Too many people have decided to do without generosity in order to practice charity.—Albert Camus, 1956
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
—The Gospel According to Matthew
But if the rich men are left standing around on earth with the camels, wherefrom the pennies that drop from the skies of philanthropy? Who carries up the treasure to the pay windows in heaven? At what altitude does hard coin resolve itself into dew, and so fall, gently like rain, on the sorrow and heat of the desert? How high the cloud level before greed becomes good?
These questions inform the discussion of the philanthropic largesse that in America over the last fifty years has become a very big business. Big enough to warrant the casting of suspicion on its motives, doubt on its objectives, stones at its privileges. Scolding voices in the media and Congress lobby for the adage that the mark of a good deed is its not going unpunished, and the increasingly harsh tone of the complaints—philanthropy as false front for funding a political campaign, as setup for a tax dodge, preservation of a family fortune, whiteout of a criminal rap sheet—rises to the occasion of the national economy’s nonprofit sector becoming an ever larger part of the whole. The most recent numbers available from the Urban Institute speak to the presence of divinity.
Nonprofit organizations report over $4.8 trillion in total assets, $2.16 trillion in total revenues, $2.03 trillion in total expenses.
Nonprofit organizations account for 5.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, roughly 10 percent of all wages and salaries, $887 billion in annual spending.
Total annual private giving (from individuals, foundations, and businesses) in the amount of $335 billion.
Around 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, roughly one for every 213 Americans, to which more than one in four Americans volunteered an estimated 8.1 billion hours of work valued at $163 billion.
So glorious a concentration of wealth makes a joyful noise unto the Lord; the accounting for its uses opens a Pandora’s box from which swarms forth a screech of lawyers. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code bestows tax exemptions on nonprofit enterprises recognized as “religious, charitable, scientific,testing for public safety,literary,or educational,”but a string of handsomely abstract adjectives doesn’t furnish clear definition of the noun philanthropy. Among the vast multitude of would-be loaves and fishes, how to distinguish those that are morally wholesome, financially sound, socially nourishing? Where is it written that all good intentions are good, and which ones escape or deserve being nailed to a cross? Does support for the Metropolitan Museum of Art require equal protection for the San Francisco Bay smelt?
The questions follow from a careless use of the term philanthropy (“love of humanity” in the ancient Greek) as a catch-all synonym embracing different forms of its expression in societies past and present, among them those noted in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly under the headings of Sumerian debt forgiveness, Roman bread and circuses, Muslim almsgiving, Chinook potlatch, Catholic charity and sin removal, Protestant good works, democratic government.
Although endowed over the centuries with many benevolent connotations (compassion, forbearance, kindness, humility), the word philanthropy first appears in Western thought in the fifth century BC, in Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound to name an act of rebellion and denote the crime of treason. Alone among the deities on Mount Olympus, the Titan Prometheus takes pity on the “sad, care-laden” human race living like “ants in sunless caves,” their every act without hope or direction, “dayflies” lost in meaningless confusion. Zeus intends to delete the species and “grow another one more to his liking.” Prometheus would have it otherwise. Disposed to the love of humanity (for reasons left unstated, but none of them to do with grace or wit or beauty), he steals the “bright and dancing fire” of the gods and gives to mortal men its “wonderworking power”—heat and light, but also freedom of thought, the stores of memory and the arts of divination, knowledge of numbers and letters, of medicine, carpentry, animal husbandry, and astronomy.
Prometheus thus defies the will and tyranny of Zeus “by granting mortals honor above their due,” and the punishment is merciless—his immortal flesh bound in chains, nailed to a barren rock at the far limit of the world, condemned to endure relentless torture “through endless time.”
The godlike powers transferred by Prometheus as unrestricted gift to mortal men serve their purpose at sea level, here on earth with the hummingbirds and the camels, their saving grace not deferred until the beneficiaries attain celestial cruising speed. The society that was Hellenic Athens didn’t assign high real estate values to an afterlife, and the rich men within the polis, their formidable wealth placing them at Promethean cloud level, were expected (expected, not obliged) to provide, at their own and often ruinous expense, enhancements of the public spirit and the common good—votive offerings, sacrifices and temples, gymnasia, festivals, games, banquets, the outfitting of naval vessels, and the staging of plays.
Generosity was virtue, the value of money the having it to give away. The reward was double-edged—the pleasure inherent in the act of freely giving, the honor for doing so a gift freely bestowed by one’s fellow citizens. Honor, not gratitude. As long as the haves placed a higher value in their stores of virtue than on their hoards of wealth, the have-nots could look to them in admiration instead of with envy and resentment. Pericles delivering his funeral oration in 431 BC (the first year of the Peloponnesian War) praises Athenians as patrons of the public good, willing to make noble expenditures (of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor) to preserve the city’s freedoms of thought and action.
The happy state of affairs didn’t survive the war with Sparta. The government of Athens fell into the grasp of an oligarchy afflicted with the disease diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as pleonexia, the pathological craving for more—more property, more publicity, more bling. Athens divided into a city of the poor and a city of the rich, one at war with the other and neither inclined to temper its bitterness in the interest of the common good. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially reactionary oligarchs who swear an oath of selfishness: “I will be an adversary of the people...and in the Council I will do it all the evil that I can.” (So, too, our Republican members of Congress obliged to sign Grover Norquist’s pledge opposing any and all efforts to increase marginal income-tax rates.)
Girl in an underground shelter waiting to receive food from a local NGO. Debaltseve, East Ukraine. February 4, 2015. © Amnon Gutman, courtesy the artist
Democracy congealing into oligarchy conformed to Aristotle’s theorem of governments changing form in a sequence as certain as the changing of the seasons. Regimes come and go, but the have-nots always outnumber the haves, and no matter what the political name of the game (monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy), the well-being of the less-fortunate many, says Aristotle, must always depend on the philanthropy of a privileged few who give direction to dayflies, light to ants in sunless caves.
This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly comes with a follow-up question: To what extent does the glorious concentration of wealth lovingly noted by the Urban Institute portend relief from the diseased oligarchy that for the past forty years has proclaimed itself the enemy of the American democracy, and vows to do all the evil it can to a government of the people, by the people, for the people?
One would like to think the odds favor if not full recovery, at least remission of the illness. Americans in their daily dealings with one another prove themselves unfailingly open-hearted and forbearing; among the world’s peoples few are more generous in the giving of money, time, and effort to the practice of philanthropy. Confronted with sudden misfortune or disastrous accident (the flooding of New Orleans, the bombing of the World Trade Center) they respond with heartfelt outpourings of voluntary assistance. Wealthy patrons of humanity furnish the country with its expensive collection of museums, orchestras, hospitals, libraries, colleges, universities, churches, and football teams—more or less the same goods and services distributed in pagan antiquity by the selfless and therefore self-ennobling rich in the form of amphitheaters, baths, aqueducts, menageries of wild beasts, sacrificial pairs of gladiators.
Every gift has a personality—that of its giver.—Nuruddin Farah, 1992
Add to the inventory of America’s goodwill the Christian love of humanity arising among the poor and for the poor, from the presence of God within all men. The Greek and Roman patrons of the public good bestowed their gifts on citizens belonging to the city or the state, not on slaves, outcasts, beggars, immigrants. Neither Pericles nor Caesar recognized a human life form classified simply as “the poor.” The grouping suited the political ambition of the Christian church rising on the ruins of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the congregations of the faithful drawn from the vast throng of have-nots littering the shores of the Mediterranean and bound together in a commonwealth of suffering. The Christian theologian Tertullian refutes the pagan faith in wealth: “Nothing sacred is to be had for money....We have all drunk of one and the same Holy Spirit...are all delivered as it were from one common womb of ignorance, and called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Lactantius, early father of the Christian church, says, “The only true and certain obligation is to feed the needy and useless...men may have no use for them, but God has.”
It is Thomas Paine, the incendiary voice of the American Revolution, who in the eighteenth century converts the Christian love of humanity (shared among equals in the lower strata of society) into the promise of democratic self-government—“The strength of government and the happiness of the governed” is the freedom of the common people to “mutually and naturally support each other.” One’s fellow citizens are to be held in honorable regard not because they are rich or notably generous but because they are one’s fellow citizens.
The abundance of Paine’s writings flows from the springs of his optimism. Celebrating the declaring of independence as “the birthday of a new world,” he counts himself a friend of the world’s happiness, invariably in favor of a new beginning and a better deal. His plan for a just society is set forth in Rights of Man, published in England in two volumes, in 1791 and 1792; it anticipates much of the legislation that shows up 150 years later in the United States under the rubrics of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—government welfare payments to the poor, pensions for the elderly, public funding of education, reduction in military spending.The sale of 500,000 copies prompted the British government to charge its author with treason—the same crime committed by Prometheus in defiance of the will and tyranny of Zeus.
Annunciation, from the series Dark White, by Linda Norton, 2014. © Linda Norton, courtesy the artist and the collection of Alice Lyons.
Traveling in America in 1831 and 1832, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville finds democracy to be a work in progress along the lines projected by Paine, the common people mutually supporting one another by forming associations to hold fêtes, found seminaries, build inns, establish hospitals, dispatch missionaries, distribute books. “When the world was controlled by a small number of powerful and wealthy individuals,” says Tocqueville, “they liked to advertise how glorious it is to forget oneself and how fitting it is to do good without self- interest just like God himself...In the United States, the beauty of virtue is almost never promoted. It is considered useful and this is proved daily.”
The fact of which Walt Whitman was daily reminded during his three years as a Civil War hospital volunteer attending to sick and wounded soldiers both Union and Confederate. He notes in his diary that he’d sat next to the cots of as many as a hundred thousand frightened young men, talking to them at length, distributing gifts of writing paper or tobacco, a stamped envelope, an apple or an orange, small pieces of money. From his experience with others like him on his hospital rounds, he learns “one thing conclusively—that beneath all the ostensible greed and heartlessness of our times there is no end to the generous benevolence of men and women in the United States, when once sure of their object. Another thing became clear to me—while cash is not amiss to bring up the rear, tact and magnetic sympathy and unction are, and ever will be, sovereign still.”
Governments reflect the quality of the men charged with their conduct and deportment. Within the Greek city states, as also in republican and imperial Rome, the record shows that as wealth accumulates, men decay. An aristocracy that once might have aspired to wisdom and virtue degenerates into an oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool”—its members so besotted by their faith in money “they therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy.”
Which, most if not all things considered, was the way things were going during America’s late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, so named by Mark Twain to denote a society amounting to the sum of its vanity and greed, so seen by Andrew Carnegie as a parasitical oligarchy devouring the happiness of the many to feed the pleasures of the few. Twain is defender of the democratic motions of the heart, Carnegie the progenitor of what in the twentieth century becomes large-scale philanthropic enterprise established by wealthy patrons of the common good.
Born in poverty in Scotland, Carnegie moved with his immigrant family to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1848; as a boy of twelve, he was working twelve hours a day in a cotton mill. By 1889 he is owner of dark satanic steel mills in Pittsburgh, a captain of industry, abundantly rich, fearful for the future of a country herding its working classes into the shambles of desperate, possibly communist, revolt. That same year he brings forth “The Gospel of Wealth” as remedy for all the ills that overfed capitalist flesh is heir to. The manifesto first appeared in the North American Review, offered by its author as “the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth, the reconciliation of the rich and the poor.” Let the rich men throughout the land give over their great fortunes before they die for the use of the living, and “we shall have an ideal state, in which the surplus wealth of the few will become, in the best sense, the property of the many.” Better yet, the rich man acts as trustee and agent for his “poorer brethren,” grants the blessing of his “superior wisdom,” directs the money to its best uses—to dignified public works, never in the form of alms in trifling amounts to “the drunken, the slothful, the unworthy.” Like Cicero in 44 BC, Carnegie distinguished between the deserving and undeserving poor. So did Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841 in his essay “Self-Reliance,” “I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me.” He blames himself for sometimes having given “alms to sots.”
Carnegie’s philanthropy was pagan, not Christian. The reward was honor, not gratitude. A rich man who dies with his wealth intact, he said, “dies disgraced.” It didn’t occur to him to relieve the poverty of the workers in his mills (twelve-hour shifts, paltry wages, crowded and filthy housing), but he did his best to leave no money on the table of his life. When in 1901 he sold his steel mills to J.P. Morgan for $480 million he became the richest man in America; before he died in 1919 he gave away $350 million to the building of 2,811 libraries in America’s cities and towns, to the setting up of numerous institutes and foundations.
The big American foundations formed during the first half of the twentieth century—Rockefeller, Ford, Pew, Sage, Rosenwald, Kellogg—deployed Carnegie’s lines of reasoning and priority.They pursued large-scale projects based on scientific research—the eradication of yellow fever and malaria, the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, the preservation of the Hudson River Palisades.
The good intentions multiplied over the course of the next hundred years, as did the number of foundations lobbying for social and political change, backing civil and human rights initiatives, funding think tanks grouped around the ideological campfires on both the left and the right.
The storylines are appropriately multicultural and diverse, not subject to equal opportunity generalization. What little I know of them I borrow from Mark Dowie’s American Foundations: An Investigative History, published in 2001. Dowie notes that the governance of big foundations eventually passes down over generations from the Promethean figure present at the creation to staffs of foundation officials, philanthrocrats apt to be more concerned about the safety and well-being of the money under their care than about the uses to which it might be put. The law requires the country’s 86,000 grantmaking foundations to distribute every year a minimum of 5 percent of their endowments, but if carefully managed, even that minimum need not leave the premises. The tax returns filed by the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation in 2013 teach the self-promoting lesson. The foundation received more than $140 million in grants and contributions but squandered only $8.8 million on direct aid and research projects, reserving $30 million for payroll and employee benefits, $8.7 million for rent and office expenses, $9.2 million for conferences, conventions, and meetings, $8 million for fundraising, and nearly $8.5 million for travel.
Dowie’s investigation fits with Dwight Macdonald’s account of his meeting in 1955 with the “forty-odd philanthropoids, who, for all practical purposes, are the Ford Foundation.” Assigned by The New Yorker to review the proceedings in what was then the foundation’s new headquarters building on Madison Avenue, Macdonald found the office staff conversing in foundationese—“like Latin, a dead language...designed for ceremony rather than utility. Its function is magical and incantatory—not to give information or to communicate ideas or to express feelings.” Gilded functionaries loyal to the will and tyranny of Zeus, intent upon preserving rather than overturning the status quo.
The character and intent of the early generation of philanthropy I learned to appreciate in the person of John D. Rockefeller III, grandson of the nineteenth-century oil baron, son of the early-twentieth-century philanthropist, elder brother of David and Nelson Rockefeller. John III was the member of the family entrusted to carry forward its tradition of philanthropic largesse, a task he had performed with skill and determination since his graduation from Princeton in 1929, but one for which his chief publicist in 1963 thought he hadn’t received proper recognition. His brother Nelson was governor of New York, his brother David the president of Chase Manhattan Bank, their names in the papers nine mornings out of ten but nowhere a mention of John, who had created the Asia Society and the Population Council and provided strong support for the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, and who was putting together the $184 million needed to complete the building of Lincoln Center on the west side of Manhattan.
I was employed that year as a writer for the Saturday Evening Post when the publicist called to ask if I would consider traveling with John III to Asia for three months with a view to writing an article about his various projects underway in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, India, East and West Pakistan. I would have access to any and all meetings and negotiations with government officials, bankers, scientists, politicians, and I was to be paid a per diem, with John III reserving the right to review the completed manuscript and, if so inclined, to forestall its publication.
Citizens of Paris Offering Their Jewels to the National Convention, by Jean-Baptiste Lesueur, c. 1790. © Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images
I had no objection. I didn’t care whether the article was published or not; I was being given a chance to see the world from a high elevation of wealth and power, as it might have looked to Prometheus from the heights of Olympus. Every year for twelve years John III had been making the same journey (concentrating on the problem of birth control and high-yield plantings of rice), and at all points on the itinerary he was met with honors befitting royalty—cars on the airport tarmac, receptions at the palace, banquets with the prime minister. His knowledge of various Asian societies was profound, as was his delight in each of the people to whom he introduced me in the hope I might catch sight of their value as singular human beings. Not once in three months did he not know the name of the person to whom he was talking—the name, the pronunciation of the name, the family story, the problem at hand, the detail of the particular circumstance. Although he was a tall and imposing figure, he was modest to a fault, shy in the company of scholars and politicians, hesitant in the expression of his emotions.
Maya Angelou once said she found that “among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” So it was with John D. Rockefeller III. His philanthropy was his escape from the prison of his shyness, his becoming part of the larger story that is the sharing in man’s love for his fellow man. The Chinese philosopher Mencius came upon the thought around 330 bc. “Not to be benevolent when nothing stands in the way is to show a lack of wisdom. A man neither benevolent nor wise, devoid of courtesy and dutifulness, is a slave.”
The article was never published. The Population Council’s attempt to encourage birth control in Taiwan, India, and Pakistan went against the grain of local sentiment and politics, and John III believed it counterproductive to advertise these difficulties in print. To do so might cause trouble for his friends running the clinics in Asia. Self-glorifying publicity in New York wasn’t worth the price of a doctor’s loss of face in Dhaka.
The times have changed. Billionaire philanthropists these days delight in the photo ops of their giving to the public good, stepping down from helicopter or horse to baptize their new naming opportunity of a football stadium or concert hall. Their magnificence recalls the story told by the Stoic philosopher Seneca in the first century about Alexander the Great presenting the gift of an entire city to a man who didn’t think himself deserving of it. “I do not ask what is becoming for you to receive,” replied Alexander, “but what is becoming for me to give.”
Do not ask me to be kind; just ask me to act as though I were.—Jules Renard, 1898
The displays of noble expenditure (on the part of movie stars and prime- time athletes as well as George Soros and the Koch brothers) derive from the far larger stores of private wealth created over the past forty years as a consequence of the systematic rigging of the nation’s economic outcomes to favor the rich at the expense of the poor. The familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told—long ago by Aristotle, more recently in our American context by the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz—but it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words public and private. In the 1950s the word public connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); private was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs). The connotations traded places in the 1980s. Private now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), public becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).
The repositioning of the words underwrites the gospel according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, among the current generation of big-time philanthropies, is the fairest of them all. It commands an endowment of $43.5 billion (roughly a third of that sum added to its pot by Warren Buffett), and because of its size and market share it points the direction for much of the nation’s foundation giving. No week goes by without the announcement of another Gates Foundation grant meant to allay disease in Africa, improve test scores in American public schools.
A self-made Promethean figure in the image of Carnegie, Gates also looks to avoid the disgrace of dying rich. To the small company of his fellow billionaires he wrote a letter in 2010 suggesting they give, “during your lifetime or through your will,” the majority of their wealth to charity. To help “improve the overall quality” of their giving he offers the superior wisdom of a man who knows that private profit and public good are mutual friends, that doing well is doing good. The thought is as tried and true as the metaphor that Cotton Mather, the seventeenth-century Puritan divine, bestowed upon the Boston faithful in 1701: “A Christian, at his two callings, is a man in a boat, rowing for heaven” with two oars, one of them glorifying God “by doing good for others,” the other by “getting of good for himself.”
Gates repackaged the good news as a speech delivered to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, in 2008:
“I like to call this idea creative capitalism...Such a system would have a twin mission: making profits and also improving lives of those who don’t fully benefit from today’s market forces...a market-based reward for good behavior.”
The gospel was well received in the temples of the god who also is Mammon; the foundation clergy have learned to come and go speaking of metrics, time frames, benchmarks, grantmaking made “cost-effective,” “impact-oriented,” “data-based.” The language is designed for ceremony, “magical and incantatory” assigning virtue to having and holding wealth, not to letting it wander away, unescorted, into the sorrow and heat of the desert. Philanthrocapitalism opening the golden door to the best of all futures that money can buy, nourishing the belief (very à la mode in the media shiny sheets) that it is the big-ticket, glamorous rich who will rescue the country from ruin.
Girl in an underground shelter waiting to receive food from a local NGO. Debaltseve, East Ukraine. February 4, 2015. © Amnon Gutman, courtesy the artist
The hope springs from the publicity from whence the money cometh, not in the accounting for whither it goest. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy estimates that only 8 percent of foundations in the United States bestow as much as 25 percent of their largesse on “social justice purposes.” In 2011 the wealthiest Americans, those with earnings in the top 20 percent, contributed an average of 1.3 percent of their income to charity. Americans in the bottom 20 percent, and therefore unable to itemize a tax deduction, donated 3.2 percent.
Dowie suggests the stores of private wealth likely to be accumulated over the next two generations could increase the total assets of organized philanthropy to $4 trillion. It’s an impressive number, but small in comparison with the money likely to be furnished by individual contributions that now add hundreds of billions of dollars to most of the country’s charitable enterprises set up as credit unions and health clinics, food and wind-power cooperatives, crowdfunding platforms.
The opulent foundations tend to believe that money is good for rich people, bad for poor people, best given to private institutions or public acronyms; they seek the honor of being praised, as did the wealthy suppliers of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, “for doing good without self-interest, just like God himself.” Their philanthropy, like that of Carnegie and Gates, is the giving of direction to dayflies. The philanthropy inherent in democracy as conceived by Paine, attested by Tocqueville, practiced by Whitman, is the care of other human beings, virtue “considered useful,” almost never gloriously promoted. A democratic society places a premium on equality; a capitalist economy does not. The separation of powers is the difference between the worth of a thing and the price of a thing, between the motions of the heart and the movement of a market. Plato in the Republic puts the proposition as simply as it can be put:
“As wealth and the wealthy are valued more in a city, so goodness and the good are valued less...what is valued at any particular time becomes the common practice, what is not valued is neglected.”
Governments reflect the quality of the men charged with their conduct and deportment. Relief from “the ostensible greed and heartlessness of our times” (Whitman’s phrase in 1864 as telling now as then) doesn’t fall in a shower of gold from the heaven that is a $95 million apartment on the ninety-fifth floor of a Manhattan co-op. It collects in pennies on the ground, from people who don’t confuse themselves with God, who know, as did Walt Whitman, that love, not money, is “sovereign still.”