Is the ‘golden age of philanthropy’ a sign of good times or bad?

CBS News’ 60 Minutes recently did a piece featuring Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffett and a select group of other billionaires, describing the motivation behind a philanthropic initiative called The Giving Pledge.

Charlie Rose hosted the chat, titled The Giving Pledge: A New Club for Billionaires, briefly noting at the opening that the wealthiest 400 Americans hold as much wealth as half of all Americans living at the bottom of the wealth scale. (It’s actually much worse than that.) Said Rose:

“While resentment toward the super-rich grows, there may be a silver lining taking shape. It turns out a lot of those rich people are giving staggering sums of money away in what is being called a golden age of philanthropy.”

Silver lining for the golden age. Nice. But the 60 Minutes piece is perhaps more disturbing for what it leaves out – by glossing over the rising tide (or dark storm clouds, to extend Rose’s mixed metaphor) of inequality and by portraying public concern with this trend as resentment of the rich.

This isn’t about envy. It’s about equity and many see the rise of super-philanthropy as the flip side of astonishing new levels of inequality that deserve serious scrutiny.

We’ve noted the global trend of the concentration of wealth and rising inequality many times on Humanosphere. Some, like our guest columnist Joe Brewer and his colleagues at /TheRules, say the trend is not an accident of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ running its natural course. Rather, Brewer and others say, inequality today is increasingly the product of deliberate practices used by the super-rich, political elite and corporate entities to avoid paying a fair share of taxes and to influence – or undermine – the role of government.

Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, interviewed for this article in Rolling Stone, is one of those arguing that rising inequality is one of the most destabilizing phenomena at work in the United States today. Others like Brewer make the same case globally.

Back when the Gateses and Buffett launched The Giving Pledge, Georgetown University’s Pablo Eisenberg (an expert on the non-profit sector) was among the few who questioned its value. Eisenberg contended The Giving Pledge could actually make things worse by undermining public programs and the role of government in maintaining a level playing field and prohibiting concentration of power. Eisenberg, in a piece for On Philanthropy, offered special criticism for the media’s unquestioning reporting on the initiative:

The media … never thought to ask about what this new money would support, or how it would do so…. They never questioned whether the prospective, phenomenal growth of mega foundations, some possibly larger than Gates, might be a dangerous development for American democracy. They never asked whether these new funds would be publicly accountable, or merely managed, as with the Gates Foundation, by two or three family members, without any public discussion or political process.

The 60 Minutes piece included an interview with Forbes editor Randall Lane, who celebrated the rise of the super-philanthropists as an alternative to government: “Government is showing it can no longer solve the great problems of the day.” Better to leave the big issues to the billionaires, he said.

Based on their statements, it’s fair to assume the Gates Foundation trio launched The Giving Pledge with the best of intentions. They were (and perhaps still are) upset at the stinginess of their fellow billionaires. As we’ve noted before, only a few (115 so far) of the world’s super-rich have agreed to sign on to a pledge that is neither onerous or binding in any way.

If someone with $10 billion promises to give away at least half his or her wealth at some point in the future (to whatever they want), is that really so impressive? Will we still be paying attention to the pledge 30 years from now when Mark Zuckerberg passes on to the great Facebook in the sky? What happens if a pledge-maker reneges, perhaps because of losing a few billion? Answer: Nothing.

To their credit, the Gates family and Buffett have long stressed that philanthropy cannot, and should not, be seen as an alternative to government or of policies aimed at creating a level playing field. Bill Gates Sr. has long been a leading voice for fair taxation – and even was so bold as to once say he favored ‘wealth redistribution’ (which caused some, with a straight face, to label him a ‘socialist’).

The 60 Minutes piece explored little of any of this, for a report that perhaps should have been dubbed the Gilded Age of Philanthropy.

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.