Archive for the ‘Philanthropy’ Category

I’ve grown rather tired of hearing the financial 1% to 0.01% (depending on source) being called the “elite.” There is nothing about them most would recognize as elite other than their absurd wealth. As a rule, they’re not particularly admirable men and women; they’re merely aspirational (as in everyone thinking “wish I had all that money” — the moral lesson about the corruptions of excessive wealth rarely having been learned). The manner in which such fortunes are amassed pretty much invalidates claims to moral or ethical superiority. In the typical case, “real” money is acquired by identifying one or more market opportunities and exploiting them ruthlessly. The object of exploitation might be a natural resource, labor, a product or service, or a combination.

Admittedly, effort goes into exploiting a market niche, and it often takes considerable time to develop and mature (less these days in overheated and overvalued markets), but the pattern is well established. Further, those who succeed are often mere beneficiaries of happenstance from among many competing entrepreneurs, speculators, financiers, and media types putting in similar effort. While capitalism is not as blind as rock-paper-scissors or subtly skilled as poker, both of which are designed to produce an eventual sole winner (and making everyone else losers), this economic system tends over time to pool increasing wealth in the accounts of those who have already “won” the game. Thus, wealth inequality increases until social conditions become so intolerable (e.g., tent cities across the U.S.) the masses revolt. How many resets of this deplorable game do we get?

Meanwhile — and here’s another thing I can’t grok — billionaires seem discontent (alert: intentional fallacy) to merely enjoy their wealth or heaven forfend use it to help others. Instead, they announce their ambitions to rule by campaigning for high office, typically skipping the preliminary step of developing actual political skills, because (doncha know?) everything worth having can be bought. Few sane people actually believe that a giant fortune qualifies someone for high office, except of course them who gots the fortunes and have gone off the deep end. They’re so use to being fawned over by sycophants and cozied up to by false admirers that it’s doubtful anyone is ever bold enough to tell them anything resembling truth about themselves (notably including major character deficiencies). So the notion enters the noggin that the next big project ought be to squat on high office as though it’s a right bequeathed specially to the ultrarich, whether one is Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, or (gasp!) that trailblazer who demonstrated it’s possible: 45. In a pinch, mere millions will have to suffice, as most congressfolk and senators can attest.

According to Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All, seeking political office and practicing philanthropy is not at all the public service or “giving back” it pretends to be. Rather, it’s an attempt to maintain the status quo (funneling money upstream to those at the top), thus forestalling one of those nasty resets where the rabble overwhelms their betters with a fury known in past centuries to get quite out of hand. A few supposed elites riding herd over the great unwashed masses sounds rather passé, no? The bygone stuff of barbarian hordes and robber barons? But it describes the current day, too, and considering these folks are basically taking a giant dump on billions of other people, sorta gives a new, inverted meaning to the term squatter’s rights.

The largest lottery jackpot ever (roughly $1.6 billion) was won last week by some lucky or unlucky soul, depending. The mainstream media promoted this possible windfall relentlessly, instructing everyone as possible winners in the first steps to take with the winning ticket. It prompts the question, What Would a (sudden, new) Billionaire Do? with all that money, and many of us toyed with the prospect actively. The ruinous appeal is far too seductive to put out of mind entirely. Lottery winners, however, are not in the same class as the world’s billionaires, whose fortunes are closely associated with capitalist activity. Topping the list is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. The Walmart fortune deposits four Walton family members on the list, whose combined wealth exceeds even that of Bezos. Beyond conjecture what billionaires should or might do besides the billionaire challenge or purchasing land in New Zealand for boltholes to leave the rest of us behind, it’s worth pointing out how such extraordinary wealth was amassed in the first place, because it surely doesn’t happen passively.

Before Amazon and Walmart but well after the robber barons of the early 20th century, McDonald’s was the ubiquitous employer offering dead-end, entry-level jobs that churned through people (labor) before discarding them carelessly, all the while locking up profits under the placard “millions [later billions] sold!” Its hallmark euphemism (still in use) is the McJob. After McDonald’s, Walmart was widely understood as the worst employer in the world in terms of transfer of obscene wealth to the top while rank-and-file workers struggled below the poverty line. Many Walmart employees are still so poorly compensated that they qualify for government assistance, which effectively functions as a government subsidy to Walmart. Walmart’s awful labor practices, disruption of local mom-and-pop economies, and notorious squeezing of suppliers by virtue of its sheer market share established the template for others. For instance, employers emboldened by insecure or hostage labor adopt hard-line policies such as firing employees who fail to appear at work in the midst of a hurricane or closing franchise locations solely to disallow labor organizing. What Walmart pioneered Amazon has refined. Its fulfillment-center employees have been dubbed CamperForce for being made of many older people living in vans and campers and deprived of meaningful alternatives. Jessica Bruder’s new book Nomadland (2018), rather ironically though shamelessly and predictably sold by Amazon, provides the sorry description, among other things, of how the plight of the disenfranchised is repackaged and sold back them. As a result of severe criticism (not stemming directly from the book), Amazon made news earlier this month by raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour, but it remains to be seen if offsetting cuts to benefits wipe out apparent labor gains.

These business practices are by no means limited to a few notoriously bad corporations or their billionaire owners. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute and elsewhere, income inequality has been rising for decades. The graph below shows that wage increases have been entirely disproportionate, rewarding the top 10 percent, top 1 percent, and top 0.1 percent at increasingly absurd levels compared to the remaining 90 percent.


It’s a reverse Robin Hood situation: the rich taking from not just the poor but everyone and giving to themselves. Notably, trickle-down economics has been widely unmasked as a myth but nonetheless remains a firmly entrenched idea among those who see nothing wrong with, say, ridiculous CEO pay precisely because they hope to eventually be counted among those overcompensated CEOs (or lottery winners) and so preserve their prospective future wealth. Never mind that the entire economic system is tilted egregiously in favor a narrow class of predatory plutocrats. Actual economic results (minus all the rhetoric) demonstrate that as a function of late-stage capitalism, the ultrarich, having already harvested all the low-hanging fruit, has even gone after middle-class wealth as perhaps the last resource to plunder (besides the U.S. Treasury itself, which was looted with the last series of bailouts).

So what would a billionaire do in the face of this dynamic? Bezos is the new poster boy, a canonical example, and he shows no inclination to call into question the capitalist system that has rewarded him so handsomely. Even as he gives wage hikes, he takes away other compensation, keeping low-level employees in a perpetual state of doubt as to when they’ll finally lose what’s left to them before dying quietly in a van down by the river or out in the desert somewhere. Indeed, despite the admirable philanthropy of some billionaires (typically following many years of cutthroat activity to add that tenth and eleventh digit), structural change necessary to restore the middle class, secure the lower class with a living wage, and care for the long-term unemployed, permanently unemployable, and disabled (estimated to be at least 10% of the population) are nowhere on the horizon. Those in the best position to undertake such change just keep on building their wealth faster than everyone else, forsaking the society that enables them and withdrawing into armed compounds insulated from the rabble. Hardly a life most of us would desire if we knew in advance what a corrupting prison it turns out to be.

I attended a fundraiser a short while back. It’s familiar territory for me, filled with gifts culled from local businesses and corporations to be resold at auction, portable kitchens and bars to feed and libate guests to break down their inhibitions to giving, and lots of high heels and party dresses (with ample cleavage). Men rarely strut and parade the way the women do; tuxedos are the rare except. Secondary and tertiary activities are typical, often a DJ or live band that plays so loudly sensible people would flee the room rather than slowly go deaf. But monstrous volume in the era of amplified everything has dulled that reflex to nothingness. Or people are by now already deaf from habitual exposure to arena-rock volume filtered down to small venues. Folks simply, stupidly tough it out, ending the night with their ears ringing and their voices hoarse from screaming over the noise just to be heard.

Beneficiaries of fundraisers usually fall into two categories that are poorly served by American institutions: those seeking quality educations (including public schools that ought to be better funded through taxation) and folks suffering from catastrophic illness or disease that is ideally meant to be covered by health insurance but in practice is not. Auctioneers do pretty well enticing people to part with their money. It’s a true skill. But then, who goes to a fundraiser determined to hold tightly to their hard-earned cash? (Don’t answer that question.) Silent auctions may accompany the live auction, but the group vibe definitely contributes to some competition to outbid the next person (a wallet- or dick-measuring exercise?). Auction items are mostly luxury items, things normal Americans wouldn’t consider buying except when associated with charitable giving. Getting something for one’s charity (bought under or over its presumed market value) also shifts some portion of the philanthropic burden to those entities donating gifts.

All this is preliminary the most appallingly tone-deaf item offered for auction: a 4-person safari to a game preserve in South Africa to hunt and kill a wildebeest. When the auctioneer described the item, everyone in my vicinity looked at each other as if to say “what the fuck?” Certainly, humans have a long history of hunting game purely for sport (which is to say, not for food), and from the perspective of a South African safari outfitter, wild animals are a natural resource to be exploited the same way that, for instance, mining and agriculture is conducted throughout the world, but the last few years have seen a notable change of heart about killing animals, especially so-called romance animals (mostly large mammals, including whales, less so large fish), without need or admirable purpose. The outcry over an American dentist killing Cecil the Lion was an expression of that sentiment. So, too, was the killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into the enclosure. (Personally, considering how few of them exist, I would privilege the life of the gorilla over the child, but that’s a mine field.) Pictures of Donald Trump’s sons standing over their trophy kills have also elicited significant disapproval. We are now acutely aware that wild animals are not an inexhaustible resource (and never were — consider the passenger pigeon).

I judged that bidding on the safari was no more or less robust than other auction items, but I mentioned aloud that if I were to bid on it, I would probably go on the safari but would also insist on merely paintballing the poor wildebeest, a relatively harmless proxy for killing it needlessly. Admittedly, the wildebeest would experience the same existential terror as if it were being hunted to death, but at least it would live. Or it would live until the next safari came round. Hunting and killing a wildebeest or other large game has never been on my bucket list, and its appearance at auction would not suddenly inspire me to add it to the list. That is the province of a class of fools rich and insulated enough to still regard the world as their playground, with no thought of responsibility, stewardship, or consequences.