Income Inequality Series: Part II Stories of the 1%

An acquaintance of mine begrudgingly complained that Mr. Donald Bren, the wealthiest man in Orange County, California, contributes only 400 million dollars a year to charities, which represent a smaller percentage of his net worth than his do.  He then went on to predict that Mr. Bren’s children would engage in an acrimonious fight for their inheritance shares upon his passing, so he thought Mr. Bren should be more generous with his giving when he’s still alive.

To put 400 million dollars in perspective:  The National Endowment for the Arts for 2014 is a paltry 146 million, to be distributed to all the art institutions in the whole United States.  The CEO of one Orange County cultural organization said though he got some grant, he could actually use all of that 146 million to support his ambitious programming initiatives.  Since art institutions in the US do not receive much, if at all, any government funding, they must rely on the generosity of wealthy individuals and entities to underwrite their productions.  The current contentious negotiation between the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and its unions gives a glimpse of how indispensable these contributions are. The Met has an annual endowment of 200 million dollars, which represents 2/3 of its total operating budget.  The Met is considered one of the world’s most prestigious cultural establishments, and half of Mr. Bren’s annual donation can single-handedly support it.

Mr. Alfred Mann, the legendary billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, is known for founding and investing in companies with cutting edge technologies.  He once owned a battery company that partnered with my former employer, a lithium-ion battery start-up.  Currently, Mr. Mann oversees several electronics and medical device companies, providing much needed funding for research and development of life-changing breakthroughs that are going to improve millions of patients’ quality of life.  Growing up in a family with musician mom and brother, he tends to not only open up his check book – he is on the board of the Los Angeles Opera – but also open up his home (and heart) by providing backdrop to the star power that only Mr. Placido Domingo, director of the LA Opera, could produce for its Artist-in-Residence program. Mr.

Milan Panic, former Prime Minister of Yugoslavia now living in California, is actively involved in arts and charities.  I was at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s 2005 gala held at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach where he was honored as its “Person of the Year.”  To thunderous applause, Mr. Panic movingly recounted his story of coming to America with little money, and went on to build ICN, a pharmaceutical empire.  Acknowledging that his success was only possible in America, he thanked the United States of America and American people for accepting who he is and giving him the opportunity of his lifetime.

F. Scott Fitzgerald says: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”  I don’t pretend to be able to even remotely fathom the rich’s behaviors or thought processes in their daily business dealings, where millions or people’s livelihood are on the line, and like you, I followed the breathless reporting when Mr. Bren’s two out-of-wed-lock children sued him for back child support, and sneered when Mr. Panic’s second wife finally had enough of his philandering and divorced him.  I am however, dissatisfied with the current media landscape that one-sidedly accuses the super-rich of being greedy and evil.  This overly simplistic, one-dimensional take does not advance this all-too-important discussion on “income inequality,” and only contributes to the already dangerous polarization.  All I am attempting to do is giving a humanized look at the working class and the rich, and to remind everyone that in capitalist America, upward mobility is still a possibility.


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