Saturday, June 18, 2011

Embarrassment of riches

As both IBM and the Carnegie Foundation turn 100 at about the same time, The Economist has launched this conversation starter:  "Has the multinational business or universal philanthropy done more for society?"   The story cites a recent Robert Barro WSJ op-ed wherein the economics professor corrected Bill Gates who, in explaining his new life in philanthropy, had seemingly not fully appreciated how much his business enterprise had improved the world.  Barro thought that more good might come from Gates not switching from entrepreneur to philanthropist.

The magazine piece wanders all over the place and ends this way:  "The achievements of IBM and the Carnegie Corporation are impossible to quantify mathematically. What seems clear, though, is that as it enters its second century, IBM can plausibly hope that its best years lie ahead. Alas, that seems most unlikely for Carnegie."

But a couple of points are missing.  First, fortunes must first be amassed before they can be given away.  While I would like less poverty in the world, I have no problem with inequality.  The possibility of great riches makes it possible to have the Carnegies as well as the Gates's.  Second, if anyone wants to make a difference in more than one way (as Bill Gates seemingly does), that's his choice and if the prospect animated him to have become the creative entrepreneur in the first place, then so much the bettter.

So it's a conversation starter, but there is simply good news.