Of course, no good deed goes unpunished and Buffett has his critics. There remain a few who feel he's provided his children with too much of an advantage, despite the fact that they lived out relatively normal childhoods in Omaha and aren't lifting a finger to contest the whoppin' $37 billion of dad's money that's not going to them. He's allotted them stock in the illustrious Berkshire Hathaway and has enabled them to devote much of their lives to charitable work. In 2004, his son Peter Buffett and wife Jennifer each received a $40,000/year salary for 30 hours of charity work per week within the family foundation. I'd hardly call this cushy, but I suppose there's always reason to nitpick.
Inherited wealth makes me rather uncomfortable, and that's hardly a unique sentiment. Even King Solomon, the Bill Gates of his own time, laments this problem: "I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me; and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?" (Eccl. 2:18-19) All you need to do is turn the television on to witness the countless kids who've made a mess of their lives with mom and dad's money.
Acknowledging the same discomfort (he's been known to say inheritances are privately funded food stamps), Buffett gave his kids a grander gift than madd bills: he enabled them to mold their own futures and make their own decisions about money. (Therein lies the power of getting stock and not cash.) How do you know your kids have internalized your respect for the dollar? When you can let go of 85% of your fortune without a one of them raising a finger to stop you. "Love is the greatest advantage a parent can give," Buffett says in the Fortune story that broke the news about his donation - a sentimental notion, but one many can relate to. The gift of character is infinitely more valuable than a signed check you didn't earn.
Buffett made the majority of his money through the stock market, following mentor Benjamin Graham's philosophy of securities analysis and his own contrarian guidelines. He is worth an estimated $44 billion according to Forbes, just a few billion shy of Gates' $50 billion. Like Gates, who has been without question the spearhead of Microsoft from its inception, Buffett's fortune was carved with a sense of passion and deep propriety: "I get to do what I like to do every single day of the year," he says. "I get to do it with people I like, and I don't have to associate with anybody who causes my stomach to churn. I tap dance to work, and when I get there I think I'm supposed to lie on my back and paint the ceiling. It's tremendous fun." His annual reports to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders read like letters to close friends, demonstrating his enthusiasm for his work.
In a letter to Gates and his wife, Buffett writes: "You have committed yourselves to a few extraordinarily important but underfunded issues, a policy that I believe offers the highest probability of your achieving goals of great consequence." Even in contributing to charity he follows the principles of securities analysis, investing deeply into an undervalued (in this case, underfunded) niche. He also lends insight into value of a different kind: that with great fortune come significant responsibilities within the world - larger ones than most people will encounter in their lives. For a full and satisfying life, it's critical to take care of your money the way you would a well-kept garden, keeping it circulating in productive arenas to prevent it from stagnation, thereby ensuring a rippling sustainability beyond yourself. Following your dreams doesn't just enrich you; it enriches everything you touch, as it should.
By no means do I think social responsibility should be imposed by outside forces upon the man who takes the plunge into the land of his dreams - and succeeds beautifully - by his own will, wits and other merits. A person's financial decisions are deeply personal. But Buffett and Gates (who recently announced his 2008 retirement to devote time to his foundation) ensure the value they spent their lives generating remain productive within the world and to their own children.
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Warren Buffett, Melinda Gates and Bill Gates in New York on Sunday, June 25, 2006, shortly after Buffett announces his decision to donate $1.5 billion per year to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. [AP]