Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Before I went to California...

...last week I wanted to mention a piece I read in the Atlantic, "The Problem With Modern Philanthropy." It brings up a number of issues I've been thinking about lately and also reminded me of a post I wrote a little over a year ago.

The gist of the article for me was the question, "Who is more capable of spending your money wisely, you or the government?" 

Now when I read that line I have to pause for just a second and laugh a little to myself. There was a time -- before Barack Obama showed up on the national scene, before the financial crisis and before I lost my health insurance for a few months in 2008 (long story) -- when I was not a Democrat or a Republican, but a Libertarian. (That's right, with a capital "L.") 

Before I voted for Obama in the 2008 general election I cast my last ballot for a "libertarian," Ron Paul, in the Illinois Republican primary. (Life comes at you fast, doesn't it?) 

I grew up as a fan of Barry Goldwater and discovered Ayn Rand in my twenties. Really, I was a not-so-good-looking version of Paul Ryan long before anyone had ever heard of Paul Ryan. (That may explain why I'm so hard on the current speaker of the House -- there's nothing so fervent as the zeal of the convert.) But, to paraphrase Irving Kristol, over time I was "mugged by reality." When I consider the question now I have to respond by saying, "I'm not so sure."

From that piece in the Atlantic (my emphasis):

...philanthropy creates challenges in a democracy, argues David Callahan, the founder and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy, in his new book, "The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age." The gifts come at a time when government is shrinking, and when, in some cases, philanthropic dollars replace or supplant government functions. That can mean that it’s philanthropists who decide what scientific issues are researched, what types of schools exist in communities, and what initiatives get on ballots. “It’s great to have these new donors appearing on the scene at a time when government is being cut,” Callahan told me, in a phone interview. “On the other hand, there’s no question that with money comes power and influence.”

Or, in other words, rather than paying taxes, which support boring but essential things like Social Security and Medicare, philanthropists can donate $100 million to, say, a university's law school instead.

It reminds me of when I was the board president of a church a few years ago. It wasn't uncommon for a member to try to earmark their annual pledge for something "sexy," such as the music program. But, as it was explained to me, we couldn't allow that because no one would want to fund anything mundane like the electric bill. And it's hard to enjoy the choir in the cold and dark. No, we had to tell everyone, just hand over your pledge to us and we will spend it responsibly. (That's the kind of paternalistic thing that just drives Republicans and Libertarians nuts, isn't it?) But if you don't believe us, the budget is there for all to see. And if you don't like how we're spending your money, you can be on the board. (We'll even make you president -- trust me.)

Can you imagine any rich person leaving their money to the government? Of course not! Isn't it much better to have a building -- or a whole school -- named after you at your alma mater? (Or someplace like Harvard that you never could have gotten into?) Or to create something like the Getty Center* in Los Angeles? Who wants to give their money to something invisible like Social Security and Medicare? How boring! (Besides, people want something named after them.) But, really, just like my church example, what good is all this philanthropy if necessary government services aren't properly funded? Is it possible -- just possible -- that the government is, in fact, more capable of spending your excess money than you are? Is that really so crazy?

Boy, have I changed!

* That's the Getty at the top of this post. I've been there, and it looks really cool from the 405. But, at the same time, there sure are a lot of homeless people in LA. 


Ed Crotty said...

I had a very similar transformation. I think with age you start to understand how lucky you are and "there but for the grace of God go I" - and the ego and hubris of youth start to wear off.

Mike Tracy said...

I think people often start out life idealistic but become more pragmatic as they get older. For one thing, you find out how little time you have left to create your version of the "utopian society." While many young people start out liberal and become more conservative as they age, I started out as a libertarian and became more liberal as I moved to the center.