Our Complicity in the Trump Phenomenon, Part 1

The Trump candidacy for president has turned into a raging dumpster fire. It’s tempting to place the majority of the blame on Trump himself for the disastrous floundering to the November finish line; or upon his ardent supporters, unable to amass beyond 40 percent of the electorate because of weak support from women and practically no support from the increasing population of American minorities. I’ll argue here, to the contrary, that all of us have a hand in enabling this episode of combustible disgrace, because of the over-importance and overemphasis we place upon wealth.

Wealth, unquestionably, is good. Its right utilization benefits many and advances common good. Wealth is a blessing, especially when amply distributed throughout a society.

America has done a pretty good job of creating and sharing wealth over the generations through ingenuity, innovation, generosity, and good ol’ hard work. That said, our history (including our labor history) is marred by the memories and realities of slavery, extermination of native peoples, racial and gender prejudice, child labor, and overdependence on cheap foreign labor. Yet, we still move forward in the struggle to attain “liberty and justice for all.” As we continue forward on a shared journey, we seem to be making more progress than not. We value family and friendships, perseverance and persistence, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.


But here’s where it gets even more complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value took Donald Trump to the top of the polls during the Republican primary season. Yes, he talked tough and hit a nerve with a small segment of society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he and a number of surrogates claim that this characteristic ipso facto christens him to assume the presidency. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.

For better and for worse, Americans equate wealth with success. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age partisans, accumulating historic quantities of wealth during the boom of the Second Industrial era, unwittingly gave a new permission to the American experience: Unimagined and never before seen differences between the richest and poorest were deemed permissible. To Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s credit, they responded to the new reality forged by their accumulated largesse by becoming two of the greatest philanthropists in history. Since that time, Americans have exhibited great reverence for their very richest and “most successful” citizens. Rockefeller and (especially) Carnegie have their detractors, but each has left an enduring legacy of benefit to the common good. Donald Trump comes in their wake, at best, as a shabby imposter; his weak showing as a philanthropist and braggadocio about not paying federal income tax reveal his contempt for greater society. Some of his followers are as overly taken with Trump’s sense of importance as is the nominee himself. But his self-indulgence – crystalized by accusations of sexual assault – has caught up with him. His own sense of entitlement drags his candidacy down into a dumpster.

Trump will leave a convoluted legacy when this election cycle is all said and done. His no-holds-barred approach during the primary season invigorated a zealous following (something Hillary Clinton lacked as a candidate and nominee). But Trump’s reach for the highest office as nominee will be forever characterized by a throng of exaggerations (he’ll get GDP “higher than 4 percent”), untruths (birtherism), and thin-skinned reactions to adversity (“the election is rigged”) deployed to defend his enormous (yet fragile) ego more so than to win over voters. After he convincingly loses the election, will the Trump candidacy will morph into Trump TV? If so, the successful rich guy and his surrogates will continue to enlighten a small, but loyal following on the merits of Trumpian alternative reality. Strip away Trump’s wealth from what he says and how he acts – would anyone pay attention to him?

When a society elevates the attainment and accumulation of wealth as its leading societal value, success becomes monopolized. Dr. Elizabeth Anderson (no relation), a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, says “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion.”* Anderson says that a successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.

The social value that we as a society place on wealth helped cover up and diminish Trump’s well-known shortcomings, making his candidacy a possibility. The creed of wealth=success has some merit, but when it dominates all other possibilities of success (compassion, service, philanthropy, cooperation) it creates two specific problems: those who are not wealthy are deemed failures, and the extraction of value – whether from the environment or from other people – is seen as a mean justified by the end.

Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him had a lot to say about money and wealth – mostly about the responsibilities to community and society of those who had wealth. According to these biblical voices, those who responsibly use wealth to uplift and support common good are deemed successful. This unforgettable and historic presidential election cycle will serve our society well if it can help create a cultural shift where wealth accumulation is not understood as the greatest marker of success, but as the emissary of responsibility. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and many others have and do understand wealth in this light. Mr. Trump hasn’t gotten there yet.

*Check out this brief, yet insightful interview by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016!


The Donald for Class President – or Not

A friend teaches US history at a local middle school (6th-8th grades). He is of retirement age, but he told me he wants to teach one more year in order to process the 2016 presidential election with his students. “It’s just too interesting to pass up,” he said with a smile.

I agreed with his assessment of the upcoming election and ventured the opinion that “Trump is like a seventh-grader running for class president.” His response: “Exactly!” My teacher friend knows the territory quite well.


Don’t get me wrong – I have respect for many of Mr. Trump’s supporters and know a few who will vote for him in November. As is well-documented, Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders both tapped into the malaise of many lower- and middle-class Americans. Trump is no isolated, rich aristocrat. He’s in touch with what a number of Americans feel in their gut: things aren’t as they should or could be.

Whereas Sanders took the high road – not denigrating those he blamed for the malaise (“1 percenters”) or demonizing opponents – it didn’t win him a party nomination. Trump, on the other hand, ran his primary campaign as would a seventh-grade bully. Stereotyping in large strokes, name-calling, and fear-mongering with bravado flair – these helped him win a nomination. The tone of his presidential campaign continues on the same trajectory. Being the bully (or the most anti-politically correct candidate), however, won’t win him November’s big prize.

Attacks on Mexicans, Americans of Mexican descent, and Muslims in America; the condoning of violence at campaign events, and the enticing of violent reaction (if he doesn’t win the election) aren’t very presidential in manner or form. Personal attacks and threats of violence are reactionary devices that come straight out of a seventh-grade bully’s playbook, and in the end, they won’t help The Donald get to the Oval Office.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I describe the current era of excess that began in 1980. Extremism, one of the era’s hallmarks, manifests itself politically (gridlock), financially (increased inequality), and socially (anxiety). Only during an era of excess could someone like Mr. Trump actually pass as a legitimate candidate for president. In an era of greater egalitarianism, candidate Trump’s overstatements and sweeping stereotypes would not have garnered him or his campaign any traction with voters. Additionally, his braggadocio concerning his financial bottom line (“I’m the most successful person to ever run for the presidency”) would have disqualified him because during eras of egalitarianism fewer people consider great wealth to be a societal virtue. Historically, Trump is one of the least philanthropic of wealthy Americans. Son Eric outdistances his father substantially as a philanthropist.

Bullying gets results in the short-term and thrives in an environment where it is hidden or underexposed. But once a sufficient number of people organize and leverage their power to expose the bully and the bullying, the game is over. As Trump’s message and antics go nationwide, they are exposed as simplistic, sensational, and lacking of substance. His poll numbers trend down, evidence that he now alienates more voters than he attracts.

Seventh grade, as we all know, doesn’t last forever; and neither does a bully’s day in the sun. Things in our country could and should be better, as Mr. Trump claims. But that better day, if it comes, will not be forged through bullying, violence, or rage. We’ve learned these important truths in our history classes; it’s not time to abandon these valuable and hard-earned lessons now.


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

The Annual Gates Letter and the Limits of Philanthropy

When we talk about Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron, we pronounce his name CAR-neg-ie. Yes, that was the guy who had his steel workers doing 12 hours days/7 days a week. When you hear his name spoken on NPR radio, however, it’s Car-NEG-ie. That’s the guy who founded and funded libraries, museums, and so much more. Carnegie – however you pronounce it – felt a moral obligation to give away his fortune for societal benefit. Ah, good ol’ philanthropy – a fantastic builder of common good, even if the utilized fortune was questionably attained.

John Rockefeller Sr. is the greatest philanthropist in the history of the world, not only because of the sheer volume of his giving (more than $1.5 billion during his and his son’s lifetimes – close to $20 billion in today’s dollars), but more so because he was the first mega-philanthropist wanting to get at the root causes of societal problems. As quoted by biographer Ron Chernow, Rockefeller explained his mature view of philanthropy: “Our guiding principle . . . to benefit as many people as possible. Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished” (Titan, Vintage, 1998, p. 314). The Rockefeller foundation has uplifted the common good by various accomplishments: eradicating hookworm in the southern US and in fifty-two countries across six continents, developing a vaccine for yellow fever and other diseases, supporting minority and higher education, establishing medical and social science research centers, among many others.

Melinda and Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum – Davos, Switzerland

Bill and Melinda Gates have followed in Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s paths and readily share their enthusiasm for philanthropy’s continued upside. Bill and Melinda Gates, quite simply, are in Rockefeller’s category as philanthropists. They are committed to fighting inequity, and have joined with investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet to form the Giving Pledge, encouraging fellow super-wealthy to commit to give away more than half of their fortunes through philanthropy during their lifetimes or in their wills. Through their own foundation, established in 2000, the Gateses battle hunger, poverty, and disease and also uplift education. You might not know as much about Melinda as you do about her husband. A native of Dallas and 1982 valedictorian of Ursuline Catholic Academy, she has both an undergrad degree (in computer science) and an MBA from Duke University; she began to work for Microsoft in the late 1980s. After dating for six years, Melinda French and Bill Gates married in 1994. They have three children; she is a practicing Roman Catholic and has her husband’s support in raising their children in the Catholic expression of the Christian faith.

The Gates’ 2015 annual letter makes a bold claim: “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s . . . These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.” Wow – that’s pretty ambitious. For the most part, I think they are right.

The long-running industrial era with its call to work and accompanying rewards has lifted so many from the grips of poverty (including, for those reading this blog, most of our own ancestors). And that process continues today in poor countries – look what’s happened in China and India in the last twenty-five years, and most recently in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The improvements that can be made in underdeveloped countries are astounding and are enhanced by today’s technological possibilities.

Have you heard of the term technological optimism? It refers to a type of thinking that expects the problems of the world – economic, social, political – to be solved, or at least, assuaged, by technological advances. Bill and Melinda Gates, unequivocally, are technological optimists.

For the large majority of us in developed countries, living with the benefits of industrialization, technological advances are less advantageous. Being able to watch a movie on one’s phone – an example of technological advance – is not a life-or-death issue. In the developed world, we more so deal with something called the energy-complexity spiral (see Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek’s excellent book, Drilling Down, Springer, 2012). The availability of incredibly cheap energy (coal and oil) has made possible – literally, fueled – the industrialized development of society. As we try to solve problems in the advanced world (how to play a movie on a hand-held device, or how to make a new anti-cancer drug less nausea-producing) more energy, knowledge, and money are typically required. Remember when the thermostat in your living room had a simple on-off switch and a dial temperature control? Now your “climate control device” houses a mini-computer and you often need to consult the manual, or call a technician, in order to manipulate it. Part of the energy-complexity spiral is that problems and solutions tend to get more complicated (and costly) as time marches forward.

The Gates’ annual letter says we’ll need to figure a way “to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide.” Agreed – but, unfortunately, we are a long way off. We’re still drilling and burning oil like never before and the waste sinks on this poor planet get more exhausted all the time. The temporary low price of oil – mid-2015 near a five-year low – doesn’t help the situation. At the very least, we need to utilize an additional tax on gasoline to restore a sense of value to this precious commodity.* And because we’ve not yet backed off of oil, we’re stalling on the technological advances that will help produce better energy sources for tomorrow.

The main problem with an economy-produced fortune, like Rockefeller’s or Gates’, is that it necessarily comes imbued with technological optimism. I’m a supporter of technological advance, but I’m also wary of its allure and promises. Skyping on my phone is cool, but face-to-face relationships that create trust are the foundation of a good democratic society. Drought-resistant seeds in Africa, more cell phones for the women of Bangladesh, and widespread vaccine coverage for children in Nigeria is good . . . but we can’t duplicate developed world devices, machines, and technologies for the rest of the world based on how much fossil fuel we currently use. It would be a carbon emissions melt-down and waste sink nightmare. Perhaps we could also have some major philanthropic support to fund studies and projects that look at steady state economies, inclusive of how to slow down American consumerism while considering the disparate state of standards of living around the globe. Is there a current technology to remind us that less can be more?

Philanthropy is good, but it’s not the highest good. If philanthropy is understood to be the highest good we can produce, it then becomes no more than a paternalism that perpetuates the status quo. Creating systems of economy that are thoroughly just – where people don’t get left behind or left out – is the highest good. Capitalism in the 21st century is very good, but it can be and it can do better. We are responsible for making it better for today and for tomorrow.

At the end of the Gates Foundation letter, Bill and Melinda make an invitation to readers to join the movement by becoming “world citizens.” I’ve joined. The end of the letter calls for the “expanding of compassion” among world citizens. Part of that expansion, ironically, is using less – a mindset which absolutely cuts into grain of today’s conventional wisdom that more is better. How to get more out of less – that’s not only efficient, but also compassionate.

* Proceeds of an additional energy tax could be used to fix crumbling American infrastructure and support development of better energy sources.


The views expressed in this blog are reflective of my work in the 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.  

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

Click here for Summary Version and Study Guide from the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, ideal for book clubs and community of faith study groups.

Winthrop Rockefeller’s Steak

Two free-spirits ramble into a New York City restaurant bar looking for a drink. It’s late afternoon and the bar is darkly lit; even though the year is 1972, the décor and ambiance of the establishment is Mad Men to the core. The two young men order drinks at the bar. Hippies by appearance and mindset, they plan to get something cheap to eat – elsewhere – after soaking in their drinks.

Behind them, seated at a table, an older establishment type enjoys a steak dinner. Alone, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, handsome and self-assured, he slowly savors his meal while reading a newspaper. His presence in the near empty restaurant is unmistakably fitting; like a lion on the savannah, he has no competitors. Eventually, he pushes his half-finished meal aside and sits back farther in his chair and continues to read. The considerable remaining steak calls the attention of the two hungry hippies at the bar.

“Excuse me, are you going to finish that steak?” The question is almost as out of place as is the presence of the two hippies in a downtown Manhattan joint in the days of Nixon and Vietnam.

“Actually, no. You can have it if you let me ask you a few questions.” An agreeable bargain, the two hippies join the distinguished middle-aged gentleman at his table. Animated and engaging, the ensuing conversation flows back and forth. The gentleman learns that the young men have been living on a utopian commune in northern California. He wants to know if idealism is truly flourishing among the young these days. And what is the whole back-to-the-land movement about? The two hippies have just as many questions for their inviter as he has for them. They have a sense that the world is going off-track, through pollution, over-consumption and intolerance, and they want to know if someone from the older generation shares their views. More food and some delicious Cabernet is ordered by the lion for his new tablemates and the conversation goes on for an hour or so, longer than either party anticipated. The vaunted generation gap itself seems to vanish before their eyes in the soothing darkness of the bar. Two distinct worlds and mindsets – hippie and establishment – meet and commingle. Questions beget insight, and the two previously distinct worlds are understood, if momentarily, to inhabit shared space. The three men shake hands, and bid adieu; the law of homeostasis – all things return to their natural state – reasserts itself. But a lasting impression is made, and a bond is fashioned as American as Rockefeller and 1960s-’70s era hippies.

rock winthrop
Winthrop Rockefeller
dileo hippie
Michael DiLeo








On their way out of the bar, one of the hippies asks the bartender, Who was that masked man? Oh, that’s Winthrop Rockefeller, the bartender answers. The Governor of Arkansas. Grandson of the original titan, John D. Rockefeller.


Good friend, author, and native New Yorker Michael DiLeo was one of the protagonists on the other side of the table in this story. He related his story to me a few years back when I told him I was researching the Rockefeller family for a book I was working on. I appreciate Michael letting me share his story and its encouragement to have a conversation with “the other.”

Winthrop Rockefeller was a native New Yorker, but developed a fondness for Arkansas during a trip there in the 1950s. By 1966, he was elected the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, philanthropist, and rancher, Winthrop Rockefeller served two terms (2 years each) as Arkansas governor. Later, his son, Win Paul Rockefeller, would serve as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor. Winthrop Rockefeller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after the impromptu meeting with the two hippies in Manhattan. He died in 1973 at sixty years of age.

My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, tells the story of the interplay of two great American traditions: egalitarianism and liberty. The story starts with the titan himself, Winthrop’s famous grandfather, who was the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known. American liberty allowed him to become the world’s first billionaire. Rockefeller’s business acumen was unmatched in his day; his ruthlessness, however, was certain and unquestionably damaging to competitors and innocents within his vicinity. John D. Rockefeller’s legacy is mostly good but it is also complex: his incredible wealth gave American society the permission to leave behind its egalitarian foundations. American egalitarianism, properly understood, is not an equality of material goods or wealth, but the opportunity for the weaker members of society to join forces in order to stand up to or have equal footing with society’s more powerful members. “No taxation without representation” – that’s liberty and egalitarianism working together. America has seen its best days when liberty and egalitarianism balance each other’s excesses – the pendulum does swing in both directions – and America’s darker days have occurred when the two traditions are out of sync or unbalanced.

I argue in JaLBM that since 1980, American society has been out of sync because of the domination of liberty. Today, many Americans don’t know what the word egalitarianism means because its use has diminished significantly in the last decades. American society, since 1980, has become increasingly isolated. The rich live and consort with fellow rich, and don’t know anyone who is poor. As an example, Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe during the 2012 presidential campaign is entirely indicative of the age.

John D. Rockefeller had humble beginnings. But even as he became Rockefeller, he continued to consort with rich and poor alike. Winthrop was like his grandfather in this sense – he actually consorted with others, including a couple of hippies of the early ’70s. He shared a table and genuine conversation, replete with curiosity. He didn’t have all the answers, and consequently was interested in talking to two fellow citizens with whom he had differences in lifestyle and opinion. Even so, conversation and exchange happened – akin to the interplay of liberty and egalitarianism. Two different entities working together can do much more than one alone.

Winthrop Rockefeller was a “good government” Republican who didn’t eschew a compassionate side to his politics. As Arkansas governor, he facilitated prison reform and oversaw the racial integration of the state’s public schools. His last act as governor was to commute the death sentences of Arkansas’ death row inmates to life imprisonment.

What would it be like if Fox News and MSNBC didn’t play into well-worn stereotypes and spent less time on accusations of the “other side”? I suppose ratings would plummet and we’d actually have to talk to one another to hear and understand each others’ opinions and viewpoints.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

– John Lennon, Imagine (1971)


Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.


Excerpt from Chapter 6 on Rockefeller, Gates, Philanthropy, and Taxes

The following is an excerpt from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available now at http://www.blueocotillo.com.

Bill Gates, born in Seattle, is the modern-day Rockefeller: ruthless in business, rich beyond compare, and one of the greatest philanthropists the world has known. Like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, his company also has been accused of monopolizing practices. Both Rockefeller and Gates, their genius and drive indisputable, exhibited business acumen that bested the competition again and again. The comparisons are striking; Rockefeller excelled at buying or squeezing out smaller competitors while Gates excelled at bringing smaller players along for the ride (with the gargantuan Microsoft), only to dispose of them once their particular code was incorporated into existing Microsoft codes and then tweaked (or outright purchased). Enough of a change in a computer code—too bad Gates couldn’t have advised George Harrison when the Chiffons weren’t so fine with “My Sweet Lord”—and infringement was a nonissue, especially with Microsoft lawyers so suitably financed. And as Rockefeller wasn’t a participant in the beginnings of oil refining, neither was Gates the progenitor of the operating systems (generically referred to as OS or DOS) that serve as the backbone of small computer software systems. Gates has the computer giant IBM to thank for a lot of the success that came his way. IBM, working together with Gates and Microsoft in the early 1980s on its new product—the personal computer—was still focused primarily on business computing, which it saw as its main livelihood. Deciding that personal computers were lightweight, IBM let Gates and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen keep the rights to MS-DOS, the operating system on IBM’s new PC, the 5150. A decade later, as personal computer sales exceeded all expectations, IBM and Microsoft split ways. Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 would eclipse IBM’s OS/2; and because of Gate’s business model of incorporating and conquering,* Microsoft became one of the world’s most valuable companies and Gates the world’s richest person. Gates, a whiz at writing computer code, didn’t write MS-DOS; he bought its progenitor version from Tim Paterson, a computer genius himself, who borrowed heavily from another precursor version written by another Seattle computer whiz, Gary Kildall. Gates is brilliant, but he’s not as self-made as is typically assumed.

Gates’s father, William Gates Sr., a retired lawyer, is not someone who is taken in by the fiction of the self-made man. In the spirit of egalitarianism, he has been a tireless spokesperson for progressive taxation of the rich, those who have the incomparable ability to pay. In 2001, following George W. Bush’s inauguration, tax reform was given high priority by the new administration. The estate tax, or “death tax,” was one of their reduction targets; in the post–World War II era its highest rate was consistently held at 77 percent. During the Reagan years it was reduced to 55 percent, and the Bush administration desired to reduce it further, if not to fully repeal it. In the spring of 2001, Gates Sr., with an opinion piece in the Washington Post, became a vocal opponent of tax reductions for the rich; two years later he also coauthored the book Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes. Gates argues that the estate tax helped America maintain the egalitarian spirit that differentiated its founding from aristocratic Europe. During the height of the Gilded Age, eighteen states of the Union adopted inheritance taxes—Andrew Carnegie (not surprisingly) was one of many wealthy supporters of the new laws. Estate taxes, according to Gates, serve “as a practical, democratic restraint on massive concentrated wealth and power.” Repeal of the estate tax “would widen the growing gap in economic and political influence between the wealthy and the rest of America.” As of this writing in 2013, the United States yet employs a tax on the right to transfer property at death.

Gates Jr. has become the most generous philanthropist in the history of the world—Rockefeller and Carnegie would be impressed. Gates and investment magnate Warren Buffet joined forces to create The Giving Pledge: “an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” As of 2013, more than 110 individuals or families have joined the pledge to give at least 50 percent of their fortunes away. Others making the pledge include Sandy and Joan Weill, David Rockefeller, and Michael and Lori Milken. No member of the Walton family has yet to sign on.


* Author Harold Evans says, “Hundreds of small innovative companies have died in Microsoft’s bear hug.” Harold Evans, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Little Brown (2004), 418. Rockefeller and Sam Walton would be proud.


Above excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), 130-31. All rights reserved.