Individual Philanthropy

Posted: June 19, 2016 in Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Economics, History, Taste
Tags: , , ,

The first Gilded Age in the U.S. and the Roaring Twenties were periods that produced an overabundance of wealth for a handful of people. Some of them became synonymous with the term robber baron precisely for their ability to extract and accumulate wealth, often using tactics that to say the least lacked scruples when not downright criminal. The names include Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor, Mellon, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke, Morgan, and Schwab. All have their names associated in posterity with famous institutions. Some are colleges and universities, others are banking and investment behemoths, yet others are place names and commercial establishments. Perhaps the philanthropy they practiced was not entirely generous, as captains of industry (then and today) seem to enjoy burnishing their legacies with a high level of name permanence. Still, one can observe that most of the institutions bearing their names are infrastructure useful to the general public, making them public goods. This may be partly because the early 20th century was still a time of nation building, whereas today is arguably a time of decaying empire.

The second Gilded Age in the U.S. commenced in the 1980s and is still going strong as measured by wealth inequality. However, the fortunes of today’s tycoons appear to be directed less toward public enrichment than toward self-aggrandizement. The very nature of philanthropy has shifted. Two modern philanthropists appear to be transitional: Bill Gates and Ted Turner. The Gates Foundation has a range of missions, including healthcare, education, and access to information technology. Ted Turner’s well-publicized $1 billion gift to the United Nations Foundation in 1997 was an open dare to encourage similar philanthropy among the ultrarich. The Turner Foundation website’s byline is “protecting & restoring the natural world.” Not to be ungrateful or uncharitable, but both figureheads are renowned for highhandedness in the fashion in which they gathered up their considerable fortunes and are redirecting some portion of their wealth toward pet projects that can be interpreted as a little self-serving. Philanthropic efforts by Warren Buffet appear to be less about giving away his own fortune to charities or establishing institutions bearing his name as they are about using his notoriety to raise charitable funds from others sources and thus stimulating charitable giving. The old saying applies especially to Buffet: “no one gets rich by giving it away.” More galling, perhaps, is another group of philanthropists, who seem to be more interested in building shrines to themselves. Two entries stand out: The Lucas Museum (currently seeking a controversial site in Chicago) and The Walmart Museum. Neither resembles a public good, though their press packages may try to convince otherwise.

Charity has also shifted toward celebrity giving, with this website providing philanthropic news and profiles of celebrities complete with their causes and beneficiaries. With such a wide range of people under consideration, it’s impossible to make any sweeping statements about the use or misuse of celebrity, the way entertainers are overcompensated for their talents, or even how individuals such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk have been elevated to celebrity status primarily for being rich. (They undoubtedly have other legitimate claims to fame, but they’re overshadowed in a culture that celebrates wealth before any other attribute.) And then there are the wealthy contributors to political campaigns, such as the Koch brothers, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson, just to name a few. It’s fair to say that every contributor wants some bang for their buck, but I daresay that political contributors (not strictly charity givers) expect a higher quotient of influence, or in terms more consistent with their thinking, a greater return on investment.

None of this takes into account the charitable work and political contributions stemming from corporations and unions, or indeed the umbrella corporations that exist solely to raise funds from the general public, taking a sizeable share in administrative fees before passing some portion onto the eventual beneficiary. Topical charities and scams also spring up in response to whatever is the latest natural disaster or atrocity. What’s the average citizen to do when the pittance they can donate pales in comparison to that offered by the 1% (which would be over 3 million people in the U.S. alone)? Or indeed how does one guard against being manipulated by scammers (including the burgeoning number of street panhandlers) and political candidates into throwing money at fundamentally insoluble problems? Are monetary gifts really the best way of demonstrating charity toward the needy? Answers to these questions are not forthcoming.

Update: Closure has been achieved on the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago. After 2 years of litigation blocking any building on his proposed site on the lakefront, George Lucas has decided to seek a site in California instead. Both sides had to put their idiotic PR spin on the result, but most people I know are relieved not to have George Lucas making inroads into Chicago architecture. Now if only we could turn back time and stop Donald Trump.

  1. Brian Miller says:

    As problematic a history as someone like Carnegie presented in his accumulative methods, I admired his contribution in creating the Carnegie libraries. I benefited from one growing up. And, like Kunstler, I appreciate that the elites of that era gifted us some magnificent public architecture. Sadly, the contemporary crop seem to think that slapping their name on an arena constitutes giving back.

    • Philip Botwinick says:

      I’ve heard many people and especially many librarians use the same logic Brian invoked regarding the “gifts” of Carnegie. So, the fact that Brian and others enjoyed the benefits brought about by such a selfish, cruel, vile, manipulative, blood thirsty, egotistical, maniacal, and destructive man is completely ignored and swept under the rug. At least that’s my reading of what Brian’s wrote.

      How many lives were crushed and destroyed in order for Andrew C to gain such “wealth”? What was the cost to the people “employed” by Carnegie? And let’s look at the long term (barely over a 100 years) ramifications from his most veneered business practices which have resulted in the raping and pillaging the planet and and leading us into the sixth extinction which will hopefully end in the extinction of humans.

      I’m working along a former New York Policeman at the farm in Queens and am not so stunned at his having a blind spot similar to Brian’s. This retired “law enforcer” seems to not be bothered by the rampant alcoholism and brutally inflicted upon their mates by the fellow members of this institution. Let’s not even try to discuss behavior of the police towards those they are supposed to serve and protect (and who are these people really?).

      Most of all, Art (let’s call him Art for Art’s sake) is fine with the black ops being conducted by such luminary agencies as the CIA, FBI, etc., etc.) all in the name of keeping us safe at home. No thought to the destruction and chaos being wrought upon innocent civilians in this other places.

      Art believes others who are deemed “evil” (and whose deciding what’s evil, here?) should be brought to justice (he really condones murder, but couches it in a more banal word). When I asked him if other countries have the right to retaliate upon Hillary Clinton (using Art’s logic as a basis) since she is responsible for the deaths of thousands (if not millions) through policies and decisions she made while in service to the the people.

      Art felt that Hillary is not guilty of anything because she did not murder anyone personally (I couldn’t really vouch for that being true). Do you or anyone know if those murdered by the US Govt were guilty of actually taking a life or were they just able to get someone else to do the killings (as Hillary, Kissinger, etc., etc. have done)? Did Hitler actually even take a life (other than when he was sanctioned during WWI)?

      So, the madness continues. and here’s a kicker, John the guy responsible for the animals on the farm is one of those who don’t believe we went to the moon. His reasoning is that it was all propaganda to make Russia look less advanced. It’s shy we’ve never gone back once that goal was achieved. The vacuous look in his eyes communicated to me that he was believed this and I was afraid to find out if he felt climate change was the results of chem trails.

      It’s not as if I would be surprised to find that we never went to the moon, but I wasn’t convinced by either frequent posters on other sites by the evidence they provided. It seems almost as absurd as believing some of those left leaning progressive “organic” farmers that we can feed 7.4 Billion (and most likely an endless number with no end in site) people with no problem or impact on other species or the planet.

      Considering what’s going on around the globe in the last few weeks (Venezuela, Brazil, Europe, Florida,etc., etc.) I have to wonder how others so easily manage to believe it’s all “good”.

      • Brutus says:

        Thanks for your comment. Nice rant, lots to consider.

        Brian (above) is a regular commentator and can speak for himself, but I believe he acknowledged Carnegie’s problematic history just as I did. His response was consistent with the narrow subject of the blog post: the changing nature of philanthropy.

        Your comment went much farther afield, and I agree with everything except any sweeping-under-the-rug on my part or Brian’s. We’re both acutely aware of the ignorance and corruption you cite. In fact, I have a post about administrative violence vs. behavior violence, which is an example why Hillary and before her Rice, Kissinger, and McNamara were all mostly absolved of their war crimes. They are defined out of existence as actions of the State. We’re meant to believe that such actions are necessary and excusable to “keep America safe,” but that rationalization doesn’t fly if one reasons above the level of the lizard brain. Similarly, amassing great fortunes by wicked, venal, corrupt action is not excusable after the fact by acts of philanthropy. The point of the blog post is that, as philanthropic emphasis has shifted, we get far less of what might be recognized as public good out of today’s philanthropists.

  2. Philip Botwinick says:


    I appreciate your response.

    I tend to widen the scope of any discussion. That was the problem most “teachers” had with me in the school system. Is it a problem here?

    You write a piece. I don’t think and probably won’t stick to the narrow path established.

    I wonder why people seem to think what I’m writing is considered a rant. It is certainly emotional and based on my experience, but the word rant comes across to me as dismissive. Perhaps that’s my stuff?

    Having read and actualized the contents of the books “Raising Cain” and “Difficult Conversations” I’m clear that most humans have difficulty dealing with those of us who are emotional and passionate. It seems to make people uncomfortable. And men (raised mostly by women oddly enough) seem to be encouraged to lobotomize from having much skill or ability to process or express their emotions.

    I’m a bit confused. Yes, Brian opened his comment with the word problematic (and he can speak for himself) but then he gravitated to the word “admiration” which seems to me to be an opening to address as there seems to bit of cognitive dissonance happening. I benefit from the libraries too (although they are in their death kneel which the iPod generation seems to not give a rat’s ass about (ever see the movie Robot and Frank?)), and have attended too many events where the librarians who host the events lead the audience to believe that Andrew C was the greatest benefactor that ever graced the planet.

    It’s kind of like the speech Jeremy Jackson made accepting his life time achievement award which Dave Cohen wrote about at Decline of the Empire. The audience applauded at the most ridiculous moments (at least I thought so).

    Although I follow you sporadically, I’m not a regular commentator here so I don’t know what Brian’s status as regular seems to entitle him to, although you seem to be telling me that piece of information for some reason I can’t really fathom. Are we entitled to so sort or prize, reward or acknowledgment if we comment here such as your mentioning that fact?

    Do you only want commenters to stick to the point you are trying to raise? If so, I’ll curtail my comments in the future to that point.

    To the point you raised I think the early gilded age thieves (the 400 and probably a few more) desired to leave a legacy behind which represented them in a more positive light. IWe were in the early stages of destructive capitalism and these “leaders” hadn’t yet had the skills of Bernays and Fraud to aid them in convincing the public they were doing things (but not really doing anything) for the public good. Most of the tools and skills of those professionals (PR we call them today) were only just coalescing at during those Gilded Age years.

    I believe the philanthropic emphasis has shifted regarding what we might perceive as a public good is because we no longer see the same things as a public good today as we did back then.

    • Brutus says:

      My primary concern with going too far beyond the scope of any post is that things quickly become unwieldy for the purpose of discussion. You’re welcome to comment as you wish, of course. My reply to you wasn’t a reproach, really, just an attempt to narrow the discussion. Whether what you offered is a rant or not is subjective, but I would say that anyone who calls out corruption and injustice at least veers that direction. It’s certainly well inside my wheelhouse. I pointed out that Brian is a regular only to highlight that he is familiar with my themes at The Spiral Staircase. The blog is over 10 years old, and I tend to dwell on different aspects of the same topics.

      How a public good is interpreted may be the greatest unanswered question suggested by my post and our commentary. I lazily chalked up the issue to differing periods of nation building vs. empire in decay, but I rather expect that the basic idea of a public good is lost on many whose sole grasp is directed toward self-interest, missing the wider truth that a (relatively) well functioning society is necessary to enjoy any personal spoils. When social cohesion breaks down, the mean struggle for survival looms over any civic-minded forbearance or altruism. Isn’t that the news out of Venezuela right now?

  3. Brian Miller says:

    As someone who has written a blog for a number of years I am no longer surprised by the comments I receive. Nor am I surprised at the comments that bloom on other blogs such as this one. Readers, including myself, come to the page or screen with their own understandings and interpretations. But comments tend to take on a life of their own and range far from the original post. And that is just fine with me.

    For my own purposes I tend to comment for three different reasons: simple questions, a brief commentary on the topic, or a courtesy comment. The last is often simply a way to say “thanks” to the author for sharing his/her thoughts with a larger readership.
    As a general rule I try not to get involved in replies to other comments. Not because I don’t think they have value, although they often don’t. But because, for a variety of reasons, I just don’t have the time or energy. Comments quickly become a personal Tar Baby where no matter the intent one becomes mired and stuck in.

    But, I do appreciate the energy of Phil’s comments.


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