Don’t Trust Billionaire Philanthropy

As we come to the end of the year, we enter a time when people, full of holiday spirit, are giving more than ever. This goes for billionaires as well. But unlike the donations of regular Americans, billionaires aren’t dropping a few dollars into a donation bucket at the grocery store or giving to their local soup kitchen. Billionaires donate millions, but their generosity always comes with strings attached, and at a very real cost to our society.

Philanthropic giving does a great deal of good, but it can be incredibly dangerous when it feeds into anti-government sentiment and promotes the idea that philanthropy is the answer to our country’s systemic issues. This thinking increases our dependence on philanthropy from the rich for our society’s basic needs, giving them free rein to evade taxes, exploit workers, and make our country and economy worse in any number of ways, so long as they make a show of giving a fraction of their ill-gotten gains back. In doing so, they both increase their own personal influence and reduce the role of democratic decision-making in our community.

We cannot wait for the ultra-wealthy to give up their riches voluntarily, nor should we allow infrequent philanthropy to excuse their wealth hoarding. As we strive to move further away from a plutocracy, we need to recognize that even well-meaning, frequent donors should still have only as much political power as the poorest among us. We also cannot allow the country’s richest and most powerful people to use well-publicized announcements of large gifts to distract from the harm that they’re doing, as we’ve seen in a few high-profile examples in just the last month.

Bezos and Amazon Layoffs
Last month, Jeff Bezos vowed in an interview with CNN to give away most of his massive fortune during his lifetime. He failed to provide any real specifics, but his announcement still made headlines around the world.

On that very same day, his company, Amazon, announced it would be laying off 10,000 members of its workforce right before the holidays –  the largest cuts in the company’s history.

We’re sure Bezos’s charitable giving will, at some point, do some people some good. But it won’t do any good to the thousands of workers who just lost their jobs, or the tens of thousands of Amazon workers who suffer through inhumane working conditions all to make Bezos one of the world’s richest men.

The timing may be a coincidence, but if it’s not, it would be incredibly cynical and gross for Bezos to make a significant public PR push around his charitable giving just to distract from the bad press Amazon’s layoffs would otherwise attract.

To put it lightly, we think it’s fair to have reservations about celebrating one of the world’s richest men using a spectacle of philanthropy as a political shield against treating his employees fairly.

Buffett and Rail Strikes
Warren Buffett, often seen as the gold standard for billionaire philanthropic giving, is currently entangled in his own scandal involving unacceptable working conditions for rail workers at BNSF, one of the country’s largest railroad companies, which happens to be owned by Berkshire Hathaway. The company has refused to give adequate sick leave to railroad workers, and held out for so long that, facing a rail strike and nationwide economic crisis, Congress swooped in to force rail workers to accept a deal that unfortunately didn’t meet their (very reasonable) demands.

Ironically enough, on Thanksgiving eve, Buffett gave a whopping $750 million in charitable donations to organizations tied to his family, which would have been more than enough to pay for sick leave for every rail worker in America. If Buffett was really concerned about making the world a better place, he could have started with the workers whose exploitation is making him rich. Instead, he makes a splashy announcement about his charitable giving to distract from the harm he is actively doing.

Buffett is no stranger to using philanthropic grandstanding to help his public image. He was very public with his signing of the Giving Pledge, swearing to give away 99% of his fortune before he dies, but somehow his net worth has only grown since signing the pledge.

Philanthropy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
While there is nothing inherently wrong with philanthropic giving, it’s clear that modern philanthropy has become an increasingly selfish undertaking. It’s too often what writer Anand Giridharadas calls “reputation laundering,” or an attempt to make a rich person look better in the public eye, even if the money they’re giving comes from really damaging sources. No amount of giving to museums and libraries, for example, could wipe away the damage the Sackler family did in fueling the opioid epidemic, yet their hefty gifts raised their public profile for years.

Perhaps even worse is ideological spending masquerading as charitable giving. The rich are spending vast sums of money to influence public opinion and government decisions while acting like that spending is meant to make the world better for all of us.

The Solution to Society’s Problems Is Taxes, Not Philanthropy
Philanthropy can be wielded as a weapon just as much as it can provide relief, but even at its best, it can’t solve our country’s many problems on its own. It cannot work at a scale large enough to address our issues. Even the most generous gifts are nowhere near as powerful or impactful as government initiatives like SNAP, to say nothing of even more ambitious programs like Social Security or Medicare.

We need concert halls and libraries, but we also need many things that rich philanthropists don’t particularly care about. That is why we need elected officials who represent everyone when making legislative decisions, not just billionaires. We’re facing massive, systemic problems, and to effectively address them, we need to tackle them in equally massive, systematic ways and on a scale that necessitates coordinated government action. We have to elect leaders that will tax the rich and direct the government to spend in ways that serve the best interests of everyone, not just the rich. There’s no photo opportunity for paying your taxes, no ribbons to cut, or celebrity galas to attend, but we need billionaires to pay taxes, not just donate their money, if we want to make our society work.

At the end of the day, we can’t rely on the generosity of a few people to improve our country. We must think about the bigger picture and advocate for the kind of widespread changes, like taxing the rich, that would make our country truly work for everyone, rich and poor alike. In short, our country would be better off if rich folks like Bezos and Buffet simply paid their taxes.

Background Reading and Resources
Big Gifts, Big Problems: Takeaways From Capital Project Hell at Lincoln Center | Inside Philanthropy
Railroad Unions and Companies Reach a Tentative Deal to Avoid a Strike | The New York Times
Warren Buffett’s Exploitative Mobile Home Investment | Forbes
The Contradictions of Effective Altruism | The American Prospect
‘Tis Always the Season for Billionaire Philanthropy |
All hail Jeff Bezos the philanthropist! The rest of us will just keep paying our taxes | The Guardian

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