Gift economies

by Henry on September 8, 2007

Christopher Caldwell is a columnist whom I usually find quite annoying, but his “attack today”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7fe5cc9a-5d75-11dc-8d22-0000779fd2ac.html (unfortunately behind the paywall) on Bill Clinton’s forthcoming book on charitable giving gets to the crux of the issue.

In a week when Time magazine worried that Americans lack a way to “put their ideals into action”, hearing what Mr Clinton thinks about giving should be fascinating. It is. His book is neither well written nor well thought-out. But it is evidence that he has cracked the code of an inchoate form of political power that is still illegible to most of his contemporaries. … Giving tells us something about a decisive shift that is just beginning – from helping people (soup, a bath) to helping humanity (rain forests, greenhouse gases); from local, self-abnegating charity (the Salvation Army) to glamorous, globalised philanthropy (Angelina Jolie). …

We have seen this shift before. In _The Gospel of Wealth_ (1889), the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie urged the very rich to give away their money during their lifetimes. … When plutocrats are involved in philanthropy, to place philanthropy above criticism is to place money-making above criticism. … If there is a refreshing lack of dogmatism in Mr Clinton’s book, there is also an inattention to elementary questions of political legitimacy. He praises a retired financier who “helped broker deals with the beverage and snack food industries to stop the sale of high-calorie beverages and snacks in schools”.

Very good – but isn’t this the business of the elected school board? Mr Clinton praises the rock singer Bono’s campaign to obtain debt forgiveness for African countries. Whether this is a wise move or not, who elected Bono to do it? The answer is, capitalism did. Today’s celebrity philanthropists are empowered by a society that specialises in movies and songs in exactly the way the robber barons were empowered by one that specialised in railroads and steel. Philanthropy is a route through which celebrity can be laundered into political power. It is also one means by which the responsibility for important tasks is being reassigned from democratic structures to less democratic ones.

The politics of giving is becoming an important issue (I know of at least one person writing a book on it) because of the increasing disparities in wealth between the very rich indeed and the rest of us. It serves at best as a weak and inefficient means of redistribution – the emphasis tends to be more on circuses than on bread, and in particular on the “kinds of circuses”:http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2007/09/rich-people-bal.html (alumni associations, high-prestige arts) that have obvious social or personal payoffs for the giver. The increased emphasis on gift-giving reflects how collective political choice over worthy social choices is increasingly giving way to individual choice (and most importantly the individual choices of a very small minority of people). Contrary to some of the more “glib”:http://www.theamericanscene.com/2007/9/6/what-s-wrong-with-taxes arguments out there, there is no reason to believe that this is an improvement on the previous situation, and some reason to believe that it is a substantial disimprovement. It’s nice to see someone like Caldwell, who is clearly on the right, getting that.

{ 28 comments }

1

tom s. 09.08.07 at 7:44 pm

The local manifestation of this is the creation, in Waterloo, of several new institutes. These include a Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an Institute for Quantum Computing, a Centre for International Governance Innovation, and a new School of International Affairs.

All are created by donations of BlackBerry money from the founders of the company, and they reflect the enthusiasms of those founders. They also attract all sorts of government money in matching funds.

It’s better to have these institutes than nothing at all, but turning academic research into a subject for patronage leaves me uneasy. I guess Mozart wrote some okay stuff, and he was the creation of a patronage system, but I still like to think there are better ways of promoting the arts and the sciences.

2

Espa 09.08.07 at 8:18 pm

Embedded in the idea that nobody “elected” Bono to campaign for debt forgiveness is the notion that he somehow lacks legitimacy to try to do good. Who elected the banks and corporations who have done so much damage in developing nations (and who often have greater power than international institutions or local school boards)? I reject the idea that if I give $10 away that’s fine, but if I win the lottery (or found Microsoft or release The Joshua Tree) and want to give $100 million suddenly I’m taking away responsibility from a democratic institution or power from the people.

3

tib 09.08.07 at 8:20 pm

Funny, I heard Clinton making the point that charitable giving is “a weak and inefficient means of redistribution”, and no substitute for government policy, in an NPR interview about his book just yesterday. I should read Clinton’s book to see how he argues that point.

4

david 09.08.07 at 8:41 pm

Many on the right like to point out the weaknesses of giving, or of all sorts of other non-gov’t efforts to promote the common good. Who elected them?! is something you hear all the time.

They almost never go on to support policies that promote the common good.

It’s not an either or situation, though the market worship in the 90’s did tend to make it seem like business and philanthropy were supplanting government to the naive. Giving can be done in a way that supports just government, or that reinforces the moral intuitions that will lead people to support just gov’t, etc.

I don’t know if Christopher Caldwell ever wrote a government is withering away piece, but I’ve got to go cook out and so won’t be googling.

5

novakant 09.08.07 at 9:08 pm

I see the point about undue influence of rich people and the shift from collective to individual responsibility and it is worrisome. But some people, corporations and banks just have that kind of money and unless you want to fundamentally change the nature of our society, which would entail disappropriating them and/or raising taxes to something ridiculous like 90%, they always will. So I think the way forward is indeed to cultivate a spirit of philantropy backed up by sensible laws regarding donations and foundations.

6

Martin Wisse 09.08.07 at 10:05 pm

You see that shift from collective to individual responsibility also in the way climate change is treated in the mainstream media and politics. It’s accepted that it’s taken place, but presented as the outcome of our own individual wish to travel abroad, or have a big SUV, or eat non-local food and if only we changed what we consume it can be solved, rather than as something that is an inherent byproduct of our industrialised, capitalist cultures.

7

Roy Belmont 09.08.07 at 10:35 pm

I’m not so sure this
“who elected Bono to do it? The answer is, capitalism did”
is accurate.
Capitalism was there when it happened, the entire event is saturated in money or the need for money, but it looks more like something to do with collectivization of attention, which capitalism has fueled and enabled and commodified, even owns for the most part, but I don’t think it’s what’s doing it, what brought Bono to the threshold of his current political/social power.
You could say it’s technology just as easily, as both technology and capitalism created the circumstances. You could say electricity did it, for that matter.
Really it’s that huge reservoir of disembodied focus, the regressing infantile distributed persona that watches everything now, that made Bono rich. It listens to him, not because he’s rich but because he has the ability to get its attention.

8

bad Jim 09.09.07 at 2:25 am

I contribute to a local shelter for the homeless. At one of its periodic fundraisers, a neighbor of mine lamented that the well-to-do are always happy to shell out for the arts and their alma maters but reluctant to support less glamorous social causes.

It wasn’t until New Orleans flooded, and ex-presidents Bush and Clinton were named to head an effort to raise money for relief and rebuilding, that it struck me how utterly backwards it was. Caring for the destitute ought to be our collective responsibility. Charity is plainly inadequate to the task of providing disaster relief and rebuilding a drowned city, not to mention caring for the homeless or providing public education, but in the U.S. it’s expected to make up the public shortfall.

I wish I could devote all my charitable contributions to the arts, or to the destitute of all species abroad, secure in the knowledge that everyone in my country was housed and fed and their children educated, but I don’t live in that sort of country.

9

rootlesscosmo 09.09.07 at 3:31 am

that huge reservoir of disembodied focus, the regressing infantile distributed persona that watches everything now

Oh my, yes. And nicely put.

10

No one 09.09.07 at 5:00 am

“The increased emphasis on gift-giving reflects how collective political choice over worthy social choices is increasingly giving way to individual choice….”

I really liked this point, which seems to me utterly true everywhere now. It’s probably an vast topic, but can someone recommend something written on this general (recent?) phenomenon?

11

bi 09.09.07 at 7:21 am

Espa:

“Who elected the banks and corporations who have done so much damage in developing nations (and who often have greater power that international institutions or local school boards)? I reject the idea that if I give $10 away that’s fine, but if I win the lottery (or found Microsoft or release The Joshua Tree) and want to give $100 million suddenly I’m taking away responsibility from a democratic institution or power from the people.”

So you’re saying you should have the right to decide to harm people by giving money away to the wrong places? You should have the right to do lots of damage in developing countries? Well, I just guess it’s bizarre to point out that something is bad and then the next moment say it’s good to support that bad thing.

= = =

novakant:

“But some people, corporations and banks just have that kind of money and unless you want to fundamentally change the nature of our society, which would entail disappropriating them and/or raising taxes to something ridiculous like 90%, they always will.”

Let’s just say I’m not really against rich people giving money to the arts and alumni associations, _as_ _long_ _as_ they also somehow shell out to people who are really in need (possibly by way of taxes). But I suspect that it’s not that the US government doesn’t have enough money, but rather that the money which the government has is being funnelled to all sorts of wacky things.

12

garhane 09.09.07 at 8:49 am

If some rich or famous people are collecting the tribute of popular approval for “good works”, this can only happen if most of them do not engage in the practice at all or very little. The widening spread in the distribution of income is a big reflection of this, even if it is within a circle of causes.

With less to spend, more ordinary people will crimp the charitable impulse, first of all in contribution to the Church. With more and more of the national income pledged to flow into their coffers, a ruling class that is as cruel, greedy and murderous as the American will hide behind shoals of accountants and lawyers to increase its share while favoring the society it preys upon with the stony glare of a pitiless predator. And so the occasional bouquet of funds will be tossed out by the occasional big spender, often with a private self enriching motive, and the rest of us are supposed to be impressed with the act, and the values of such people.

At first a neighbor would provide help for the family in trouble, then the Church, then the social “safety net” of a civilized society. The development we now see of publicized gift giving
attracting special attention with the givers even claiming to be entitled to claim knowledge of what the facts are and the direction society should be moving in is not just offensive. It is a sure sign our civilization is deteriorating very quickly. What we are seeing is like the crowds of well wishers who appeared in front of the home of a big gangster in New York right after his conviction, boisterously putting up the standard slogans that he was a good family man, gave to charity, helped improve the neighborhood, and was known to throw coins to beggars.

We cannot safely accept social advice from gangsters, singers, or people who have made fortunes by cheating, lying, and stealing from the public.

13

aaron 09.09.07 at 8:50 am

Philanthropy is a route through which celebrity can be laundered into political power.

What sort of celebrity figures are we talking about here? Sure, celebrity philanthropists get a lot of press, but it seems to me that financial and political figures such as Clinton, Gates, Buffett, etc. have much more sway over where money goes than Bono ever had or ever will. In addition, the antics of celebrities can be read as an effect of philanthropy rather than a cause. It’s not that Bono has changed his message, it’s that the “world” is suddenly interested, so now he is flying around the world to do “earth” concerts.

Also, as Roy notes, saying “capitalism did” is a common cop-out for actually identifying social mechanisms. In this case, I’d say it’s a little misleading, since his popularity appears to stem from cultural sources rather than financial ones. As a result, his influence is with the liberal media and its viewers rather that other institutions.

Perhaps we should just say: “No one elected Bono. That’s just the way things are.”
This would have kept Caldwell from making the silly statements that make up the rest of that paragraph. Serious, go back and read them. Every single sentence makes an absurd claim.

14

bi 09.09.07 at 12:06 pm

aaron:

“It’s not that Bono has changed his message, it’s that the ‘world’ is suddenly interested, so now he is flying around the world to do ‘earth’ concerts.”

Bullcrap. The “world” has no say over whom Bono gives his money to. The world may influence him, but ultimately it’s his choice whether to give his money to Africa, or environmentalists, or his dog.

“That’s just the way things are” isn’t the explanation. (In fact, it’s not even _any_ explanation. Think about it.)

15

robertdfeinman 09.09.07 at 9:42 pm

I have a short essay on why philanthropy is not a “good thing”. Basically, it’s because the person spending the money gets to decide public policy in an undemocratic way. I differentiate this from charity, which is like giving $100 to the Red Cross.

Since I wrote the essay I’ve reconsidered and I think that we might continue to allow philanthropy, but not allow the giver to claim a tax deduction. Small amounts could still get favorable tax treatment (say up to $10K or some such figure).

Anyway, here’s the link to the essay, if anyone is interested:

Abolish Philanthropy

16

Slocum 09.10.07 at 12:17 am

It serves at best as a weak and inefficient means of redistribution…

The enormous assumption buried in this post is that the wealth generation would have been the same if the government engaged in a ‘powerful and efficient means of redistribution’. But real world examples of ‘powerful and efficient’ redistribution systems do not inspire confidence (to say the least) that such systems generate wealth to the same degree at all.

And then — would anyone seriously argue that, say, the U.N. would be a more efficient means of redistributing the Gates’s and Buffett’s billions than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? I mean really?

17

Henry 09.10.07 at 1:35 am

slocum – I’d recommend you read a bit about the world of private charities, and the many inefficiencies thereof before you wheel out this comparison, and also about the relationship between wealth generation and redistribution too. Neither of these stories is as ideologically convenient as they might seem to be when looked at closely.

18

Justin 09.10.07 at 2:01 am

Without context, it’s a bit hard to make sense of Clinton “cracking the code” in the first quoted paragraph. Did he crack the code so that he’s revealing the secrets hidden by that code in his book? That would be the normal use of ‘cracked the code.’ The rest of the review seems to suggest otherwise, that he’s blind to the hidden nature of philanthropy.

19

bi 09.10.07 at 6:28 am

Don’t know about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but the circumstances behind Bill Gates’ US$550,000 donation to Peru in 2002 sound fishy.

(Coincidentally, the president of Microsoft Peru was called Alberto Gonzalez…)

20

Z 09.10.07 at 6:36 am

Slocum (currently #16),

There is a vast body of scholarly literature on the relative efficiency of a dollar donated and redistibuted through various channels (government programs, NGO with a focus on urgency, NGO with a focus on development and long-term programs, confessional organizations…). I second Henry in the recommendation that you read a bit of that, you will find interesting answers about the question you asked (“Would anyone seriously argue…”). That said, the studies I have read never mentionned the Gates foundation, probably because it is relatively new and american (for obvious geographic reasons, I read mostly european literature); so it can be that it is highly effective.

21

Katherine 09.10.07 at 10:57 am

Like comment #2, I dislike the dig at Bono and the criticism that because he was not “elected” then his campaign is illegitimate. No charities or NGOs are elected, in the partliamentary sense of the word, but this does no make their voice an illegitimate one. If I campaign on something personal to me, no one would call that campaigning illegitimate. It might be called an exercise of free expression. Why then does Bono’s become illegitimate because he can actually get people to listen to him?

22

Slocum 09.10.07 at 11:42 am

I’d recommend you read a bit about the world of private charities, and the many inefficiencies thereof before you wheel out this comparison, and also about the relationship between wealth generation and redistribution too.

And which societies do you suggest one study that are such powerful and efficient redistributors of wealth that not even a Bono (let alone a Bill Gates) can emerge — but are still prodigious generators of wealth?

And bear in mind that in Bono’s case, it’s not even wealth per se that is at issue — it’s fame and status. So if you want to prevent a person like Bono from having an outsized influence on the public debate, you’ll need not just a powerful and efficient wealth redistribution system, but a powerful system of ‘fame’ and ‘acclaim’ redistribution. Either that or powerful restrictions on what activities are permitted to famous people.

23

Maria 09.11.07 at 10:27 am

I thought Caldwell really hit the mark. This line expressed perfectly my unease with the ‘new philanthropy’;

“Philanthropy is a route through which celebrity can be laundered into political power.”

Noblesse oblige is one thing, but the purchase of political power by the super-rich, and their insistence on our gratitude for same is rather galling. The biggest philanthropists come from a country where giving is a leisure activity and not an act of moral redress for a skewed system of economic transfers to the already wealthy. I said as much in a seminar a few months ago, and had the distinction of being called a communist by Angelina Jolie’s political/philanthropic adviser. Result!

24

Slocum 09.11.07 at 11:39 am

“Philanthropy is a route through which celebrity can be laundered into political power.”

Noblesse oblige is one thing, but the purchase of political power by the super-rich, and their insistence on our gratitude for same is rather galling.

Apples and oranges again. Bono and Angelia Jolie aren’t ‘purchasing’ political power with their personal fortunes (which are nowhere near large enough to do that). Their political impact comes from their celebrity not their wealth. The same is true of Al Gore, BTW, who is now acting in an unelected capacity. How did Al Gore’s role in ‘Live Earth’ really differ from Bono’s in ‘Live 8’?

Note, too, that Bono’s calls for debt relief were not demanding charity from billionaires but rather government action. And the various ‘live’ celebrity charity concerts have been trying to raise money through large numbers of small donations not acts of noblesse oblige from undeserving billionaires benefiting from ‘a skewed system of economic transfers to the already wealthy’ (which travesty, I can’t help noting in passing, can often be described as ‘founding, building, and running a successful business’ — and then those bastards often compound their sins by giving money away).

25

bi 09.11.07 at 5:03 pm

Slocum:

And what’s the sin of poor people again? Failing to found, build, and run a successful business? That’s such an unthinkable crime!

Duh.

26

R. Richard Schweitzer 09.11.07 at 8:05 pm

It appears that very few have read, let alone absorbed from “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” by Adam Smith.

27

Tracy W 09.11.07 at 8:15 pm

The increased emphasis on gift-giving reflects how collective political choice over worthy social choices is increasingly giving way to individual choice

When ever was collective political choice over worthy social choices dominant over individual choice?

I’ve read a lot of history, and as far as I can tell the only states that have managed to make “collective political choice over worthy social choices” dominate over individual choice were those totalitarian states that controled the press and violently suppressed both dissidents and suspected dissidents. Otherwise, if people have an inch of freedom, we will use it to make individual choices. Throughout European history, people have evaded taxes, smuggled goods, worshipped the “wrong” gods, had sex outside marriage, worked for higher wages than the legal maximum, listened to officially-disapproved-of music. Were 1960s hippies showing any respect to the collective political choices over worthy social choices? How about 1970s feminists? How about 1920s flappers? How about the English Puritans? When exactly was this age when collective political choice over worthy social choices dominated individual choice?

And let’s not go into the subject of why on earth Christopher Caldwell believes Bono has some duty to submit his activism to a democratic vote.

28

bi 09.12.07 at 4:53 am

Redistributing money to needy people is morally the same as religious persecution. It’s an even more unthinkable crime than failing to run a successful business! Oh, the treason!

Comments on this entry are closed.