Generosity, the new status symbol?

Is generosity the new Jaguar? The next private plane? Is philanthropy emerging as the new status symbol among those who … Continued

Is generosity the new Jaguar? The next private plane? Is philanthropy emerging as the new status symbol among those who remain wealthy in these financially troubled times, and if so, is that necessarily a good thing?

Wall Street Journal wealth columnist Robert Frank, author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, said the recession had helped spur America’s rich to search for new status symbols. “Yachts, private jets, seaside mansions are so 2007,” Frank wrote recently. “But being wealthy enough and generous enough to get on the Giving Pledge list, (a joint philanthropy initiative launched by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett,) may quickly become the ultimate badge of status — both in the U.S. and abroad.”

If philanthropy really is the next version of owning a private jet, what does that mean? Is a real change in how people, at least people of means, relate to their money really happening? Will that change impact the rest of us?

It seems that with every economic downturn, we see predictions about how people will adjust their lives, buy differently and now, give more away. But it rarely plays out that way, at least in any sustainable fashion. And as soon as there is a rebound, we go back to our old ways. Perhaps that’s good and perhaps not, but it is so.

And on the issue of generosity among the wealthy, it may be even more likely that the predictions are more a reflection of the hopes of those making them than a description of some new reality. After all, there is a big difference between spending less, which even the wealthy are doing, and giving more. The former is a function of feeling diminished, while the later demands feeling flush. Or does it?

There is no question that giving away money does have the ability to build up the giver’s sense of capacity, even if it is not a hot trend. When any of us experiences a shortage of any resource, especially money, demonstrating that we still have enough to share reminds us that we have more than we originally thought. Giving shifts the focus shifts scarcity to abundance even though our accounts are less abundant than they were a year or two ago.

Whether increased generosity turns out to be a trend among the wealthy or not, the notion that giving is among the best restoratives for those experiencing diminished financial capacity is one of those things we can all learn from. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, even the poorest among us are obligated to give charity. Could it be that wealthy Americans are catching up with an ancient tradition which has always known that giving is as important to building up the giver as it is to building up the receiver?

Whatever the trend turns out to be, there is no question that there will always be people in need, if for no other reason than “need” is culturally and contextually defined, and there will always be opportunities to help them. Whether helping those in need makes us feel richer or not, I know of no time when anyone who did so, and did so freely and willingly, felt worse about themselves for having done so. In a world where so much of what we think we have can vanish in an instant, it’s nice to have something like that, something which nobody can ever take away.


Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • daniel12

    One of the main problems with Western civilization moving away from religion to science–and simultaneously moving toward a politics of and for the people as opposed to, say, monarchy–is that although people’s lives have been improved immeasurably, people are not saintly or with any other great talents for that matter, and are abusing science and putting a strain on the earth’s ecological system.Furthermore, although it has been by science and a politics of and for the people that has led to so much success, this same science ruthlessly gets at what a human being is, and a strictly utilitarian ethic comes to predominate. This means that at the same time science continues to try to improve things, and democracy is spread and philanthropists try to improve lives, the actuality will be that a person had better be born with some sort of talent or be left bereft in a world which offers no spiritual solace or economic advantage for said person.We can clearly see how children are being pushed more and more to succeed in school. Every parent knows the child had better be useful in some manner to society because society and environment is all that exists in the scientific world and the utilitarian ethic predominates. Be useful to other people or be nothing.I foresee that the genetic sciences will advance and begin designing people with talents so that a world exists of only talented people, useful people, thus a world also rescued from human assault by abuse of science. In other words, at the same time we are recognizing the utilitarian ethic which is coming to predominate we are recognizing that only a world of talented people will be the answer to the multitude of problems from crime to abuse of science to plain ignorance.Philanthropists might try to help people but this does not at all answer the question of society increasingly coming to value only people of talent. We might talk of spirituality and helping the poor, but the reality is do we have what it takes to get any job above the mundane, do we have anything really useful to offer society.

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