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[Review] 'The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age'

May 11, 2017

The mega-wealthy have long been celebrated in American culture. Even in the first Gilded Age, when the likes of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Sage were scorned as robber barons, their wealth — and power — were much admired. In their time, these titans of America's burgeoning industrial might determined the economic destiny of millions and set the course of the nation. And their philanthropy — more than a century on — continues to echo with all the force that money can buy.

TheGiversBookShotToday, as we celebrate the dynamos of a new gilded age — their fortunes, in many cases, made younger, growing faster, moving at the speed of light — we're witnessing a second philanthropic boom. And that seemingly inexhaustible river of "private wealth for public good" brings with it the ideas and voices of those who, having made vast fortunes, are now determined to put that money to use. How society responds to and channels that torrent of money while making sure the ideas it funds best serve the interests of the American people is of broad concern.

In The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, David Callahan gives us a grand tour of the philanthropic landscape in the opening decades of the twenty-first century while opening a window on how today's economic winners — having proved themselves in business — are eyeing philanthropy as the ultimate opportunity to convert wealth into power. But where a Matthew Josephson might have distrusted such a development, in Callahan's telling these masters of the universe are thoughtful, broad-minded, and, yes, even likable. He's not interested in taking them down, criticizing their often rapacious business practices, or pointing out the role played by fiscal and tax policy in cementing their status as the .01 percent. Instead, his is a book about the giving away, not the getting, of great wealth.

Founding editor of the Inside Philanthropy website, a founder of public policy think tank Demos, and a former fellow at the Century Foundation, Callahan has a reputation as a keen observer of philanthropy and civil society and it serves him well here. Not only does he know his subject, he's also interviewed many of the people in his book — Priscilla Chan, Eli Broad, Melinda Gates, and John Arnold, to name a few — and is able to support his own judgments with their words. And what both he and they see is a future in which giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.

Of course, many of today's mega-wealthy, people like Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, have indicated they have little interest in leaving much of their wealth behind. (In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Bloomberg joked with correspondent Steve Croft about "a guy on his death bed in a hospital with the rails around and his family looking down like vultures. And he looks up and says, 'I know I can't take it with me, but I can take the access code'.") Indeed, in the next decade alone, some $740 billion is likely to be distributed in the form of private philanthropy. And if the Giving Pledge — the Buffett and Gates effort to encourage the uber-rich to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes — is any gauge, we could see another trillion dollars in private wealth making its way to nonprofit organizations and causes over the lifetimes of the one hundred and fifty-eight current "pledgers" who have signed on. (Learn more about that campaign and its signatories at the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature.) How all that money will be used over the coming decades is what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown, but it undoubtedly will have important and lasting effects, and that — as well as who will decide what its impact might be — is at the center of Callahan's inquiry.

In the book, Callahan examines the collision of two fundamental American values — freedom and equality — and how the wealthiest Americans have been able to leverage their money (for better or worse) to gain advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Sure, money in politics is as American as apple pie: for proof, look no further than the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, the flood of cash swirling around political campaigns, and K Street lobbyists and super PACs. But much less is heard about the ways in which the mega-wealthy are using their philanthropy to influence public policy and (intentionally or not) drown out the voices of average Americans. We're not talking about eight-figure gifts for museums and the like; we're talking about philanthropy that shapes national agendas and priorities and promotes policies that affect Americans where they live — from promoting school vouchers, to hobbling the Johnson Amendment, to pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

It's one thing, for instance, for the average American to make a $100 donation to a cause she believes in, and it's certainly noteworthy when a wealthy donor trumps that with a gift a hundred thousand times larger; it's something else entirely when a donor puts up the money for a think tank to develop a public policy recommendation, hire researchers to provide intellectual cover for the policy, and disseminate the results through a report and a media campaign. The Brookings Institute has been around since the 1910s, the American Enterprise Institute since the 1930s, the Heritage Foundation since the 1970s. All are tax exempt and all have been the beneficiaries of substantial philanthropic largesse over the years. What's different in 2017 is the full-throttled way in which such bounty has become another weapon in the ideological clash that defines our time, Left vs. Right, liberal vs. conservative, cosmopolitan vs. populist. What we are seeing, Callahan notes, is the mega-wealthy using their philanthropic dollars to define the terms of the debate and dominate the public square in areas and on issues that a generation ago were the purview of academics, technocrats, and policy makers.

Some might argue that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Callahan is quick to note that the mega-wealthy have no agreed-to set of interests and, as a group, are as ideologically and politically pluralistic as the country itself. If at times they can seem like gods throwing thunderbolts at one another, the diversity of ideas and approaches they represent seems to balance out: for every wealthy advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, there's an equally wealthy and committed advocate eager to double down on public education.

In a perfect world where government is more or less trusted to do the right thing, that might be okay, argues Callahan. But in an era of widening inequality and growing political polarization (exacerbated by our addiction to social media), government and traditional institutions are losing their ability to absorb those thunderbolts and forge compromises that satisfy the majority of Americans. It's not that the public square is empty; it's that the platforms from which the plural voices of American democracy typically are heard have been roped off and posted with "Do Not Enter" signs. For Callahan, it's no coincidence that the outsized influence on public policy of the mega-wealthy comes just at the moment when both institutional and government effectiveness appear to be in terminal decline.

With a nod to French economist Thomas Piketty, Callahan sees this decline as a by-product of mounting economic anxiety, driving broad disaffection with both major political parties and a loss of faith in the ability of government to materially affect the lives of those who have lost their livelihoods to globalization, automation, and de-industrialization. Into that vacuum has stepped the wealthy, with states and local governments increasingly looking to foundations and nonprofits to join forces in public/private partnership and fund everything from education initiatives to homeless services to public parks. Every time a philanthropist gives $100 million to bankroll a new reform effort in a struggling school district, or convinces a city to spend a portion of its parks budget on a whimsical project, or provides millions for a campaign to convince the public to support/oppose an international climate agreement, writes Callahan, we are seeing a new kind of philanthropy in action. And there's no reason to believe the trend won't continue, or that it won't happen in ways largely beyond the ability of the public to control.

As much as The Givers pulls back the curtain on this reality, it's also a call to change how philanthropy in America is regulated. Readers of Callahan's posts on Inside Philanthropy will not be surprised by his prescriptions — chief among them a call for greater transparency and accountability in the sector (principles Foundation Center has long championed through its Glasspockets initiative). Here, though, Callahan has something more specific in mind: changing the rules to require wealthy individual donors, donor-advised funds, private foundations, and nonprofits to disclose more information about their giving, more quickly. He also calls for the creation of an independent Federal Reserve-style commission to oversee the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors; the establishment of formal metrics to assess charities' effectiveness; and for the IRS to be given more resources — and greater latitude — to audit more than the tiny fraction of nonprofits and foundations it currently reviews. Callahan also favors limiting the tax-deductibility of contributions to nonprofits that are not working to alleviate poverty or address other urgent social problems, and he wants to see foundation boards be more independent and representative of the communities they are charged with serving.

For Callahan, these are small changes — a somewhat Pollyannaish take that seems to ignore our current political climate and the treasured prerogatives of many large, important foundations and nonprofits. Yes, philanthropy needs more transparency and accountability, it probably needs new rules, and the public needs more and better information about how foundations and individual donors are spending their tax-advantaged resources.

But we also need to find the will, and a way, to restore the public square to something like its imagined heyday so that the voices of the rich and powerful are not the only ones heard in statehouses and the halls of Congress. As Callahan puts it, Alexis de Tocqueville didn't esteem America for its robust nonprofit sector; he admired it for its egalitarian ideals. Nurturing and sustaining those ideas over the coming decades should be something we can all agree on.

Daniel Matz is manager and content developer for Foundation Center's Glasspockets.org portal. For more great reviews, check out the Off the Shelf section of PND.

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