It’s an unusual move – exceptional, really. And the exception highlights an unhealthy reality of our wealth-obsessed capitalist system: It often takes more intention and effort to give away money than to passively amass billions.
Why is dumping a fortune so unusual, in a country that has hit 50 new billionaires in the past year alone?
Structural forces, to begin with. Our economy allows businesses to grow and accumulate capital with fewer and fewer restrictions, and reap enormous profits. The small number of people who own shares in these companies are seeing their wealth swell at near exponential rates, often faster than they know how to spend or give it away.
The liquidation of shares or equity also involves risks. Chouinard didn’t want to take Patagonia public because he knew the market generally doesn’t reward efforts to do the right thing. As he explained in his statement, “Even public companies with good intentions are under too much pressure to create short-term gains at the expense of long-term vitality and responsibility.”
In other words: capitalism holds neither employees nor noble missions in high esteem.
And of course having money is pleasant. It offers ease, access, the experience of luxury. But even the most indulgent billionaire would struggle to spend his fortune in a lifetime – or multiple lifetimes.
Yet these are, for the most part, side issues. The reason most ultra-rich don’t give away their wealth is because they just don’t want to.
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“The sad truth is that many very wealthy people are reluctant to give up their wealth, even when they claim they’re not,” Benjamin Soskis, philanthropy historian at the Urban Institute, told me. “Their identities are so tied to their status as ‘wealthy people’ that it adds weight, slows down the speed of their dispossession.”
Especially in the United States, which operates on a mythology of self-creation and individual achievement, money and status are intertwined on a deep level. We mistakenly equate wealth with value, assuming that the more you have, the smarter and more special you must be. While we theoretically celebrate generosity, every year we look at the Forbes Billionaires List (which, yes, includes Jeff Bezos, owner of The Post).
“It’s no coincidence that the Giving Pledge” – Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s much-lauded pledge to donate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes – “doesn’t have a stricter sense of opportunity “, Soskis said.
And even though those billions amassed essentially without anyone’s help, we tend to assume that the wealthy have some innate expertise as to how best to spend that money.
Chouinard and his family are unusual in their ability to ignore – or at least not be controlled by – this insistent message. (Apparently, being on the Forbes list was part of what prompted Chouinard to offload his fortune: It “really, really pissed me off,” he told The New York Times.)
But we should look for ways to make outliers the norm – to celebrate altruism and virtue as much as we do to defeat capitalism.
The first step might simply be to publicly celebrate those who go above and beyond, who engage in true philanthropy in their lifetime, rather than pushing it into the future.
“Hopefully,” Chouinard told The Times, “it will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich and a bunch of poor.”
For once, a billionaire is doing something that deserves our applause.