Yesterday I had the chance to watch a taping of The Tonight Show. Tapings aren't particularly exciting if you've grown up in LA. They usually involve long lines and 6 hour waits without access to food (or bathrooms). But this taping was a different story. We had VIP tickets, allowing us to skip the morning line-up and waltz in at 2:30 for a 4:00 taping. Once we were in the studio, the audience warm-up started (a normal part of the live taping experience) where a series of comedians, upbeat staffers, and musical performances got the audience fired up and ready to laugh when the real show began! When Bryan Branly, backstage host at The Tonight Show, came out to get us going, he said something that piqued my interest. There's a website about Jay Leno's garage and, whether you're a gear-head or not he said, everyone should check it out. So I did.
It should be no surprise to Leno's fans that he has a massive car collection of rare, custom, and antique automobiles. Leno is known for regularly driving cars from the collection on the streets of LA because, as the website says, "Jay makes his purchases not as museum pieces, but because he enjoys driving the cars and motorcycles… all of them!"
What are we to make of Jay's extravagant collection that consists of over 100 cars and motorcycles in his 17,000 sq ft garage? His collection obviously does some good: it brings joy to individuals, preserves history, and provides a handful of undoubtedly well-paid jobs for specialize mechanics. But does that outweigh the good that his collection could do? What if Jay sold his collection and used the proceeds to educate girls in Africa, to make micro-loans to women in India, to build and staff health clinics in the poorest regions of the world? There are measurable, effective, inexpensive ways to change lives, to bring people out of poverty, and Jay has the resources to fund some of them. Certainly Jay Leno has the right to spend his own money as he wishes, but his choice to spend excess wealth on cars is a selfish choice - one that places individual pleasure above the suffering of many.
Yet Jay gives generously to charity, sometimes out of his garage! In 2009, Jay auctioned off one of his custom motorcycles for $120,000 to support Bailey's Cafe, an inner city arts program in New York. Bailey's serves a community in great need, even if the poverty of inner city youth in New York is nothing compared to the third world, where poverty can mean no clean water, no clinics, no food stamps, and no police protection. But Jay gives to charities that work around the world too, like the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which provides hearing devices world wide in countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Jay donates to a whole list of worthy causes that work to make the world better. Is it fair to criticize a rich man for buying a few toys when he gives so much to others?
So Jay Leno: Philanthropic Hero or Materialistic Villain? Probably neither; maybe a little bit of both. I think we should praise the real good he is doing in the world. Jay gives far more than I will ever be capable of giving, and so likely does more good than I will ever be capable of doing. But I think it is equally fair to look at his extravagant collection and recognize that he is choosing to use his wealth on fun and status at the cost of feeding hungry children or providing life-saving vaccines. By promoting this kind of materialism through his celebrity and website, Leno acts as another voice supporting the consumer culture that makes ownership of possessions more enticing than truly important acts that change lives and save lives.
I challenge the philanthropic, generous-spirited Jay Leno to make a bold, public step in his giving: for each dollar you spend adding to your collection, announce an equal sized gift to a charity that lifts people out of poverty. By making your gift publicly, you will encourage others to give too and help encourage a culture that values generosity and equality.
Remember: If you can afford more than one car, you can definitely afford to save lives.
P.S. Jay, in case you don't know where to start, this list of charities has been vetted and reflects only those who have demonstrated high effectiveness in their work with the world's poorest populations.