Bashing Billionaires: 'Tis the Season

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How much reward must society provide? White doesn't know, but says, "I would be real reluctant to impose a limit on wealth accumulation. At the same time, we have a substantial income distribution problem in this country, and it's gotten worse over the past few decades. I'm prepared to see redistribution efforts, provided we continue to maintain incentives not just for the better mousetrap but for better software, for a baseball hitter who can hit 300 -- all those things. We need market rewards."

George Gilder, author of the book "Wealth and Poverty," argues that the self-made rich serve as multipliers of wealth: "The people who create wealth know best how to make more of it," he says. A wealthy individual can move from one investment to another quickly, unilaterally, making bets more daring and unconventional than could an institution.

"The wealthy back things others might regard as nonsensical or outrageous -- like airplanes, junk bonds or Wal-Mart. Imagine putting all those huge stores out in the boondocks."

White cautions, however, that questions of social utility are complex. Charity itself is an investment, even if its return is hard to measure.

"Always, there are tradeoffs," he says. "If we devote resources to raising up the bottom end of society, we may do so at the cost of lower economic growth, a lower standard of living. There's no such thing as an easy answer."

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