Wednesday, July 11, 2018

a few links about the newest richest guys in the world the former richest guys, philanthropy and whether "big philanthropy" is any good for what might be called democracy

First, it seems that Jeff Bezos is richer than Bill Gates and Zuckerberg is richer than Warren Buffett.

If you’re keeping up with the latest developments in the world’s-richest-man competition, you’ll know that Jeff Bezos is now richer than Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg is now richer than Warren Buffett. From these facts, and Bloomberg’s “Mark Zuckerberg Tops Warren Buffett” headline, you might start drawing conclusions about the new economy. Don’t. Because there’s an even more important competition out there, which is the competition to give away the most money in service of making the world a better place. And you can only win the latter by losing the former.

Since 1994, Bill Gates has donated more than 700 million shares of Microsoft to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If he’d simply held on to those shares instead, he’d today be some $71 billion richer, and his net worth would be $165 billion, making him comfortably the world’s richest man.
Much the same can be said about Warren Buffett, who has given away some 290 million Berkshire Hathaway B-shares since 2006, many of them to the Gates Foundation. Today, those shares are worth about $54 billion. Add that to his current net worth of $81.2 billion, and it turns out that Buffett would be worth roughly $135 billion today, were it not for his charitable donations. That’s way more than Zuckerberg, and getting very close to Bezos.

So the newer richest guys are less philanthropic.  Somebody buying the Washington Post does not count as being a philanthropist.  That could just be construed as ponying up the money to buy a media institution.   But it seems that the newer richest guys in the world are less set on philanthropy which, per the Slate author, is presented as a basically bad thing but ... how sure are we that billionaire or trillionaire or whatever-aire level philanthropy is necessarily good?

In 1912, John D. Rockefeller went to Congress with a simple request. He wanted permission to take the vast wealth he’d accumulated, and pour it into a charitable foundation.
Many were outraged.

John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and a cofounder of the NAACP and ACLU, told the Senate that from the standpoint of the leaders of democracy, “this foundation, the very character, must be repugnant to the whole idea of a democratic society.” Rockefeller’s effort failed. He ultimately chartered it in the state of New York instead.
A few years later, Missouri Senator Frank Walsh cited the Rockefeller Foundation as he declared that “huge philanthropic trusts, known as foundations, appear to be a menace to the welfare of society.”
These were hardly isolated concerns. Contemporaries, as the Stanford professor and scholar of philanthropy Rob Reich has written, worried about how private foundations “undermine political equality, affect public policies, could exist in perpetuity, and [be] unaccountable except to a hand-picked assemblage of trustees.”

They are, he argues, extraordinary exercises of power. “Rather than responding to power with gratitude,” Reich said, “we should respond with skepticism and scrutiny.”

I.e to translate the history behind some of this skepticism when someone has enough money to shape a society by way of donations we might want to default to wondering what the blood money via philanthropy is for. It may not always literally be blood money, if you will, but people can probably still only get notoriously wealthy through a relatively steady range of ways. 

It’s an unfamiliar perspective. These days, wealthy philanthropists are more likely to be lauded, their names emblazoned on buildings, their pictures on magazine covers. And Reich delivered it in an unusual setting, speaking Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, to an audience that included more than a few philanthropists and foundation executives.

But he’s not alone. Judge Richard Posner, the idiosyncratic jurist and leading legal theorist, has complained that “a perpetual charitable foundation ... is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. It competes neither in capital markets nor in product markets ... and, unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either.”

It’s a genuine dilemma. At its worst, big philanthropy represents less an exercise of individual freedom, Reich said, than a tax-subsidized means of taking private profit and converting it into public power. And he argued that big foundations possess the leverage to bend policy in their favored direction in a coercive manner, pointing to the example of the Gates Foundation’s funding of educational reform. [emphasis added]

Not all his listeners were convinced. Steven Seleznow, who had worked for the Gates Foundation to fund public-education reform and now leads the Arizona Community Foundation, argued that there is already abundant accountability built into the system. He pointed out that educational grants had to be negotiated with public officials, and then approved by an elected school board, mayor, city council, or governor. Reich, though, believes that this elides the disparities in power between a foundation offering funds, and the government entity requesting them.

If large foundations are a threat to democracy, then, is there a way to reform them short of abolishing them altogether? Reich said yes, arguing for turning “the apparent vice of unaccountability” into a virtue. Philanthropies operate over longer time horizons than either government or private business. At their best, Reich said, they can serve as “an extra-governmental form of democratic experimentalism,” piloting risky or unproven policies, testing them, then presenting them to the public “for a stamp of democratic legitimacy.”

It reminded me of a review of a book called, I think it was Dark Money, a couple of years back ,over at The New Criterion, which I haven't read in a while, but this review was kind of memorable.
...Ms. Mayer devotes a long chapter to the work of several conservative foundations, including the Scaife, Bradley, and Olin Foundations. These foundations support or supported (the Olin Foundation has been closed for ten years) various intellectual causes: think tanks, books, lecture programs, college and university programs, not to mention this magazine, all for the purpose of advancing conservative and free-market ideas in public debates. Ms. Mayer describes their work as “weaponized philanthropy” because in her view it ruthlessly advances a political objective. It was, in other words, politics in the guise of charity or philanthropy.

In her view, and there is a case to be made for it, these foundations used their funds to build a reputable and influential case for free-market thought, and thereby rescued it from the obscurity and marginalization under which it labored for many decades from the 1930s until the 1980s.
Now, these foundations were influential, and continue to be influential. I am obliged to say that, and to agree with Ms. Mayer, because I have been intimately involved in that world for more years than I care to acknowledge. But let’s be serious: these foundations are tiny compared to the philanthropic mammoths against which they are in competition. Neither of the two currently operating foundations mentioned in her book—Scaife and Bradley—is listed by the Foundation Center as among the 100 largest foundations in the United States either by assets or annual expenditures. In their heyday a decade or so ago, the three conservative foundations had combined assets of perhaps $1.2 billion and spent well under $100 million per year in grants. By contrast, the Ford Foundation alone has assets of $12.2 billion (in 2015) and spends nearly $600 million per year on liberal causes in the United States and around the world. There are several other liberal and leftist philanthropies among the nation’s twenty-five largest foundations. The Hewlett Foundation has assets in excess of $9 billion and awards more than $400 million in grants per year; George Soros’s Open Society Foundation spends $380 million per year on liberal causes, and the Mellon, Bloomberg, and MacArthur Foundations more than $200 million per year each. The largest liberal foundations outspend the handful of conservative foundations by a factor of at least thirty to one each year. [emphases added]

How is it that the Koch Brothers and their allies, as well as these conservative foundations have managed to accumulate the degree of political influence described by Ms. Mayer? Of course, it is possible that they have been unusually effective and efficient in the allocation of their funds. We ought not to dismiss that possibility out of hand, though that is not the case Ms. Mayer makes. She writes as if these organizations possess near magical powers to achieve their ends, and operate in a vacuum unchecked by any opposition. This is what, to her mind, makes them so frightening and such a profound threat to the republic. Still, in the real world, it would be very difficult for even the most efficient foundations to outmaneuver competitors that can outspend them by a ratio of thirty to one.

Ms. Mayer describes the Kochs and their allies as a particularly malignant force in American life but at the same time an exceptionally powerful one—a combination of judgments that fits nicely into what Richard Hofstadter described as “the paranoid style” in a classic essay from the 1960s. At bottom, Ms. Mayer does not recognize the conservative and free-market organizations she writes about as legitimate actors in the American system. Given this starting point, everything they do looks to her like a conspiracy against the public interest. From there it is all too easy to exaggerate their influence and raise questions about their motives. In fact, groups she writes about are neither as malignant nor as powerful as she thinks they are. The Koch brothers and the conservative foundations are only doing what Americans of all stripes have been doing for a long time—raising money, organizing, and trying to persuade others to join in to advance their ideals and interests. Liberal groups—donors, foundations, advocacy groups, labor unions—are doing much the same thing, most of it out in the open. Ms. Mayer should relax: there is no conspiracy to expose.

Or maybe we could suggest an alternative, that there are plenty of conspiracies and these conspiracies can be summarized in a very boring way, as politics-as-usual.  It's only a conspiracy, perhaps, if the aspired-for goal is one that you don't want to be achieved.  Maybe John Bircher types worry about cultural Marxism and the Trilateral Commission, while readers of Salon may fret about The Family.  It's not that either one of these conspiracy theories are non-existent, exactly, it's that these are conspiratorial organizations set on destroying democracy as you know it depending entirely on what your working definition of real democracy is.  For people in urban centers the idea that farmers could through the Electoral College and district distributions have somehow contributed to the election of Trump seems anti-democratic.  Now I don't think the people who think and feel that way have thought through the thoroughly aristocratic cant of such a range of thought and feeling and there's probably no point in trying to get them to see that, just as those who voted for Trump probably can't be convinced that he is very likely not going to drain the swamp. 

Now someone once wrote that if democracy stops being a mode of governance and becomes an ideology or a way of life then it ultimately becomes totalitarian.  I won't bore you handful of readers with who might have written that. :)

What's worth noting about the new boss is that if there's a way in which the new boss is not the same as the old boss it's in the sense that the newer richest guys in the world have dedicated themselves to creating businesses and business/tech paradigms that some people consider to be positively hostile to what used to be known as "the public sphere".   Some authors might describe Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook as part of a range of corporations that embody what gets called "surveillance capitalism".  If someone were to try to write a book about Mars Hill and looked at its data mining metrics work it might be sai it's a microcosm of a surveillance capitalist venture. 

If that's the case, and I think such a case could be made, people in Seattle who were fretting about Mars Hill were worrying about the wrong Mark all these last twenty years.  Zuckerberg is substantially more harmful to the public sphere than a nobody like Driscoll could be.  What's a bigger threat to democracy is a system of governance, a guy who pilfered a slogan from Denver Moore or a guy who developed a social media platform that works as a form of viral horizontal and sociological propaganda that exacerbates political balkanization to the point that the red and blue teams regard the very legitimacy of American governance as beneath even contemptuous consideration if the electorate didn't vote their way? 

So we get to a piece that proposes the newer companies that have become corporate juggernauts in the last twenty years seem to have done so by being devoted to methodologies and technologies that can be or have been deployed to dismantle what used to be called the public sphere.

t took centuries for the public sphere to develop—and the technology companies have eviscerated it in a flash. By radically remaking the advertising business and commandeering news distribution, Google and Facebook have damaged the economics of journalism. Amazon has thrashed the bookselling business in the U.S. They have shredded old ideas about intellectual property—which had provided the economic and philosophical basis for authorship.

The old, enfeebled institutions of the public sphere have grown dependent on the big technology companies for financial survival. And with this dependence, the values of big tech have become the values of the public sphere. Big tech has made a fetish of efficiency, of data, of the wisdom of the market. These are the underlying principles that explain why Google returns such terrible responses to the God query. Google is merely giving us what’s popular, what’s most clicked upon, not what’s worthy. You can hurl every insult at the old public sphere, but it never exhibited such frank indifference to the content it disseminated.
This assault on the public sphere is an assault on free expression. In the West, free expression is a transcendent right only in theory—in practice its survival is contingent and tenuous. We’re witnessing the way in which public conversation is subverted by name-calling and harassment. We can convince ourselves that these are fringe characteristics of social media, but social media has implanted such tendencies at the core of the culture. They are in fact practiced by mainstream journalists, mobs of the well meaning, and the president of the United States. The toxicity of the environment shreds the quality of conversation and deters meaningful participation in it. In such an environment, it becomes harder and harder to cling to the idea of the rational individual, formulating opinions on the basis of conscience. And as we lose faith in that principle, the public will lose faith in the necessity of preserving the protections of free speech.

At the core of the public sphere was the idea of individual choice, of autonomous individuals independently arriving at their opinions. Truth was always messier than this. The public sphere was always rife with manipulation—political persuasion, after all, involves a healthy dose of emotionalism and the tapping of submerged biases. But humankind is entering into an era where manipulation has grown simultaneously invisible, terrifyingly precise, and embedded in everyday life.

And now, the tech giants are racing to insert themselves more intimately in people’s lives, this time as  personal assistants. The tech companies want us to tie ourselves closely to their machines—those speakers that they want us to keep in our kitchens and our bedrooms: Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, Apple’s Siri. They want their machines to rouse us in the morning and to have their artificial intelligence guide us through our days, relaying news and entertainment, answering our most embarrassing questions, enabling our shopping. These machines don’t present us with choices. They aren’t designed to present us with a healthy menu of options. They anticipate our wants and needs, even our informational and cultural wants and needs.

What’s so pernicious about these machines is that they weaponize us against ourselves. They take our data—everywhere we have traveled on the web, every query we’ve entered into Google, even the posts we begin to write but never publish—and exploit this knowledge to reduce us to marionettes. All this has become painfully evident in the controversies over Facebook. With this intimate portrait of our brains, Facebook maps our anxieties and pleasure points. It uses the cartography of our psyche to array the things we read and the things we watch, to commandeer our attention for as long as possible, to addict us. When our conversation and debate is so intensely and intricately manipulated, can it truly be said to be free?
One of the mistakes I would suggest self-identified progressives have made about social media is thinking that the default use of social media is progressive or "for" progressive causes. If progressives or conservatives like to agitate a la agitation propaganda then certainly itcould seem that social media is GREAT for that because it IS great for that.  Someone could say they are in favor of "riot evangelism" by agitating people to the point where someone who can be the focal point of a controversy can get his or her message out.  Drumming up those kinds of pseudo-event/publicity stunts is par for the course across the spectrum in American celebrity Christendom.

But the idea that social media brings "freedom" ... we should be very, very skeptical about such a claim.  Educatin gthe public is a great and wonderful thing.  I'm all for that ... but the old saying about how you can lead a horse to water but not make it drink is no more or less true now than the proverb has always been. 

But perhaps we "are" living in a new time in which a caste of people who have fashioned networks that can agitate and integrate has done so without respect for the stability of the pubic sphere, as an author above has put it. 

These are not guys that it seems anyone should really envy. 


chris e said...

The trope that 'progressives' believe social media is 'inherently progressive' is an odd one, and seems to mainly be held by liberals and members of the commentariat, most progressives I know, even those given to tech boosterism have long viewed social media and social media companies with a lot of suspicion.

Incidentally, the criterion review - at least the quoted part - massively misses the point, a large portion of "Dark Money" describes the ways in which the rich right have moved away from using foundations as a tool of political funding, primarily because of the disclosure requirements. Multiple layers of 'Social welfare' organisations and 'business councils' are the order of the day, and the sums involved are orders of magnitudes bigger - and of course more focused on the political process.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Writing as an American I think the progressive belief that social media could be inherently progressive says a lot about AMERICAN progressives and mainly just those who use social media, and nothing at all about progressives the world over, or even progressives in other English-speaking nations.

I think the trope that progressives put faith in social media as being a tool for progressive causes is a blind spot that's unique to the American experience. I don't get the sense that Brits or Australians or even Canadians have had any illusions that social media platforms could even theoretically skew in favor of progressive policies. But Americans really do seem to have had faith that social media could be put to progressive causes.

Liberals, as you pointed out, seem more committed to the idea of social media as a powerful tool. It might even be apt to say that that myth is an intra-media myth.

Not too surprising if an article at The New Criterion might skew things a bit. I find I have to read The New Criterion and The New Republic with a few dashes of salt. If donors on the right shift their money out of institutions and sectors in which transparency is required then the critique that liberals give more money that can be officially measured by compliance procedures could read as a potent critique from social conservatives even as there's a total evasion of the question as to why and whether social conservatives have moved a lot of their monies into places that don't require transparency.

Or to put it in even snarkier terms, complaining that liberals outgive conservatives in foundation terms could skip over the concern progressives could have about conservatives shifting their monies to a different, newer kind of shell game for donation bases.

Years ago I recall a commenter saying that a Congressional probe was anti-church when, as stated, the aims of the probe seemed to be about reducing fraudulent fundraising tactics deployed by televangelists.

chris e said...

Though much of that may be extrapolation from a single data point (Obama in 2008), I which has meant that even as revelations about social media and targeting come out, there's still a constituency that believes that social media is inherently liberal (rather than progressive) as long as the bad stuff can be got rid of.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yeah, Obama's success is not necessarily what I'd construe as a sign of success of progressive politics. It seems more like Obama pulled off the feat of triangulation that used to be a Clintonian trademark (with Bill, not Hillary).

I'm just too jaded about data mining to feel like data mining is more than its own end at this point. Progressives, liberals and conservatives can certainly try to use it and I've met people in the last twenty years who have made cases that social media "can" favor all three categories of political thought. Conservatives "can" be better at grass roots district-by-district level activism when they want to be. Liberals can be better at understanding the strategic significance of inspiring voter turn-out when they don't take their victories for granted at an electoral level. Progressives can understand that reduced communication friction allows grass roots interaction to develop more quickly if you know what you're doing.

But the base line across the ideological spectrum may just boil down to people who recognize what "can" be done with the technology and decide to do something more than favoring any particular ideological strain of thought.

What social media really seems to do is just balkanize existing alliances. I don't think the bad stuff can be winnowed out without losing the very nature of the medium. We surely don't want social media regulated to the point where things have been in China. Better to have ideological adversaries running amock on social media than that. :) Not that I'm saying we're even exactly at risk for that in the West. Our self-balkanizing tendencies seem to be the biggest practical danger. That and the ability to spike stories at so high a level stuff doesn't even get considered news but that's just how the world has been.

Obviously I've been wondering if we in America have been a bit infatuated with the tech because, for want of a subtler way to put it, we're in love with our own technocratic optimistic approach to things.