One must first generate to be generous

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management, LLC
February 20, 2011

My column last week on the appropriate distributions of the profits of a company (“Profits should go to those earning them”) inspired some readers to accuse me of being uncaring about the plight of the working poor and middle class.

I stand by everything in the column. The title was misleading, as the piece actually argued that profits should go to those “owning” them, not those “earning” them.

People earning the profits of a company are paid for their work. People owning the profits of a company are paid for their risk.

The column did not, however, address the larger question of the relationships between human beings. These relationships transcend audited financial statements, although they do not void contracts.

There is a well-known successful businessman in Knoxville. He grew up poor. Most readers don’t know him, but certainly know of him. He is incredibly generous, usually in a completely quiet and discrete way. I am not aware of any buildings named for this man, although he did once allow a merry-go-round to be named for his father.

I asked him why he was so generous with his wealth. He gave the predictable answers. “People have been good to me, so I give back. I want to make my community a better place.” Blah, blah, blah.

Then he stopped and offered something unexpected. “I remember when I first met Bo Shafer. Something struck me. He’s just such a positive, happy guy. I looked around and realized that the happiest people I knew were all givers. That’s what I wanted to be like.”

Another local businessman is sometimes criticized in the Knoxville media for various misrepresented or petty positions attributed to him. He is portrayed as selfish and only interested in maximizing his own net worth.

I have repeatedly sat in meetings with this man and his senior executives where he has genuinely outlined plans by which his employees could leverage their employment at his company to become millionaires. His ultimate goal isn’t to unrich himself by challenging his employees to enrich themselves, but he wants his people to earn and save as much money as possible.

That is a greater good.

The word “generous” originates from the ancient Greek root “gonos,” which translates as “beget” or “create.” It is the same root from which the word “generate” is derived.

In order to be generous, one must first generate.

People really do serve the most good when they serve their own interests, but there is a much higher self-interest than the simple pursuit of monetary profits. Money is a powerful tool that can be used to reflect the values of the man that possesses it. We are such a money-focused society that we too often mistakenly believe that money is the highest purpose to which a man can selfishly strive.

It isn’t. A man best serves himself by sharing himself with another human being.

Bill Gates gives away hundreds of millions of his own dollars each year to needy organizations. This type of generosity connects us all and makes the world work just a little better. Gates is generous.

Robin Hood, however, was a thief.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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