BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm BOB GARFIELD:. With acrid smoke still billowing from the devastating fire this week at Notre Dame came a breathtaking demonstration of noblesse oblige.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There's been lots of pledges, notably from the fashion multinational LVMH. The Arnault family fled 200 million euros. The Pinault family, very rich family in France under Francois-Henri Pinault, a hundred million euros. He says he wants to revive the jewel of our heritage. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: A billion dollars pledged within days. Private wealth for public good. A pure expression of the downstream benefits of capitalism. But also, as it turns out, a pretty good window into its costs. Within hours of his boss's pledge to give, Jean Jacques Aillagon, director of the Pinault collection tweeted a call to the French government.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The money given by French residents is two-thirds tax deductible. Some people are saying the deduction should be increased to 90 percent. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And 90 percent tax break of course essentially transfers the cost of philanthropy to the government–which is to say to the taxpayer. Yet the credit and acclaim in general burnishment of reputation all accrue to the givers. The history of philanthropy is the history of rich people basking in perpetual glory for their generosity, often in gilded institutions bearing their names but obscuring how they got rich in the first place. We recall Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie libraries. Andrew Carnegie robber baron, not so much. Kind of foolproof, or at least, it was. Consider now the Sacklers. The family that controls Purdue Pharmaceuticals.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: White scraps of paper swirled through the Guggenheim Museum last night as part of a staged protest against the drug OxyContin. The falling paper was meant to resemble prescriptions slips for the opioid that was created by Purdue Pharma. A company owned by the Sackler family.
CROWD: [CHANTING] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: In the face of mounting public pressure, Britain's National Portrait Gallery, New York's Guggenheim and the UK'S Tate Galleries have announced that they will no longer accept their money.
BOB GARFIELD: Anand Giridharadas is editor at large for Time and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Philanthropy backlash, he says, may reverse a century long status quo, but doubts about plutocratic largesse go back to Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford and the like.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: People were skeptical about several things. One, is this giving single individuals or companies way too much power over public life? Number two, are these problems better solved by government? Where you have accountability, where you can throw people out in an election if they don't solve the problem and the right way. Number three, is the money that is being used to solve these social problems also culpable in the creation of these social problems? In other words, you have some program in the Niger Delta to help poor kids but maybe the money came from an oil company that is partly responsible for why those kids are poor. And you really did have, from Theodore Roosevelt to a lot of critical writers back then, real skepticism.
BOB GARFIELD: The skepticism you refer to was so extreme that Andrew Carnegie actually had an essay to defend his version of noblesse oblige.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: He understood that people were starting to be not only skeptical of these big fortunes but of these swashbucklers who claim to be solving the world's problems often after being strikebreakers and union busters and people paying starvation wages etc. And he laid out a proposed truce. He first says having a business is hard. It's so competitive out there and you can't judge or begrudge the businessman for what the businessman's got to do. He's got to maybe cut wages wiggle around some tax things. And Carnegie says because the business processes survive and employ people and grow, he got to cut him slack on that stuff. However, the other half of the truce is once the businessman has all these outsize resources, Carnegie says those resources are actually not properly his. They belong to the public and he is merely a kind of trustee or administrator of this wealth. And it is his job to spend it philanthropically within his lifetime. He is using after the fact generosity to justify anything goes taking.
BOB GARFIELD: Well his argument stuck because over the ensuing century, the idea of rich people transferring their maybe dubiously gotten gains into charity is taking hold. It's been normalized. I am reading to you from the first line of Michael Milken's Wikipedia page. It says, 'Michael Robert Milken is an American financier and philanthropist.' OK. I guess that's true. He has a foundation for, I think, prostate cancer research that's done some good works. He was also the mastermind of maybe the biggest swindle in the history of the world in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s. And yet he seems to have purchased back his reputation.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: A lot of people push back arguing, 'you know, OK, some of these people are flawed but at least they're doing something. Right?' If you look at an example like Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, you have a guy who's pledged to do a lot philanthropically. I would be willing to make what may sound like a very counterintuitive argument that the world would be better off without Mark Zuckerberg doing his philanthropy and doing all this change the world stuff. Why better off? Because without him talking about emancipating girls through education and droning the Internet to Africa, I actually think journalists and regulators would have had way more aggressive scrutiny on Zuckerberg over the last 10 years. So I'd be willing to lose whatever schools and disease programs Facebook has funded in exchange for having a healthier democracy where Facebook is in check. And I really do think in so many cases there's a link between these things. And a lot of these billionaires really understand that doing this giving buys you reputational space to keep doing the things you need to do to make money.
BOB GARFIELD: But the calculus does seem to be changing, you know, kind of all of a sudden. We're living in an age where names are being stripped off of limestone edifices. You know, there goes Woodrow Wilson, there goes Stonewall Jackson, there goes all manner of historical figures who now posthumously have to reckon with how they made their reputations. And then there are the Sacklers, which seems to be a case study for the change we're talking about.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: In the case opioid crisis and the Sacklers, it is really clear. Right? A second grader can understand the basic outlines of the story. You had a family that owned this company, Purdue Pharma, and this company discovered and promoted this drug OxyContin, that very quickly was revealed to have addictive potential. More than 200,000 people have now died in this extended opioid crisis. There were many companies involved in profiting from this but the Sacklers and Purdue were one of them, and really built a double digit billion fortune. And you had this same family throwing money at arts philanthropy, mainly, but also other things–mostly in centers of power and influence. When I was growing up I lived in Washington D.C. I knew the name of the Sackler Gallery. I did not know the Sackler opioid involvement. And I think a lot of people have known some kind of Sackler wing of the Guggenheim or the Met but didn't know the opioid a thing until about one or two years ago. It's such a clear example of the incredible immunity that a relatively modest amount of giving can buy you.
BOB GARFIELD:: In a recent magazine piece, you put all of this quote succinctly. You said that giving has become the wingman of taking. Generosity has become the wingman of injustice. Changing the world has become the wingman of rigging the system. Do you have any thoughts as to how to unrigged the system?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Going back to the beginning of this conversation, you were talking about a hundred years ago when you started having these folks give and the reason they were giving is people were angry about the first gilded age. The way people are now angry and the second gilded age. And the answer to that anger and the feelings of being left out and left behind was not throwing some of the scraps of that first gilded age to the people who are angry–although that was tried. The way we got out of that first gilded age was by ending it. We had a progressive era–the New Deal. And those were eras defined by bottom up movement based political solutions to our biggest shared problems. Rich people by the goodness of their hearts did not get rid of the children working in factories with their little fingers. We had to do that through the law. Rich people acting to the goodness of their hearts did not suggest the eight hour work day. That was, you know, over their objections. We need to just go back to that heritage of understanding that on the biggest shared problems we have democratic solutions, movements, laws are the way. And I think what is so actually exciting, intellectually exciting about this Democratic primary is, it is going to be a big family argument about just this. What we're going to see is some Democrats of the more kind of centrist variety who want to help people, want to empower people, talking the language of understanding people's anger, about inequality etc. But who fundamentally don't want to disrupt the lives of the powerful. And these are the people who probably take those Wall Street donations, Silicon Valley donations etc. And then you're going to see other people who are really saying, 'no, everybody can't do better.' We actually need to rein in the power of some people to do right by most people. And I think these questions should be put to the candidates. Do you think we need to end this second gilded age and what is your plan to end it? And I think that's going to help you have a very clear understanding of who is trying to tweak and fiddle with and massage the system and who's actually trying to change it.
BOB GARFIELD: I began this conversation with a tweet from the director of the Pinault collection trying to get an even steeper tax cut for their charitable contribution to rebuild Notre Dame. After the pushback, now they're disclaiming any tax deduction of any kind. Was this itself noble or was it, in your view, just PR to react to the backlash?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Well, I don't think them backtracking is evidence of their own increased wokeness. But I think the backlash is evidence of growing societal wokeness on this question of plutocracy and the uses and misuses of giving. What I think is happening is the public's skepticism is growing. What I've been very heartened to see, just even watching online, as soon as these givers started making these announcements there was some gratitude–and that's called for. But there was also a bunch of skepticism and questions. Right? You know this whole conversation in France about high taxes. You suddenly have folks in France saying, 'Huh interesting. All these rich people say they can't afford to pay any more taxes for social programs social inequalities. But, but wow they all actually do seem to have a tremendous amount of money laying around.' Right? And there's a growing awareness. I remember when Zuckerberg made his big announcement several years ago about giving most of his fortune away. There was one kind of reaction in the media and I remember it being, you know, largely adulation. Fast forward to last fall when Bezos made his announcement of starting to get into philanthropy and giving away 2 billion, there was the usual kind of, 'this is nice this is noble, this is inspiring.' But there was also a lot of, 'yeah, but do you pay your workers enough? Yeah, but do you pay your taxes. Yeah, but what do you lobby for in Washington.' As Martin Luther King said, you know, philanthropy on its own is commendable, but we cannot overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make it necessary. And I think that had become a lost idea over the last 40 years. And I think that idea is reviving. It gives me hope that the second gilded age, might itself, be sputtering and dying and a kind of new age of reform potentially on the horizon.
BOB GARFIELD: Anand, thank you.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Anand Giridharadas is author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
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