What can we learn from ‘Billionaires’?

Darrel West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at Brookings Institution, has published a new book on Billionaires, their political activism and the controversy over their undue influence. Billionaires, reflections on the upper crust is an interesting investigation on the evolution of the upper class, its income, social extraction, ideology and attitudes.


The Index of ‘Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust’

The good old philanthropist

The book is also interesting because it includes a chapter on philanthropy that is very relevant to the topic of nonprofit independency in general and of Think Tank transparency in particular. One of West’s main claims is that the classic model of disinterested, nonpartisan philanthropy is vanishing and giving way to a new type of philanthropic advocacy ventures, like Bloomberg’s multimillion donations for gun control, George Soros’ funding for open societies around the world or David Koch´s libertarian organization Americans for Prosperity. Whereas old-fashioned philanthropists, like Alfred Taubman, “sought out good people and worked with them to make their programs effective[,] emphasized broad-based research, civic education, and raising public awareness” (p. 76), and did not interfere in the specific activities of the recipients of funding, the situation has changed for worse in the new era of activist philanthropy:

In the current climate, in which activist philantropists have clear objectives and partisan goals, the political risks have risen dramatically. There is a much greater chance of a donation going wrong, from the donor’s perspective, by not being aligned with the donor’s intention. The good old days when wealthy individuals gave money and left universities or nonprofits figure out the best way to use it to solve problems has too often given way to interventionism and a focus on achieving specific goals. (p. 78)

Prof. West does not pull the corollary explicitly, but it is easy to see that if the new type of activist philanthropy ever became the established new paradigm of investment in policy relevant organizations, then the alleged independence of Think Tanks would be under serious threat of collapse. The few Brookings investors or Board members quoted in the book are depicted as part of the old benevolent elite, and the reputation of the organization will probably defend it from a rapid degradation of the relation with donors, but other, less consolidated institutions may already be suffering from higher involvement of philanthropists in the definition of projects and project outcomes –not to mention the situation of partisan Think Tanks that are explicitly aligned.

This theory of philanthropy is disingenuous in that it displaces accountability from the institution to the donor, the first in a chain of goodness: if the donor is good and disinterested, the ‘good people’ will make sure that the project is good. What could possibly go wrong?

Billionaires and the Norwaygate

Billionaires was presented to the public only few days after The New York Times published a big article about the undue influence of foreign powers, like Norway and Qatar, in the activities of some of the most important DC based Think Tanks, including Brookings itself. An institutional statement and a response by Strobe Talbott, President of BI, were the official and direct reactions to the article.

In my opinion, Billionaires is an important, indirect response to the accusation precisely because it was not written in reaction to the controversy. The book is not a passive dismissal of an accusation, but an active problematization of the difficult relation between the interests of big money and the accountability of tax exempt organizations that are politically engaged. The fact that West’s attention is primarily focused in electoral campaigns, PACs and superPACs and not in his own institutional category should not be seen as a distraction tactic; instead, it can be read as a quite decent crystallization of Brooking’s independence. Making enemies among the top fortunes of the country is not the most ambitious fundraising strategy.

A signal of the independency of scholarly research at Brookings is a piece released on September 16 by Richard V. Reeves. Titled Inequality at the top: Why should we care?, the piece covers the same problem with a different approach and diverging solutions: whereas West insists on the importance of supporting the poorer, Reeves believes it might be time to tackle the problem of increasing inequality with innovative policies directed at the middle class. As opposed to institutional independency, and even recognizing that Reeve’s text feeds the interest for West’s Book, this divergence supports the independence of individual scholars.

On the other hand, a malevolent reader will find a confirmation of the Norwaygate hidden in page 90 of the book. The example at hand is Vladimir Putin’s decision to ban all foreign funding of political activity, but it can easily be read as a tacit validation of the concern that foreign powers may be (at least, interested in) buying political influence by targeting funding at prominent Think Tanks.

“Such fears [that the wealthy will exercise disproportionate influence] are especially strong when organizations receive financial support from outside a country’s borders”.

One thought on “What can we learn from ‘Billionaires’?

  1. Pingback: The Bipartisan Policy Center and the formula of stakeholder balance | Open Policy Research

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