WASHINGTON -- Every once in a while, I fall into an ultimately foolish, but nevertheless inspiring, reverie and dream about what I would do if I were a millionaire.
Now, I know -- you don't have to tell me, wise guy! -- that mere millions are out of fashion. It's much like having your mother a star in silent movies or listening to dad talk endlessly about retreating from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. Having millions is hardly something you brag about today; in fact, even having billions is hardly going to distinguish you in many quarters.
Yet, when I do dare to dream, I am razorlike in my focus. I would give $1 million to The Humane Society, another $1 million to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and another couple of million to other animal defense organizations. As you might note, yes, indeed, I do often prefer animals to people.
It is fascinating to register that many millionaires -- and their brother billionaires, of course -- have now pledged to give part of their fortunes to charity. Spearheaded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, neither one of them pikers, the Giving Pledge, by which one promises to give at least half one's money to charity, at last count had signed nearly 60 participants.
One recent and noted giver: Mark Zuckerberg, a founder of Facebook and a multibillionaire ($6.9 billion, at the moment), who had last September given $100 million to resuscitate the disastrously failing public school system in Newark, N.J.
Zuckerberg made a statement that in many ways characterized this new mood and the new principles behind his voluntary act of charity: "With a generation of younger folks who have thrived on the success of their companies, there is a big opportunity for many of us to give back earlier in our lifetime and see the impact of our philanthropic efforts. ... I certainly see the value of a project that encourages wealthy individuals to step forward and commit to use their wealth for the common good."
New principles? You might ask why. Charity in America is as old as the Founding Fathers, as stubborn and self-willed as Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, as creative in giving as the multifaceted charities of the Rockefeller family, and as healthy and expansive in its view as the Americans who developed the American National Park system and who dug the Erie and Panama canals.
There is nothing like our sense of charitable giving in the world. In fact, Buffett and Gates' original idea was to expand their effort to other countries, but it didn't "take" -- the other countries didn't have the cultural background to make such giving natural.
Those original American philanthropists were different, too. They created their wealth largely by producing the infrastructure of the new nation -- railroads, roads and bridges, oil wells, ports, the tough stuff -- and THEN they dressed up in stiff suits, well-shaved and hat on knee, and built libraries and institutes, schools and universities, and saw their names in the "lights" of an America beginning to light up the world.
Today's billionaires, on the other hand, are to be found largely in the advanced technology sector, which creates a different kind of capitalist than their long-ago predecessors -- more intellectual than the tough, self-made men of heavy industry. And these new billionaires are also very different from those who immediately preceded them -- the men and women of the '70s, '80s and into the '90s just wanted to pile up more and more wealth in an orgy of greed.
Those capitalists didn't seem to realize, or care a whit for that matter, that they would have nothing -- nada, nichevo, gar nichts -- except for this resource-rich and wonderfully creative country. To them, everything was due to THEM! And it is here that we find the greatest difference between the billionaires of the '70s and '80s -- all little Gordon Gekkos in their hearts -- and those of today, who would patriotically share their wealth with the nation that made it all possible.
Then we also arrive at the idea that our new "giving" billionaires may come to be at least a good part of our answer to our debt and deficit problems. These new wealthy have made no stipulation in their Giving Pledge as to how the money is spent, but it is generally believed it could fill in the abundant gaps in our country's educational, social welfare and so many other problems.
Is it not also possible that these new millionaires and billionaires, who can hardly be expected to be wallflowers, will develop a voice as to how and where the money is spent -- and thus, where America is going? Today, so much of our problem is sheer selfishness and meanness, but these people could hardly be accused of that.
Could they come to be the new voices of authority that we need so much in a country where public "stars" are often beneath contempt and where average, decent Americans are dying for inspiration and decency in leadership?
As I say, just in case anyone missed it the first time around, I am ready for my own outlay of money. But please don't tell the forgotten dogs and cats about it until I can truly promise them, as these new billionaires can, that their moment has arrived.