News Flash: Philanthropy Is Wealth Solving Problems of Its Own Creation

Warren Buffett’s son has figured out that the proud towers of philanthropy are built on the rotten foundations of inequality and excessive wealth accumulation. I give him credit for being willing to say this aloud–it’s usually left unsaid, one of those things everyone in the club understands but which might be resented by the polloi so we just won’t mention it.

I don’t grok the end of the piece, though, where Buffett calls for a “new paradigm.” Like “thinking outside of the box” or “disruptive technology,” that’s always a safe bet in the rarefied world of TED talks and innovation gatherings. But I dare to argue that what we actually need is the original paradigm–namely, that in a democratic society we come to consensus on the problems to be solved and then tax ourselves to solve them, rather than permitting accumulations of extreme wealth and letting wealthy people create their own social policies.

And I also dare to argue that for the moment, while living under the reign of Big Capital and Big Philanthropy, maybe we should be a little less grateful.


Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

40 thoughts on “News Flash: Philanthropy Is Wealth Solving Problems of Its Own Creation”

  1. “and then tax ourselves”

    I always get a chuckle out of this “tax ourselves” line. Sure, go ahead: Tax yourself. Just don’t imagine that if you vote for a tax on somebody else you’re taxing yourself.

    1. Brett, you know and I know you know that we tax INCOMES in this country. Not people. Not “ourselves” or “somebody else” or “people named Brett”. You have a point only if you think people ARE their incomes.

      I can’t really blame you for thinking that, of course. The Hiltons, Waltons, Kochs, Buffetts, and many other not-Bellmores, will continue to have multimillion dollar incomes for longer than your lifetime or mine — i.e. forever — and neither you or I ever will. It has become easier to change gender in this country than to rise from the middle (let alone lower end) of the income spectrum to the exalted plateau of practically flat income taxation. Given a stratified economy wherein the “somebody elses” with multimillion dollar incomes ARE PERMANENTLY THE SAME PEOPLE, then you’re right: when either you or I vote to raise taxes on high INCOMES we are not in any sense voting to raise taxes on our present OR FUTURE selves.


      1. Yeah, kind of like we sue property, and not people, in civil forfeiture. Legal fictions.

      2. Let’s just take Brett at his word, and decide we should have a really flat tax: everyone pays the same amount of tax – not the same percentage, the same amount. We’ll see how that works.

        Meanwhile, those of us who pay some attention to income distribution in this country have noticed that both the share of our nation’s wealth and the share of our nation’s income that goes to the very top doubled over the quarter-century ending just before the 2008 crash; it’s probably gotten worse faster since there. I’m all for rich people being rich, so long as they’re paying their share, carrying their own load to maintain and improve the society that makes their fabulous wealth possible. I concede that there are all sorts of debates about what that share is – but so long as every year they are wealthier than the year before compared to the rest of society, in a process that continues unchanged for decades until the people at the bottom are getting badly squeezed, I’d argue they can afford to pay a larger share. After all, the burdens of society writ large, including but not limited to taxation, are clearly less of a drag on them than on everyone else; otherwise, they wouldn’t be getting wealthier faster and faster, year on year, compared to everyone else.

        1. “I’d argue they can afford to pay a larger share.”

          But, what’s the argument that their “fair share” is what they can afford, rather than the cost of what they’re getting? If the two of us walk into McDonald’s, and we both order a hamburger, should you pay twice what I do, just because you’ve got more money?

          Here’s the way I view this: It’s very easy to ask for spending, if you’re not footing the bill. Progressive taxation means, is intended to mean, that the majority of voters are not footing the bill for any spending they vote for. Their taxes bear no relationship to the expense of government, are just an arbitrary number. It removes any incentive the average voter has to worry about the cost of government, because somebody else will be paying it, somebody else will benefit from savings.

          Now, if you want enormously more government than the average person would consider reasonable if they had to pay for their own share of it, that’s a feature. I do understand that. But I think it’s a really, really bad idea to divorce costs and benefits that way, to create a system where the people getting the benefits aren’t paying the costs. It makes spending politically viable even where the costs exceed the benefits, and the spending is making society worse off.

          As for income concentration, of course income is getting more concentrated. The government is increasing it’s control over the economy, and the more concentrated wealth becomes, the easier things get for government. Fewer levers of power, more dependents to reliably vote for ever more government. A society where almost everybody is comparatively self-sufficient and independent, and wealth isn’t concentrated, would be a nightmare for a government determined to be all things to all people; How do you buy the support of people who don’t need you, with their own money?

          1. Brett, I realize you don’t agree with the notion of society. I think it’s a bit hypocritical you don’t go live in Somalia, but there you are.

            The preponderance of us believe in a society that offers certain guarantees (however imperfectly): justice; clean air and water; educational opportunity; some housing, food, and medical security; etcetera. We have greater and lesser ambitions in this regard, but we believe in these things. To a great degree, we attempt to achieve these aims through taxing and then spending of one sort or another – direct provision, subsidies, tax credits, etcetera. Ideally, these taxes fall on people with some sort of relationship to their ability to pay without suffering or being exploited. You seem to feel that when a wealthy person pays a penny more taxes than a poor person, they are being exploited (possibly a penny on the dollar, possibly a penny period). I on the other hand maintain that so long as every year the wealthy not merely remain wealthy but actually have a larger share of the nation’s wealth than the year before, it would be hard to believe the tax burden is stripping them of their fortunes – it’s not even restricting their growth in wealth to less than twice the nation’s growth in wealth. They’re doing fine out of the deal society is offering them; indeed, they are doing better than anyone else, even compared to their own status in the past.

            As to your semi-incoherent paranoid rantings about what the concentration of wealth means to you: either propose a mechanism for this utter drivel, or get help.

          2. Brett clearly has no idea what “progressive taxation” means. He does not understand that the principle of the thing is: your 100,001st dollar gets taxed more heavily than your 10,001st dollar; your 1,000,001st dollar gets taxed more heavily than your 100,001st dollar; your 10,000,001st dollar gets taxed more heavily than your 1,000,001st dollar; and so on. Brett appears to think we actually HAVE progressive taxation in the US — a nation where your 370,001st dollar gets taxed EXACTLY THE SAME as your 3,700,001st dollar or 37,000,001st dollar.

            Brett also ignores the fact that the voters are ALWAYS “footing the bill” for spending they did not “vote for”. I never “voted for” a bloated military budget, but I’m certainly footing part of the bill for it. Brett probably never “voted for” a lavish welfare system, but I suspect he’s “footing the bill” for part of that. And Brett is smart enough to know this, but is willing to spout nonsense anyway, because Brett just plain hates “government”, and that’s that.


          3. Tony seems to think we don’t have progressive taxation just because the tax rate doesn’t rise monotonically. Which is an excessively stringent criterion. It’s sufficient that it rises over some significant range, and is higher at the top than the bottom. It does both.

  2. About a century ago, we were just finishing up the Progressive era, where the industrial might that by then made the US the most productive nation in the world had finally been tempered by at least token efforts at reform of the accompanying abuses of workers, consumers, children, and minorities during the Gilded Age. At the beginning, charity reigned as the answer to the “social problems” of a society that lacked commitment to ensuring basic standards of human decency for all and care for those who couldn’t care for themselves.

    By 1913, Wilson was elected as the first Southern Democrat since the Civil War and many regulations and reforms initiated by the Progressives had started to knock the rough edges off life for millions of ordinary Americans. The Progressives included Democrats, but really were a multi-party movement that realized charity could never come close to dealing with social issues modern industrial society mass produced based on the “law of the jungle” without government mediating the inevitable class conflicts that arose. By 1917, events elsewhere demonstrated where failure to come to terms with modernity could lead to; the great postwar steel strike proved those forces were very much at work in the US; only brutal repression sufficed to postpone the threat the workers actually might realize they create all wealth — and maybe should have some share in deciding the uses of capital.

    The commitment of the US government to such modern ideas wavered over the next two decades, until the depths of the Great Depression and the inaction and/or lack of capacity of government brought FDR in to save capitalism from itself. And it took WWII to actually get the economy back on its feet, when fear of government intervention was finally overcome by fear of fascism. For the first time in history, there was effectively full employment and it lit a postwar boom of proportions unmatched in history. It’s basis was clearly in an activist government that looked after the interests of all, instead of only the interests of the few.

    Richard Nixon managed to turn Republican recapture of the White House into the beginning of a 4-decade long pillaging of the government, leaving conservatives secure in the belief that if government was really as useless as they said it was, then they did not need to competently manage it. Oddly, many Democrats have joined in and embraced the charity model of governance, repurposed for the 21st century in the form of charter schools, privatization of Social Security, and a gigantic program of subsidies for health insurance companies that has been mischaracterized as a national healthcare program.

    So we live in a time that if you don’t believe in charity, but in human rights, you’re virtually a flaming commie revolutionary. I quit being grateful years ago and started working putting tools in the hands of workers they can use to eke out liberation little by little. Who knows where this will end, but I’m gratified people are at least waking up to the fact that we’d need a lot less charity if our society worked as well for the many as it seems to do for the few. It’s certainly not a case of scarcity of wealth that we face, but a problem of distribution of abundant resources. Right now, we’re failing at that, entrenched in the neo-liberal project to make American workers compete with those in Bangladesh, rather than in trying to lift the standards of all workers towards those American workers (used to) enjoy.

    1. Wilson was grew up in Virginia and briefly practiced law in Georgia, but was educated mostly at Hopkins and in essentially postdoctoral jobs in elite northeastern schools, and made his career in New Jersey. I’m prepared to believe all sorts of bad things about him, including racism, and maybe (I don’t know much about him) he was allied with the Dixiecrats – but I’m pretty sure New Jersey isn’t Southern.

      1. Warren, it depends on what part of Jersey you’re talking about. Yoknapatawpha County might be located near the Jersey Pine Barrens.

      2. Warren,
        Dixiecrats were a mid-20th century development, largely in reaction to FDR’s policies, which were seen as threat to Southern “values” by being too “race-friendly” in the euphemisms of the day. And do you really believe the school takes the home out of the man? I’m certain his fortune in attending such schools had influence on him, but I doubt he forgot his roots, if for no other reason that he stood out in his own, white way in a society that was rigidly structured in many ways besides race.

        Am I saying Wilson’s a racist? Plenty of evidence of that at a time when racism was not only perfectly acceptable, in many parts of the South, it had only recently (the previous generation or post-1890) become the law. I suppose you could make they argument Wilson’s racism was a “cultural thing” that we don’t understand now, but WEB DuBois and many others certainly understood it.

        1. It’s beyond silly to say the Dixiecrats were a mid-20th century development. There is a continuity from well before the Civil War, interrupted only by the dozen years of Reconstruction, and the Dixiecrats were again united and effective before FDR took office.

          As to whether Wilson was a Southernor: he was the quintessential college man of his day, highly regarded professor at Princeton and then President of the school, before becoming governor of New Jersey. I don’t doubt he had Southern influences, but it’s more than glib to dismiss a lifetime spent become archetypal for a non-Southern institution as “attending such schools”. As I said, I don’t doubt he was all sorts of terrible things, likely including him being a racist – but he wrote whole books about political science (which I admit I haven’t read, but feel certain you also haven’t read), and he is best remembered for a liberal internationalism that was far from popular in the South, and for income taxes, also (especially) unpopular in the South.

          Our history doesn’t lack for racists in the White House (even Truman, who integrated the armed forces, was married to an infamous bigot). But “Dixiecrat” doesn’t mean “racist”, and I don’t think Wilson’s identity, philosophy, or political base have obvious connections to the Dixiecrats.

          1. Warren,
            I think you’re speaking generically. As a historian, I was speaking specifically, although I will admit to shooting from the hip a bit and going from memory. Nonetheless, it’s always reassuring to have a cite. While not definitive, I offer up the always handy, if not always completely accurate wikipedia (as I warn my students when using it):

    2. It seems odd to blame Nixon – who was in office for the creation of the EPA, increased government funding of research with The War On Cancer, proposed (however disingenuously) Medicare-For-All, and imposed price controls – for the modern Republican disbelief in the power and role of government. Lots of terrible, terrible things about Nixon (including the misuse and overuse of government power, in contrast to your thesis), but it’s hard to see in him an intent to hollow out the state.

      The Republican program you complain about is very real – but, really, Nixon?

      1. I didn’t so much “blame” Nixon as noted his disgrace gave the Republicans a chance to re-invent themselves as “not-Nixon.” Then they promptly re-embraced most of the same values, except that bugging and recording thing, mostly. Ronald Reagan rode in and saved their bacon, just like in the movies after Ford fumbled the hand-off.

        It was a complex time and, amazingly, the Republicans managed to avoid their fair share of the blame for Vietnam by the time Reagan got done smiling into the camera. Remember Nixon was the peace candidate in ’68 vs HHH and Wallace until Humphrey finally made peaceful noises, too little, too late in the last few weeks of the election. Then more Americans died on his watch than anyone else’s, killing his way to “peace” by including a million or more Vietnamese. They didn’t call him Tricky Dick for nothing, but that would’ve stuck to the Republicans for decades if Nixon hadn’t given them the opportunity to be “not-Nixon” and then blame the Dems for not “supporting the troops.”

        And don’t forget those programs weren’t something Nixon pushed through against Democratic opposition. The parties actually worked together to meet important national needs back then, strange as that might seem to you young-uns.

        1. Well, no, you said:

          Richard Nixon managed to turn Republican recapture of the White House into the beginning of a 4-decade long pillaging of the government, leaving conservatives secure in the belief that if government was really as useless as they said it was,

          You’re ascribing agency and inspiration to Nixon there; you’re not, as in your later comment, saying that he marks a turning point and the discrediting of his presidency freed the Republicans to go in a new, government-averse direction. Or maybe I’ve misunderstood that, too; you seem to be saying modern Republicans adhere to Nixon’s ideas except for bugging and record-keeping. But of course modern Republicans love bugging, even more than Democrats do! And they don’t perpetuate Nixon’s ideas about the role of government; quite the opposite (they do perpetuate his sneering attitude towards the intelligentsia, but that’s not the same thing). That the modern Republicans attempt to keep fewer records, I’ll grant you; a great example being Mitt Romney, who on his way out the statehouse door had literally the entire records of his governorship turned into useless warehouses full of paper, and had the (actually usable) digital records destroyed – all at massive expense to the state for the printing and warehousing, and at moderate expense to himself to purchase and destroy the hard disks.

          1. Warren wrote: “You’re ascribing agency and inspiration to Nixon there…”

            Hmmm, never one to dismiss agency, I think it’s you that are reading too much into the turn of a phrase. Maybe you think that’s what I was saying, but you only picked up on about 25% of what I was hinting at. There’s race and the Southern Strategy, a Nixon card played over and over so obsessively that you really do need to get a new deck. Yuck! There’s the evasion of the truth and manipulation of the media as a basic tenet of governance, as the same time it’s declared the enemy. Urg! Then there’s the basic triangulation of various factions into who can most efficiently turn influence into cash. Bam! Yep, Nixon was no angel, but was a great role model for pulling out all the stops of principle in seizing power to deliver for big contributors while rabblerousing patriotism into something really ugly by declaring war on various disfavored groups, most famously for our purposes here, the war on drugs.

            Besides, Republicans hate Big Government? Really? I know that’s what the ads say, but there’s been precious little empirical evidence of that, the Reagan deficit being one of the major stumbling blocks. As the Party of No, they never met a tax break they didn’t like for millionaires or a subsidy or special pleading for big business they couldn’t arrange for the 1%. Or a weapons system to grace a hometown contractor with. And that doesn’t even count the marvelous idea of downsizing Big Government so that the New! Improved! Easy to Handle! version can conveniently fit between a woman’s legs…

            As for repression at home and abroad, you are unfortunately correct in that the two parties are in competition to see who can sugar-coat the death of the Bill of Rights better.

  3. Kelly, you just wrote the greatest post at this site.

    And yes, Brett, point taken, but the point remains the same. The point is to take money from rich people and allow the rest of the society to decide through public policy how to spend money on the big things, from infrastructure, to education, and something the Founders called “the general welfare.”

    People may not get it right too often, but watching here in California the dueling children of a rich mutha lawyer (morons of the first degree) squander over $100 million on two initiatives that when not completely wrong, were selfishly brought.

    Philanthropy is overrated, as any sociologist up through the 1970s could tell you. Too bad they were marginalized in favor of economists with metrics built on theory instead of reality.

    1. ” The point is to take money from rich people ”

      Yeah, fine, defend doing that, then. None of this “We’re just taxing ourselves” crap, just outright defend your right to take from one person, and give to another, without pretending their consent was required.

      1. Brett, your persistent belief that all collective action is a fiction (as in, it’s impossible to define ourselves as Americans and then talk about what it is that we do together) makes for a very odd juxtaposition with your extreme hawkishness about immigration. If it is not possible for us to tax ourselves then what, exactly, is it that you are defending at the border?

        1. That’s right, I’m a methodological individualist. Individuals are reality, the collective is a fiction, frequently invoked to pretend the victims are their own victimizers, even as they’re dragged away kicking and screaming.

          1. Interesting. You posted a response that neither answers the question I asked nor makes sense.

  4. Say what you will about Warren Buffet, he’s not funding the Pentagon to the tune of 20% of his wealth.

  5. The apparent anti-charity/philanthropy sentiment is a little unexpected and I’m sure I don’t accurately grasp that aspect, so by all means please don’t hesitate to enlighten me about the head and shoulders on that one.

    When it comes to dealing with poverty, I’m not familiar with the history of successes in coming to consensus on the problems to be solved in our democratic society. Seems to me that taxing ourselves to solve them has led to a situation where our staggering corporate welfare support dwarfs our taxpayer-funded social welfare support for those truly in need. C’est la vie, nothing’s perfect, is it?

    I just saw a news bit on Bill Gates. Now please be aware that I despise this guy as much as any of the rest of you. I’m aware that he is the robber baron of the software industry who committed all manner of crimes and misdemeanors in the process of amassing his great fortune, and I have no intention of defending any of that. As most know, he has pledged the bulk of his fortune (currently estimated at over $70 billion) to charity. Call it a guilt-wash, philanthropic colonialism, whatever. That’s not the point. Dollar Bill himself doesn’t even pretend to do it for moralistic or even altruistic reasons. He offers this objectivist pitch (and no, I’m not defending objectivism either): “I believe it is in the rich world’s enlightened self-interest to continue investing in foreign aid. If societies can’t provide for people’s basic health, if they can’t feed and educate people, then their populations and problems will grow and the world will be a less stable place.”

    There are over 2 billion people worldwide living in extreme poverty (on less than $2 a day). Gates’ entire fortune could be spent to double the fortunes of these poorest-of-the-poor for about a month before running completely out and we’d still have over 2 billion living in extreme poverty (+1 if you count Gates, which I must admit is fun to ponder). But Gates is smarter than that, and he’s investing the money in disease prevention, health care, agriculture, and education, all things that make real differences in the long-term welfare of those receiving assistance. He uses metrics and measures results (I found the section on Childhood Deaths quite insightful), and the effectiveness of his foundation has attracted Warren Buffett’s philanthropy to it’s cause, among others. Does anyone here really think we could improve on this by taking money from Bill and Warren and allowing the rest of the society to decide through public policy how to spend it? With half of our public policy decided by those crazies on the other side of the political isle and the other half by our own crazies, and both sides demanding special deals that benefit their most influential constituencies as a condition for their support in passing the policies?? Really??? Philanthropy may be overrated, but I’ve seen little to convince me that the efficiency, effectiveness, and level of corruption offered by government-run programs show that they are any less overrated.

    1. That’s third LINK. Dang I could use a preview and/or edit function tonight. Must be bedtime. G’night all.

    2. I don’t think anyone is criticizing philanthropy; I suspect everyone greatly admires Bill Gates’s determination ti do good with his wealth, even if they feel some of his efforts are misguided (his approach to school reform is controversial, and he got suckered by the Discovery Institute).

      What some of us criticize is a dependence on philanthropy – a world where the safety net and programs for social improvement depend on the whim of generous wealthy people, rather than resulting from the expressed will of society. This is especially the case when you examine the fortune Bill Gates is dedicating to good works: it consists of unrealized capital gains in Microsoft stock; as such, it has never been taxed. We have created a society in which Bill Gates can build and then spend a fortune in the several tens of billions, without paying any taxes on it, so long as the spending is done in a good cause.

      And: Bill Gates seems (extremely!) sincere, and is in any case under massive scrutiny. This is a mechanism available to many other people of lesser sincerity and under less scrutiny. They, too, could amass (lesser) fortunes and spend them as they see fit, paying no taxes along the way. And their method of “philanthropic spending” may be far less idealistic than Gates’s. Say for example their passion is art collecting: they could build for themselves a massive museum, acquiring, housing, and displaying the art they want, and open to the public a few days a week. This is in theory a public-spirited move, but in reality they completely control and privately enjoy their own art collection, built using a tax-free fortune.

      PS You criticize the corruption and the efficiency of government-run programs. Maybe this is sometimes so – but I think there’s a fairly huge amount of data in support of the efficiency and probity of, say, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. In my own world, no-one believes there’s significant problems with the honesty or with the “efficiency” of NIH grants (that last in quotes because it depends a lot on how you define the goals). And the path we’re going down, we may see the safety net the former provide shredded, and the research infrastructure the latter supports lost, at least as a sufficient government endeavor, and thrown pleading to the mercies of the philanthropists.

    3. If Bill Gates typified philanthropy, I’d be with Freeman, even though I’m not crazy about Gates’ school reform ideas. But most philanthropy consists of of endowing business schools, supporting high culture, or supporting parts of the medical industry. The first function is vile. The latter two functions could be done better by government–its the kind of thing at which government does very well: defined mission and low need for entrepreneurial energy. (Read James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy.) Very few philanthropists are as imaginative as Gates. His kind of imagination, discipline and entrepreneurship are the best argument for philanthropy over taxation. But they are also pretty rare.

      1. The solution istm is to control more tightly what sorts of things count for tax exemption or tax deduction – buying paintings for a semi-public collection (or maybe buying paintings, period) shouldn’ count, etc. I don’t see how to make that happen, but it seems at least at first glance an easier job than making the US government spend on poor people outside its borders.

  6. Im my own non-profit experience, when it comes to helping the poor the rich and their tax sheltered funds are big on promises, big on posing for news photos and short on follow through. On the other hand people who work for a living and live in the real world with the rest of us will dig deep to give and volunteer with dedication.
    I always wonder how many $50 donors bother to take the tax deduction. Maybe volunteer work should get a tax CREDIT.

    @Brett: How many volunteer hours do you put in and where? Come on now, don’t hide your lamp under a bushel. You can tell us.

    1. Oh, I’m sure he volunteers plenty of time stuffing NRA mailers and teaching kids how to change magazines quickly. You know, for charity. To make peoples’ lives better.

      1. I support a family of tenant farmers in the Philippines, to the tune of several hundred dollars a month. I’m quite happy to say that three of the sons have professional careers now, due to the vocational training I financed. The other two are still in school.

        In the interest of full disclosure, they ARE my inlaws. But they’re still a family of poor tenant farmers, and I am still supporting them, so shouldn’t that count as charity?

        1. Brett,
          What you’re doing for your family is, obviously, a good thing. But it’s not a recipe for society to tell people lacking opportunities that they need to find a relatively well-off in-law willing to support them; still less is it a recipe for society to tell people lacking opportunities they should hope for the spontaneous kindness not of family but of total strangers.

  7. Even the highly taxed Nordic countries throw up billionaires by the magic workings of capitalism – though they make move out like Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA. I suggest hat billionaires in socialist paradises shoukd still be encouraged to give their money to good causes rather than their children. Great inherited personal wealth is a threat to republican institutions, and the redistributive democratic process has plenty of room for alternative priotities like those of the Gates´ or Henry Wellcome.

  8. There’s a nugget of sensible criticism here that might have been made well, but I feel like Peter Buffett isn’t the guy. Throughout the piece he basically regurgitates bits of wisdom that he hasn’t assimilated, and indeed it’s very hard to get any sense of an overall argument.

    Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem…

    Fine, there are many people making such criticisms. New styles of charitable giving have become fashionable. But I’m not seeing why this criticism applies specially to private charitable giving, and not equally to government controlled foreign aid programs. Or indeed to federal domestic spending. I wonder how sympathetic Peter Buffett would be to the idea that social spending should not be federalized, which seems to cohere pretty well with these remarks.

    I now hear people ask, “what’s the R.O.I.?” when it comes to alleviating human suffering, as if return on investment were the only measure of success.

    To the extent that this can be converted into a thought at all, the idea seems to be that evaluating charities by effectiveness is inhumane and morally wrong headed. Not clear why, or what better way there is of coping with scarce resources. There has to be some way of deciding whether deworming is higher priority than vaccination or the other way around. For that matter, *any* spending on any program typically sets up some metrics. Like one measure of Medicare’s goodness is that it has low waste.

    [on microloans] People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast? I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.

    Umm. I’d have thought incomes rising above two dollars a day, given the eloquent focus on inequality and poverty and humanism, would count as a pretty big deal, and am surprised to see it diminished so casually. Rising above $2 a day to buy goods and services is the opposite of inhumane, even if you feed beasts that Times readers dislike. The real inhumanity istm is preaching post-materialism and decrying consumerism when talking about people making $700 pa. There are doubtless people who need to learn that that greater prosperity doesn’t necessarily mean more people getting to have more stuff, but it’s not these people.

    His prescriptions (It’s time for a new operating system or
    What we have is a crisis of imagination) are failures of communication too extreme to achieve even sonority. So let me just mention something huge that Peter Buffett forgets all about: that the governments and people of wealthy nations show essentially no interest in spending money on foreign aid. Private giving from the planet’s wealthy to the planet’s poor, where effective, then accomplishes something that rich societies don’t care much about addressing collectively. Plus at least the Bill Gates isn’t funding the Pentagon with his post-tax dollars. Or making nakedly political concessions to special interests like insisting that food aid be shipped from thousands of kilometers away. it’s easier to bash charitable giving when you studiously ignore that real world governments don’t exhibit ideal or even decent behavior beyond their borders.

    I cannot discern anything in this piece that merits its widespread dissemination these past few days. The best explanation I can come up with is that bashing humanitarian giving by billionaires attacks the case against very high tax rates for the super rich at its strongest.

  9. I could heartily agree with the sentiment that may not be in society’s best interests to structure itself in ways which encourage, aid, and abet accumulations of extreme wealth to people of privilege and power while oppressing the poor and expanding the gap between the two, but arguments against “permitting accumulations of extreme wealth” take a step too far, IMHO. How much is too much? What violence is justified in preventing it?

    I’m not convinced that passing “noble” laws that attempt to keep everyone equal by hatchet, axe and saw is healthy for the forest, overall.

  10. I’ve spent most of my professional life in the nonprofit sector and much of that time helping agencies secure the benefits of individual generosity. So I can hardly be accused of trashing philanthropy when I point out that it’s exercise by multi-billionaires threatens to supplant the democratic process, just as the injection of multi-billionaires’ wealth into elections distorts their outcome.

    I don’t quite know what to do with the argument that there’s no such thing as taxing ourselves–I would certainly pay more under a more progressive tax system, and that’s fair. The Founders knew that great concentrations of wealth were a threat to self-government which is why (though they were wealthy themselves) they worked for the abolition of entail and primogeniture. But when fortunes are as big as Gates’, even making sure there’s an even division between heirs leaves too much money in too few hands.

    Of course democracies make bad decisions–but they’re our decisions to make, and reverse if necessary. To whom do I appeal if I don’t like how Bill Gates is governing me?

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