The reason billionaires donate so much is a real give-away

On status and the new rich

Share
Related Topics
"Money was wonderfully plenty," writes Mark Twain in Roughing It, his account of the California gold rush. "The trouble was, not how to get it - but how to spend it, how to lavish it, get rid of it, squander it." He goes on to describe the spasms of donation that would occasionally run through the mining towns, some charitable request or other touching off a fierce paroxysm of giving.

The most notable of these is the story of the Sanitary Flour Sack, a 50lb bag of flour originally auctioned to raise money for the care of Union wounded. After frenzied bidding the sack was sold to a mill man for $250. He was asked where he would have the flour delivered, and replied: "Nowhere - sell it again." When the auction finally broke up, the original owner had taken $8,000 in gold for the fund - and still held the bag of flour.

The sack then toured other gold towns, with civic rivalry boosting its earnings still further (every town wished to outdo its predecessors in reckless munificence). By the end of its tour it was estimated that it had been sold for a grand total of $150,000 - and they were still able to bake cakes with the flour and sell those, too.

This story came to mind when I read about Ted Turner's decision to hand over $1bn to the United Nations, by all accounts the largest charitable donation in history. I once listened to Mr Turner addressing the Edinburgh Television Conference; he was supposed to be talking about the changing nature of broadcast news, but he took time out during his rather erratic speech to suggest a solution to global war. If I understood his argument correctly - and it was not easy to follow - it involved creating a bellicose kind of theme park somewhere in the Caribbean, where contending nations would compete to sink de-commissioned battleships. Whoever got the highest score would win the dispute - without bloodshed. Senior figures from British broadcasting listened in bemusement. Was it a rambling joke? Was he pitching some new kind of CNN game show? Myself, I decided he was quite mad - and at first this latest gesture seemed all of a piece. Give away your money by all means, but why to the UN? Why boil off the profits of your labour in supporting a bureaucracy so cumbersome and byzantine?

But if Mr Turner is crazy, he is crazy like a fox. For one thing, it turns out that he has ring-fenced his gift. It is dedicated to very specific programmes: his money is to be spent on the ground, not at the Four Seasons. For another, his flamboyant gesture is as much to do with the provocation of others as with a private desire to give something back. He wants to start a gold rush, but this time in reverse - a competitive frenzy in which the rich stampede to show just how much they can give away. And there are some interesting parallels with the communities Twain describes in Roughing It. During the first gold rush, fortunes were both volatile and virtual; a man who could not afford to feed his horse at breakfast time might be able to retire by sundown on the strength of his shares in a mine - paper that he might well have bartered for a beer at lunch time. Youth was no bar to success and the conventional pace at which a man accumulated wealth had been discarded.

Much the same is true of those working the great mother-lodes of the late 20th century - media and computing. Teenagers sleeping in garages make paper fortunes overnight. What's more, the sheer scale of the return renders existing valuations of money quite pointless. The New York Times recently tried to work out when Bill Gates would become a trillionaire, prompted by the fact that Forbes's annual list of the world's richest men had gone out of date within two days: in that time Gates' paper fortune had increased by nearly $4bn (two of those billions accumulated in one morning). When you have this much money you can buy anything, even the moon. (The Apollo programme spent approximately $25.4bn between 1961 and 1973. Even allowing for inflation, Bill could probably go there for a fraction of the cost today - the Russians would probably even throw in a complimentary space station.)

But when you can literally buy anything it's usually the case that you start to hanker for the things that don't have a market price. Twain tells the story of a grizzled miner arriving in San Francisco and offering $150 to be allowed to kiss a stranger's three-year old child. He could have been lavishly entertained in the city's finest whorehouse for that sum but it wasn't soft skin he wanted - it was a touch of innocence, a commodity quite unpurchasable in the territories. In a similar way very rich people try to buy two things with their fortunes - once they've finished with the easy stuff like mansions and yachts. They buy remembrance for when they are dead, and esteem for while they are alive.

The useful twist for the rest of us is that these virtuous goods are always offered at auction - they don't come with a sticker price. This operates at all levels of the economic ladder, incidentally. Anyone who has attended a school fund-raising auction will have seen the way that pride and peacock display can be tapped for charitable ends. The potlatch ceremonies of the Pacific Coast Native Americans, in which hosts gave lavish gifts to their guests as a display of status, were unusually explicit about the degree of self-assertion involved in such competitions - as part of the ceremony, the host might abuse those who were enjoying his largesse, and even destroy money. In rewriting the rules of social supremacy Ted Turner has revived potlatch for the world's growing tribe of billionaires. His was a stunning opening bid - and if precedent suggests anything, it won't be the last.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It might have been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
In 1215 the Magna Carta forced the English King (at the time King John) to respect the laws of the land and guaranteed rights and protections to his subjects  

Magna Carta will be 800 years old next year – the perfect reminder of the rights and freedoms we must hold dear

Nigel Farage
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there