How charity enables injustice
A thread about how New York Attorney General Tish James became perhaps the country's most astute leader on the uses and misuses of philanthropy
Breaking: , NY attorney general, files a lawsuit seeking the dissolution of the , for, among other things, misusing charity to self-deal. A perfect illustration of how charity can enable injustice.
This lawsuit against the details extreme behavior by an extreme organization. But it also highlights broader truths about "charity" worth noting. "Charity" can mask power grabbing. "Charity" can benefit the powerful more than others. "Charity" can undermine democracy.
What many people may not realize is some of the absolute worst things that have been done to America in recent decades have been done via charity. Read 's DARK MONEY, about the rich and the right's takeover of America. A great deal of it prosecuted via charity.
The Kochs are some of the most generous people in America, if charity is the measure. So are the Sacklers, who brought you the opioid crisis. So is every wage-thieving, tax-evading company with a CSR program where executives wear matching T-shirts and dig something each year.
What so impresses me about is that she has really made the charitable-industrial complex's hijacking of America a focus -- in a way that hasn't been properly credited.
She has investigated a pretender charity trying to trick people into thinking it was Black Lives Matter.
She has gone after the Sacklers not only for the opioids, but also for their use of philanthropy as a drive-through reputational laundromat. She accused them of using "their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign."
And now she has called for the dissolution -- the dissolution, I will repeat -- of the , for doing in the most dramatic form what other entities have done on a smaller scale: use the gloss of giving back to take and grab and hoard and lobby and whitewash.
After came out, certain critics said: "Not all billionaires," "not all plutocrats," "not all companies." What is doing is unmasking a systemic issue. Regardless of whether certain individuals or entities are good or bad, there is a systemic rot.
Philanthropy at the scale we practice it depends on inequity. Then it seeks in many cases to redress it. It is used to stave off tax justice. It cleanses stinks we need to be smelling to make the right policies. It extends the plutes' power. It allows for stealth lobbying.
I'm not sure any elected official in American life is so astutely going after the misuses of philanthropy -- on these multiple vectors of misuse -- as . It is an untold story that reporters should write!
We have long looked for corruption in government. We've looked for corporate corruption. This represents a subtler, more complex kind of corruption to probe. One conducted not through bribes and lobbying, but through apparent kindness that enables harm and distorts democracy.
Even the most generous acts of giving are marred by the fact that the giver should never have had that kind of wealth to begin with. But in many cases, it's far worse than that. The money was often made cruelly or monopolistically or tax-evasively or crony-capitalistically.
What seems to understand as few law enforcers do is that the philanthropy-industrial complex is a kind of collective bribery. The plutocrats as a class bribing the public as a whole to let them underpay it, stiff it on taxes, and lobby for bottle-service public policy.
So Michael Dell can go to Davos and stave off the idea of a 70 percent tax on extreme income, and what does he leverage to stave it off? Philanthropy.
Or Leon Cooperman can argue against a wealth tax, and receive a big platform for doing so. And how does he justify it? Philanthropy.
Or Mark Zuckerberg can push back against Bernie Sanders' wealth tax. On what grounds? Philanthropy, which, he says, allows for more diversity of medical research. (A kind of diversity he favors while abetting white supremacists.)
Do you see what I'm getting at here? None of these examples point to illegality. But they illustrate the uses and misuses of giving back. How it gives plutocrats standing to defend plutocracy in an age of inequity that would otherwise be hostile to their pretensions.
If the plutocrats collectively spend some billions every year giving back in ways that stave off tax increases on them in the trillions, it is corruption on a scale that dwarfs any bribe. But legal.
Cheat on your taxes. Go to the slammer. Use the promise of giving to help your entire class cheat on the taxes it should be paying. Get your name on a wall.
What is getting at is profound. Absent the avenue of philanthropic reputation laundering, power grabbing, and class self-defense, America would look different. The opioid crisis may have been harder to pull off. Without an NRA, the right's dominance is harder to see.
As a law-enforcement official, she can only go after the violation of the law. But she is inviting us to look at the broader corruption around the lawbreaking. She is showing us, a case at a time, the way in which American plutocracy is guarded and kept: by "doing good."
For someone with political ambitions (and she should have them!), this is a risky course. Go after basic corruption, and people are with you. Going after do-gooding is harder. Even a lot of people without means and power sympathize with elite charity. It's a risk worth taking.
What seems to grasp is that some of the gravest abuses of power in American life have been abetted by apparent kindness.
Generosity becomes the wingman of injustice. Giving back becomes the wingman of taking too much. Making a difference becomes the wingman of making a killing. And changing the world becomes the wingman of keeping the plutes' world the same.
The basic bargain that has underpinned our descent into oligarchy is this: The plutocrats saying: Don't look over there at how we make our money, and, in exchange, we'll give some of it to you over here.