WHEN UBER-WEALTHY PHILANTHROPISTS VIEW THEMSELVES AS GOD-LIKE
PHILANTHROCAPITALISM - WHEN UBER-WEALTHY PHILANTHROPISTS VIEW THEMSELVES AS GOD-LIKE
Andrea McManus, ViTreo Group Inc
July 2nd 2019
“‘By 1973, he had succeeded in reorienting the Sarah Scaife Foundation’s grant making almost entirely to his own causes. The result,’ he writes, ‘was very considerable grant-making power, enabling him to advance [my] ideas that I believe are good for America.’ - Richard Scaife”
What’s truly concerning about this quote from Richard Mellon Scaife (billionaire heir to the great oil, banking and aluminum Mellon Fortune) taken from Jane Mayer’s brilliant book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, is that Scaife was repeatedly expelled from school and university, and by his own admission led a dissolute life. He was also likely a severe alcoholic - Mayer writes, Scaife was called a ‘gutter drunk’ by his sister Cordelia (who also states she and her mother deserved the same title as her brother — no glass houses there). Then there was his involvement in vehicle accidents that injured himself and others, and his suspected complicity in the gunshot death of his brother-in-law. But he believed he knew what’s best for an entire country (Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer, 2017).
Someone with little education, whose brain had allegedly been affected by the severe abuse of alcohol, who had never worked a day in his life and who may or may not have broken the law, believed he knew what was right for everyone else.
At the time he wrote this, he was incredibly wealthy so I guess there’s that.
Even more disturbing is the fact that some of the ‘public’ (the good people of the U.S. and my own country, Canada) might agree with Scaife or people like him - that just because he was really rich, he could tell the rest of us what to do. At least on some level, sheep like behaviour around the wealthy is often apparent. They are rich. Therefore they know better than us or the people we’ve elected what public policies should be approved, which laws should be passed and how we should live our lives. Just like we often do with the medical and legal professions, and elected officials, we equate power and wealth with good intentions and intelligence.
“Spurred by tax avoidance, Scaife became not only one of the country’s richest citizens, but also one of its biggest philanthropists. ‘This was the beginning of the legend of Richard Mellon Scaife as the dark spirit behind right-wing causes,’ he writes archly in his memoir.”
Anyone who writes about himself or herself as the ‘dark spirit’ behind anything gives me pause. As it should to everyone. Mayer states Scaife went on to become one of America’s biggest philanthropists. As I read about other uber wealthy philanthropic families in her brilliant book (that everyone should read), it brings home the fact that there are indeed some gift horses who do deserve a more thorough vetting.
Mayer also writes about the Koch family, who amassed a great fortune from virtually nothing and now hold business interests in everything from energy, chemicals, agriculture, finance and electronics, producing everything from toilet paper to steak, but are better known for their political involvement. According to her book, Fred Koch, the now deceased founder of Koch Industries, also had many business dealings with the Soviets and the Nazis.
“As one Republican campaign consultant who has worked for the Kochs in the past said of the family’s political activities, ‘To call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground…Participants at [political] summits, for instance, were routinely admonished to destroy all copies of any paperwork. ‘Be mindful of the security and confidentiality of your meeting notes and materials’, the invitation to one such gathering warned….’”
Why was such secrecy necessary? What didn’t the Kochs and their cronies want outsiders to know? This wasn’t a meeting of scientists or researchers in the race to discover something before their competition.
What was it they felt they needed to hide? In one meeting, Mayer reports that audio technicians placed white noise emitting loudspeakers around the meeting place and aimed them outwardly towards uninvited journalists and the public.
Only one full guest list from any of the Kochs’ political summits has ever surfaced publicly - for a session in 2010 - the guests were mainly businessmen, reports Mayer. Few were woman and even fewer were nonwhite. This wasn’t a political fundraising gathering from back in the 1900s - this is less than a decade ago. How were the public’s interests served here when most of it was not represented?
“They live, and always have, in a rarefied bubble… They move in a world with people like them, or who want to be. They know no poor people at all. They’re not the kind of people who feel obligated to get to know the help.”
- From Dark Money, a comment from a long time family friend and insider.
Again, one might ask - who are these people to think they should be involved in deciding how our lives are lived and what rules and laws we must abide? And what social causes are the most important?
During the 1970s wealthy donors like Scaife, with the support of some major corporations, also created a new type of think tank. Rather than scholarly research, these think tanks were more driven to selling predetermined ideology to politicians and the public, says Mayer.
The self-titled dark spirit Scaife even went as far as to wage a vendetta against Bill Clinton during the Clinton/Lewinsky marital infidelity scandal of the late 80s, based on his far fetched belief that there were conspiracies afoot. He rationalized his foundations’ funding of an obsessive investigation into marital infidelities which came to be known as the Arkansas Project and hired private investigators to find dirt on Clinton. He poured money into lawsuits against President Clinton which helped to lead to the impeachment hearings. His largely tax-deductible vendetta against Clinton demonstrated the impact that a single wealth extremist could have on national affairs. Scaife proved how hard it was to defend against unlimited, untraceable spending against an opponent hiding behind nonprofit front groups (Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer, 2017).
In the last The Provocateur we talked about good intentions going awry - such as with the Gateses’ ill-fated education initiative and others. What Mayer writes about is so clearly not the same - I believe the Gates Foundation wanted to do good but made some big mistakes, which as I also talked about, it appears to have learned from. And is now approaching its giving in a different way.
This is not that.
This is clearly an unusual case of some individuals with masses of money at their disposal who may believe the rules don’t apply to them - one might think from their behaviour they believe they are above the rest of us, in a position where their wishes and needs are what matters. And do some of us collaborate with them by accepting their largesse without asking too many questions. Questions like why? Why are you doing this? And should we be looking harder at who benefits?
With people like Scaife and the Kochs, it’s because they can. And we are complicit if we let them. As citizens, we need to not just take the money and run. We need to ask the hard questions and understand the price we are paying for some of these big donations. We need to be willing to say no, we’ll find another way to accomplish our goals.
Private foundations receive little restrictions - in the US they are required to donate at least 5 percent to public charities. In return for this, they are granted the ability to reduce their income tax bill dramatically. This allows the wealthy to received generous tax subsidies and their foundations to impact society as they please. It also makes them look good to the rest of us (Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer, 2017).
In Canada, foundations must donate at least 3.5% of their assets and again, the philanthropists behind the foundation are in direct control over where the money goes.
From a 2018 Globe and Mail Special Report, “Control is a huge factor,” says Elena Hoffstein, a partner and leader of the estate-planning group at Fasken law firm in Toronto.
She says successful business people are used to being in control of their operations, which often spills over into their philanthropy. “When you have a private foundation, you can control how much goes into the foundation, you can control the investments and what gets spent,” she says.” (The Globe and Mail, Private Foundations: Giving Away Money Is Harder Than You Think, Brenda Bouw, April 13 2018)
Another great read that takes a hard look at the same cohort is the multi-accolade recipient Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (which I am reading now). Giridharadas’s book has been named book of the year by many and is described as a groundbreaking investigation into the global elite’s attempts to change the world, while preserving the status quo and hide the role they have in causing some of the problems they later seek to solve.
“Provocative and passionate . . . This damning portrait of contemporary American philanthropy is a must-read for anyone interested in ‘changing the world.’”
—Publishers Weekly (boxed and starred review)
“Entertaining and gripping . . . For those at the helm, the philanthropic plutocrats and aspiring ‘change agents’ who believe they are helping but are actually making things worse, it’s time for a reckoning with their role in this spiralling dilemma. I suggest they might want to read a copy of this book while in the Hamptons this summer.”
—Joseph E. Stiglitz, The New York Times Book Review.
I like what Stiglitz has to say. These elitist philanthropists who have hidden agendas should be taking a hard look in the mirror. And so should many of us for allowing them pretty much free rein. And yes, some of us are starting to take notice, but we need to keep doing so. We’ve seen collective actions of rage or perceptions colouring the landscape of philanthropy in 2019 like never before. This is empowering for both the wealthy and other classes of donors. More of us need to pay attention and start giving voice to our concerns. It’s a slippery slope when we allow a very small group to hold great influence over our lives. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand…
And speaking of sand. It’s now July and it’s summertime. This is our last blog until September — and so from everyone at ViTreo, we wish you a relaxing and refreshing summer with many good reads. Keep up the good fight and we shall return with more of our thoughts and ponderings (which we assure you we will be working hard on all summer — no dissolute lives here!)
Thank you for reading The Provocateur and we welcome your comments and feedback.
Interested in reading more on this topic, check out these articles featured in last weeks Weekly News Recap;
Giving with trust: how philanthropy can transform power relations (Open Global Rights) “There has been a lot of talk recently about decolonizing wealth and how philanthropy keeps repeating patterns that are rooted in oppression. 06/20/19
How much wealth should billionaires donate? All of it (Salon) “Billionaires are a hot topic today because their rapidly rising wealth is seen as a threat to our democracy.” 06/19/19
Corporate Wolves in Academic Sheepskins, or, a Billionaire’s Raid on the University of Tulsa (The Nation) “This sordid tale of crony capitalism under the guise of public philanthropy is another chapter in the corporatization of higher ed.” 06/18/19
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea McManus, Chair, Board of Directors, Partner
ViTreo Group Inc
Andrea McManus is a Partner with ViTreo with over 30 years’ experience in fund development, marketing, sponsorship and nonprofit management. A highly strategic thinker and change maker, Andrea has worked with organizations that span the nonprofit sector with particular focus on building long-term and sustainable capacity.