(7 of 18)
George Soros, philanthropist
I remain a supercapitalist," proclaims billionaire financier George Soros, clearing up confusion on a matter that should go without saying. After all, he did build much of an estimated $2.5 billion fortune speculating in world currency markets. These days Soros has been winning headlines for giving away money, not making it. His $350 million in gifts last year made him the nation's leading philanthropist. And he has been stirring controversy by directing his dollars to an array of hot-button political causes tied to his personal ideal of an "open society" and by writing an iconoclastic critique of free-market capitalism.
Soros, 66, has an indisputable Midas touch. His years of shrewd market playing may have reached a high-water mark in 1992, when he placed a high-stakes bet against the British pound and earned an estimated $1 billion for his Quantum Fund and the nickname "the man who broke the Bank of England." Meanwhile the Jewish, Hungarian-born Soros, who has lived under both Nazis and communists, was giving away millions in Eastern Europe. His Open Society Fund backed the dissidents of Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 and Poland's Solidarity, helping to topple totalitarian regimes in those countries. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars more trying to nourish democratic practices and the rule of law throughout the former Soviet bloc.
Although he remains a generous force in that region, Soros, a naturalized American citizen, has begun directing much of his charity to this country. In a lengthy essay in the Atlantic Monthly earlier this year, Soros wrote that laissez-faire capitalism has got so out of hand that the "main enemy of the open society is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat." He contends that the "cult of success has replaced a belief in principles" and that "society has lost its anchor."
As he has shifted his giving homeward, Soros has kept his concept of the open society firmly in mind: $1 million to help pass initiatives in California and Arizona last year that legalized the medicinal use of marijuana ("I firmly believe the war on drugs is doing more harm to our society than drug abuse itself," he says); $15 million for "Project on Death in America," a program aimed at a more humane and realistic treatment of the terminally ill; $50 million for a fund to help legal immigrants; $12 million to improve math education in the inner cities and rural areas.
To detractors, Soros is at best confused in his economic analyses, at worst a Benedict Arnold to the system that made him rich. Steve Hanke, a Johns Hopkins economics professor, considers Soros one of the best hedge-fund managers in history but dismisses his essay as "muddled theorizing." Soros is undeterred. "A lot of people wrote articles about the piece in the Atlantic, but I am not sure too many people read it," he says. The way to keep America a free market, he insists, is to protect it from the excesses of free-market ideology. In his view, no ideology is infallible.