It’s been five years since the release of Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby, the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here’s what I remember about the film. I remember the CGI, the dizzying motion of the cars and the parties, the juxtaposition of hip-hop and music from the 1920s. And yeah, the ennui. Most of all, though, I remember leaving the theater feeling disoriented.
I experienced a similar sense of disorientation while reading The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan. The book examines the philanthropic habits of today’s billionaires, who – thanks to fortunes made in tech, finance, and elsewhere – are richer and more numerous than ever before.
Of the estimated 2,200 billionaires worldwide, 184 have signed the Giving Pledge, committing to give away the majority of their wealth. Spearheaded by Bill and Melinda Gates as well as Warren Buffett, the pledge marks a shift in how the megarich are thinking about giving. Whereas the Rockefellers, Kelloggs, and Fords sought to create legacy foundations that would generate grants in perpetuity, today’s wealthy are eager to give it all away – and get measurable results – ASAP.
The book’s overarching argument is that these billionaire philanthropists now have unprecedented power to reshape our world – more than ordinary citizens, certainly, but more than even governments as well. And this, the author contends, should worry us.
Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, co-founded the think tank Demos and was a resident scholar at the Century Foundation. It’s clear he knows his stuff, which is the book’s greatest strength and, ultimately, its greatest weakness. As one reviewer put it, portions of the book – like when he goes into detail about the giving patterns of countless individual billionaires – come across as “laundry listy.”
Other parts of the book, however, are jam-packed with insight. Callahan is particularly insightful when he explores the parallels between how billionaires make their money and how they choose to give it away. Many of today’s entrepreneurs in tech and other fields, Callahan observes, are accustomed to pitching investors by articulating a problem they are trying to solve, how they intend to solve it on a massive scale, and how they plan to navigate the risks.
Those who succeed in these disruptive problem-solving ventures tend to be rewarded handsomely. And when you’re rewarded to the tune of billions of dollars, there’s simply no way you’re going to be able to spend all that dough. (Indeed, one of the disorienting side effects of reading this book is that you end up feeling anxious on behalf of billionaires who find it nearly impossible to give their fortunes away; even in retirement, interest alone accrues more quickly than many philanthropists are able to dispense with their wealth.) So billionaires turn naturally to philanthropy. And when they do, they are likely to take a similar problem-solving approach that has served them so well in their careers.
Infusions of cash to solve problems like poverty and disease are worth celebrating, assuming the funds are allocated to organizations equipped to handle such grants and go to programs that honor the dignity of all stakeholders. On the other hand, aggressive philanthropy also tends to be impatient philanthropy. And complex, intractable problems don’t get resolved overnight, even when Mark Zuckerberg is involved.
Another inevitably thorny issue Callahan explores is the blurring of lines between philanthropy and politics. While contributions to a presidential campaign don’t count as charity, donations to foundations and think tanks that support expanding LGBT rights or privatizing public education – clearly partisan issues – count towards tax deductions just the same as gifts that support homeless shelters or hospitals. Further complicating the matter, billionaires tend to be more fiscally conservative and socially liberal than the population as a whole. That unique outlook, needless to say, leads to some interesting funding decisions – like “philanthropic” efforts to reduce taxes and fight climate change.
It would be natural for one’s view of the charitable giving of the Koch brothers versus, say, George Soros, to depend on where one stands on the political spectrum. But to effectively critique giving to political causes, we would do well to think in terms of principle, not party. If it’s problematic for billionaire philanthropists to quietly – or not so quietly – use their wealth to shift attitudes related to contentious issues, it’s a problem whether those attitudes are being shifted favorably (in our view) or not.
Callahan does his best to take a principled stand on these questions, even if he ultimately shows his cards. (For the most part, he sees Big Philanthropy as a threat to Big Government – rather than the other way around.) Nonetheless, his actual prescriptions for reforming philanthropy are relatively sensible and uncontroversial: greater transparency, more accountability, and less politicized giving.
For all of Callahan’s concerns with the role billionaire philanthropists play in reshaping our world, this book is not an all-out critique; throughout, he points to plenty of ways philanthropy by the wealthy can be a force for good, even as he raises his concerns.
When it comes to billionaires and their giving, there are a lot of zeroes involved. Therefore the stakes are high. But who’s to say the extent to which giving by the megarich is ultimately, on balance, a threat to society? Once again, we’re left feeling disoriented.
Certainly, democracy has greater foes than Bill and Melinda Gates these days. Still, one might hope they and their friends will read this book. It is they, the givers, who have the most power to reform their giving for good.