Warren Buffett Missed the Elephants

Sandip Roy – New America Media

Copyright New America Media
Commentary, , Jun 28, 2006
Editor’s Note: Amid the hype over billionaire Warren Buffett’s mega-gift to the Gates Foundation it might be time to consult India’s Jains, who know a little something about giving away a fortune to gain the world. Sandip Roy is an editor for New America Media and host of “UpFront,” a NAM weekly radio program on KALW-91.7 FM, San Francisco.
SAN FRANCISCO–When Jain diamond merchants in India decide to renounce the material world, they don’t call press conferences in public libraries. They deck themselves in jewels and silks and ride down the streets on caparisoned elephant, scattering handfuls of rice and gold coins and rupee notes to the crowds. Then they shave their hair, wrap themselves in white cotton sheets and walk away barefoot from their families and their fortunes. Their first act as renunciates is to beg for food from the very houses they left behind. Then they turn their backs on their hometowns.
They will probably not be appearing on “The Charlie Rose Show.”
But in the feverish excitement of the arranged marriage between the world’s richest man and the world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett is not giving up his wealth to find God. He is seeking to become God.
A vaccine for AIDS. A cure for tuberculosis. Worthy goals indeed, but the Hindu sacred books say we must look inward during the last stage of life. After being a student and a householder, the Hindu was supposed to embrace renunciation and go into the forest to try and find moksha, or self-liberation, not a way to stop global warming.
To the West, that might sound like a colossal waste of potential when your largesse could benefit public health, agriculture, U.S. education. Naysayers sound like petty-minded cynics when they sneer at cutthroat capitalists suddenly investing in the future of the world. They’re just buying their way into heaven, they say.
In his book “Maximum City,” Suketu Mehta writes that when the Jain millionaire prepares to give away his wealth, he folds his hands and says to all around him, “I have made many mistakes. Forgive me if I’ve hurt anyone.”
I don’t know that Mr. Buffett or Mr. Gates, or for that matter Mr. Carnegie or Mr. Ford, ever could bring themselves to utter something like that.
Instead, we are witnessing the morphing of the world’s richest foundation into a state unto itself. Already, when Bill Gates travels the world he has more clout than most elected presidents and prime ministers. My Vietnamese friend says more Vietnamese look up to him than Ho Chi Minh. A George W. Bush lasts only two terms. There is no term limit for the world’s No. 1 philanthropist.
Buffett says he chose to give his money to the Gates Foundation over the U.S. government because the foundation has a greater ability to maximize per-dollar benefits. Fair enough. The relentless drive that made Microsoft No. 1 in the world will surely make the Gates Foundation just as much of a streamlined super-force for good. Hopefully.
Because it’s a little scary. After all, when you’re talking $31 billion, rivers change course. You can be sure that if the Gates Foundation makes clean drinking water a priority over HIV/AIDS tomorrow, a thousand NGOs in Kinshasa and New Delhi will switch course as well. They know an all-you-can-spend buffet when they see one.
Once we had a messy world of WordStar, WordPerfect and so many other word processing programs. Now Gates assures us we are much better off behind the one banner of Microsoft Word. Choices are overrated, really, Buffett seems to be saying, as he puts 31 billion eggs for our future into one Gates basket.
I don’t mean to sit in my comfortable apartment and ignore the millions who will die from AIDS in the next decade — millions who could be helped or even spared the ravages of AIDS thanks to Buffett’s billions. People like me are quick to condemn the likes of Buffett (who, to be fair, doesn’t ask that his name be attached to his gifts) as selfish, tax-break gluttons. Now we can’t seem to give them a break even when they want to turn the spigot of the trickle-down economy to full blast.
So I say good luck to Mr. Buffett, and to the world he is dreaming for us. As Superman returns to screens around the globe this week, Mr. Buffett and his friend Mr. Gates must be having the last laugh. The muscled man in red and blue tights seems like yesterday’s hero — an out-of-date model. It’s the bespectacled, nerdy Clark Kent types who are the new superheroes of this world.
Superhero Warren Buffett might yet save the world. He might even find happiness. But moksha will have to wait for another day. For that, like the Buddha, he might have to chop off his hair to shear his ego, not sign a check to secure his legacy.


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