Munificence at Morehouse and Begrudgery Everywhere Else
It was an extraordinary gesture. A quintessential American moment.
Last Sunday, at the commencement exercises at Morehouse College - an all-male, historically black liberal arts college - billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith gave the graduating class a jaw-dropping gift.
The 56-year-old African-American investment banker who’s reportedly worth about $5 billion stunned graduates when - during his commencement address - he offered to pay the student debt of all 396 class members.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country,” he told the celebratory crowd in Atlanta, “we're gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
I’ve watched the videos of that announcement. For an instant, the grads seem uncertain that they heard what they heard. There were cheers. And tears. And a whole lot of gratitude.
It was a life-changing moment for those young men. Instead of struggling with student debt - loans they willingly signed for and promised to pay back - they can now head to graduate school or into the workforce debt-free.
What a tremendous gift.
Thanks to a successful businessman who seems to derive pleasure from giving away his money.
Yet, in the immediate aftermath of this generosity, folks on both sides of the gaping American political divide began tinkling all over Smith’s good deed.
The New York Times, for instance. The editorial board - writing on behalf of publisher A. G. Sulzberger, 38, a fifth-generation member of a dynastic newspaper family whose DNA helped him land his lucrative job - mirrored modern American socialist thought by essentially saying Smith was only able to be as generous as he was last weekend because the IRS hadn’t confiscated enough of his money.
On the other side of the political divide, conservatives on Twitter argued that Smith was “sending the wrong message” by paying off loans that the students had voluntarily taken out. And what about the Morehouse graduates who weren’t in debt, someone asked. Weren’t they being “penalized” by this largesse?
What has happened to America? When did we become a country of begrudgers?
You expect this from the neo-socialists. They howl about how unfair it is that some have yachts while the masses don’t have bullet trains. They’re eager to raid the bank accounts of those with wealth. They scorn the successful and laud the indolent.
But it was surprising to see any negative reaction from conservatives, those who supposedly believe that workers ought to be able to keep most of the fruits of their labor. Those who would prefer to give money to causes they support rather than ones chosen for them by government factotums.
Robert F. Smith did a wonderful thing by pledging roughly $40 million to wipe out students’ debts. No doubt he inspired many of his young recipients to engage in unexpected acts of charity when they have the opportunity. He may have also nudged others of means to engage in grand acts of philanthropy.
Yet members of The Times editorial board casually lumped Smith in with 20th century robber barons and “plutocrats.”
Shame on them. Shame on everyone nitpicking Smith’s gift.
Stop begrudging. Start celebrating.