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What Would You Do With a Billion Dollars?

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What do you think when you read that a single hedge fund manager, David Tepper, earned $4 billion last year?

At first, I found it unfathomable. And then disturbing.

The average working American earns $18.90 an hour, or less than $40,000 a year. Some 15 million Americans are currently unemployed. Nearly two billion people around the world subsist on less than $1.50 a day. More than 16,000 children die each day from causes related to hunger.

How does that make David Tepper feel? How about the next two dozen top hedge fund managers, who earned an average of about $1 billion each last year?

The most powerful article I've read in the past ten years is "What Should a Billionaire Give - and What Should You?" It was written by the philosopher Peter Singer, an Australian-born professor at Princeton, and published in the New York Times Magazine in 2006.

Singer begins by making an incredibly simple point: "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

Singer first laid out his reasoning thirty-five years ago, in a scholarly article, using a hypothetical case. If you were to pass by a child who was drowning in a shallow pond, he asked, would you make an effort to save the child? For nearly all of us, the answer is plainly yes. We'd do so even if it meant muddying our clothes or being late to our next appointment, since those consequences pale next to the potential death of a child.

If that's so, Singer went on, we should feel no less compelled to save a child from certain death, even if that child lives thousands of miles away and the death is one that occurs over time, from malnutrition.

Today, Americans donate an average of 2 percent of their gross income to charitable causes. But what if the richest people gave much more away (and still kept a lot)?

If Tepper donated $3 billion, for example, he'd still have $1 billion left from last year's earnings. If the top one tenth of one percent of US taxpayers - approximately 150,000 people in all - gave away one-third of their income, they'd generate nearly half of what the UN has estimated it would take to cut in half the number of those living at the most abject level of poverty. And still be left with more than $10 million in income a year for themselves.

It's hard to imagine that any of them would be any less comfortable, or happy, or secure, as a result. How much incremental value, of any kind, does a person get by earning $10 million instead of $5 billion, or $4 billion instead of $1 billion?

Compare that to the value created by giving a significant percentage of that money to those who need it most. Literally millions of lives could be saved. And it even has benefits closer to home, in the message it would send to the rest of us.

Nearly every leader is looking for more engaged, committed, loyal employees. One good way is to set an example that inspires them.

Think about it:

Would you feel differently about working in a company in which the CEO and the most senior executives gave away a third of their earnings to help eliminate poverty? Would you feel better about your job if you knew that as a consequence of whatever work you do, fewer kids would die of malnutrition and more of them would get educated?