Warren Buffett’s Son, “Conscience Laundering,” and Occupy Wall Street

On Saturday, July 27, Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and chairman of the NoVo Foundation, wrote a brilliant Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.  With this, he also became an instant icon and unknowing spokesperson for the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Here’s how.

The target of his writing “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” (http://nyti.ms/13okm4e)   is – make no mistake – the verysame 1% that Occupy has railed against from its Zuccotti Park days.  Peter’s op-editorial continues the process of revealing and damning the financial abuses and missteps of the uber rich. In this piece, he targets the “Colonialism” underlying the fashion in which the money-class seek to help the unfortunates of our world.

Peter describes sitting in meetings comprised of heads of state and investment and corporate leaders “searching for answers with the right hand to problems that others in the room have created  with their left.”

Aye, and that’s the rub.  It’s how the system is wired, Peter.  Big Business and Bad Government essentially collude to distract the onlooker from noticing their complicity in creating the problems of the 99%.  They do this with nicely publicized campaigns which tout the corporate imbued solutions – even though what they provide is all too often clearly out of touch with the needs being addressed.

But, like Wall Street, corporate charitable giving certainly qualifies as an enterprise that reflects their world:  big and profitable.  And, growing.

As described by Peter, the growth rate of the nonprofit sector over the past several years exceeds that of either the business or government sectors and employs more than 9.4 million people!  All this provides the machinery to perform the mighty task of giving away over $300 billion annually.  What is not mentioned, is the fact that only a small portion of the donations actually reaches the people or projects for which they are intended.

CharityNavigator.Org, America’s leading independent charity evaluator, has determined that nine out of ten charities spend at least 65% of their contributions (revenue) on overhead.  Only 35% of monies received reach their target.

This is where Occupy steps in, with expectedly different approaches and mechanisms.  Occupy has been declaring over the past almost three years of its existence that almost anything that Wall Street touches is self-serving.  Or, as Peter describes it, “conscience laundering.”

More insidiously, he questioned the consequence of this Janus-faced system in that the poor are assisted in improving their condition so as to make better, future consumers – echoing another Occupy complaint.

“People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more.  But, doesn’t all this just feed the beast?” Peter asks.  “Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market.”

Peter Meet Occupy – “People Bailing Out People”

In October, 2012, I was approached by a working group affiliated with Occupy’s Strike Debt (http://strikedebt.org/) team to consult to them to help locate and purchase medical debt for the purpose of “forgiving” it.  The motivation behind this effort was twofold.  First, to remove a person’s debt from the marketplace (yes, there is a marketplace for debt) so that this person would never hear from a bill collector, and secondly, to draw America’s attention to the very nature of debt itself.

Being semi-retired from the collections industry, knowledgeable, and available, I accepted an advisory role on the project named “Rolling Jubilee” (http://RollingJubilee.org) (RJ) and introduced this team to the little-known fraternity of the buying and selling of medical debt.

What I appreciated is that, at the outset, it was determined that this effort would be professional and compliant with any and all rules and regulations affecting their mission.  RJ incarnated itself as a 503(c )4 corporation, complete with a Board of Advisors and managers, lawyers and accountants.

Then, with the modest expectation of raising $50,000 – which would translate, at a penny on the dollar as sold in that industry, into the forgiveness of $5,000,000 in debt – Strike Debt staged an evening of fund-raising on November 15, 2012.  The show was pure Occupy – Facebook and Twitter were liberally employed to get out the word.  OWS techies livestreamed the event over the Internet to the Occupy faithful with this plea – help us help others.

The actual results were astounding.  Over the next several days, weeks and months, RJ went about raising almost $600,000 and will shortly announce a very significant buy in medical debt.  All of which will be forgiven in full.

Peter Buffett – Take Note

All of this fundraising and the task of buying and abolishing debt is being done for an aggregate cost of less that 6% of the dollars collected – a program cost that, to my awareness, few existing fund-raising institution can match.

There’s neither cost nor need for vanity press or champagne-and-shrimp dinner evenings in which handsomely-suited and gorgeously-dressed society members thump their collective chests for helping the needy.

Only a host of volunteers and a board, none of which are compensated for their work.  Brokers and web developers are paid.  These people are not volunteers, but individuals who have essential areas of expertise.  Even in these cases, services are billed often well below market value.

“They” may have been bailed out.  “We” may have been sold out.  But, this is one of many unheralded example as to how the Occupy Movement continues to quietly grow in influence, power and results created.

But, back to Peter’s Op-Ed and an answer to his plea for a “new operating system…built from the ground up.”  It’s Occupy.  And, now that it has an uncommon ally of such stature and eloquence, perhaps it can receive the respect it deserves.

Until then, I salute Mr. Buffett as being a very, very unusual member of the 1%.


  1. Justin says:

    Occupy is going to be the game-changer that the world is completely unprepared for. The new system will be sustainable; however, the path to get there is going to be absolutely full of destruction.

  2. Chuck Wells says:

    I agree with Justin that “Occupy is going to be the game-changer that the world is completely unprepared for,” but given what we’ve seen from Wall Street (and the government; which they own), those 1% powers that be are already crafting a plan to subsume Occupy. It will happen just as it has with unions, etc.

  3. Jerry, I was wondering to what group you consider yourself and does that mean you feel unfortunate? How does your perception of possibly belonging to the 99% (just like me) impact the quality of your life?

    I think Occupy itself will not be the game changer, but the way how we perceive value and what value creation actually means could be. Europe (August 2013) is a great example. People talk a lot about the crisis, economies, especially in Southern Europe, find themselves in low growth or even negative growth territory. Luckily interest rates are – deliberately – low, but debt is still growing. Actually there is no sound solution to lower the debt, so we just continue with austerity measures, while multinational companies optimize their geographical global strategies.

    Some people say you should never waste a good crisis and I think there is a lot of truth in it. A deep fundamental crisis forces you to rethink your personal and collective strategies. We have maintained a system that is based on neverending (potential) growth, without asking what quality does this growth actually bring. We need to focus on stability and continuity. But what is sustainable, how do we define that and what does such a society look like? What are its foundations? At least it requires components like transparency, an open mind, a vision, mutual sharing, a system based on value creation across the full supply chain. Redefine the purpose of credit and how to use it.

    Ultimately, growth is just a number, but without context it means nothing. We would be much better off with a system that is based on quality, not quantity.

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