The Eye of a Needle

According to the World Health Organization, very basic health care could be provided to everyone in the world lacking in it for a cost of $10 billion per year over what is currently spent. Experience suggests that the resulting drop in infant mortality would slow the population explosion because people would not hedge their bets by producing so many infants.

Ten billion dollars is 4 percent of what the world spends each year on cigarettes. It’s what the world spends every four days on its militaries. It’s 11 percent of Bill Gates’ assets. It’s 3.8 percent of the assets of the ten people in the world with the most money (Gates plus the next nine).

A well-known speaker is quoted as having said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” I wish we no longer took seriously the idea of a “kingdom of heaven,” and I wish – even more so – that we did take seriously the idea that an excess of wealth is evil.

Now, attacking Bill Gates is much more fun than cutting back in my own lifestyle – something which I ought to do more of even though my charity cannot reach as far. If every single American chipped in about $35, we could come up with the $10 billion and even let Gates keep his $35. But things can be both fun and beneficial, and right now I’m going to attack Gates.

Attacking Bill Gates for being rich is, at least in the minds of many, rapidly equated with attacking the manner in which he acquired his loot or the laws (or lack of enforcement) which permitted him to acquire it. I heartily condemn his slash-and-burn tactics, his third-rate products, his monopolizing, influence-buying and litigating. But that’s not the topic of this column.

I am at the moment concerned with the possession of wealth, not where it came from. There are general problems associated with the drastically increased separation between the rich and the rest of us that the past few decades have seen in the U.S. and the world. One is the overclass’s increased control over the laws we must all live by and even the ideas we all read. Through some sort of collective amnesia we have forgotten how high income taxes recently were on the super rich. Through some misplaced favoritism for those least in need we leave a cap on the income that will be taxed for social security. Through some sort of anti-government sentiment that flies in the face of the idea (though obviously not the rhetoric) of equal opportunities, we complain about a “death tax.” We never spent on welfare for the poor what we spend on welfare for the rich or welfare for the weapons makers, yet we celebrate reduced welfare rolls and avoid asking whether we’ve reduced poverty or suffering. We give poorer counties higher taxes and worse schools instead of funding schools nationally.

I could go on, but I want to focus, rather, on simply the individual problem of owning billions of dollars. This is a problem faced by a very few people. The seven richest people in the world are Americans. The richest of these, Gates, has $90 billion. The poorest, S. Robson Walton, has $15.8 billion. From there the numbers drop rapidly. Before you break something jumping out of your chair to defend them as role models or members of the all-inclusive “middle class,” please realize that this is a handful of individuals. You are not one of them and never will be (any more than you’ll be hit by lightning), but if you were and if you’d gotten there by hard work and generosity lifting yourself out of an orphanage and overcoming loads of bad luck, I’d still want to talk to you (and other mythical creatures I find fascinating).

Many people give 4 percent of their wealth each year to charity. Many give to charity from their income or volunteer their time and have no wealth to speak of. Asking the richest of the rich to save millions of lives and possibly the planet turns out to not be asking any more of them than what others routinely do and are given routine praise for. No special sacrifice need be asked, but a special result would be achieved.

No stigma whatsoever need be attached to acquiring extreme wealth in order to attach a stigma to keeping it. Whatever good it may be imagined to do for the larger economy to have people acquire billions of dollars (and I’m sure it does more good than do state lotteries), that benefit can be left untouched. But what should these hard-working or brilliant or lucky or privileged or criminal or ruthless few do with the excess money once they’ve got it? Should they save millions of lives and still remain by far the richest of the rich, or should they hoard every last billion? I would like to find a way to work around the sacredness of private property (an extremely important concept that – like any other – can be taken too far), just enough to put the question of what these few do on the same level as the question of what a surgeon or a murderer does. A doctor who lets a patient die while sipping fine wine and lecturing observers on the free market is condemned. Doctors, unlike CEOs, are still expected to have some moral standards. The following people, and to a lesser degree a great many of us, are murderers: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Paul Gardner Allen, Steven Ballmer, Philip Anshutz, Michael Dell, S. Robson Walton, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, Theo and Karl Albrecht, and Li Ka-shing.

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