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The dubious dawn of the mega-givers

The very rich are different from you and me: Their charitable giving matches that of entire countries.

Take George Soros, the multibillionaire currency speculator and philanthropist. Last week, Soros announced a stunning new gift: In addition to the $1.5-billion he has already donated abroad, he will send a fresh $300-million to $500-million to struggling Russia during the next three years to improve health care, boost education and train downsized military officers for civilian jobs.

Apart from its awesome generosity, Soros' gift is the latest example of a curious new phenomenon, in which one person pursues public purposes on a scale equal to what the other 268-million Americans do together through government. Soros' gift will top the aid the United States gives Russia during the same period. Ted Turner's billion-dollar pledge to the United Nations last month roughly matched the amount the United States owes the United Nations in unpaid dues.

In 1993, philanthropist Walter Annenberg's gift of $500-million to public schools rivaled the scale of an activist Democratic president's signature education initiative, the standard-setting Goals 2000. The other day, two investors, Ted Forstmann and John Walton, gave $6-million to help children flee Washington, D.C.,'s lousy public schools for private school; Congress is debating whether to spend $7-million for the same purpose.

Is this evidence of incredible shrinking government or blossoming noble wealth? Both, sort of. Government is far bigger than it was 30 years ago, but a handful of popular programs (Medicare, Social Security, defense) plus interest on the national debt consume the vast bulk of each year's revenues.

That leaves little room for new needs or goals and explains the tokenism that both political parties hype as "initiatives." The Washington voucher program being trumpeted by many in Congress, for example, would reach a mere 2,000 of the district's 78,500 schoolchildren.

But if big government is pinched, big earners aren't. Four trillion dollars in new wealth have been created from the stock market boom during the last three years alone. Forbes counts 170 billionaires in the United States, up from 13 in 1982. Meanwhile, the ante for admission to Forbes' list of the richest 400 Americans has quintupled, to $475 million.

As Turner himself said in wonder, his billion-dollar gift represented a mere nine months' run-up in his net worth. Nice work, to be sure. It's a myth that private wealth can take on all social ills, of course; charitable giving, at 2 percent of the gross domestic product, cannot begin to rival the scope of government, which tops 30 percent. But very rich people can target very serious problems in ways the rest of us seem collectively content to ignore.

That's good news, because today's mega-philanthropists can do things governments can't. Soros and Turner don't need to get 51 percent of the public to sign on to their plans. They consult their consciences (and maybe Jane Fonda) and act. They can stick with ambitious visions for the long term.

In some cases, they're also freer to act where it matters most. Soros, for example, can retrain disgruntled Russian soldiers, helping defuse a potential powder keg, while U.S. agencies face restrictions on aid to foreign militaries. Indeed, Soros' announcement last week _ the foreign policy of a single individual _ now makes it politically easier for Boris Yeltsin to proceed with a layoff of thousands of unneeded officers.

Still, for all the good works and high drama today's swashbuckling givers bring, something important in our perception of philanthropy's role seems to have changed. At the dawn of this century, Andrew Carnegie viewed the thousands of libraries he funded as seed capital that spurred broader public commitments. He supplied the buildings, but towns had to maintain them and fill them with books.

Today, it is U.S. officials who view their work as seed capital, hoping in Russia, for example, to hand their ideas off to deep-pocketed philanthropists who can ramp demonstration projects (computers in courthouses, incubators in hospitals) up to the needed scale.

"It's just too big for us," as one U.S. official told me. Not for George Soros, though. Something funny about that.

Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Los Angeles. His e-mail address is

Los Angeles Times Syndicate