The Problem with Modern Philanthropy

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In her recent piece in the New Yorker “Gospels of Giving for the New Gilded Age,” Elizabeth Kolbert rightly calls out the American donor class for their underwhelming philanthropic leanings. Too many ultra-wealthy Americans spend millions of dollars on efforts that may purport to make the world a better place, but that in many instances do nothing but serve to further their own ideological vision for what our society should look like. While there is nothing inherently wrong with philanthropic giving, it’s become clear that modern philanthropy has become an increasingly selfish undertaking.

The real problem is ideological spending pretending to be charitable giving. The rich are spending vast sums of money to influence public opinion and government decisions, all while pretending that spending is meant to make the world a better place for all of us.

The overwhelming amounts of money they pump into political and issue-based organizations skews our country’s political discussion, transforming their self-serving political views into  actual policy. It’s become the rule much more than the exception in recent years that when the interests of a small sliver of rich people comes into conflict with the interests of the majority of Americans, the rich people are going to win 9 out of 10 times.

These rich people are taking over our country through their “philanthropy,” and our government is helping them do it. As estimated by Ms. Kolbert, groups that are dedicated towards shaping public policy, but nevertheless are tax deductible under rule 501(c)(3), receive somewhere in the range of ten billion dollars a year in “philanthropic giving.” Now, in the interests of transparency, I donate significant amounts of money to various policy-oriented 501(c)(3) organizations (including the Patriotic Millionaires), but I have a hard time saying with a straight face that my contributions should be treated the same as if I gave them to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.

And not every organization is as dedicated to serving the actual public good as the Patriotic Millionaires. Many 501(c)(3) organizations serve as vessels for wealthy people to attempt to shape policy in profoundly selfish ways. For example, in Ms. Kolbert’s article she references Art Pope, who’s spent millions supporting efforts to suppress minority voters in North Carolina through voter ID laws. I do not believe that voter suppression meets any reasonable definition of “charity” and Mr. Pope is far from alone. There has been no shortage of contributions to “nonpartisan” organizations that purport to prove that tax cuts for the rich are great for the economy as a whole. Those organizations are clearly not meant to further the general welfare of the public, they’re meant to give their donors a tax cut. No reasonable person could look at those foundations and see anything other than a sham.

Ms. Kolbert ends her piece by noting that whether or not the people want a future in which Americans rely more on philanthropic giving than decreased government spending doesn’t really matter. If the donor class uses its growing influence to decide which future we get rather than all of the voters deciding, we will lose the country where I grew up, and where I want to help my children and grandchildren grow up, and have instead an unstable, unsustainable oligarchy. That’s why it’s so important for wealthy people like me to speak out against the growing concentration of power and money at the upper echelons of our society. If we’re the problem, we need to be part of the solution.

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