Does Boris Johnson's munificence know no bounds? He says we can have bread!

Bow down to your squires and say hello to Victorian philanthropy 2.0

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So London Mayor Boris Johnson – whose declared 2012 earnings of £1.3m put him firmly in the country’s richest one per cent - has placed himself in the corner of the average earner. And he’s chosen to do so in his column for the Telegraph. You know, the one for which he dismissed his £250k pay packet as ‘chicken feed’.

The offending article appeared in yesterday’s Telegraph and espoused that: “there is no point in wasting any more moral or mental energy in being jealous of the very rich”. As is his style, he made his stake to being a Man Of The People with slippery logic, gussied up in characteristically whimsical style. “I wonder – as the rest of us have wondered down the ages – whether you can really expect to be any happier for having so much dosh.” He explains he’s talking about the "very, very rich" - the double emphasis presumably making a distinction with himself as merely "very rich"?

His argument would remain in the realm of laughable, had he left it there. But he quickly crosses over into something more sinister: “we should be offering them [the ‘very, very rich’] humble and hearty thanks”. Because, he says, these are the people who are “always the first target of the charity fund-raisers” and “who put bread on the tables of families”. Bread! Lucky us! Now bow down to your squires - and say hello to Victorian philanthropy 2.0.

Waving the wand of free-market utopianism over wealth distribution, Johnson is trying to conjure up the idea that if we rollback the state, individual altruism will rise up to fill the gaps – and we’ll all be freer to boot.  From early talk of ‘Big Society’, it’s an ideologically ingrained idea. Except, of course, it has been shown over and again to be based on unsound logic.

Before we all start grovelling at the feet of the super-rich (‘More bread! More bread!’), and put them completely in charge of wealth redistribution instead of democratically elected representatives, it makes sense to cast our eyes across the Atlantic - as well as back to Dickens’ London. Johnson said just last month this is where we should seek inspiration for a future model of philanthropy. The US is very proud of the amount that its citizens - encouraged by tax breaks - give to charity: 88 per cent of households make charitable donations, with annual average donations per household of $2,213.

In comparison, in the UK, we feel the onus more lies with the state to distribute wealth collectively, through taxation. Examining where donations go in the US, we get a sense of why the UK system might make more sense. The top two recipients of donations are churches and educational institutes - not social programs or housing trusts.

On the most recently published list of big donations, the recipients are almost unanimously elite institutions: The Metropolitan Museum of Art got a $1bn, while Ivy League universities get many, many multi-million donations from alumni. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, pledged America’s third largest donation of this year of $350m to his alma mater John Hopkins University, which has named its School of Public Health after him. What’s more, statistics show that the poor in the US proportionally give far more of what they can afford than do the rich. As such, the American system of philanthropy propagates what is inarguably one of the most pressing issues facing both the US and UK: economic inequality.

In looking States-wards, Johnson gushed over Bloomberg, calling him “one of the great philanthropists of our age”.  But perhaps the London mayor should pay attention to the will of New Yorkers. Earlier this month, 72 per cent of the city’s citizens elected Democrat Bill de Blasio to replace Bloomberg, and with it, showed whole-hearted approval for his unabashedly tax-happy approach to the rich, the very rich – and the very, very rich.

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