taking my kids to Disney Land en route to my wife's dream trip to Europe to see her years of art history study up close and personal.

I'm sure many of you aren't as selfish as I am. Charity probably topped several lists, or at least came into the picture after a shopping spree or two. Really, if you have that much money, how can you not give some of it away?

Maybe that fact dulls our emotions when we read or hear about rich people giving money to charity. I'm a baseball nut, and I guess it wasn't really charity, but I'll use it to make my point. Roger Clemens, a hall of fame pitcher set to make more than $20 million after returning to pitch for the Houston Astros this year, spent several weeks in the minor leagues tuning up for his return. On his stops, he splurged for his home team squads, shelling out the bucks for new furniture, big screen televisions and other luxuries for the clubhouses.

I thought that was a nice gesture by Clemens, but I was sort of surprised by the public outcry, with folks bemoaning Clemens for flaunting his money. Others simply shrugged it off, saying that he had more money than he knew what to do with.

But the underlying fact remains, Clemens didn't have to spend a penny on his one-time teammates. He was making one start for the club. He was there less than a week. Yet he was thoughtful enough to leave a gift behind for those young ballplayers.

I never really figured out what a gift horse is, but I do know the gist of the old saying is that one shouldn't begrudge the giver of the gift.

Okay, sure rich people probably have more money than they know what to do with. So they can afford to give away some of their wealth. But how many of us would build a plan to give away as much as 85-percent of our personal empire?

That is the plan recently reported for billionaire Warren Buffett. The 75-year-old New Yorker has revealed his blueprints for funding several foundations from his fortune derived from his Berkshire Hathaway Corporation. According to Fortune Magazine, Buffett is the world's second richest man.

Buffett will team up with fellow billionaire Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, funneling an estimated $1.5 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which focuses on funding educational opportunities world wide and also battling international health issues such as AIDS. The gift will be made via the sale of stock in the corporation that consists of such entities as Geico Insurance, the Pampered Chef and Dairy Queen.

Other donations will be made to foundations ran by Buffett's children as well as the foundation started in memory of his late wife, who died a few years ago from a stroke.

We won't be able to grasp the true value of Buffett's generosity for years to come, since the donation is based on stock sales that obviously will fluctuate from year to year. According to Fortune Magazine, using current values of the stock the gift would be about $37 billion.

Makes that $25 check I just mailed to the American Cancer Society look a little less generous.

Maybe all rich people aren't as bad as we make them out to be?

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