A surprising opinion piece–given that the guy who wrote it founded and edits Inside Philanthropy.
I’ve been alarmed by the idea that people with vast amounts of money should be wielding their bucks as if its equivalent to the wisdom to make public policy in a democratic country. This “philanthropy” is really part of the Koch Bros Final Solution to Democracy, and as ugly.
So I was pleased that David Callahan points out that philanthropy should not be replacing government services, although it has been:
Last year, as Kalamazoo, Mich., struggled with a budget deficit and other economic woes, two local philanthropists stepped forward, pledging $70 million to improve the city’s fortunes. Earlier in 2016, a group of foundations put up even more money to help another troubled Michigan city, Flint, recover from the contamination of its water supply. And a few years before that, foundations helped to rescue Detroit from bankruptcy.
So where will the leadership and money come from to take on urgent challenges?
In Michigan and beyond, we’re already seeing an answer: Philanthropy will increasingly slide into the driver’s seat of public life, with private funders tackling problems that government can’t or won’t.
Not “won’t” but “can’t”, because the filthy rich have sheltered their money in tax-free foundations, instead of paying the taxes our government needs to provide public services.
…most of these donors have the best of intentions. [I’d dispute that but then I’m not the editor of Inside Philanthropy, so I don’t have to placate his contributors.] But make no mistake: Their influence is growing in tandem with their largess, shifting power away from democratic institutions.
Most Americans have yet to consider what the power shift away from government means for United States democracy. When people think of philanthropy, they tend to imagine giving for museums or hospitals. Yet today’s biggest donors aren’t much interested in such old-style charity, aiming instead to make “systemic” changes in society.
And we didn’t vote for these “systemic” changes to our public services. But rich people don’t care. They don’t need our votes, or our objections. They have their money and that’s all that matters to them. But money does not endow people with wisdom or experience in democratic policy and governance. That wisdom and experience is vested in the politicians (professional government officials) for whom I vote.
Surveys show that most Americans feel that their voice doesn’t count in public life and want to reduce the influence of the wealthy. But today’s big philanthropy is moving us in the opposite direction, at a time when inequality stands at record levels.
It’s time to look harder at how the wealthy wield clout through philanthropy — and to update oversight rules for a new era of megagiving.
You argue that Democrats have to share the blame for Trump’s rise, partially in promoting the idea that the solution to vast inequality is to have nicer rich people, or philanthro-capitalism. Well, Trump’s pitch to voters was: “I’m rich. Sure, I have absolutely no experience in government, but the fact of my wealth is all the evidence you need that you can trust me to fix everything.” It’s an absurd pitch, but I don’t know how far away it is from why Americans have trusted Bill Gates to remake the American school system or Africa’s agriculture system. I don’t think there could’ve been a pitch as crass as Trump’s “I can fix America because I’m rich” without that groundwork laid by Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative.
There’s a quote in your book that the Trump phenomenon is an uncouth, vulgar echo of the dangerous idea that billionaires can solve our problems. I wonder if, also in Trump, we see a more uncouth and vulgar echo of another idea that the Democrats brought us: benevolent nepotism. Look at the structure of the Gates Foundation and this idea that, rather than trying to solve these huge global problems through institutions with some kind of democracy and transparency baked into them, we’re just going to outsource it to benevolent billionaires. Look at how the Gates Foundation allocates its money, and how it’s structured: it’s Bill Gates, his father and his wife and Warren Buffett — that has been interrogated a whole lot less than this current outsourcing of the world to Jared and Ivanka.
And I’m not cheering on Naomi Klein just because, well, you know, the Naomi Thing. I’m sure there are a couple of Naomis whose views I wouldn’t support. Haven’t met them yet but doesn’t mean they don’t exist.