THE GAMES OLIGARCHS PLAY

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

In three previous posts, I’ve summarized the three major systemic changes identified by Robert Reich in his latest book, The System. These systemic changes have occurred since 1980 and have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. As a result, our democracy operates in many ways like an oligarchy. (Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” pages 13-14) [1]

Reich’s three systemic changes have shifted power:

  • From a broad set of corporate stakeholders to shareholders (see this previous post for details),
  • From workers and their unions to large employers (see this previous post for details), and
  • From manufacturing and a broad set of stakeholders in our economy to the financial sector and Wall Street (see this previous post for details).

A dramatic result of these shifts in power has been rapidly growing inequality in income and wealth. A cause and symptom of this inequality is that a small number of wealthy people dominate as the sources of funding for the campaigns of elected officials. These are the oligarchs. In the 2016 election cycle, the wealthiest 25,000 people in America (0.01% of the population) made a record-breaking 40% of all campaign contributions – up from 15% in 1980. Over the period from 2009 through 2020, twelve very wealthy individuals and their spouses gave a total of $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups. This is over 7% of the total money raised. The 100 highest giving zip codes hold less than 1% of the U.S. population, but were responsible for 20% of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised from 2009 through 2020. The increasing amount and share of campaign money coming from oligarchs was accelerated by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including the 2010 Citizens United decision. [2]

This high level of campaign spending gives these oligarchs access to our elected officials that you and I don’t have. When one of them calls or requests a meeting, that call is answered or that meeting is scheduled. Because their voices are heard and elected officials want the money to keep flowing to them, these oligarchs generally get the policies they want and that benefit them.

Throughout the book, Reich uses Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, as an example or case study of how the oligarchs operate; how they have abandoned public responsibility and advance their self-interest. Dimon appears to believe that corporations do have social responsibilities and not just responsibility to maximize returns for shareholders (as pure shareholder capitalism asserts). Dimon touts JPMorgan’s financing of $2 billion in affordable housing annually, its lending in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and to small businesses, its 5-year $350 million job training program, and its $500 million AdvancingCities initiative to help financially-strapped large cities.

Although JPMorgan’s social responsibility efforts are notable, they are small relative to the size of the problems they are tackling and small in comparison to JPMorgan’s yearly profits of $30 billion. Moreover, they are contradicted by other actions of JPMorgan and Dimon. Dimon has not supported raising the minimum wage or paying all JPMorgan workers a livable wage, which would do a lot to help many of the people targeted by JPMorgan’s philanthropy, despite his 2018 compensation package worth $31 million and his wealth of around $1.5 billion. In addition, JPMorgan paid $55 million in 2017 to settle charges that it discriminated against minority mortgage borrowers.

Furthermore, Dimon personally lobbied hard for the 2017 tax cut that reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and increased JPMorgan’s profits by billions of dollars annually. The tax cut increased the federal deficit by $190 billion annually; a figure that has to be covered, sooner or later, by cuts in federal government programs or increased taxes on others.

JPMorgan, with Dimon in charge, paid $13 billion to settle claims that it defrauded borrowers and investors in the mortgage scandal that led to the 2008 economic collapse. In 2019, it required forced arbitration for credit card disputes, preventing aggrieved customers from suing in court or through a class action lawsuit.

Although Dimon publicly opposed President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, JPMorgan is the biggest bank investor in fossil fuels, to the tune of $196 billion between 2016 and 2018. A 2019 report by an environmental coalition named Dimon the “world’s worst banker of climate change.” JPMorgan is also the largest U.S. bank providing financial services to the gun industry and loans to gun buyers.

So, a few hundred million dollars a year of philanthropy is a good investment in public relations for a wealthy Wall Street bank that has had numerous ethical lapses and that was a significant contributor to the economic collapse in 2008, resulting in millions of people losing their jobs, homes, and savings, while it got hundreds of millions of dollars in bailouts.

However, Dimon and JPMorgan are just one example. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, in an effort to counter unfavorable publicity about corporations being solely focused on benefiting shareholders, issued a highly publicized corporate responsibility statement signed by CEOs of 181 major U.S. corporations (including Dimon) stating they believed in “a fundamental commitment to all our stakeholders.” The statement included a commitment to treat employees fairly, support communities, and embrace sustainable practices. [3]

However, actions speak louder than words. Just weeks after the statement appeared, Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, announced it would cut health benefits for its part-time workers, despite multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, having signed the corporate responsibility statement. During the pandemic, billionaires did very well and big corporations did well (45 of the 50 biggest were profitable). Despite this, 27 of the 50 big corporations laid off workers, totaling more than 100,000 workers. For example, Walmart, whose CEO was a corporate responsibility statement signer, distributed $10 billion to shareholders while laying off over 1,200 workers. [4]

If the CEOs (i.e., oligarchs) signing the corporate responsibility statement were serious about their commitment to all stakeholders, they would support federal legislation to make those commitments laws (i.e., legally binding). Or, at least, they’d pay a fair share of taxes to the federal government so it could support workers, communities, and a sustainable economy. However, in 2020, 55 of the largest U.S. corporations paid no federal income tax on $40 billion in profits. Moreover, they received more than $3 billion in federal tax rebates, giving them an effective tax rate of negative 9%; a bit different than the stated tax rate of 21%. Twenty-six of them have paid no federal income tax since the 2017 tax cut (and received $5 billion in rebates) while generating $77 billion of profits.

In actuality, the corporate responsibility statement appears to be part of a PR campaign by oligarchs that, along with corporate philanthropy, is designed to slow or stop proposed legislation and regulations that would require oligarchs and their corporations to:

  • Share their power and wealth by treating workers and communities more fairly, and
  • Engage in sustainable business practices.

Reich quotes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as noting that “ The powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.”

These are the games that oligarchs play to try to hide their power and to try to fool the rest of us into believing that they care about fairness and social responsibility.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Beckel, M., retrieved 4/21/21, “Outsized influence,” Issue One (https://www.issueone.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Issue-One-Outsized-Influence-Report-final.pdf)

[3]      Business Roundtable, 8/19/19, “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” https://system.businessroundtable.org/app/uploads/sites/5/2021/02/BRT-Statement-on-the-Purpose-of-a-Corporation-Feburary-2021-compressed.pdf

[4]      MacMillan, D., Whoriskey, P., & O’Connell, J., 12/16/20, “America’s biggest companies are flourishing during the pandemic and putting thousands of people out of work,” The Washington Post

CHARITARIANISM VERSUS PHILANTHROPY

At this time of year, when charity, giving, and philanthropy are receiving lots of attention, it’s appropriate to reflect on their roles, goals, and philosophies. Often, charity and philanthropy are lumped together and not differentiated, but, technically, there is a difference.

Simply put, charity is about the receiver and philanthropy, narrowly defined, is about the giver. Charity is about helping people – reducing hardship and suffering, making other people’s lives better. Philanthropy, narrowly defined, is about the donor feeling good for having done something meritorious, perhaps relieving guilt, and receiving credit, publicity, and acknowledgement for having done a good deed. Lawrence Berenson, a wealthy financier, has been promoting “charitarian” behavior as opposed to philanthropic behavior. [1]

With this perspective, it isn’t hard to see some philanthropy as self-serving, such as when donors give large amounts of money to well-established, already wealthy institutions to have their names on buildings, professorships, or other high visibility items. A current example is the attention that’s now focused on the philanthropy of the Sackler family. They are the owners of Purdue Pharma and the aggressive, unethical purveyors of Oxycontin. Their drug and their actions were huge contributors to the opioid crisis. Tufts University recently announced that it would remove the Sackler name from several facilities given the taint on how the Sacklers made the money used for their donations. The Sackler family has responded by threatening a lawsuit.

An underlying requirement for high-profile, large-scale philanthropy is great wealth in the hands of individuals. Therefore, it is inextricably linked to high levels of economic inequality. [2] This was true of the great industrial fortunes of the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century and is true of the large fortunes created in the last few decades from financial investing and speculation, as well as from high technology companies. The large fortunes of today (e.g., Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Buffet, Waltons, etc.) are larger than those of the Gilded Age and have relatively young, living owners.

In both the Gilded Age and today, philanthropy has been viewed simultaneously as a social good and a social menace. The high levels of economic inequality required for large-scale philanthropy are linked to inequality in political power, as important decision-making that has significant effects on the public and society is in the private hands of a few very wealthy individuals (i.e., how to use, including in philanthropic ways, great personal wealth). This is profoundly undemocratic. [3] Large-scale philanthropy, whether directly from individuals or through foundations, is largely lacking in public transparency and accountability; the public is not involved and has no say or oversight. [4] Berenson, the promoter of charitarianism, is a founding member of Patriotic Millionaires, which is promoting discussions of solutions to political and economic inequality in the U.S. (You can watch a 28 minute YouTube interview of him on these topics here.)

By some measures, today’s philanthropy is broader than in the past; tens of thousands of new foundations have been created in the last 30 years. Both today and in the Gilded Age, the philanthropy of the wealthy has often been done through foundations. However, this recent surge in foundation creation is in part stimulated by tax avoidance because by putting money into a foundation the owner can claim it as a charitable deduction and significantly reduce income taxes. [5]

Foundation-based philanthropy can be very inefficient. Many foundations have high overhead expenses, such as nice office space and large staff expenses for running the foundation. In part, this reflects the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requirement that for foundations’ to be tax-exempt they must spend 5% of their assets (i.e., total value) each year. In addition to donations, this required spending can include operational expenses, such as the costs of office space and staff. Furthermore, there are many examples, particularly among smaller foundations, where many of a foundation’s employees are family members or friends who are paid very nice salaries or where the foundation funds other self-serving activities. Recently, a Donald Trump foundation emerged as a prominent example of this. New York State recently ordered it to pay fines and be shut down because of its inappropriate and self-serving spending. Moreover, many small foundations, for example a family foundation that wants to help address a health issue that afflicted a family member, give their money to another foundation that actually does research or provides medical care for that health issue. Therefore, the amount of money that actually goes to doing social good is reduced by multiple iterations of foundations’ overhead expenses. [6]

A fast-growing vehicle for philanthropy that has entered the mainstream only recently is the donor-advised fund (DAF). A DAF is like a miniature foundation; an individual gives money to a personal account typically setup and managed at a community foundation or an investment manager such as Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard. The donor can take an immediate tax deduction for the money put into the DAF but can designate the non-profit organizations to receive the money over time. [7]

Fidelity Charitable, a donor-advised fund manager, received over $9 billion in 2018, nearly triple the amount received by the largest traditional charity, United Way Worldwide. There is no required time window for the money in DAFs to be distributed to charities (such as the requirement that foundations spend 5% of their assets annually). Critics of DAFs note that this means that billions of dollars are sitting in these DAFs that otherwise would be going directly to help those in need if DAFs didn’t exist. Moreover, the DAF managers are making money on management fees; this means they have a disincentive to see the DAF monies donated. The managers also spend significant sums on promoting and marketing the use of DAFs because they make money on them. In other words, they promote these pseudo-charities in ways that real charities don’t or can’t promote themselves.

For over a century, large-scale philanthropy and foundations have had significant effects on public policies and programs. For example, the Gates Foundation had a major influence on the development of the Common Core educational standards. In 2008 and 2009, the Gates Foundation made large grants to the association of the states’ K-12 education commissioners and to the National Governors Association to build (buy?) their political support for the Common Core standards and to facilitate their development. Subsequently, adoption of the Common Core Standards has been incentivized by federal education funding. They were adopted by 42 states (although 4 states subsequently dropped them). [8]

Philanthropy today is more policy-oriented and politically aggressive than it has been in the past. This is both fueling and being driven by the current extreme partisanship in our society linked to political parties and extreme ideologies. It is also both a contributor to and a result of the decline in the effectiveness, respect for, and resources available to our public sector. This clearly has had a negative effect on our democracy and reflects the social menace aspect of large-scale philanthropy and the inequality related to it. Some scholars have made the case that there is a cause and effect link between increased political philanthropy and decreased civic engagement by citizens.

To promote charitarianism as opposed to philanthropy (narrowly defined) and to ensure that philanthropy’s potential for doing good wins out over its potential to be a social menace, oversight is needed to:

  • Ensure that foundations and donor-advised funds are focused on doing social good rather than being self-serving and that their focus is on benefiting the receivers (i.e., helping people and making the world a better place) and not on benefiting the givers (directly or indirectly)
  • Require greater public accountability and transparency, including public input and democratic decision-making
  • Ensure that foundations and donor-advised funds are not simply a vehicle for tax avoidance by the well-off

Without oversight, philanthropy can be a self-serving, self-perpetuating capitalistic enterprise as opposed to a charitarian one. To make philanthropy more charitarian, the inextricable link between philanthropy and economic inequality must be acknowledged and understood. Policies and regulations should be put in place to ensure that charity and a focus on the receivers take precedence over the self-interests and desires for recognition and acclaim of the givers.

[1]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, “Charitarian patriotism,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/charitarian-patriotism-lawrence-benenson/)

[2]      Cohen, R. M., 9/21/16, “Q&A: Pulling back the curtain on education philanthropy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/education/q-a-pulling-back-curtain-education-philanthropy/)

[3]      Soskis, B., 8/22/17, “Gift horse or Trojan Horse?” The American Prospect (This is a review of the book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan.) (https://prospect.org/labor/gift-horse-trojan-horse/)

[4]      Soskis, B., 8/22/17, see above

[5]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, see above

[6]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, see above

[7]      Preston, C., 10/28/16, “Is Wall Street taking over charity?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/wall-street-taking-charity/)

[8]      Cohen, R. M., 9/21/16, see above