The Gift Horse: Philanthropy and the Public Interest

Michael Blim

Americans gave away $300 billion dollars to charity in 2006. The amount is equivalent to twice the gross domestic product of Finland, three times that of the Philippines, and six times that of Morocco. Americans, in other words, give away a lot of money.

By virtually any ethical code I can think of, to give is godly, or at least goodly. A dollar passed to a homeless person, a dollar to kids selling candy for their band, or another to a Salvation Army soldier on a street corner at Christmas time – these little gifts signify our compassion. Sure, sometimes we think “there but for the grace of God,” or treat the gift as fulfilling an obligation to help our social inferiors. Compassion however tenuous is the basis for our actions.

But let’s take a closer look at the gift horse: Could it be a Trojan horse? In every other walk of life, we simply assume that money is power, and power is money. Consumers have purchasing power. Congress has the power of the purse. Bankers have the power to propel our economy, or as we are learning now, the power to ruin it. We hope that Ben Bernanke has the power to save it. Corporate bosses use their power to hire, fire, invest—and work to appoint boards of directors that will pay them ungodly sums for their efforts.

Charity, and especially at $300 billion dollars a year, is power. We give to whom we think deserves it, and we give it for things or services we believe are useful or necessary. We decide, and deciding is power.

The more money you give, the more power you have. The point of philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie believed, was to move society in the direction you want to see it go. He of the bloody Homestead Strike gave it all away. Carnegie gave monies that built local libraries, supported the development of standardized educational testing, dug up Mayan ruins, helped identify DNA, discovered radar and hybridized corn, among other things.

You may agree with the priorities of the present-day Carnegies, or not. But you can’t vote for or against them. In America, it’s their party, and they can do what they want.

In our new Gilded Age, the rich are richer than at any time in our history. This is also the golden age of philanthropy. Every day one can open the newspaper and find another instance of generosity. Museum wings and paintings, hospital buildings and science research centers, new buildings on America’s college campuses, new efforts to conquer diseases and learn the secrets of life – these are the types of things that a moment’s reflection brings to mind as instances of modern philanthropy.

The edifice complex of modern philanthropists irks some among their number. William Gross, a billionaire discussed by Stephanie Strom of the New York Times, (September 6, 2007) writes that “when millions of people are dying of AIDS and malaria in Africa, it is hard to justify the umpteenth society gala held for the benefit of a performing arts center or an art museum. … A $30 million gift to a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation.”

As Gross notes, philanthropy is an advertisement for virtue. It feeds a Pharaonic conceit of the rich that they are the anointed builders of society. The sentiment treads a well-worn path. “God gave me my money,” claimed John D. Rockefeller. And even if the money were tainted, it could be washed in the blood of the lamb. “People charge Mr. Rockefeller with stealing the money he gave to the church,” noted one Cleveland pastor. “But he has laid it on the altar and thus sanctified it.” (Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons, 1962 [1934])

For all of the misery Rockefeller brought to millions of Americans – he was perhaps the most hated man in the American heartland at the end of the 19th Century – his monies were put to work trying to wipe out hookworm and yellow fever, Donald McNeil Jr., wrote in the March 4, 2008 New York Times. His son devoted family resources to support birth control at home and abroad, among scores of other things including a gift of the land upon which the United Nations headquarters was built.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett are perhaps today’s greatest American philanthropists. They have pooled their fortunes into a $60 billion dollar foundation, and a large part of its funds support efforts to eliminate worldwide scourges such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

This last campaign against malaria has prompted some serious concern about the role of private philanthropy in setting a worldwide policy direction. Should philanthropists, however generous, decided world public health goals? Should their foundations using the power of the purse make scientific decisions about the values of one vaccine over another, one treatment over another?

Not everyone thinks so. The Times’ McNeil reports that many experts disagree with setting malaria eradication as the present goal. They believe that an eradication campaign mis-directs precious financial resources into a battle that presently cannot be won, while under-funding or overlooking more practical solutions that can drastically reduce infection. (You may recall that in my last column, I noted how the diffusion of $6 mosquito nets and $3 antibiotic treatments is achieving a dramatic reduction in malaria infection rates.)

The argument, as McNeil reports, is also about power. Who shall decide? It is perhaps not surprising that the Gates Foundation is the gorilla in room. If it says that eradication is the goal, how could it not be? Dr. Arata Kochi, the malaria chief of the World Health Organization, acknowledges the fact by his attack on the power of the Gates Foundation to dictate the shape and focus of the world campaign against malaria.

Kochi, McNeil reports in another posting for the Times (February 23, 2008), accused the Gates Foundations of creating a research cartel that kept funding among themselves at the expense of other, perhaps just as rewarding initiatives. In an internal WHO memorandum, Kochi speculated that the Gates-sponsored malaria campaign could have “implicitly dangerous consequences on the policymaking process in world health.” He has been one of many who have argued for pressing malaria control rather than what they see as the unrealistic and more costly goal now of complete eradication advocated by the Gates Foundation.

Described as a highly effective bureaucratic reformer of the world health effort against malaria, Dr. Kochi lost his job, according to McNeil’s February 23 report, because he had offended the Rockefeller Foundation, another major public health player.

McNeil writes: “Some scientists have said privately that the foundation is ‘creating its own WHO.’”

Herein lies the point, not coincidentally useful to be made 8 days before Income Tax Day, when charity giving deducts $40 billion dollars from the federal tax take.

Money is power. Private money can create public power. In a sense, the rich buy public power the way other people buy groceries. They also buy “rights” to use public power in any way they see fit. Some decisions may be good or bad; some outcomes may be good or bad.

Nobody votes on their choices. Only the occasional weight of shame deters these masters of the universe from doing what Carnegie set out to do: to remake the world in a way he thought was better.

Gilded Age, Golden Age of philanthropy, tarnished and impoverished democracy. This is part of the design of our times.