Let Us Now Praise Famous Plutocrats

PlutocracyEvery two years the people who run the vast Andrew Carnegie trust fund bestow the “Medal of Philanthropy” upon a handful of worthies, most recently last week at a hifalutin ceremony in Scotland.

According to the website “The Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy was inaugurated on December 10, 2001, by more than 20 of the institutions Mr. Carnegie established all over the world during his lifetime. This award, created at the centennial observance of Andrew Carnegie’s official career as a philanthropist, is given every two years to one or more individuals who, like Andrew Carnegie, have dedicated their private wealth to public good, and who have sustained impressive careers as philanthropists.”

The 2013 winners are

- Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science Community Development and one of Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women
- Sir Tom Hunter, the British entrepreneur whom the Sunday Times called Scotland’s first home-grown billionaire
- Dr James Harris Simons – along with his wife, economist Dr Marilyn Simons – the American mathematician who founded one of the world’s most successful hedge fund companies
- Dr Dmitry Zimin, the co-founder of the second-largest telecom business in Russia
- Dame Janet Frances Wolfson de Botton CBE on behalf of the Wolfson family, founders of the Wolfson Foundation.

Royalty, hedge funds, billionaires, corporate behemoths. Regular people – regardless of their devotion of sacrifice – need not apply. Clearly, winning the Medal of Philanthropy depends on the size of one’s wallet. Not that there’s anything wrong with disgorging millions of dollars to help the less-fortunate, but I would say that the tax benefits should suffice as the reward for philanthropy. Accepting a prize for sloughing off a chunk of money that constitutes an accountant’s rounding error seems a bit gauche.

Consider Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, former Emir of Qatar. After marrying into a royal family that lords over a spit of land that sits atop an ocean of crude oil, the Sheikha became an instant steward over a petro-fortune. A survey of her work indicates many worthy causes like UNESCO, but let’s face it – having access to a few spare billions to throw around smooths the path to the Medal of Philanthropy. In addition to being lauded by Forbes , the Sheikha is fawned over by the editors at Vogue for her good taste in haut couture (you know, designer outfits that cost upwards of $20,000 – also known as the equivalent of a combined year’s salary of five average Qataris.)

What about His Highness the Aga Khan who received the Medal in 2005 for just continuing the philanthropic work started by his ancestors in the 19th Century. The philanthropy’s mission is to improve living conditions and opportunities in poor regions of the developing world, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia and the Middle East – very admirable. What is left unsaid is that the philanthropy is funded by His Highness’s followers who pay a tithe to the foundation. According to a New York Times interview, “Part of the Aga Khan’s personal wealth used by him and his family, which his advisers say exceeds $1 billion, comes from a dizzyingly complex system of tithes that some of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims pay him each year.” I wonder if any of those 15 million generous souls were invited to the festive Medal ceremony. By the way, the busy Aga Khan owns hundreds of racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a private island in the Bahamas, two Bombardier jets, a high speed yacht, and several estates around the world, including a beauty in the north of Paris. (Makes me wonder if self-Philanthropy should become a new category of medal. The Kahn-man would be a shoe-in.)

OK, one more. Sandy Weill, another 2013 recipient of the Medal. The name isn’t exactly household, but anyone who follows finance a little bit knows that Sanford Weill engineered the merger of Citicorp, Travelers Insurance, and Smith-Barney in 1998 after Congress blew apart the Glass-Steagall Act which was put in place during the Depression to address foundational issues that contributed to bank failures – mainly, it ended unholy alliances between staid commercial banks and investment firms. With Glass-Steagall shattered thanks to intensive lobbying and campaign contributing by people like Weill, the rich got richer and the shlubs took it in the ass when the economy collapsed because banks got “too big to fail.” So, Weill helped dismantle a financial safety switch and got rich enough to win the Medal of Philanthropy. And then had the gall years later, after cashing in, to denounce the whole movement. He told CNBC, “What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big to fail.”

Sandy Weill winner of the Medal of Philanthropy, and on the short-list for the Halo of Hypocrites award.

This entry was posted in Finance, Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.