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Billionaires Watching Over Us

By: Carl J. Schramm
August 30, 2019

n Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas examines how philanthropic foundations, established by a tiny cadre of enormously wealthy individuals, shape government policies around the world. A former columnist for the New York Times, Giridharadas argues that these institutions, often praised in the media for “giv[ing] back” or “pay[ing] forward,” are primarily established to protect their founders’ wealth-producing companies. The mostly Silicon Valley donors use their philanthropy to buy protection from our enormously powerful—and potentially vindictive—federal government. In many ways they are, through their political machinations, simply 21st-century robber barons.

Their foundations shape government priorities to reflect a consensus engineered by the foundations themselves. The objectives of the new philanthropic class—preventing global warming, advancing diversity and inclusion, solving poverty—happily resonate with academics, journalists, and policymakers. These shared objectives can best be realized, so the story goes, through the technologies produced by the various companies created by the new donor class. Despite wielding monopoly power, violating user privacy by harvesting intimate personal data, and, in some instances, serving tyrannical regimes, such companies are seen as too important to be subjected to public interest regulation. Much better for their founders to define the public interest themselves.

Giridharadas cites Davos-like meetings where corporate chieftains, heads of state, journalists, university leaders, and foundation presidents reinforce their common interests. Those demonstrating enthusiasm for the approved canon leave these clubby bootcamps with life-long career advantages—preferred access to foundations among them. Giridharadas’s epiphany came after he was chosen to be present at one such prestigious conclave. A young journalist, he saw himself recruited as a “thought leader” to proselytize the shared visions of the philanthropies quietly funding these meetings.

For persons hailed as disruptors, the new philanthropists’ programmatic solutions can seem remarkably conventional, even pinched. Their oversights are equally revealing. Backing charter schools, for example, a focus of the Walton Foundation (not mentioned in the book), requires an uncomfortable tangle with unionized teachers—and so goes largely unsupported. This inconsistency with donors’ loud embrace of “entrepreneurial philanthropy” seems to evade Giridharadas.

Mark Zuckerberg provides a case in point. In 2010 he gave Newark, New Jersey, $100 million to improve its public school system. At a very public event, Zuckerberg presented the money to “his friend,” then-Mayor Cory Booker. Giridharadas suspects a bargain, as well as shrewd political bet taking, was in the works.

To have upset Newark’s teachers’ union would have caused an uncomfortable problem for Booker, a declared presidential aspirant. Calling attention to just how ill-served the city’s African-American students are by their teachers risked a backlash for Facebook in certain market segments. Any thought of a truly entrepreneurial approach to school reform—by, say, using the money to buy out the city’s teachers from their pensions and starting over again with Teach for America instructors—was out of the question. Unsurprisingly, subsequent analysis showed that Zuckerberg’s money had little effect on student performance.

The new breed techno-donors often reflexively support government in its evergreen claim that, with enough money, it can right any wrong. Their foundations effectively serve as the R&D department for a constantly expanding number of public initiatives. Of course, there is nothing innovative about philanthropists seeing government as the way to scale their ideas. PBS was conceived by the Carnegie and Kellogg Foundations; the War on Cancer was instigated by the Lasker Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and Obamacare reflected decades of work by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund.

The philanthropic leaders Giridharadas covers made their fortunes, as they like to remind us, with OPM (other people’s money). Now they want to goad government into funding initiatives they think will make the world better. Both the Hewlett and Packard foundations promote federal action on climate change. Jeff Bezos pushes government expansion of pre-schooling; the Google Foundation promotes government programs promoting diversity and inclusion; others support borderless immigration policies.

But Giridharadas’ critique is nothing if not selective. He pillories the Sackler family, for example which has generously supported the arts (such as the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery), for buying a drug company in 1955 that 40 years later invented OxyContin, one of medicine’s most effective pain killers. In Giridharadas’ world doctors are blameless and government faultless in its inability to effectively counter an epidemic of a grossly overprescribed controlled substance.

The redemptive act for philanthropic malfeasants like the Sacklers is conjured by Giridharadas’ philanthropic hero, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker. Walker thinks “givers” ought to not just contribute solutions but “answer about [sic] their role in causing the problem.” Just how he might undo the impact of the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Harriman endowments supporting eugenics programs, or the sins of the foundation for which he is now responsible—such as its role as a front for the CIA in suppressing democratic movements around the world—is left unsaid.

Take the Ford Foundation’s instigation of community advocacy as a purpose-built movement to rid American cities of “blight” by relocating urbanized African Americans to newly built “projects.” This foray into identity politics provoked an episode of wanton government racism that can never be undone. It is just one example of the irreversible mischief of which philanthropies are capable. Why should we allow foundations to create political movements that, in the guise of improving democracy, threaten the American genius of uniting many into one?

Giridharadas tells us that Walker, owing to his intersectional resume, is insulated from responsibility for the past. Is he similarly protected from hubris? Foundation presidents—like the rich that settled their fortunes on these institutions—face an occupational hazard: they never, in the words of the old cowboy ballad, hear a discouraging word.

The word “charity” nowhere appears in this book, save to describe fundraising fetes among business and political elites. With the social welfare state’s growth, the ancient burden imposed on every individual by every religious tradition—namely, the “care of strangers,” a common mission in the charters of early foundations—seems obsolete.

Giridharadas, a disciple of Thomas Piketty, essentially argues that we participate in philanthropy through government control of foundation assets and taxes on the rich. This stance reflects the stunning speed of how thoroughly the link between personal charitable giving as a path to individual virtue has been displaced by the notion that government transfer payments make virtuous donors of us all.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter, who thought entrepreneurs the instigators of creative destruction, worried that capitalism would be done in by its success. He saw that the outsized fortunes made by entrepreneurs, who upset the status quo with their new ideas and products, would excite the envious. Growth and an expanding economy would be sacrificed by politicians promising to cut up a stale pie more equitably.

Winners Take All is blind to the irony it lays before us on page after page. It was free market capitalism that permits today’s techno-philanthropists to pursue their entrepreneurial destiny and become fantastically rich. But there is more to the story. Bill Gates once observed that no matter what his foundation achieved, it could never match what Microsoft’s products had done to improve human welfare for billions of people.

Perhaps the modest end to a wildly successful life as an entrepreneur is to consider that your best gift to humankind is already in hand—it was the product you invented that improved the lives of others, the new jobs you created, and the wealth you produced that spilled over to the benefit of many. Maybe philanthropy should focus on making the way easier for our future entrepreneurs.