Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just so you don't think...

...I'm a complete Marxist after reading yesterday's post on Stephen Schwarzman (above), here's another story.

I shop at three grocery stores: Mariano's on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village, Whole Foods on Roosevelt and Canal, and the Jewel on Roosevelt and Ashland. 

Let's just say that the last of these is the least . . . "fancy." Yesterday, I ran in there on my way back from getting my hair cut (no wisecracks, please) to pick up a few things. While I was in the checkout line, the guy behind me wondered if he could buy Starbucks coffee with his Link card. I told him I didn't know and he asked me how much it cost. I said I thought it was about nine dollars or so and he then asked if he could buy it for me and have me reimburse him with cash. I didn't feel like going to all that trouble so I just said, "No, thanks."

And the moral of the story is that, yes, sometimes people game the system. And here was a guy who wanted nine bucks to spend on something his Link card wouldn't buy. So, yes, all you libertarians out there, you've been right all along: there are abuses in government programs. Take a bow.

But back to Steve Schwarzman (I call him "Steve") and his $150 million gift to Yale.

Imagine for a second the richest person you know. Maybe your uncle is a neurosurgeon, maybe you have a cousin who's a personal injury lawyer, or maybe you just know someone who owns a successful business. Whatever. Doesn't matter. The point is to imagine further that you wrote this person a check for a hundred, or even a thousand dollars. That would be very generous of you. But I'm going to guess that on your deathbed you won't wish you still had that money. And, what's more, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that money wouldn't really change that rich guy's lifestyle. Oh, sure, he'll spend it on a nice dinner for his family or something, but it's not like he doesn't have that kind of scratch in the first place.

So it would really be kind of a pointless exercise, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it be better to just give the dough to some homeless guy collecting change in the middle of an intersection? Couldn't he use the money more?

But isn't that kind of like what Mr. Schwarzman did with his gift to Yale? He wrote a check for $150 million to an institution that has a $23 billion endowment. He could have made a similar gift to Macy's, the department store. They have about a $23 billion market cap. Can you imagine anyone writing them a check like that?

Or think of it this way: Mr. Schwarzman could have given $100,000 to each of 1500 households in the poorest sections of Baltimore. Wouldn't they be more deserving of the money than a rich institution like Yale? And maybe -- probably -- they would have spent it in the local economy, maybe giving it a little kick-start.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Mr. Schwarzman knows better how to spend his own money than the government. I used to say things like that, too, back when I was a libertarian. But somehow I wonder, isn't there a more deserving charity than Yale University, with its $23 billion endowment? Maybe the government would spend that money more wisely. Is that so impossible to imagine?

I also wonder sometimes if this is how revolutions start. The Constitution, despite what Michele Bachmann might think, wasn't divinely inspired. No, a bunch of guys just got together one summer in Philadelphia and wrote it. As my son would say, it was all made up. And laws are only good so long as we all agree they're good. Money, like Mr. Schwarzman's, is ultimately just a journal entry on a computer. He only owns it so long as everyone agrees he owns it. If there's a revolution, like in France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, all bets are off.

(I read once that on the eve of the First World War, three of the safest investments on the planet were the sovereign debt of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Five years later, they were all worthless. The three empires had ceased to exist and their successor governments refused to make good on them. See? It's all made up.)

I'm not a Marxist, and I'm certainly not calling for a revolution. But I do think things have gotten a little out of whack in this country. Something just seems wrong to me when rich people are giving large gifts to other rich people. And I wonder if it can be sustained.

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