Andrew Undershaft

Andrew Undershaft

Andrew Undershaft is the wealthy businessman character from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara.” Undershaft made his millions selling war matériel, and had a very interesting take on the ethics of his business. Shaw explains Undershaft’s role in the preface:

“In the millionaire Undershaft I have represented a man who has become intellectually and spiritually as well as practically conscious of the irresistible truth which we all abhor and repudiate: to wit, that the greatest of our evils, and worst of our crimes is poverty, and that our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.”

Undershaft represents an intriguing (although not entirely convincing) argument for a change in value preferences. Rather than preferring peace & poverty over war & wealth, the reverse is the case. But I didn’t start this entry to discuss the merits or problems with such a radical idea. I do, however, want to draw on Shaw’s notion – made manifest in Undershaft’s ideology – that poverty is an egregious state of affair that should be remedied.

I’m not going to try to add my two cents to the whole topic of the ‘war on global poverty’ (a phrase that Undershaft could certainly appreciate), but rather focus on a much narrower and individualized topic: building personal wealth. For those of you scratching your heads as to how I made that jump, one additional detail would help: I’ve been reading some blogs on building personal wealth, as well as figuring out what mutual funds to use in my 401K.

But I’m going to distill this down even further, because no one wants to hear me talk about my mutual fund selections. Instead, I’m interested in the motivation for building personal wealth.

Traditionally, the idea has always been to build personal wealth for personal reasons; you want a good retirement, you want security for you and your family, you want to have something to give you your children and grandchildren when you die. Sure, you can donate to charities or even dabble in a bit of formal philanthropy, but those are usually secondary to one’s own self. You wouldn’t build wealth all your working life to donate to charity, and then use the left-overs for yourself.

But here’s where people like Undershaft come in. Wealth is to be sought not for personal comfort (although that’s always a nice perk), but to combat poverty not only for yourself, but others as well. The end result is usually the same in this alternative view (people get rich and donate to charity), but I wonder if the Undershaft ideology of building wealth for the sake of others (not oneself, necessarily) could serve to reverse the very worrisome widening socioeconomic gap in the U.S. between the super-rich and the rest of us. Smaller and smaller percentages of the U.S. population are gaining control of more and more wealth. And with some truly wonderful counter-examples (Bill Gates, Warren Buffet), most super-rich aren’t re-investing the lion’s share of their wealth back into the U.S. to help the economic ‘dead-zone’ of the poverty-stricken.

Bill Gates makes a lot of money. I mean a lot. The example that is given to illustrate just how rich Bill Gates has become is the following: if Bill Gates were to spot a $100 bill on the ground, he would be LOSING money to take the time to bend over and pick it up (assuming he would stop earning money from his stocks for that period of time). The guy makes a lot of money.

Some of us might react to such wealth with the predictable knee-jerk “that’s unfair” sentiment. While incredibly skewed wealth distribution has its serious problems, to be sure (when money buys votes in Congress through lobbyist pressure, the dollar is what determines the vote), we can’t really fault people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet who take their immense personal wealth and re-direct it to very noble causes and foundations, re-investing their earnings into beneficial parts of our economy.

Why can’t other wealthy individuals get credit? Aren’t they re-investing in our economy when they buy yachts? To a certain extent, yes. But a donation to a charity or foundation without the need for exchange is what really makes a difference. Aside from some good press and tax breaks, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet don’t require any return on investment. They’re simply adding fuel to the economy without extracting resources or goods back out.

And more importantly, where their money is spent is important; building homes for low-income families vs. buying a 3rd yacht for when the other two get boring. Obviously, you could make a pretty solid argument that house-building for low income families goes a lot longer way towards building a better (and less-afflicted by poverty) society than yacht accumulation. The Undershaft ideology is very specific in its description of how personal wealth should be spent once it is acquired: fighting poverty.

Could the Undershaft ideology be spread to other wealthy Americans? Could the telos of wealth acquisition be shifted from personal extravagance to social good? I have no idea. But wouldn’t it be an almost miraculous era of socioeconomic prosperity if the mountains of personal wealth belonging to a few individuals could be directed towards the betterment of our economy, society, and culture?

Such are the dreams of fools and philosophers. Or at least what turns up in a scan of the brain of Curtis Bunner . . .

Until next time, bonnes pensées.

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