Thursday, April 18, 2019

In defence of billionaires

Never let it be said that there was a bandwagon that I didn't jump on and undoubtedly the wagon of this week was the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral. 

If you've ever been close to a fire whether its a building, a car or even just a large bonfire you'll know how visceral an experience it is - You'll remember the heat, the colour, the sound, the smell.

So watching the non stop coverage of one of the most iconic landmarks in the world burning was arresting. Many of us have been there, could see the place we stood to take photos, could remember the epic scale of the interior and those happy memories were now being burned, twisted and destroyed.


So then what happened. 

People who felt motivated to act by the event started doing things.

Sharing photos on social media

Changing their profile pics

Tweeting at reporters

Telling stories about the first time they climbed the stairs,
How they proposed on the plaza outside 
That Notre Dame was a symbol of all that they loved about Paris - France - Europe. 

and then some people started to donate money to support the rebuilding of the cathedral. 

Lovely, awesome, cool


Several billionaires, their families and foundations pledged (pledged not donated) tens of millions of Euro to the rebuilding cause. 

Did they do this because:
They are committed catholics for whom the cathedral was a centre part of their faith?
They wanted the publicity for themselves or their company?
They were overcome with emotion because a treasured part of cultural history was destroyed?
They want to ensure the institutional church keeps all its assets intact and not have to spend it on rebuilding projects?
They love architecture?
They care about Paris?
They wanted to?

We don't know.

and really it doesn't matter. It is their money and they chose to give it to this cause. 

But something else struck me.

The backlash against these people who promised incredibly large amounts of money to the rebuilding project. 

They were attacked.

Here's a small sample of some tweets about them.


Ah, but, what if -stay with me here- people in need were not at the mercy of the whims of the charitable? Because billionaires knew about homelessness and all the problems in the world, but until now they chose to sit on their money instead.
It’s not just french billionaires, it’s billionaires around the world that have pledged over £600 million when there are people who haven’t had clean water for a number years in a supposedly first world country
I know that the Notre Dame is a very important landmark but the fact that billionaires have pledged over 600 million dollars in under 24 hours to help fix it just really puts into perspective how easily rich people could help solve world issues if they cared

To narrative has become -
"Billionaires don't care about the poor, the sick, the starving, the environment etc but when a famous building goes on fire they give money."

Is this true?
Well firstly - it's simply a ridiculous statement.
We can't say that billionaires as a group care or don't care about anything because they are all individuals and like the rest of us some will care about a cause and others won't.

So to say that billionaires don't care about xx cause is ridiculous.

Is it true that they all sit on their money year after year and then it's only because of some magical control that Notre Dame cathedral had over their bank accounts that has led them to dust off their cheque books and pledge huge amounts?

Again we can't talk about all billionaires but in the US in 2017 according to Forbes -
In total, members of America’s Top 50 Givers donated $12.6 billion in 2017 -- up from $12.2 billion in 2016. Collectively, the group's lifetime giving exceeds $158 billion
So that's just 50 individuals and their families but a chunk of those were billionaires and its 2017 so they weren't donating to Notre Dame fire restoration. You can look for yourself and see what they donated to and you'll find that they give to: Universities, development projects, educational programmes for disadvantaged youths, animal charities, political causes, human rights organisations, small local organisations and global movements.
We can question any individual donation on its merits but we can't say that billionaires as a group only care about famous old churches.

Some care about lots of things and give and some probably don't - but its harder to find evidence of billionaires that don't care about any causes.

So what about the mega rich French who have made the big headline grabbing donations to the cathedral? Maybe they are not like their US counterparts, have no interest in philanthropy and have just been counting their cash until this week.
Well according to the media the 4 biggest pledges have come from:
Bernard Arnault
Fran├žois-Henri Pinault
Bettencourt Meyers family
Total Group
Are these all evil fiends who care not a jot for those less well off then themselves and only want more money, more fame and more power?
Well again - who knows. 

My super quick online research however shows that:
The Bettencourt Meyers family fund a foundation which cares about creating environments and approaches that are conducive to overcoming learning difficulties and making good use of talent, and successfully integrate people while promoting an inclusive society.

The Total Group foundation has a focus on four areas in all the places they have businesses which are Road Safety - Forests and Climate - Youth Inclusion and cultural dialogue and heritage 

Bernard Arnault is the head of the LVMH group who run the LVMH Foundation that focuses on promoting and sharing culture, renovating and enriching historical heritage, and supporting contemporary creation according to themselves.

Fran├žois-Henri Pinault founded the Kerings Foundation with focuses on protecting women from violence across the world.

How much do these individuals contribute to their main foundation? I don't know. 
Do they give to other causes outside of their foundations? I don't know
Do they only have foundations to save themselves from paying taxes? I don't know

The truth is we don't know what motivates and individual to give to one cause and not another. We can't make assumptions that because an individual gives to a cause we care about that they are a better person than somebody who gives to somebody else's cause.

and most importantly because this is what we teach our children.

We are not mean and cruel to people who are different to us or may not agree with us. That's called bullying.

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