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Philanthropist's ideas rich in irony Society: George Soros, the capitalist's capitalist, says it's time for fairness.


So there was George Soros yesterday, proclaiming the virtues of the open society to a gathering of business people, politicians and hometown boosters in the vast, carpeted ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel. Suddenly, a man in a gray suit -- a paying guest -- separated himself from the audience and walked toward the podium.

"Soros, you are a murderer," he shouted. "You are a criminal!" He followed with a variety of other epithets before being led away.

In the silent aftermath, Soros, apparently unfazed, but maybe not, said faintly: "We are in an open society."

What better proof.

The 68-year-old financier and philanthropist was invited to town by the Greater Baltimore Alliance, the regional economic development organization. This was his first visit to Baltimore -- he used it to announce the conditional grant of $6.5 million to after-school programs Monday -- and he agreed to address the 500 or more breakfast guests yesterday.

On the podium, Soros projects none of average CEO's overconfidence. He tells no jokes, he stutters, he drones. He speaks like a man who never finishes refining his thoughts. In short, he personifies the philosophy that undergirds his investment strategies, the philosophy that made him pick Baltimore to open the first U.S. branch, outside of New York, of his philanthropic agency, the Open Society Institute.

Soros' philosopy is based on "imperfect understanding," a theory that states that people, even experts, usually understand imperfectly everyday situations that confront them, then act upon that flawed understanding. Results are often undesireable.

Such a view encourages insecurity, which Soros thinks is not a bad thing. "My sense of insecurity keeps me alert, always ready to correct my errors," he has said.

It was Baltimore's obvious imperfections that prompted him to invest here, he told the alliance, apologizing for his bluntness about the hometown before a group dedicated to its uplift. Of course, there are other reasons: The city government is receptive to his ideas, there are numerous community organizations to work through and Soros felt OSI could make a noticeable impact.

With his guiding philosophy, Soros has a lot to say about high finance and global economic matters, about where he believes the world is going. He is one of those thinkers who can make the connection between these Olympian activities and the way people live right here, in places like Highlandtown, West Baltimore.

For instance, he told his audience yesterday that something had to be done to reduce the "asymmetries" between the strong center -- Europe, the United States, Japan -- and the "disadvantaged peripheral countries of the world." Then he contrasted the global scene with the local: Baltimore "is the center that is disadvantaged and it is important for the peripheries [the counties] to help."

For his own part, Soros will spend $25 million here in the next 25 years to implement programs against drug abuse, to teach children the rewards of learning, the residents of Pigtown the ineffable pleasures of art, and to rescue deserving juvenile delinquents from the maw of the criminal justice system. In the end, it is possible that George Soros, a Hungarian financier cum philosopher, will do more for Baltimore than the Disney people with their game rooms and museums, or Cal Ripken with his good example.

George Soros transfixed much of the world in 1992 when he bet hundreds of millions of borrowed dollars against the British pound and forced its devaluation. Suddenly he was the "Man Who Broke the Bank of England." Suddenly his name became commonly known in high-income homes the world over. Suddenly he was a public figure.

Even subsequent failures of greater magnitude have failed to dim the luster of that victory over the smug mandarins of British finance. In August, his investment funds revealed that they had watched $2 billion go down the financial toilet that Russia became this year. But does anybody refer to George Soros derisively as "the Man Who Broke his Back on the Ruble of Russia?"

Not at all. Soros' fame has been most durable.

For someone who has explained himself as extensively as he has -- in his books (the one just out, "The Crisis of Global Capitalism"), in his speeches (he's a star of C-Span), and interviews without number -- there is much disagreement about his motives.

Currently he is being thumped for demanding regulation of markets and criticizing people who are doing what he himself did to get rich quick: that is, play fast and loose in currency markets while making decisions that ignore social consequence.

The prime minister of Malaysia has accused Soros of starting the financial crisis in Asia by speculating against his nation's currency. That was also one of the allegations made by the man who interrupted his talk at the Hyatt.

So who is George Soros to be going on about "regulating" global capitalism, questioning the tenet of Adam Smith that pursuit of wealth in one's own self-interest will make things better for all? What kind of capitalist is this?

Possibly he is one of a different stripe. Soros has the traditional conservative European's respect for the public space, the literal and metaphorical common ground.

Yesterday he reiterated his call for "regulating mechanisms to prevent markets swinging to extremes."

Would John D. Rockefeller ever say such a thing? Isn't regulation anathema to the capitalist idea? Yes, but Soros worries that market capitalism in its unrestrained form evolves into social Darwinism, and he finds that dangerous.

"Where I am at odds with the latter-day apostles of laissez faire is that I don't believe markets are perfect," he wrote in 1995. "In my opinion they are just as likely to lead to unsustainable excesses as to equilibrium. But my disagreement goes even deeper: I don't believe competition leads to the best allocation of resources. I don't consider the survival of the fittest the most desireable outcome."

Soros is often the target of simplistic criticisms, such as this, quoted in the New York Times on Dec. 6, by a financial journalist: "I think there is a built-in conflict between making money in public markets and improving the world."

Does that mean that a capitalist with a heart and conscience is somehow flawed?

Soros clearly has a heart. He also has, what Aryeh Neier, who runs his Open Society Institute in New York, describes as "a political cast to his vision." It is a dark vision, as well. "In my opinion," Soros said, "we have entered a period of global disintegration, only we are not aware of it."

Soros is interesting to the world not only because he is rich, but because he gives his money away. But didn't Andrew Carnegie do that? Yes, and he established a foundation to work for world peace. But Carnegie's efforts, as Neier points out, expressed themselves through the establishment of free libraries, mainly. It is a worthy if passive form of philanthropy. Soros does this, but he also personally decides on his bequests. He is politically active. He knows what must be done. He learned how urgent the doing of it is as a Jewish adolescent eluding the Nazis in Hungary, then as a stifled entrepreneur in the same country under the communists.

When he migrated to England he experienced the exilaration of freedom. Then, at the London School of Economics he was instructed by the philosopher Karl Popper, who literally wrote the book defining the Open Society. He moved to the United States in 1956.

Around 1980, Soros' personal wealth topped $25 million. It was then he "determined after some reflection that I had enough money. I came to the conclusion that what really mattered to me was the concept of an open society."

Soros seems to have a far clearer understanding of his own self-interest than many other free-booting free-marketeers. He realizes that it is served by shaping his actions to benefit the society that allows him to accumulate wealth. That's his message. He repeats it over and over.

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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