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The billionaires index as a force for social good?

March 06, 2012|By Walter Hamilton
  • Pimco's Mohamed El-Erian, left, writes that a new billionaires index could be good for society.
Pimco's Mohamed El-Erian, left, writes that a new billionaires index… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Given the deep concerns in some quarters about the gap between rich and poor, it may be difficult to see the societal value of a new “billionaires index” launched by the Bloomberg news service.

But Mohamed El-Erian, the chief executive of bond-investing giant Pimco, said he thinks that the daily scorecard of the uber-wealthy could offer more than a way for the 99.99% to spy on the lives of the richest and most famous.

The index could serve a genuine purpose if it helps to coax the wealthiest members of society to feel an obligation to help the poorest, El-Erian writes in a commentary on the Huffington Post.

"Bloomberg's daily identification of the top billionaires could reinforce a trend where these individuals, and many others, allocate a growing portion of their wealth in a manner that helps society as a whole," El-Erian wrote. "In this way, the appeal of the index would prove to be less about what has happened and more about the responsibility that the rich share to help the least and less fortunate members of our global society.”

It’s uncertain whether that will come to pass.

The introduction of the index already has prompted its 10th-richest member, Brazilian magnate Eike Batista, to declare his goal of snagging the top spot by next year. The top seed, by the way, is held by Mexican mogul Carlos Slim, whose net worth is said to be $68.4 billion. That makes Batista a relative piker at an estimated $29.7 billion.

El-Erian acknowledges the risk that the index could further glorify ostentatious wealth at the expense of societal good.

"The launch of the Billionaires Index could be yet another illustration that certain segments of society remain tone deaf when it comes to social realities," he wrote. "Indeed, some could view it as a sign of how information disseminators and opinion leaders are overly interested in metrics that say little about the underlying health and well-being of society."

But he said he’s optimistic that more of the world’s billionaires will follow the lead of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (Nos. 2 and 3 on the list, respectively), who have pledged much of their wealth to charity.

"Some of the names on Bloomberg's Billionaire Index are already engaged meaningfully and effectively in deploying their wealth for the betterment of society," El-Erian wrote.

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