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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.

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