Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Ultimate Gift

Welcome to summer in the city, it’s hot, its rained 4000 inches in June. I’ve always thought of the the 4th of July weekend as the official start to summer. I can imagine you’re loadin’ the kids in the car to head down the shore or out the island…..enjoy the beaches, if you can, some of them have been closed because of the complications of all the rain, does anybody notice that the weather seems to be just slightly more severe….But I digress…..

Ah, yes friends….lets imagine that you have a close friend, a great guy, really successful, a hard worker, a workaholic really, great family, just not that aware of what goes on in this world, because he’s got a narrow focus… its his business….ande its real easy to be unaware. We’re all so very involved in our lives, and our families, we can be isolated, and insulated from what goes on around us.

So you’ve got this friend, and you’re connected, and it has nothing to do with business, nothing to do with your mutual success. You share what’s really important in life, maybe you share a passion for bridge, your families vacation together. You’re good friends.

So one day you’re talking , and you share some information that’s important to you. You’ve traveled, and you’ve seen things. You’ve been to Africa, you’ve been to Asia. You start talking about what you’ve seen there, and you share a report that you’ve read on world poverty, released by the World Bank….and that moment, changes your friend’s life in a profound way.

Now imagine that your friend is one of the wealthiest men in the world. He’s Bill Gates and along with his wife Melinda, he goes on to create the largest philanthropic foundation in history. He and his wife dedicate billions of dollars to finding cures for the world’s diseases and improving the lives of people all over the world.

And imagine that you’re Warren Buffett, and you’ve just made an historic $31 billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The largest philanthoric act in history. One financial transaction that sets the bar higher than any of us had ever imagined.

There are much larger questions here. This $31 billion dollar humanitarian transfer calls into question the very system that made these men so wealthy to begin with. It acknowledges that our free enterprise system is flawed. It’s flawed because so many people here and all over the world are left behind.

Warren Buffett is the most successful investor in the history of Wall Street, but obviously he’s much more than that. He’s a simple man. Brilliant but simple. He knows how to buy companies that are undervalued. That’s how he made has money. Many of us have been disciples. And he knows how to cut expenses He runs Berkshire Hathaway, on a staff of 20. He and his wife still live is the house in Omaha, Nebraska that they bought for $31,500 in 1959.

He enjoys playing bridge with his friend Bill, and has invited him numerous times to his simple home. They enjoy vacations together with their wives.

What we now know about Warren Buffett is that this is not an extraordinary example of generosity. This is something that he realized needed to be done.

It just as important that we look at this as an act of great humility. Because Instead of creating a foundation in his name, he lets his friends, Bill and Melinda Gates run the show. That’s his gift to us, his example in many ways.

So lets look at some related financial news…

Warren Buffett doesn’t believe in inherited wealth. He calls heirs to the America corporate fortunes, the “lucky sperm club”. He gets it. These people have done nothing to justify inheriting billions. It was an accident of birth.

Now we see the battle over the estate tax heat up. This is a big one. As we speak, wealthy business owners, their controlling families and politicians are behind the scenes fighting to keep what they believe is theirs. They are wrong. The Walton family, owners of 40% of WalMart, with a net worth that approaches $100 billion dollars among them. A family who pays their employees $8.50 an hour, a family that doesn’t provide health benefits to its people. We provide those benefits. Our tax dollars support their healthcare… and they have the nerve to refuse to give back. The Waltons are one of 18 such families that represent injustice on this issue . Warren Buffet has embarassed them.

In the news, the extension of tax laws that favor the rich. The IRS in an act of incredible insensitivity, illegally freezes the tax refunds of 1.6 million of our poorest Americans. And now, with these sordid pictures as backdrop comes this wonderful story.

Bill Gates is a lucky man…and his most valuable asset is not Microsoft, its his wife Melinda and their 3 kids. She has been the driving force behind the foundation. Among her goals, an Aids vaccine, finding a cure for a world epidemic that is now decimating Africa, and Asia. The foundation has become active in micro-lending, the granting of small loans to poor people all over the world so that they can start businesses. Some of these loans, as little as $50, can buy a sewing machine or a loon, or a set of tools that can be the start. Melinda has helped Bill to realize what he owed to the world that gave him so much opportunity. That when it comes down to it, he is a steward, a guardian, a tenant here on earth, not an owner. That’s hard to get when you’re Bill Gates. That would be it. The one lesson we could all learn from this that would solve most of our problems. Be grateful, and show it.

Don’t underestimate how big this is for us. This is potentially a turning point in our history. Put simply this is the story, of two friends who happen to be powerful corporate icons, who remarkably recognize how wrong we have gone, and just may have the resources to change things. Or at least set the tone, set the bar. With Melinda Gate’s guidance they will wage the battle to find an Aids vaccine, an epidemic worldwide, they’ll wage a battle against malaria worldwide. Here, they create model schools in an effort to reform a failing American education system.

Now, we’ve got some momentum….recently released An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s landmark documentary that shows us, irrefutably, that we must change our ways. A wakeup call.

Now we have another one. Today, there is much to be encouraged about….


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