August 8, 2010
The biggest whip-round in history began on a relatively low-key note, when Bill Gates, generally reckoned to be the world’s richest man, suggested that his best pal Warren Buffett, the third-richest, should telephone all the other billionaires they knew, asking them to give away half their fortunes to charity.
By last week, Warren, having diligently worked his way through the annual Forbes magazine list of the richest Americans, had signed up at least 40 fellow plutocrats, with a combined worth of close to £150 billion. Portraying his work as “an easy sell”, the avuncular Buffett, long revered as the world’s greatest investor, predicted that many more would agree to chip in. Few of his primary targets, he said, had needed to be asked twice.
The glow of richesse oblige in which the plutocrats are now bathed started to flicker in May 2009, when the initial members of this billionaire boys’ club sealed the deal over a lavish lunch. Appropriately, it was thrown by David Rockefeller, the 95-year-old head of the blue-chip New York oil-and-banking family. It was early in the last century that David’s grandfather, John D Rockefeller, the world’s first billionaire, received a now famous letter from his retiring financial eminence grise, one Frederick Gates. “I have lived with this great fortune of yours daily for 25 years,” wrote Gates. “To it, its increase and its uses I have given every thought, until it has become a part of myself, almost as if it were my own. Unless you give most of your money away, it will crush you, and your children, and your children’s children.”
To Bill’s original billions are now being added – in substantial yearly tranches – Buffett’s own $40 billion-plus fortune. Even more is likely to come from the likes of media mogul Ted Turner, industrialist T Boone Pickens, chat show queen Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood director George Lucas, who have all signed a “giving pledge” to donate half of their wealth to good causes. Within 10 years, the Gates Foundation is projected to have a GDP bigger than 70 per cent of the world’s nations.