American philanthropist Chuck Feeney built a billion dollar empire, and the gave it all away.
American philanthropist Chuck Feeney built a billion dollar empire, and the gave it all away.

How Gympie can learn from an ex-US Airman

A piece by Gympie region councillor Dan Stewart

Chuck Feeney was enormously successful in business.

Leaving the US Air Force he sold duty free alcohol. His business grew into a multi-billion dollar empire.

Turning 90 next year, he has a mere $2 million nest egg to last out his life. He lives in a modest rented apartment in San Francisco.

What happened to his fortune, certainly not a massive business failure?

The simple answer: he gave it away.

Councillor Dan Stewart says some economic assumptions are not what they seem on the surface. Photo Renee Albrecht/Gympie Times
Councillor Dan Stewart says some economic assumptions are not what they seem on the surface. Photo Renee Albrecht/Gympie Times

Queensland was one beneficiary.

Then Premier Peter Beattie encouraged Chuck Feeney to help fund the building of medical research facilities in Brisbane.

One assumption of economics is the economic man (we would now say person) who is rational in accumulating wealth. They weigh the evidence and then decide how to earn or spend their money.

No doubt Chuck Feeney fits this model well in many ways. He was clearly a clever business man who built his business empire from his blue collar and Air Force background.

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But he was much more than economics. He learnt the value of charity from his schooling. He

happily lived a modest life, preferring bus to plane travel and not owning a car.

He was also fortunate to live at a time when international travel was on the increase, and had the nous to see and take advantage of a gap in the market for duty free goods.

Being frugal he could reinvest money back into his business.

So while Chuck Feeney may have been a rational economic person, economic person has difficulty accounting for his values of charity and frugality.

Of course, humans generally are not very rational. Any student of the brain and human thinking quickly learns about the limits of our grey matter. Our brain takes many shortcuts, seeing patterns where none exist, fitting what we see and hear into with what we already think, forgetting far more than we remember.

The add that the information we receive is incomplete and faulty. Call it false news or alternative facts, or only listening to half the story, or simply not knowing, we make decisions on the skimpiest of information.

And our decisions about money involve predicting the future, which is notoriously difficult. Are interest rates going to rise and fall, what will be the next fad? Twelve months ago who was predicting a pandemic?

Traditional economics depends on some dubious assumptions, rational economic man is one of

them.

A great book to read is Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth (Gympie Library has a copy). In the next few weeks I hope to explore other assumptions, such as the need for endless growth, GDP as a measure of economic health and that the free market knows best.

Gympie Times


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