New Philanthropy in conservative times

You may have noticed that the Globe and Mail invented charity last weekend in response to various irritations: economic chaos, rage-inducing social inequality, declining living standards, loss of hope. Their answer is the New Philanthropy though, in fact, it isn't really new and isn't philanthropy either. I'll get to that.

The Globe explores the nature of the problem with a combo of the way they report natural disasters ("fiscally restrained governments confront rising need created by economic turmoil" -- as if those governments hadn't restrained themselves and created the turmoil through their tax-cut and deficit fixations); plus the way they spot fashions, quick like a bunny, before other MSM get there ("It is generally accepted in these more conservative times that the market allocates resources more efficiently than the state.") Hey, it's a trend.

Their solution is the New Philanthropy exemplified by Bill Gates and others who receive beatific thumbnail profiles. Yet Gates' foundation, which dwarfs all others, only dispenses, at most, $3 billion per year -- a pittance compared to the need. In Cannes this week, Gates himself called for a "Robin Hood" tax on speculation that would add $48 billion per year to fight poverty. He knows the scale involved.

But he has leveraged those paltry sums into big influence on his chosen issues. (The old foundations rarely imposed their will that way.) In education, for instance, he's demanded accountability based on standardized tests, since he's an engineer (as the Globe notes) and requires a "reliable set of metrics to quantify social impacts." The results have been, it is now emerging, disastrous: undermining teachers, many of whom quit, cheating scandals, seeding his own people in school boards and education departments.

Other elements of the NP include "social impact bonds," in which investors more or less bet on programs like convict rehab or (I swear) obesity reduction and reap profits from public savings if the programs work. Pardon me while I retch. Does this not remind you of the "instruments" and other bright ideas -- CDOs, credit swaps -- imagineered by hedge funds that led straight to the bailout hell aftermath that we currently inhabit?

The Globe says these methods "could revolutionize" social programs by creating "a world in which profit motives and the greater good move in tandem." That would revolutionize us all the way back to Dickens' time -- take the hideous school for orphans squeezed for profit by Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. For that matter, the Gatesian obsession with numbers and stats is perfectly anticipated by Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times. Good title but hardly "New." 1854 in fact.

As for Philanthropy, it literally means love of man, or humanity. You don't sense much of that in the New version, though there's lots of self-praise, and a sense of power through the ability to micromanage the effect of your donation.

The Old Philanthropy, aside from a few big foundations that now look modest, was embodied in wealthy people who went on boards like the United Way. They led by their own contributions, and worked with the social agencies involved, while encouraging ordinary people to give in their workplaces, schools, churches etc. That model has faded as the social gap widened. Fewer people can afford to contribute. Only 23 per cent of Canadians now report donations on their tax returns. It's a record low. The old model really built community; the United Way was once even called Community Chest, which you still see on Monopoly (the game) boards. Community scarcely figures in the new model. You get the rich, noble few and the wretched, competing recipients.

What was bad in the old version of charity was that it reinforced the sense of distance and difference between givers and givees. What was good about it is that it injected an element into public activity not tied to the dominant economic system through the profit motive; the old charity was predicated instead on fellow feeling, human solidarity and even, gulp, love. The New Philanthropy, which is basically even older than the old kind, reintroduces an appeal to narrow self-interest in the form of greed, a jacked-up component of control, and narcissism in the form of fawning media reflections. Whoopee.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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