Economic Chivalry Is Not Dead

Alfred Marshall, one of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, called it "economic chivalry" -- the idea that businessmen have responsibilities beyond the bottom line. "The desire of men for the approval of their own conscience," he wrote in "Principles of Economics," "is an economic force of the first order of importance."

Last week, a group of capitalist heavy-hitters -- including Warren Buffet, George Soros, David Rockefeller Jr. and William Gates Sr. -- decided to put their conscience above their self-interest by coming out against the repeal of the estate tax. Oh, excuse me, I mean the "death tax." Economic chivalry, it seems, is alive and kicking.

Gates Sr. (Bill's dad), in conjunction with Chuck Collins of the Responsible Wealth Project, a group that practices what Marshall preached, has gotten about 400 millionaires to join a campaign in opposition to the repeal, which includes a petition, op-eds and newspaper ads arguing that doing away with estate taxes would "be bad for our democracy, our economy and our society."

Buffet, meanwhile, compared the repeal, and its attendant $300 billion windfall over the next decade for the heirs of the richest Americans, to "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics ... Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit."

As well as an inspiring demonstration of economic chivalry, this campaign is a demonstration of leadership, at a time of a complete bankruptcy of leadership in the political realm. Compare the boldness of the position taken by Buffet et al to the flaccid response of the Democratic leaders: "I do believe that there is plenty of room for compromise," said Sen. Tom Daschle about President Bush's proposal. "We both support estate tax relief."

It's as though a curse has been placed on modern politicians so that the moment they throw their hat in the ring, they're drained of all boldness, creativity and the ability to inspire. We might as well accept that at this moment in our history politics is no longer the place to turn for leadership. But since political life, no less than nature, abhors a vacuum, we'll have to look elsewhere -- and take our leaders where we find them. It's businessmen today; it could be academics, artists, preachers or grassroots activists tomorrow.

Sometimes they will expand the accepted boundaries of the political debate, and sometimes, like the little boy who shouted that the emperor wore no clothes, they will simply state the obvious. After all, speaking out against the estate tax repeal because it will perpetuate inequalities and undermine charitable giving is not exactly a radical stance. Even John DiIulio, who heads the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, came out against the repeal last week on the grounds it would harm his efforts: "I don't want to be the skunk at the picnic. But, no, I don't think the estate tax should be eliminated."

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, on the other hand, clearly thinks the emperor is exquisitely dressed. Stating as obvious an utter falsehood, he asserted that "People don't give to a charity for a tax break. People give to charity out of the goodness of their heart, and we all know that." Apparently "all" doesn't include the president, who has proposed spurring charitable giving by expanding the charitable deduction to the 80 million taxpayers who don't itemize, or the tax attorneys for whom "charity strategies" are an integral part of estate planning.

It was left to Gates-pere to deliver a dose of reality: "The estate tax," he wrote, "affects only the very wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Poverty, on the other hand, afflicts one out of six American children." The reason that the interests of the top 2 percent are a higher priority than the interests of the poorest kids was made clear by Buffet last year when he decried the way political contributions influence policy in Washington. Then as now, the fourth richest man in America sounded the alarm: "We are on the way to becoming a plutocracy. That is not just wrong. It is destabilizing."

But this kind of bold language -- and bold stance -- is frowned upon in a political culture where elected officials quake at the thought of saying or doing anything that might alienate swing voters. So instead we have Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt fumbling with charts and graphs, substituting gimmicks for leadership skills, and our new president boosting his leadership quotient by bombing Iraq and then boasting to the press: "It was a mission about which I was informed and I authorized."

This sums up the shrinking scale of leadership in Washington today: the Leader of the Free World bragging that he was in the loop.

Thank god for the billionaire knights, charging in on their trusty Gulfstream steeds.


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