I’m late to highlight an important essay in the New York Review of Books, How to Cover the One Percent, by Michael Massing. It focuses primarily on the 0.1% and describes how they are using philanthropy as Trojan Horse for social engineering. Massing stresses that these efforts to promote personal policy agendas go almost entirely unnoticed, in a striking contrast to how attentive the media is to political donations by the super-rich. Here’s his thesis:
Over the last fifteen years, the number of foundations with a billion dollars or more in assets has doubled, to more than eighty. A significant portion of that money goes to such traditional causes as universities, museums, hospitals, and local charities….
The tax write-offs for such contributions, however, mean that this giving is subsidized by US taxpayers. Every year, an estimated $40 billion is diverted from the public treasury through charitable donations. That makes accountability for them all the more pressing. So does the fact that many of today’s philanthropists are more activist than those in the past. A number are current or former hedge fund managers, private equity executives, and tech entrepreneurs who, having made their fortunes on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, are now seeking to apply their know-how to social problems. Rather than simply write checks for existing institutions, these “philanthrocapitalists,” as they are often called, aggressively seek to shape their operations.
When donors approach a nonprofit, “they’re more likely to say not ‘How can I help you?’ but ‘Here’s my agenda,’” Nicholas Lemann, the former dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, told me. Mainstream news organizations haven’t caught on to this new activism, he said, adding that most of them are into covering “the ‘giving pledge,’” by which the rich commit to giving away at least half their wealth in their lifetime. David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website that tracks this world, says that “philanthropy is having as much influence as campaign contributions, but campaign contributions get all the attention. The imbalance is stunning to me.”
Massing uses Inside Philanthropy, which is a lean and mean sit funded by donors, as his window into this topic (he also commends The Chronicle of Philanthropy). He stresses that Inside Philanthropy does an admirable job of cataloguing who among the top wealthy gives to what, but is so resource constrained that it can only selectively undertake real investigations. He describes at length where the gaps in coverage are and what a full-fledged site that tracks big-ticket giving might look like.
What is impressive, as well as disconcerting, is Massing’s catalogue of the these propaganda, um, cognitive capture initiatives. He highlights how David Sirota exposed how ex-Enron hedge fund billionaire and public pension fund opponent John Arnold gave a major gift to PBS to help fund the production of a series ominously called The Pension Peril. The Pando story embarrassed PBS into rescinding the gift and canceling the program. But Massing cites other equally problematic gifts, on topics ranging from Obamacare to marijuana legalization to deficit reduction to the virtues of capitalism, made to a whole range of organizations – establishment think tanks, not for profit media, universities – that serve both as validators and amplifiers.
Massing also stressed the importance of looking not simply at the effects of this giving, but where the money came from in the first place, and how companies like Google are investing heavily in these alternative channels to make self-serving positions by academics and other experts look as if they are independently arrived at, when there is ample reason to suspect otherwise. And he gave a generous shout out to NC:
The whole subject of private equity has been woefully undercovered. Firms like Carlyle, Blackstone, and KKR have been the main force behind the flood of mergers and acquisitions of recent years. News accounts have focused far more on the market effects of these deals than on their implications for employment, the concentration of wealth, and community welfare. Back in 2012, such factors were closely analyzed in connection with Mitt Romney’s work at the private equity company Bain Capital, but since then interest in private equity has waned even as the field has boomed. Naked Capitalism, an influential financial blog, recently ran a long post about how private equity companies “are far more obviously connected to an undue concentration of wealth at the expense of workers and communities” than are CDOs (collaterized debt obligations) and the other finance instruments that once drew such attention. Though the top one percent of the one percent “consists disproportionately of private equity and hedge fund principals,” the blog ruefully lamented, few of its readers seem interested. The same could be said of the press. A website on the nation’s power elite would pay close attention to the reach and impact of both private equity and hedge funds.
I hate to quibble, but the post that Massing mentions, Memo to Readers: If You Want to Beat Big Finance, You Need to Be Able to Take the Fight to Their Terrain, indeed did hector the commentariat for the paucity of comments on private equity articles, when they were getting a lot of interest from journalists and other influencers. The concern was that the low comment count was sending a message of reader apathy and thus was undermining their impact.
But that post got over 300 comments, with many protesting that they were in fact reading these posts but they felt they had nothing to add. And as our CalPERS coverage picked up steam, it became a soap opera for some, as they got to know the players and took interest in what the next twists and turns might be. Indeed, we’ve been told that the path-breaking private equity transparency legislation proposed by a CalPERS board member, California Treasurer John Chiang, was the result of letters and calls from readers.
So our experience is that it is possible to interest a broad audience in the stealthy ways the top 0.1% try to secure their position. But for most media outlets, it requires a more persistent effort than they feel they can support relative to the need to stay on top of breaking news. So Massing is correct to call out this conundrum, and I wish there were a better remedy at hand.
60 minuets ran a piece about the “Giving Pledge” last night. They gathered about 10 or so billionaires for an interview. They paint a very nice picture of this so called pledge, all that came to my mind (especially after hearing Pete Petersons name) is, ‘ so this is how they push their adgendas.’ It also struck me as odd when in the intro of the piece the interviewer mentioned a couple of times how these people must run in to rescue people because our governments just can’t seem to solve the huge problems facing our world. There was one softball question pertaining to how this ‘philanthropy’ could potentially give these people too much power. For a couple of seconds there were crickets from the billionaires as they sat there with their jaws agape. I think it was Warren Buffet that came up with some answer. Frankly, I threw up a little in my mouth after the piece.
And I couldn’t help but think, this is how they will oppose Bernie: “Look at how beneficent we are; how can Sen. Sanders be so ungrateful as to impugn our motives and actions!?!”
The leopard doesn’t change his spots. No one needs a billion dollars; no one should have it. That is the moral issue we have not even begun to address.
“Charity is a good, but justice is a greater good.” — Rienhold Niebuhr
Agreed. Being a billionaire is a character flaw.
I am hearing the same argument about government ineptitude on many of the public radio podcasts I listen to and wonder if it isn’t a self-justification as their public funding dries up and they get more and more from these foundations. It just amplifies the destruction of our belief in government.
Even more insidious was the way CBS preceded the billionaire love fest with an update on On the Road with the Health Wagon – actually as a stand-alone and with one glaring exception, one of 60 Minutes’ better pieces. Health Wagon chronicles the courageous efforts of two nurses in Appalachia to fill the horrific healthcare gap created by West Virginia’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
Health Wagon gave 60 Minutes a perfect platform to highlight the hard right’s sociopathic willingness to inflict human suffering on an unimaginable scale in the name of faux fiscal rectitude, but the network clearly did not want to go there. Instead, Scott Pelley simply mentioned in passing that states that refused to expand Medicaid feared they couldn’t afford it. So: free pass!
The Health Wagon piece was preceded by a piece on a very successful Make a Wish program in a poverty-stricken town in Arkansas. Ostensibly, the unifying theme of last night’s program was a spotlight on volunteers. But the subtext of the arrangement of three pieces was indeed a puke-in-your mouth experience.
1. Even if you’re poor you can help yourselves if you just try hard enough.
2. Government can’t afford to help you.
3. But not to worry! Generous billionaires have your back.
I think it’s always *psychologically* about power for them. And I don’t know if squillionaires have gotten even more power mad in their philanthropy, but with someone like Carnegie you can point to libraries which were beneficial, regardless of how viscous he was as a businessman.
Good post, and it’s important to continue to voice concerns and opposition to the very practices highlighted herein.
The tax angle is an interesting one to consider, especially in the upper echelons.
I agree, and taken as a whole I think our tax system is inverted. Taxes now are really a cudgel to keep the population in the proper order, taxes don’t “fund” things in the traditional understanding of funding. Tax revenues are massive. Go forth in any large city and look at all the people paying a 10% sales tax, an “i’m not gonna guess” percentage of gas purchases, look at the workers whose paychecks are reduced by taxes by what, 15-20+ per cent, indeed almost every object you see will have had some taxation attached to it. Now take the billionaire claim that taxes will inhibit their capacity to thrive. Indeed, we need to pay, for instance, to have water and power service delivered to Nike, et.al. The only people who need to have their taxes increased are the ultra rich, you can pick your line but IMO $250- 500k consumes a fair portion and pays consumption taxes that should get them a break like everybody else, while hundreds of millions here and hundreds of millions there needs to be taxed heavily because they don’t pay, they expect to be paid, and to your point, they get paid by using “philanthropy” and “job creation” to reduce what tax they do pay while, as the post says, being in charge of what the philanthropy achieves.
What good is money if it doesn’t insure freedom from jail and the ability to manufacture consent? Please take note of the bid underlying media assets and the content they appear to provide and maintain the divide, creating a class that votes against its interests that began with Nixon’s silent majority and the secret plan to end the war.
This issue has received a lot of coverage over the past year if you have been looking in the right places. The Baffler ran a great article and Jacobin ran an entire issue called “The Masters’ Tools” about how philanthropy is just another way for the rich to soak the rest.
This to me is actually the best argument for higher taxes. Even if we just burned the tax money we get from having a 90% top tax rate (I realize this is not actually how taxes work), we would still be better off since power would be distributed slightly more democratically.
Agreed, I’ve been reading about ‘venture philanthropy’ since at least 2011, just one example of many, many
brave pieces from alternet, truthout, yes, the baffler, et al:
Glad to see the nyreview set is ready to acknowledge it. Just google venture philanthropy and find many voices in the wilderness who have been doing yeoman work on the topic, esp. on the topic of education ‘reform’ and the Broad, Gates and Walmart gangs.
Essential reading from Jacobin on what philanthropists are and are not willing to fund ….
Jacobin has been on fire lately.
No public enterprise has been “rescued” by seemingly well-intentioned philanthropists more than public education. The philanthropists’ have successfully convinced the public that public schools would be better off if they were subjected to market forces, run like businesses who are answerable to shareholders, and measured by standardized achievement tests that assume the one-size-fits-all industrial model of schooling established in the 1920s is inviolable. Philanthropists have underwritten studies and pilot programs that use the cold analytics of data analysis combined with test scores to impose “value added” measures to reward good teachers. And, as we’ve just witnessed for 7 years, this “run schools like a business” mental model has captured the imaginations of both parties. When you child cannot experience art, music or PE because they need to boost their test scores, send your thank you notes to the philanthropists.
The way the MSM uncritically parrots the talking points which the “philanthropists” put out creates an (amplifying) echo chamber which only makes the whole problem more pernicious.
Here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35381525 the BBC (who regularly — as in at least once a month) bigs up the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation’s agenda which is subject to zero critical analysis (hope the video is viewable outside the UK without any rights restrictions — apologies if not but it is your basic elite hagiographic fawning).
If anyone is interested in a longer ‘think’ about philanthropy and the nature of money, I highly recommend Lynne Sweet’s The Soul of Money.
I would argue these private equity and tech fortune people are misusing philanthropy.
For some with a conscience, philanthropy is a way to: (1) offload guilt (‘look how generous I am…’), (2) buy influence, (3) buy into social cachet. For those without a conscience, it’s probably mostly one more set of complex calculations: “I give, therefore, I matter.”
Philanthropy can be a force for good if it comes from the heart.
Some of these ‘philanthropic’ organizations need more clarity and sharper focus and boards and execs who know that it’s fine to accept money if it aligns with your purpose. Otherwise, they let their organizations be highjacked by money, which over time makes the organization ineffectual. Karma never sleeps.
It must have taken some will power to turn economics upside down.
Four decades of supply side economics has created a world of massive over-supply.
Supply never did create its own demand.
Who’d have thought it?
The old economics.
40 years ago most economists and almost everyone else believed the economy was demand driven and the system naturally trickled up.
Now most economists and almost everyone else believes the economy is supply driven and the system naturally trickles down.
Economics has been turned upside down in the last 40 years.
All the Central Bank stimulus programs have been Neo-Keynesian, in line with the new economics. The money is pushed into the top of the economic pyramid, the banks, and according to the new economics it should trickle down.
What we have seen is that the money stays at the top inflating asset bubbles in stocks, fine art, classic cars and top end property.
The old economics looks as though it was right all along.
More supply side stimulus is a complete waste of time.
Keynes and the old economics suggested spending on infra-structure projects to create jobs and wages which will be spent into the economy and trickle up.
When the Western consumer went on life support in 2008, China used Keynesian stimulus to keep its economy going through infra-structure spending and job creation. Unfortunately, it has reached max. debt before the Western consumer has recovered.
The West has done totally the wrong thing in the intervening eight years and just blown asset bubbles rather than helping its consumer base recover.
After Keynesian stimulus you have new infra-structure that you can hopefully use in the future.
After Neo-Keynesian stimulus the asset bubbles burst and you have a deflation problem on your hands.
If you are using upside-down economics, you have rendered yourself incapable of finding a solution that works.
What can we do to fix Greece?
Job cuts in the public sector; wage cuts in the public sector; reducing pensions and other austerity measures.
Put it though the lens of the old economics and you can see you are reducing demand in the economy.
The old economics would suggest raising taxes on those that can consume no more to balance the budget.
Upside-down economics at work:
When South America was in trouble the World Bank stepped in and offered loans as long as they reformed their economies with less public spending, austerity and privatising previously public companies.
It was a disaster.
In the Asian Crisis in 1998 the IMF stepped in and offered loans as long as they reformed their economies with less public spending, austerity and privatising previously public companies.
It was a disaster.
When Greece got into trouble recently the IMF stepped in and offered loans as long as they reformed their economies with less public spending, austerity and privatising previously public companies.
It was a disaster.
Upside-down economics gives all the wrong answers.
In our wonderful new, supply side, trickle down world we have taken our eye off the global consumer.
How is the global consumer these days?
1) The once wealthy Western consumer has had all their high paying jobs off-shored. As a stop gap solution they were allowed to carry on consuming through debt. They are now maxed out on debt.
2) Japanese consumers have been living in a stagnant economy for decades.
3) Chinese and Eastern consumers were always poorly paid and with nonexistent welfare states are always saving for a rainy day. Western demand slumped in 2008 and the debt fuelled stop gap has now come to an end.
4) The Middle Eastern consumers are now too busy fighting each other to think about consuming anything and are just concerned with saying alive.
5) South American and African consumers are busy struggling with economies that are disintegrating fast.
Oh dear, no wonder there is no demand for Chinese products or any other products for that matter.
Commodities that real things are made from?
No one needs them, we have laid waste to the global consumer.
And yet, this information will rarely if ever pierce through the wall built by the wealthy and be known to the average working person. Thanks for pushing it forward, again.
Private Equity is a disproportionally large segment of the 1%. Because they are such skilled thiefs. They have made big promises to pension funds that they knew could never come true. Those funds were also promised 8% by their own directors. Because for decades they tracked the economy which was a freight train. The 8% promise is now impossible and funds will have to trim their expectations. If they trim their expectations retirees will have to work longer – we see it happening. If pension funds were run by the federal govt, would there be the same giveaways to PE or would there be an actual fiduciary overseeing gradual cost of living adjustments? Why doesn’t the govt get involved? The govt, at the highest levels, were the very culprits that dismantled the economy, opening the floodgates to all the corporate raiders and vulture PE creeps. Where are they now? Still pretending we have a free market?
What bothers me about the influence of high-end philanthropy is the message it sends to smart, idealistic young people: to change the world, you must first do what it takes to become very, very rich, then pivot to morality later, assuming you still remember what that is by that time. Instead of going to work for advocacy groups, the press, or government, some may believe, or persuade themselves, that they should start out at banks, law firms, hedge funds, whatever. And down that road . . . .
It’s valuable to keep this in mind when MMT advocates propose nonprofit organizations as their mechanism to administer JG programs. Nonprofits are just like everybody else, susceptible to the same pressures and stresses found throughout our system of political economy.
It’s also valuable to keep this in mind when liberal pundits support some preferred tax break or other. A simple, progressive income tax system with no deductions would decrease both the concentration of wealth in the first place and the impact of that wealth in guiding areas of the economy subject to further tax loopholes, like donations to tax-exempt organizations.
Very good point.
Considering the endless yammering about how great the market is, how brilliant these guys, how they want to set up “effective” philanthrop (???effective for whom???), etc., etc. – it is amazing that as philanthropy has grown and grown the US has gotten more and more unequal…
MMT advocates propose nonprofit organizations as their mechanism to administer JG programs? I’ve never heard that from any of the school’s principals, and I’ve followed MMT intensively for over a half dozen years. What MMT suggests is that the JG be administered LOCALLY, as in, by municipal governments, because they are closest to both the unemployment and the types of micro-needs for which the JG is best suited.
Because mayor’s offices are the home of justice and public service in America today? Where exactly do you live? Are you proud of the coordinated crackdown against Occupy and the systemic injustice and oppression of poor and minority neighborhoods? Do you like car dependent sprawl and tax breaks for rich people to do real estate development?
As far as not being familiar with MMT advocacy, this is one of the core problems that MMT proponents refuse to address: they can’t agree on an actual program with concrete details that can be widely disseminated and discussed. Everyone is off producing vague ideas that can never be pinned down to specifics. A specific actor is critiqued (say, nonprofits) and the response is that some other actor will administer the program. So let me link to two of the more well known MMT proponents in this area, Wray and Tcherneva.
Tcherneva literally calls it “The Nonprofit Model for Implementing a Job Guarantee”.
Wray has been writing about the combination of state, local, and nonprofits for years:
P.S., if you’ve been following MMT closely, you probably have read Wray’s seminal work on Public Service Employment (ELR/JG) at CFEPS from 2000 (if not, I would recommend reading it).
It is worth remembering the two fundamental actions Wray develops:
Alternative proposals to MMT suggest that the government would:
a) act as income source of last resort, and
b) legislatively set the “marginal” price of labor.
It is difficult to compare and contrast these approaches to social policy when MMT has yet to develop a cohesive, unified plan for how the employer of last resort program will work. In contrast, there are specific proposals for perspectives that focus on income, namely:
1) social insurance (my personal preference) and
2) income guarantees (BIG/UBI) that a few other commenters prefer.
We are in the minority critiquing MMT here, so must do so cautiously and respectfully, but this is an opportunity NC has: to put some meat on the bones of the ELR/JG proposal. The fact that you have been very interested in MMT and didn’t even realize people were talking about involving the nonprofit sector I think speaks to that opportunity to fine-tune the operational details.
Very important topic. The billionaire’s stealth, tax sheltered, non-partisan political action fund. Thanks for posting.
Great post. Haven’t politicians been telling us for decades that charity was the solution to our social problems, rather than government programs?! The elite have been listening. They’re just using “philanthropy” for their own purposes, avoiding taxes while shaping the future in ways that suit their private & commercial interests, but in a way that is not just covert, but brings kudos and prestige.
When you consider the frame created by current tax code and the desire for continued financial accumulation, it’s inevitable that “gift-giving” by the uber-wealthy has become just another tactic to move finances to domains they control.
One need look no further than the damage being done to free public education in the name of “education reform,” which is nothing but segregation and colonialism by a fancy name, to have a clear example of how the billionaires are keeping the peasants in their place.
ok….rich Philanthropers use charity to gain more wealth &power….. whocouldanode! In other news,……water is wet…..
Not to mention that much of the Clinton Foundation’s work in developing countries opens markets to their corporate donors. A review of HRC’s actions as SoS will show that she worked to open up the economies of those same countries to foreign investment. On her whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia in July 2012, she was accompanied by delegation that included Coca Cola, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Goldman Sachs and Google. Meanwhile, USAID (supposedly an independent agency, but they work closely with State) funded “public-private partnerships” in which the “private” were Foundation donors.
Nothing like corporations being subsidized by U.S. taxpayers to ship their jobs overseas.
Citizens are woefully misled about corporate/.001% “philanthropy.” Time and again, it’s about how the mega-rich further enrich themselves by their “philanthropy,” which enables them to get further tax cuts (or similar) whilst also shaping programs, courses of study, research and development, and systems to their liking. Good examples have been provided already.
This past weekend, I was a meeting with colleagues who crowed about their institutions of higher education (two of them) receiving munificent “grants” (or donations or whatever) from the Koch brothers. My colleagues were jubilantly insisting that this money (both in the billion$) came with “no strings attached.” Why how very very kind of the Koch brothers just to, you know, toss a few buck$ at their educational institutions (one is private and the other is public).
When I attempted to point out that there were quite likely some strings attached, I was resoundingly “schooled” that this was certainly NOT the case, and that all of this wonderful money could be spent any way the schools wanted.
Oh dear. And so it goes. I hesitated at that point to put forth the thought: why do colleges and universities need this kind of money from private individuals to thrive and survive anyway?? I’m sure that thought would either not have been well received or truly understood.
Citizens have been carefully taught to revere and genuflect to their wealthy Masters.
Sometimes it’s about getting more money. Though I think it’s more about power than money much of the time. They like exercising power over the rest of us – because they can, that’s why. Money after the point you are richer than goddess, isn’t even about money anymore, one only needs so many mansions and boats and Tesla cars. It’s about power.
You’ll find in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments the observation that mankind tends to defer to the wealthy almost instinctively, without reflecting on how they acquired wealth or what uses it is put to. I’m not sure
how much teaching is required.
It was an observation that predated Smith by centuries. Ancient philosophy and sacred tradition is replete with it. The correction of precisely that impulsive error of judgement has been considered among the primary wellsprings of wisdom for the entirety of recorded history.
John Stauber and Cory Morningstar were instrumental for altering my behavior. I’d been giving nickels for years to Nature Conservancy and NRDC, based on the excellent work both organizations did in the day. But NRDC signed off on fracking in NY, and Hank Paulson became chairman at Nature Conservancy, which I have been led to believe resulted in sweetheart land deals for his’ns.
Betrayed by brand loyalty.
You have to really keep an eagle eye on charities to watch what they’re doing, as well as who’s running them. Many formerly estimable organizations have been infiltrated by parasitic billionaires looking to enrich them and theirs even further and/or to manipulate the programs they run to their benefit.
I have to run through the list of typical charities that I usually donate to annually to figure out who remains still worthy of my meager savings. Nature Conservancy is one such organization that no longer gets money from me.
good point to make. Caveat emptor, everyone. Charity Navigator can be helpful in this regard, as well.
My problem is I simply don’t have the insight or experience of the financial world to intuit the sorts of thinking that is indicated in many of the detailed posts on Naked Capitalism. Long long ago as a schoolboy my teachers recognised me as what they politely called ‘a late developer’ and its still going on.
So, excuse me Yves and the rest of the team but either I should not be reading the blog or I need direction in Economics 101 or you might chose to show a little mercy. I’m a grandfather with lovely grand-children for whom I have great hopes and fears. I am overwhelmed by desire for truth, justice and the rule of law to feature in our daily lives. Help me please.
The Antidote is the only mercy here, but whatever depth you wade into will be worth it. Remember, these are like expert witnesses exposing the chicanery of experts. Finance has been made deliberately complex, because each extra step is an opportunity to extract money from the customer.
There are good overview books out there. ‘A Random Walk Down Wall Street’ and ‘Economics in One Lesson’ were good for me, but they pre-date the 2008 crisis. Most mainstream economics textbooks are worse than useless. Yves ‘Econned’ is important. It is simple but not easy, and stands up to multiple readings. If I were starting from scratch, I’d go with ‘Econned’ and search up some of the aspects I didn’t understand, while understanding that the system has been set up to not understand, so consumers ‘have’ to take expert advice.
I think you’ll find plenty here that are willing to aid in your search for information. While many books can be recommended, some casual reading on the interwebs can also be highly useful.
Possibly investopedia.com (which offers the ability to search by topic) is good for starters.
To the extent that philanthropic giving by rich people shadows ‘corporate social responsibility’ by rich firms, it’s plausible that the more active the philanthropy the more aggressive the avoidance of taxes. Research coordinated at the business school of the University of Oregon found that the harder US cormpanies beat the drum of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (which often comes down to donating money amidst maximum publicity), the more aggressively they work to lower their taxes. Moreover, the greater a firm’s ‘corporate responsibility’ activities, the more it spends on lobbying to reduce taxes. See http://bit.ly/1Ja9iDy So much for Davos Man’s motto, ‘corporate citizenship’. In the cases of corporations and rich philanthropists, we should bear in mind Emerson’s remark, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”