Are the Rich Any Good? Think Immigrant Women Leaders

Whatever holes one may pick in Picketty and other economists, plutocracy is rooted deeply and rules the world. If this is indeed inevitable, what's to be done?
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Attacking the Rich

Resentment against the rich seems to be growing around the world. The recent recession exacerbated feelings already running high: demonstrations, Occupy Wall Street in New York City and elsewhere, the Daily Show where Stewart openly mocks rich Americans, a recent Gallup poll finding that one in five Americans struggled to afford food in the last year -- all ingrain in us the idea that American extreme levels of inequality are morally unacceptable. Money has become be a touchy-touchy topic.

So, are the rich of America under attack? Yes. I believe it's a waste of time though. Let's look into this issue focusing on some trailblazing tendencies in the rich world that counteract its mainstream, and see how immigrant women leaders, the subjects of my upcoming book, fit them.

Marx, Picketty, and Plutocracy

I grew up in the country where higher education was free -- but we had to read/learn a lot of Karl Marx in return, so I have a good idea of his theory and desire to tear down the rich. A recent book by Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has repeated the titanic effort of Marx on a new level of the free market -- showing severe signs that social inequality is even more entrenched. Some think it's discriminatory that the world's top 1 percent has 50 percent of the wealth. In fact, such inequality is no big news: In 1906, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was the first to come up with the similar numbers: According to his 80-20 rule, about 1 percent of the population should own about 51 percent of the wealth.

Whatever holes one may pick in Picketty and other economists, plutocracy is rooted deeply and rules the world. If this is indeed inevitable, what's to be done?

Oh, the Wonderful Things that the Money Can Do

Oh, the wonderful things Mr. Buffett can do

Mr. Buffett is a dynamic driver of the new ideas: the so-called Buffett Rule would apply a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on individuals making more than a million dollars a year. Although the rule was blocked by a Republican filibuster, Warren Buffett and the like-minded 1 percent-ers make their contributions through charity -- since the U.S. tax system does not re-distribute wealth enough, to the mind of this significant minority. Thus, The Giving Pledge campaign, started in 2010 by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, encourages the wealthiest people to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. As of February 2014, 122 billionaires have signed the pledge, including such famous Americans as Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner, and Mark Zuckerberg; quite a few individuals from around the world; and some immigrant Americans, like Diane von Furstenberg and Manoj Bhargava.

I've interviewed several American immigrant women philanthropists while researching for my book. They've been through hurting and humiliating immigration/exile experiences that enhanced their innate understanding of those less fortunate. Some became very rich in America, and now they contribute big-time to America's well-being and culture, for example:

Rosa de la Cruz, from Cuba -- Art for the People

Rosa de la Cruz, a prominent philanthropist and collector of art, has redefined a public role for private art collectors. She went a long way to be where she is today: Exiled at 16, she learned to be responsible with money. Rosa married her Cuban youth sweetheart Carlos who made a fortune that eventually put them among the 50 most powerful families.

Taking care of the 30,000-square-foot de la Cruz Collection in the Design District of Miami, is Rosa's alter ego. The Collection is open to the public free of charge and conducts diverse educational programs -- including scholarships and group travels to Italy where Rosa and Carlos take the talented schoolchildren to learn art in-depth.

Rosa's commitment to cultivating contemporary art -- and bringing art to the people on a broader scale than ever before -- became a unique form of community service. Her zealous wish to stretch art philanthropy into a new, more people-centered shape -- and provide art education to the young generation and opportunities to emerging artists -- can be broadly consequential in shaping the future of American culture.

Loida Nicolas-Lewis, from the Philippines -- Fate and Fortune

Loida Nicolas-Lewis, a millionaire achiever, has her fate and fortune intricately intertwined. Loida had a Catholic upbringing, passed the bar exam in the Philippines, and -- after a fateful blind date -- she married an ambitious African-American lawyer who built a great fortune from scratch. But it was not her marriage or money that made Loida a star with both black and white business communities. On succeeding her late husband at TLC Beatrice, she was able to turn around the flagging global empire she inherited, earning her net worth -- and then putting the money to good use, for many philanthropic and activist causes.

Recognizing the exceptional philanthropic capability of the American nation -- which resonated with her own values -- Loida embraced it, donating to many institutions: $3 million to her late husband's alma mater, Harvard Law School; $1.5 million to the business school at Virginia State University; $5 million for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, to name a few. As an activist, Loida is backing the U.S. Democratic Party and some civic causes in the Philippines.

What Money Can't Buy

Not all the rich are narrow-minded money-makers consumed with self-interest or busy doing nothing. A significant minority acts to better the world -- a tendency worth noting! Therefore, I believe that a positive approach will work better than attack on the rich, specifically: putting the philanthropically-minded rich -- those who have already signed "The Giving Pledge" and those who haven't -- on a pedestal. In many ways, their heart-felt open-handedness makes them good role models. America should know its heroes/heroines -- and this salutation is the honor that money can't buy.

Let's raise the national discussion of these issues and stretch public opinion into a pragmatic new shape.

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