A Billionaire's Pledge: A Small Act of Kindness

A Billionaire’s Pledge:

Why a Billionaire Pledging to Pay for Graduating Class’

Student Loans is Just a Small Act of Kindness

Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” meaning that kindness is so apparent to everyone, that you don’t need your five senses to recognize it; kindness is something you can feel in your very soul. When I read that billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith gave a commencement address at Morehouse College, during which he declared that he was going to give a grant to the school in order to pay off the student loan debt of the entire graduating class of 2019, I was absolutely stunned by his generosity. And in all honesty, I was kind of jealous of the members of that graduating class, and that feeling of complete financial freedom that they must feel -- a feeling I am still chasing many years after my graduation. Nevertheless, I got past my jealousy and simply felt genuine happiness for those 400 fortunate graduates. Moreover, I felt a deep sense of respect for Mr. Smith’s unbelievable generosity. His wonderful message to the stunned, weeping, over-joyed crowd was simply “to pay it forward.” Mr. Smith, you are truly a class act and obviously a very kind man.

If I am saying all of these nice things about him, you might be asking yourself: why does this post have the title that it does, which seemingly diminishes Mr. Smith’s generosity. I will tell you why. It’s because if you put the situation in the right financial context, you can better understand what is really happening here with this billionaire and his "generous" donation. I ask myself: do people really understand how much a billion dollars actually is. Ronald Reagan once spoke of the difficulty of trying to comprehend how much a trillion dollars is, saying that “If you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.” I know I’m not talking about a trillionaire here, but rather a billionaire, but the point is still apropos and relevant nonetheless, because all you have to do is split the difference and you will still see the breadth and scale of how much a billion really is. Most of the articles have been saying that Mr. Smith’s deed equates to roughly 40 million dollars. That seems like an exaggeration to this writer. That would mean that all of the 400 students in the Morehouse graduating class took on a 100k in student loans. That seems highly unlikely. Nevertheless, even if that obviously inflated number is in fact accurate, that 40 million dollar donation is basically pocket change for someone of Mr. Smith's wealth, whose net worth is an estimated 4.4 billion dollars. That is, 40 million of a 4.4 billion dollar fortune equates to roughly .01 percent. That’s right, one percent. That’s like if you had $1000 dollars, (which most Americans don’t have according to a CNBC article from this past January) and you gave someone in need $10 dollars. It is an act that may be considered kind by some, but in no way would it deserve dozens and dozens of news stories about how great a sacrifice you made. All the Robert F. Smith stories should really be about: why is college so expensive for the average American, and why is the wealth disparity in this country so great.

Let me finish this post by saying this: this post is much more about pointing out the sheer scale of monetary figures, than it is about diminishing anyone’s generous deeds. What Robert F. Smith did was a wonderful gesture, and it should in fact be celebrated. And hopefully it will be a call to action for others in his very fortunate position to do whatever they can to remedy the student loan crisis, so that we can all be better positioned for the future, and maybe (just maybe) pay it forward ourselves.

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