“Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.” ― G.K. Chesterton
While fortunes for the already well-to-do continue to rise at incredible rates, many of them have turned to the ostensibly irreproachable act of extreme philanthropy – with great fanfare and little criticism. Look no further than the
onslaught of gushing PR, image boosting puff pieces articles heralding the simultaneous birth of Mark Zuckerberg’s daughter and his “charity” in her honor this past week alone. Amid the glowing, breathlessly effusive press coverage is a more tempered look at this outsized influence and tax dodging in charitable clothing. Rather than having to rely and depend on the whims and “benevolence” of the obscenely wealthy (see: Scott Walker cuts $250 million from University of Wisconsin system, rich alumni swoop in to save the day), there are those who point to more efficient and equitable ways of viewing and resolving the issues we face.
The media-as-public-relations-machine was in full swing last week, abuzz over Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s public letter to their daughter that contained a $45 billion pledge to establish the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The mainstream media produced an avalanche of praise. “Mark Zuckerberg Philanthropy Pledge Sets New Giving Standard,” announced Bloomberg Business, who declared that Zuckerberg and Chan were “setting a new philanthropic benchmark by committing their massive fortune to charitable causes while still in their early thirties.” From the Wall Street Journal came more praise: “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to Give 99% of Facebook Shares to Charity.”
But when BuzzFeed revealed the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was not a nonprofit, but a for-profit Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), which has no obligation to actually engage in charitable activity, the tenor of some of the commentary became more negative. Was the donation to a Delaware-based LLC nothing more than a way to duck California taxes?
The truth is that both nonprofit and for-profit charities can and do serve as tax shelters for the obscenely wealthy. Non-profits themselves have few restrictions around them, and only require that 5 percent of a foundation’s assets each year be spent towards its stated charitable goals, including expenses and lobbying.
“Increased charitable giving to the world’s wealthiest corporations is simply one novel aspect of a much bigger phenomenon: the growing power and clout of private philanthropic actors over global institutions such as the World Health Organization.
With an endowment of $42 billion, the Gates Foundation spends about $3 billion each year towards causes that, at first glance, seem irreproachable. But the giving has hidden costs.”
“While the Weill case is the most naked in its money-for-prestige nature, all of these donations have something in common: they are not donations at all. Rather, they are purchases. Just as corporations buy the naming rights of pro sports stadiums, so too do very rich people buy the naming rights of respected cultural and educational institutions. And for the very same reasons: to burnish their brands. This is the sort of purchase available only to the very, very wealthy, who have already bored themselves with the yachts and mansions dreamed of by lesser souls. They are not buying anything so gauche as that. They are buying reputation, and immortality for themselves. Though these purchases masquerade as charitable gifts born of a sense of altruism, they are in fact the opposite. They are acquisitions, motivated by greed and narcissism.”
ES: You describe hubris as the occupational disorder of the philanthro-baron. But I wonder if there’s a unique brand of hubris of the tech billionaire, call it *hubris 2.0*?
Barkan: There does seem to be a special hubris that comes from people who make their money when they’re really young, which these days usually means high-tech. It leads to the mentality of: “I can do anything because I’m brilliant.” And it leads to the belief that you can take what worked in your business, or what you learned about software programming, and just translate that to fix a variety of problems that are of a completely different nature and much more complex.
“One hundred years later, big philanthropy still aims to solve the world’s problems—with foundation trustees deciding what is a problem and how to fix it. They may act with good intentions, but they define “good.” The arrangement remains thoroughly plutocratic: it is the exercise of wealth-derived power in the public sphere with minimal democratic controls and civic obligations.”
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