Ted Turner, who gave us CNN, one of Television’s Seven Best Sibilants (the others being Seinfeld, the Simpsons, C-SPAN, 60 Minutes, Sesame Street, and CBS Sunday Morning), has done it again.

This time, all it took was one of his typically brash, clear-thinking riffs, of the type he used to lay on Tom Snyder, back in the days when Tom followed Johnny and Ted was considered an upstart outsider.

According to Maureen Dowd’s account in the New York Times earlier this month, Ted thinks rich people don’t give enough to charity. Well, that’s not a particularly novel insight. Even I had it not long ago. (See: August 21 – Private Charity: The Dole Solution).

But Ted Turner has figured out why this is and, better still, how to fix it.

The culprit, Turner explains, is The Forbes 400. That damn list, he says, has all these intensely competitive guys fighting to stay on it and improve their position. After all — other than by inheritance — you don’t get on that list if you’re not intensely competitive.

And intensely competitive guys keep score.

After your first $100 million it’s all a game anyway. How can you possibly “need” more than that (other than to make it onto The List, for which you need lots more)? Sure, they say the thing’s an invasion of privacy, inaccurate, and all the rest. They don’t want to be on it. But they love it!

So there you are, fiercely competitive, knowing that your score will be posted in the next annual Forbes 400 — and you’re going to handicap yourself by giving money away? Oh, sure, you may feel the necessity to give away a few million to keep up appearances, 2% or 3% of your income. But give 10% of your income or 25% or 50% — are you mad? That would be like trying to win the 100-yard butterfly with one wing tied behind your back.

So here is Turner’s simple solution: a new list. The 400 Most Generous. Get the competition going on THAT one.

Mark my words: Turner is right. In a year or two, giving among the mega-rich would double. A single issue of Forbes each year could add billions to the philanthropic pot.

The law of unintended consequences requires that I state:

(1) that this could then add a bit to the budget deficit (increased giving means increased deductions means less tax revenue); and

(2) it could also clip a bit from the nation’s capital base (turning investment capital into, say, support for the arts). But to the extent the philanthropy were wisely directed, much of it could be investment capital of the most valuable kind. Placing a new computer on an office-worker’s desk is a capital investment to make that worker more productive. But placing a new computer on a high school student’s desk could have a substantially higher long-term return to the economy. Investing capital to build a new luxury high-rise is nice. But investing the same capital in programs to keep kids doing sports rather than drugs after school, say, could produce an even higher return.

Anyway, Turner’s comment, as amplified by Maureen Dowd’s column, should do the trick. I’ll bet you anything we start seeing Most Beneficent lists like this (ranked in absolute dollar terms, but also by percentage of income and net worth), and that once we do, the dollars given will rise a lot faster than inflation.

Thanks, Ted. You’ve done it again.


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