It was recently reported that Bill Gates contributed another $5 billion to his already pretty large endowment, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Now, Bill Gates is on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism, some of it from the government, most from people who object strongly to his hair; still, $5 billion is a nice gift. It brings the total of his endowment to $21.8 billion, which, experts agree, is probably the amount of money made off of Microsoft’s Solitaire game in one twelve-month period.
Mr. Gates’s net worth is estimated at around $90 billion. Because that’s such a staggeringly large number, it might be helpful to think of it in this way: picture one billion things just sitting there in a big pile (it doesn’t matter what—bottle caps, samovars, blood oranges, whatever is helpful for you). Now imagine 89 more piles just like it! Or, to put it another way, if you went to the store to buy 56,471.256 pounds of flour because you were baking for a large gathering, you would still have to go to the store 1,593,731.15413 more times and buy the same amount of flour in order for the total weight to equal 90 billion pounds! I hope that helps.
Because of his enormous wealth, some have suggested that he could go even further—give away much more of his fortune and still have enough left over to live a million Epicurean lifetimes. Perhaps, but how many Epicurean lifetimes are too many? Clearly, Gates has a minimum number of lives lived in outrageous and shameful luxury that he’d like to be able to afford should his business crumble, and he doesn’t want to drop below that.
Many of us draft a financial plan in which we have enough to live out our retirements in reasonable comfort and we work toward it. Many plan for a retirement that includes a comfortable home in a warm clime: a place to enjoy golf, good food, and the company of our friends. Bill Gates probably wants to feel reasonably assured that when he retires, he’ll have enough to afford several hundred palaces cast from solid pieces of white gold, a dozen or so towering obelisks in his honor, a handful of laser-guided death machines (for security reasons), a Rembrandt or two, and a comfortable sun-room.
I tease Mr. Gates. In truth, he’s probably a decent fellow, even if he is responsible for that irritating animated paper clip that appears like a specter in his Microsoft Word 2000 program. (I don’t like being taught anything by animated creatures, especially anthropomorphic metal fasteners.)
The truth is, Gates’s gift is an inspiring one, and it’s a perfect opportunity for self-examination where my own charitable giving is concerned. Here are a few inexorable conclusions that I’ve arrived at:
I cannot in good conscience count the can of lima beans in heavy syrup that I dropped off at the food shelf among my charitable donations. Obviously, it is I who benefit from the beans’ absence. I must also resist the temptation to rid myself of the anchovy paste, pickled eggs, King Oscar fish balls, sardines in mustard sauce, and the can of white hominy in my cupboards in the name of “charity.”
If I own anything from the Sharper Image, I’m in a position to give more. Although I don’t own any motorized tie racks or servo-controlled cigar ashtrays, I could do without several of the gadgety items in my home and give that money away.
Regularly buying Newman’s Own pasta sauces does not make me Mother Theresa. Paul Newman is to be congratulated for the money his company has raised—however, I can’t pretend that my buying his Sockarooni sauce is anything but selfish.
I’ll have to hurry if I ever expect to get a $22 billion foundation up and running. Gates has the jump on me and since I’m 35 and have difficulty operating our humidifier, it’s unlikely I’ll grow rich by starting a technology company. As it is, I probably couldn’t come up with $5 billion to give away if I worked an entire year, and Gates gave that away in a single day. I could sell a couple of pieces of my old stereo gear and probably come up with $80 or $85, but this $5 billion thing sets the bar pretty high.
Michael J. Nelson is a freelance writer living in Minnesota.