Buffet Blows His Billions

In this photo provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Warren Buffett, left, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates stand together, Sunday, June 25, 2006, in New York, shortly after Buffett's announcement that he would be starting to make an annual donation of about $1.5 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
This column was written by Nicholas von Hoffman.
Even with all that money, Warren Buffett's donation of billions was a two- or maybe a 2½-day story. To give him his due, "the world's second-richest man" spared us the creation of another plutocratic dynasty by giving his money to Bill Gates' foundation instead of to his children.

Considering all the other awful things Buffett might have done with his dough, he may merit at least half of the laudatory sloberation lavished upon him on the tube and in print. He is a decent man, a clever man at making money. But about all that can be said of how he is disposing of his billions is that his choice was safe, insipid and probably inconsequential in the long run.

The money-to-impact ratio of most of these mega-foundations is low. One would be hard-pressed to name any single accomplishment that can be honestly credited to the MacArthur Foundation or the Ford Foundation, although the list of laudatory causes each has funded would stretch from Philadelphia to Las Vegas.

Increasingly, foundations are noteworthy for their high salaries, their princely accommodations, their perks, their mediocre staffs and their tendency to pass money out to their friends. There are days when it seems that the only effective foundations are those underwriting right-wing think tanks whose twofold purpose is to crank out propaganda and launder money by paying off politicians in the form of vacations and jobs.

Foundations also serve as a quiet form of social control, either by buttressing status quo organizations and/or schools of thought or by buying off possible troublemakers. Perhaps this is one task they are reasonably good at, because America is suffering from a dearth of troublemakers. They are either being bought off or we cannot produce them anymore.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to which Buffett has pledged to give his many billions, is already deeply committed to finding cures for diseases. Some question exists as to how badly medical research needs this influx of money. Things have changed in the century since John D. Rockefeller put money into the eradication of diseases like hookworm and yellow fever. That was a time when government put almost no money into medical research, there were no international health organizations and the pharmaceutical corporate giants, with their huge research budgets, did not exist. Rockefeller's money filled a real gap; the Gates/Buffett money far less so.

What this use of money lacks in imagination, it makes up for in safety. Pick an innocuous but indisputably worthy project and start pouring in the money and pouring out the press releases. Do it long enough and one president or another will pin a Medal of Freedom on your chest, and the volume of adulatory if simple-minded praise will grow to ear-splitting levels. It may not always be true, but generally the safer the project, the more inconsequential the results.

It would take the kind of cojones that neither Bill Gates nor Warren Buffett have shown they have, successful as they have been, to do something about American health more important than paying for the discovery of a new drug. That something would be the dismantling and reorganization of the increasingly dysfunctional and ineffective American health apparatus.

According to the Economist magazine's "World in Figures," life expectancy in the United States is a little less than 78 years, equal to that of Portugal and shorter than every nation in Europe except Denmark, not to mention Japan and, if you can believe it, Castro's Cuba. You can expect to live more than a year and a half longer in Cuba than in the United States.