The Worst Beneficiaries of a Billion-Dollar Will

Christopher Caldwell is appalled by the fact that Leona Helmsley left her entire $5bn+ estate to dogs:

A vast amount of the productive energy of future generations has been pre-allocated to dogs on the say-so of one of the most disreputable public figures of postwar America. Maybe people born a quarter of a century from now will think this was a terrific idea. But if starvation and suffering are not abolished in the interim, they are just as likely to view Helmsley’s will as we view the emperor Caligula’s making a consul of his horse. They may think, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, that a large fortune is never more innocently employed than when it is being blown at the gambling tables by some feckless heir.

Would it be great if all wills were dedicated solely to the abolition of starvation and suffering? Yes – but they’re not. And in the mean time, an estate devoted to dogs is likely to do at least as much good, societally speaking, as one frittered away at gambling tables: it will go to people in the dog industries, rather than people in the gaming industries, and that’s probably no bad thing.

Thinking about the amounts of harm that people can do in their will, however, I did start wondering at the fact that neither of the two big political parties in the US are particularly well endowed. If someone left either the DNC or the RNC a Helmsley-sized estate, that would transform American politics overnight, and not in a good way.

Back in 2000, Warren Buffett hinted as much in a NYT op-ed supporting radical campaign finance reform:

For five decades, I’ve looked for undervalued stocks. But if I’d been interested in the biggest bargain around, which I wasn’t, I would have bought political influence…

Just suppose some eccentric billionaire (not me, not me!) made the following offer: If the bill was defeated, this person — the E.B. — would donate $1 billion in an allowable manner (soft money makes all possible) to the political party that had delivered the most votes to getting it passed. Given this diabolical application of game theory, the bill would sail through Congress and thus cost our E.B. nothing (establishing him as not so eccentric after all).

Anybody upset at Helmsley’s billions going to dogs might do well to stop, pause, and breathe a sigh of relief it isn’t going to a political party instead. Some causes make pets seem positively noble.

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