July 17, 2006
The Master's Program
The Point of View - A Weekly Commentary by Bob Shank

Dear Marketplace Friend,

Boy, have times changed. In the short span of one decade, it's the same faces on the mag fronts, but the headlines are 180° different. In one short decade...

In the second-half of the last decade - "back in '96" - you would find Bill Gates, or Bill Clinton, or Warren Buffett in public view, regularly. The words across their chest would vary, but they were always defined by the pursuit of power. For Gates, building Microsoft into the must-have software platform that would secure their place in the fabric of modern life would propel him to the position of "World's Richest Man." If we needed a face to put on the Rich Young Ruler story from the gospels, there he was. For Mr. Clinton, politics didn't pay well... but, the power resident in the Oval Office was the brass ring. In '96, he was stumping for rehire: second terms set presidents apart from their one-lap-around-the-track predecessors. Despite impeachment proceedings, he secured a platform of power to use - for good, or not - for life. And Buffett? Though half-a-generation ahead of the Bills, he avoided Leisure World, stayed in the game... and invested his way into the runner-up-Richest Man position. Berkshire Hathaway stock was - and, is - the way that some people have piggybacked on Buffett's expertise in picking winners, to become winners.

What's changed? Now, in '06, you'll still find Bill2 and Buffett on the covers, but it's no longer about "getting;" at least not in the prior sense. Today, they have all shifted gears. Some would call it "reverse;" others would say they've moved into hyper-drive. Today's agenda - for all three - is to take what they have acquired through their earlier pursuits... and leverage it into visible, measurable change, beginning now.

Look, rich people have often pursued largesse on the backside of their acquisition agendas. For most, through the last century, they made those plans clear... and triggered them at death. Was it a ploy to beat the dreaded "death tax?" (the Republican nickname for estate taxes), or were they truly philanthropic? Who could ever know: the point is, it has been popular to give some/most/all away... after one leaves, when the "gift" won't put a crimp in the "giver's" stash, while they're still breathing. Live; acquire; lavish; acquire more; spend more; die; distribute. That was the "life plan" for the "rich and famous”... until now, that is.

In the age of "the one who dies with the most assets, wins" (the motto for the wealthy who weren't into "toys"), Andrew Carnegie set an exception in motion. One of America's top-tier moguls 100+ years ago, he believed the responsibilities that came with resources included the task of distributing them effectively before death. He had no personal faith, but he believed in literacy. Libraries, book collections, reading programs were his hot-buttons, and he put his money where his heart was. His wealth peaked at $285 million (back when $1 million was more than a starter home in a coastal state); when he died, he left $15 million... because he died before he thought he would. Where did the $270 million go?

Stone edifices, housing literary resources, still stand with Carnegie's name carved across the top, in cities around America. Getting required expertise and intentionality; giving - in Carnegie's view - required the same kind of effort and initiative. Warren Buffett had always declared his plan to "give it all away" ... when he was done with it (at death), and not before...until Mr. Gates stepped aside from his "getting" emphasis and declared his intentions to devote his best energies to the task of "giving." His decision influenced his friend, Warren... and that influence led to Buffett's decision to join him in the effort. Headlines: Warren gives to Bill, so Bill can give to the world.

That's all great, on a humanitarian scale. Their combined capacity to make a measurable impact in entire societies will be something to watch. Gates knows that the right checks, invested in the right places, can actually raise the measured lifespan of countries, during his lifetime. Wow: turn greenbacks into years.

Here's an even better one: Christians have the only antidote to the plague of sin, which is the ultimate killer virus. Once administered, the Gospel raises the life expectancy from <100 earth years ... to eternity. When will the custodians of that miracle cure follow Bill/Bill/Warren's leads... and put their best efforts into using their time/talent/treasure to distribute the cure?

Bob Shank

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