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On Philanthropy

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gilded-age.gjf_

Americans love philanthropy because we love individualism and we love our rich. We indeed think that could be us with some luck and hard work. Bootstrapism remains a powerful mythology within our society and goes a long ways to understanding why the United States is more economically conservative than Europe. And if you are rich, you are seen as an expert. Thus Bill Gates gets to set a global agenda on health care and Mark Zuckerberg somehow knows something about education. But while individual philanthropists can influence the world for good, the larger impact is really problematic, allowing the wealthy to create policy developing out of wankfests like the Aspen Institute. In the end, every dollar that goes toward rich people’s philanthropies is a dollar that the government should have taxed and spent to create social programs that make philanthropy unnecessary. Imagine a government actually funding public broadcasting instead of a system that relies on fundraising all the time. Imagine government funding higher education instead of forcing university presidents to do the bidding of the wealthy so they can get the donations they need to keep the school running. Imagine the U.S. government declaring war on disease instead of letting Bill Gates set the agenda. Instead Betsy DeVos is running our education system because she is rich and wants to get everyone in religious schools. Great.

I recognize this is the society in which we live and given the real world I don’t begrudge anyone going after donations. But it’s really not a good scene and is part and parcel of the New Gilded Age.

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  • What need would we have for the rich if they no longer had a way to meddle with their money?

    • DrDick

      I am struggling to think of any reason we need them now.

      • jamesepowell

        The Job Creators! The Makers Not Takers!

        The fact you have wealth – earned or inherited but especially inherited – is proof that God loves you and agrees with all your great ideas for how everything should be done.

        It’s. like, in the Bible or something.

      • CP

        I was thinking this all through the recession of the last eight years. The justification that’s always given for these people existing is that they keep people employed and economies working. Well, guess what? They’re clearly not employing enough people right now, so tax the shit out of them and use the money they were letting rot in their bank accounts to employ the people they should’ve employed on the jobs they’re not interested in touching (hello, infrastructure, to name only that…)

      • We don’t need them. But the scary thing is that once the robots have replaced labor, the rich won’t need us either.

      • Origami Isopod

        A good source of lean protein, fed on organic groceries.

  • BobOso

    From the link: And more and more public policy debates they look kind of like these sort of Greek gods throwing lightning bolts at each other, you know, billionaires on the left and the right as the rest of us watch from the sidelines.

    To be fair, some gods are throwing lightning bolts directly at us mortals just to watch us go splat.

  • DrDick

    The ultimate irony here is that the rich, at best, only donate a very small portion of their income to charity and it really accomplishes rather little.

    • liberal

      The top 20% of the income distribution is not what I’d call “rich”. Furthermore, if we’re really going to try to measure who’s rich and who’s not, it’d be much better to use wealth, not income.

      • DrDick

        Those in the bottom half of the income distribution donate a large portion of their income than those making over $2 million.

      • Furthermore, if we’re really going to try to measure who’s rich and who’s not, it’d be much better to use wealth, not income.

        My Piketty tells me that the issue right now is that the wealthy are now also paying themselves exorbitant salaries, so they are getting paid from both wealth and income.

    • catclub

      Also, lowering the highest tax rate lowers the amount of philanthropy.

      • DrDick

        Exactly. Charitable giving for the rich is not benevolence so much as a tax dodge.

  • “Imagine a government actually funding public broadcasting instead of a system that relies on fundraising all the time. Imagine government funding higher education instead of forcing university presidents to do the bidding of the wealthy so they can get the donations they need to keep the school running. Imagine the U.S. government declaring war on disease instead of letting Bill Gates set the agenda.”

    I dunno about that. The Russian government funds public broadcasting, and the Saudi government funds higher education. Why do you trust the government to fund a broadcasting system that is free to criticize it, or to respect academic freedom? The power of the purse is absolute power.

    And as a factual matter, the vast majority of medical research and public health programming is government funded right now. The Gates and Clinton foundations and so on contribute on the margins.

    • LeeEsq

      The idea is that higher taxation and public funding somehow naturally correlates to social democratic policies and politics. A Denmark with 320 million people and better weather. This isn’t true. Lots of authoritarian regimes have high taxation but do not fund things we exactly like or want.

      • Yep. How would you like the federal government to provide 100% funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting under the present administration?

        • LeeEsq

          You would need to design the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to be public but not part of the federal government like how the BBC is public but not part of the British government to prevent it from feeling political heat. I’m not sure if that is possible under the Constitution. The BBC can be public but not government because the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. Even than it took decades of legal wrangling to figure out the relationship between the BBC and British government/state.

          Other public broadcasters are more firmly creatures of their government. That means they either end up being tax-funded but basically still commercial networks or propaganda arms of authoritarian regimes. The BBC is unique in what it is.

          • Matt D

            The BBC is probably the best public broadcaster in the world (and has stayed that way even though the UK has been governed by either Tories or Tony Blair for 35 of the past 38 years). But it’s not unique. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is also excellent, and receives much of its funding direct from the government. Most European countries have state broadcasters: many are excellent. Australia has one: it’s excellent. Few of those are properly described as ‘propaganda arms’ of the regime.

          • How is the Italian version RAI structured? It seems to operate similar to the BBC

    • AMK

      Government should not be in the media business, period. A juiced-up PBS sounds great until Trump wins the election and the GOP inherits a built-in official propaganda network to which they can funnel unlimited resources, and which is totally unchecked by market competition.

      • Linnaeus

        A juiced-up PBS sounds great until Trump wins the election and the GOP inherits a built-in official propaganda network to which they can funnel unlimited resources, and which is totally unchecked by market competition.

        I don’t think, though, that’s what the GOP would do. They’d sharply reduce funding of the PBS. So if you don’t want government in the media business at all, you should welcome GOP control.

  • LeeEsq

    PBS would be very different if it was funded like BBC through a TV license fees or through general taxation like NHK and however other countries find their public broadcasters. It would basically acquire more commercial features and would be less high minded because the government funding would require it to cater to more popular tastes. The BBC is a mix of popular entertainment and some high minded programming. Japan’s NHK is a commercial network funded by taxes but does not have any BBC like programming.

    The features of PBS that liberals and left leaning people like are a result of how it’s funded. Government funding might change PBS in ways we don’t like.

    • I assume that when people say they want something like the BBC they’re talking about the 1950s and 1960s when there were people there who were educated before TV even existed and believed powerfully, or so the mythology goes, in educating the public according to then-liberal consensus sensibilities, and/or had a certain amount of freedom to experiment, because of lack of commercial and corporate pressures, but also because the medium was pretty much a blank slate. I may be wrong, I guess. Most of those people are now long-retired and probably wouldn’t do things the same way again either.

      • LeeEsq

        Your probably right. The people who want something like the BBC in the United States are imagining the very early days of radio and television when the BBC had a near monopoly and a lot of power to make the British take their cultural vegetables. Even than they quickly learned that you do need to cater to what people want if your taking their money, at least a little.

        British television still has some unique programming that you can’t do in the United States because of how it is funded like Back in Time for Dinner or all those documentaries made by professors on different subjects like Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans. These are neat but probably only exist because of how British television came into being.

        • There’s some interesting stuff done at specific stations and in projects done in collaboration with stations. The good kids stuff comes from a handful of stations like some in Boston and Canada. Years ago late at night I remember watching a fascinating theatrical production of the lives of Akhmatova and Mayakovsky on WNYC.

          In part the issue is the ability of creatives and production companies generally to claim independence of their funding sources. (But in part there are still inevitable pressures due to audience and distribution–and changes in taste even among writers and so on.)

  • nackedei

    Yes, Erik, imagine if only American universities were funded entirely by public monies, and thus possessed middling at best endowments despite centuries of existence!

    St. Andrew’s, which has acquired a paltry 59 million GBP in six centuries, or Edinburgh, 343 in over four centuries. Compare to UNC, at 2.9 billion in two, or UCSD at 530 million in a piddling 75 years. One might be interested to determine what Bologna’s is, given it is approaching 1,000 years, but that information isn’t anywhere to be found

    And imagine–just imagine!–that American universities were free to do the bidding of government rather than the rich! Then and only then could US higher education reach the heights of independence that the British have achieved, or stop by far expending more resources per student than any other country. And I for one welcome rule by our new HR overlords.

    There are many things you can fault the US for, but higher education being one of them suggests you’ve zero experience in higher education in the rest of the OECD.

    • liberal

      There are many things you can fault the US for, but higher education being one of them suggests you’ve zero experience in higher education in the rest of the OECD.

      Maybe this is news to you, but there are more comparisons than cross-country ones. Internal longitudinal ones, for example.

      • nackedei

        Then provide something akin to any decent argument about how we are at a bad point compared to the past. And by “the past” I don’t mean 10-30 idiosyncratic years in the post-war era, but over time in general. In doing so, show me how government funding produced amazing public universities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

        I’m all for state governments spending a lot more on higher education, but the idea being forwarded by Erik that we’d be far better off without significant private support for our universities is absurd, and an argument that cannot rely on longitudinal data for a single state system, because they have always relied heavily on private support, both in money and land.

        • Murc

          And by “the past” I don’t mean 10-30 idiosyncratic years in the post-war era, but over time in general.

          “You’re not allowed to use a period when times were better as a basis of comparison!”

          • nackedei

            No, you’re not allowed to use a unique time period when universities were being expanded beyond incredibly elite institutions educating a tiny fraction of the population to one in which they were mass educational institutions.

            American men and women with college degrees (couldn’t easily find enrollment)
            1940: 5.5, 3.8%
            1959: 10.3 6%
            1980: 20.9, 13.6%
            1990: 24.4, 18.4%
            2000: 27.8, 23.6%
            2015: 32.3, 32.7%

            The post-war era of the American university system was decidedly not normal. Unless you think we’re going to have 60% of Americans graduating college in 2025, we’re in a completely different situation.

            By I do appreciate your complete lack of addressing the fact that not only have we never not relied on private support, but the fact that it wouldn’t be preferable.

            • bs

              Well, since those MOTU MBAs have taken over higher education in the US, and started running Universities like bidnesses, they do indeed intend to have 60% college graduation rates, with all the non-dischargeable student loans those entail. Of course, that Bachelor’s will educationally be the equivalent of today’s High School diploma, but look at those profit margins!

    • Murc

      Compare to UNC, at 2.9 billion in two, or UCSD at 530 million in a piddling 75 years.

      The size of the endowment is irrelevant if both those schools still force their students to assume shocking debt loads to attend.

      Which they do.

      • The whole idea that the quality of a university is dependent upon its endowment size is basically restating the problem.

        • I wouldn’t make that sort of direct correlation, but I do think that our university is much better off having an endowment that it would be if it had to depend on government funding. We do in fact depend heavily on government funding for our scientific research, of course; but not for our teaching or work in the humanities. And so far at least the science funding has not been politicized, beyond the allocation to certain areas of inquiry. While there are certainly criticisms to be made of the Ivy League schools, the governor can’t try to tell us what to do, unlike, say, the University of Wisconsin.

          And we don’t force our students to take on shocking debt loads. The sticker price is high, but the real price is affordable for students from modest income families.

          • nackedei

            Exactly this.

            Erik, I chose North Carolina for a reason. The entire higher ed system was under attack here, much like in lots of other states, by those in control of the state government. The entire premise of your argument is that private money influences universities in a bad way… and that state governments (national governments in lots of other states) never influence universities. That’s just flawed and wrong. We know that.

            I’m not equating university quality with size of endowment. I don’t necessarily think UNC is a better university than UCSD, in fact, despite the former having a massively larger endowment! I was stating the fact that the very idea that there is no role for private money in supporting education–your argument–produces situations in which universities have very little in the way of capital, thus making them more able to be influenced by both state and private actors. Put it this way: a $100 million gift is going to influence UNC a lot less than St. Andrew’s!

            The amazing development and now dominance of the American university system is in part based on the very thing you decry: both public and private support for education!

    • sibusisodan

      As with many US institutions, it is possible for them to i) deliver world class outcomes if you can afford them, while ii) delivering outcomes which compare badly to the median in the developed world for everyone else.

      Plus there’s a diminishing effect from returns to endowment. Harvard’s endowment is many multiples that of Cambridge UK. My experience of study at those universities leads me to say that Harvard is probably better, but it’s not 5x or even 2x better.

      • Yes, Harvard’s endowment is a lot bigger than ours but I think we hold our own.

    • DrDick

      Yes, having malefactors of great wealth like the Kochs calling the shots is soooo much better. You also neglect the fact thet the US has the highest tuition in the OECD and students rely far more on loans to get through school.

      • DrDick
        • nackedei

          Private funding, much like government, can have bad influences. I object to Erik’s assumption that it cannot, as it has been clearly shown otherwise both within the US and abroad (in the US in the last few years see: Republicans meddling in the NSF, Wisconsin, or NC).

          But let me ask you something, since you dislike particular ideological bents being pursued at universities: Soros spending money on CEU is horrible too, right?

          I don’t have to defend every aspect of American higher ed. I am simply saying, as you seemingly refuse to recognize, that the alternative of purely state sponsorship has drawbacks, and in fact opens itself up to the same issues you decry: do you think in a context where there was less private support for education a Koch would have less of an ability to influence a university?

          I hate that debt has become such a clear issue for American students, but we also should recognize that US higher education expenditures are ~$27k/student, the highest in the OECD.

          https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmd.asp

          I’ve yet to see a lazy river at any European university with which I have been affiliated, and am unclear your argument for why more state support would change this, given we know that changing levels of state support is only one small driver of tuition–and thus debt–increases.

          • DrDick

            Soros spending money on CEU is horrible too, right?

            Not necessarily. It depends on what he is spending that for and the strings attached. The ideologies I object to are quite destructive, as well as being demonstrably false.

            I’ve yet to see a lazy river at any European university with which I have been affiliated,

            I have no idea what that is even supposed to mean or what it has to do with my post.

            given we know that changing levels of state support is only one small driver of tuition–and thus debt–increases.

            I do not know about where you live and work, but here in America at public universities, it is the primary driver of tuition increases, which have climbed steadily, as state support has declined, since I was in college over 40 years ago.

            • nackedei

              Yeah, Orban thinks liberal ideology is also destructive. I disagree with him, but that doesn’t mean my preferred ideology is true and his is demonstrably false. Both are ideologies.

              http://lmgtfy.com/?q=lazy+river+college

              If you don’t see how that is directly related to why American students have debt at far higher levels than other OECD countries, I don’t know how to help you.

              So you have a blog post noting that states have decreased their support for public higher ed. Then what is driving the increase in private tuition rates? Why does the overall trend look similar across public and private universities? Beyond blogs, there is in fact scholarly research on this. And it suggests state support is not the primary driver, despite popular conceptions.

              You might have heard of this guy called Paul Campos. He wrote something about the flawed argument concerning declining state support a few years ago in the NYT.

  • The New Republic wrote an article with apparently the same critique of Zuckerberg and Gates about a year ago. Of course they are just high name-recognition standins for a larger group. I read recently that there is a struggle within the philanthropical community between their newer foundations and the older generations of philanthropists, so I’m skeptical about the argument as presented, though of course I’m grateful for the media narrative that gives writers a reason even to bring these issues to my attention. I suppose there is a benefit for the left-leaning press to criticize the Zuckerbergs of the world harshly so that they’ll examine and thereby improve their practices, however.

  • NonyNony

    Instead Betsy DeVos is running our education system because she is rich and wants to get everyone in religious schools.

    I don’t see how this fits the rest of your thesis. Betsy DeVos is in the government and is actually the counter-argument to your thesis in that apparently we as a people are insane enough to give people who hate education control over the government-run portions of our education system.

    This is part of why the last election put me into such a funk. When our system of government is this volatile I don’t see how it can be what we want it to be in this regard. It can’t be a check against the plutocrats because it’s as much a tool of the plutocrats as any charitable foundation is. Worse because it has a military and so can make all kinds of bad decisions that the Gates Foundation can’t even start to contemplate. I always had leanings in that direction, but November proved to me that I’m just not cynical enough.

    So I don’t see how it helps. If our public university system were completely in DeVos’s hands right now she’d just be able to destroy it. As it stands now it’ll be harder to destroy – not impossible of course, but there are a lot of rich people who wouldn’t like to see their pet universities driven out of business (or their favorite football teams go under for that matter) and so its protected in a degree it wouldn’t be if we had a fully public system.

    Maybe November just shot the last of my idealism in the head, but I’d be scared right now if we had a fully public system the way you describe and the current gang in charge as its stewards. And I have no hope that if we had a system like that people would be more thoughtful about electing the stewards to watch over that system – if anything they’d probably be more angrily resentful over someone else getting something they don’t get and want to see it burned to the ground all the more.

    • cleek

      +100

      Imagine the U.S. government declaring war on disease instead of letting Bill Gates set the agenda.

      imagine President Trump pulling the plug on AIDS research while the Bill Gates foundation soldiers on.

    • Rob in CT

      I guess the idea is that a country that considers these sorts of things to be public undertakings is a country that doesn’t have/give power to a party like the contemporary GOP (and, by extension, does not elect Donald Trump).

      Basically, it’s kind like… “assume a can opener” for politics. Assume a country much more left-wing than today, and…

      • Pete

        +1000

        Reminds me of an old joke about three economists arguing about the best way to get a cow through a gate: “First, assume a circular cow…”

        Leaving aside the sheer impossibility of it all, I’m not really sure I see the wisdom in Erik’s thesis. I suppose if one starts from the baseline position that government will always (or at least usually) make better decisions about charitable or philanthropic or public endeavors than wealthy individuals, then . . . but that seems so nonsensical to me that I don’t know what to say.

  • Quaino

    Fully on board with this point of view and I find it hugely frustrating that every restaurant is essentially a point of sale panhandling operation for organizations that, for whatever good they do, are essentially just filling in for the government and doing an inefficient job at that.

  • Joe_JP

    Off topic except to degree it’s religion related/private charity in there too …

    James Martin, SJ‏V (who was on Colbert’s old show) made an interesting reference. He suggested that Rome considered Palestine in Jesus’ day part of “Syria,” so per the story in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary/Joseph/Jesus were “Syrian refugees” when they fled to Egypt because of fear of Herod.

    I found a reference where Judea became part of the district of Syria later after the Second Jewish War, but was it considered part of Syria then?

    • Rob in CT

      Wiki says Judea was merged into Syria to form Syria Palaestina under Hadrian.

      • Joe_JP

        saw that … didn’t figure it conclusive

    • LeeEsq

      Rome saw Judea as distinct from Syria because the Jews were really different from everybody else in the area. That’s why they ruled it indirectly through client kings for as long as possible. It was delicate balancing act for them. Emperor Hadrian renamed Judea Palestina and linked it to Syria after the Bar Kochba Revolt in order to culturally de-link the Jewish connection to Eretz Israel/Judea and prevent further rebellions. He also rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city. It was not seen as part of Syria before this.

      Judea/Israel/Palestine was cultural linked with Syria from the time of Emperor Hardrian until after World War I and the creation of the different mandates. Emir Faisal, latter to become King of Iraq, originally wanted to turn what we now call Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan into one Kingdom of Syria ruled by him. He got Iraq as a consolation prize once the French objected to that idea. The British split Jordan from Palestine and gave it to Abdullah, Faisal’s brother, so he would stay out of the little war between Faisal and France.

      • Joe_JP

        Thanks.

        I basically assumed something like the summary in the first paragraph. He cited an academic as a source, so wondered about the reference.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Yeah, if government were perfect at doing what charities do, then it would do them better than they are done now. In other news, if people could fly like Superman, then we could stop building wheelchairs.

    I think government, on the whole, does “charity” (that is, development and assistance) better than private individuals. But there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. And inadequate funding is one of the weaknesses on the government side, one that’s very much tied to the strength of greater democracy. So assuming that weakness away doesn’t make for a fair comparison.

  • MPAVictoria

    Totally agree with all of this Erik. Charity should be for extras; the school band trip to New York, new uniforms for the hockey team and similar things. Fundamental and basic public goods and services should be funded by the government through the tax system and universally provided to all.

    /Medical “Go-Fund Me” campaigns in particular are a sign of a sick and uncaring society.

  • Murc

    In the end, every dollar that goes toward rich people’s philanthropies is a dollar that the government should have taxed and spent to create social programs that make philanthropy unnecessary.

    It’s almost like you think a legitimately elected democratic government should be a mechanism by which we, as a society, come together to determine how to meet collective and individual needs and allocate resources in an appropriate manner, for the good of all citizens, without regard to their stations, wealth, or influence.

    What are you, some kinda commie?

  • Scott P.

    I can’t sign on to this. More public funding for education, fine. More science and arts funding, sign me up. But this:

    In the end, every dollar that goes toward rich people’s philanthropies is a dollar that the government should have taxed and spent to create social programs that make philanthropy unnecessary.

    Is far, far too close for my comfort to the socialist program for Eastern Europe, which denied any role for private civil society or charitable institutions. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” (to use Mussolini’s parallel formation) is not a recipe I want to follow.

    • sibusisodan

      I think the difference between ‘rich people’s philanthropy’ and ‘philanthropy’ is they key one here.

      If we are going to have large amounts of funds driving policy – and we are – this is better done by a (notionally) democratically responsive organisation, with broad accountability, than by the whims of a fortunately wealthy person.

      This in no way says that private charity is unwanted. Most private charity is responsible to more than just one funder, after all.

    • cleek

      “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” (to use Mussolini’s parallel formation) is not a recipe I want to follow.

      yes x 100. that’s what’s been bugging me about the OP.

      • Pete

        Same

    • Along the same lines as Scott’s comment, there’s a tradition of teaching that people who are successful should make themselves, not just their money, useful to the community. That can be corrupted to giving rich people more say in government and community but the opposite is better suited to a society where it’s simply unheard of that anyone except the tippy-top of society should have any say at all.

    • yet_another_lawyer

      As a concrete example: Many, many HBCU’s started based off grants from philanthropists. Something tells me that government seizure/spending would not have made HBCU’s “unnecessary.”

      More relevant to today, a lot of universities literally hire people that help undocumented immigrants manage the system. Do you suppose they would be doing that if all their money came from Trump’s federal government?

      The grade school version of “checks and balances” is the three branches of government, but America has a lot of competing power centers. It’s easy to point to flaws (as it is with any large system), but so would any proposed alternative. In particular, it’s not clear at all to me that the proposed seize and spend regime would actually result in a better allocation of dollars, even ignoring the Trump issue. Does Congress, in aggregate, make better spending decisions than rich philanthropists? The actual Congress, that is, not the one we’d like to have? Maybe, but I’d like to see that argument spelled out.

      • At any rate to judge from the quoted passage, the nub of the complaint isn’t that Zuckerberg and Gates make poor policy recommendations, relative to states, but that the Aspen Institute does.

      • LeeEsq

        A freely elected Congress is going to have lots of politicians that are going to have some rather big disagreements on how the public money should be spent even if everybody was acting in good faith for the commonwealth.

    • Joe_JP

      Erik at times goes a step too far. imho

    • Perkniticky

      Why go to extremes? If you split the difference you get Western Europe, with private charities AND social programs.

  • Woodrowfan

    Back in the 80s I read a scifi story about tax day being when people told Washington what they wanted their individual tax dollars spent on. You had paid x dollars the previous year through withholding. How was it to be spent? Each individual designated specific amounts of their tax dollars to specific line items in the budget. I’ve always wondered how we could make that work, if we could make it work.

  • Brett

    Philanthropy is good in three situations:

    1. Begifting some marvel or thing on the public’s behalf, like if some rich person spends the money to create a public park or monument.

    2. Meeting temporary needs or doing experimental philanthropy*. Food Banks as they’re intended are a good example of the former (they’re not supposed to be an on-going substitute for adequate income or welfare), and programs like the Warren Buffet’s experimental Colorado program providing free IUDs to young women is an example of the latter.

    3. Building up civic advocacy efforts to leverage the far, far vaster public resources on behalf of a program or cause. I loathe the Koch Brothers’ conservative efforts, but they’ve basically got the right idea when it comes to advocating and organizing for conservative causes. I wish we had a Red Billionaire willing to do the same type of thing, but on the left (I guess there is Tom Steyer and Nick Hanauer, but . . )

    But if it’s an on-going need or reliably necessary service, it should be a public program instead of relying on private charity. Public universities should not have to depend on private donations to run. Health care should not depend on crowd-funding.

    * Also experimental anything. I’ve occasionally seen people complain about billionaires spending money on space stuff, but I’m thrilled by it even if I wish they cared more about actual exploration rather than space fantasies.

    • epidemiologist

      I think advocacy is an area where we clearly do need private philanthropy. I share Erik’s misgivings but I don’t really see a reasonable publicly funded alternative.

      Plenty of policy and policy evaluation research goes on in my field and it is my impression that these researchers have to walk a fine line. On the one hand it is obviously in the public interest to set policies that are evidence-based, and there is public funding to evaluate policy. And as a researcher who is familiar with that evidence, it’s certainly part of your job to get the word out and advocate for those types of policies. But should you be advocating for specific policies as part of your government grant? I have never heard a satisfying answer about where the line should be. Maybe it depends on how controversial the issue is perceived to be, or whether we are talking about a regulation vs. a ballot measure for example. I think people who do this work may legitimately need a mix of funding sources to have both the money and the independence to work effectively.

    • CP

      3. Building up civic advocacy efforts to leverage the far, far vaster public resources on behalf of a program or cause. I loathe the Koch Brothers’ conservative efforts, but they’ve basically got the right idea when it comes to advocating and organizing for conservative causes. I wish we had a Red Billionaire willing to do the same type of thing, but on the left (I guess there is Tom Steyer and Nick Hanauer, but . . )

      While the right wing conspiracymongering around George Soros is in large part simple projection, I think it’s also because they fully realize how valuable and important such networks are. So they’re preemptively trying to raise the profile of, and vilify, any potential liberal counterparts to the efforts of their corporate overlords (Kochs, Adelson, Murdoch) that might emerge.

  • NewishLawyer

    I concur with the problems that everyone else wrote above. The European right-wingers were always a bit more into the commonwealth and their group responsibilities.

    The right-wing in the U.S. is so insane that it would just lead to everything being a grift and ruined every 4-8 years.

  • epidemiologist

    Erik I share your distaste but I’m not sure that large scale philanthrophy is a problem rather than a symptom of income inequality and the fact that a total lack of civic-mindedness has become normal to Americans.

    It seems to me that threats to the vote, and institutions that give unequal weight to votes cast, are the most immediate cause of our current situation. It wouldn’t matter right now (or not with the existential urgency that it currently does) what charter school “philanthropists” think if other undemocratic institutions were reformed. I think you could even argue that perhaps it wouldn’t have been so worthwhile to radicalize a minority segment of our population and legitimize them to others.

    To me your example about public higher education touched on another problem with philanthropic support of public institutions. People’s attitudes towards these institutions and their public funding seem to me to be in dialogue. We have a widespread belief currently that higher education is about the career advancement of the individual graduate but maybe this belief is justified at the current cost of attendance. No one sounds that motivated (to me) by the idea of a public university that serves everyone, even people who will never attend, by producing professionals who will serve the public. But when we know that not everyone can or will attend, and our system of producing people qualified to attend is unfair, what else could possibly justify any public investment at all?

    Also as a cancer epidemiologist, and a researcher in pediatrics before that, I just find our whole culture of philanthropy tiresome and hypocritical. Many, many people get their good person stamp by participating in some walkathon for an organization that mostly exists to promote itself, then vote in ways that let you know whether they really care about curing cancer or getting critical medications to little kids. As a society, I think we don’t care.

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