Easy come, easy go for punk rock philanthropists

I didn’t have the highest hopes for this New York Times article about giving money to social justice organizing, but I was still disappointed by the complete absence of basically anything substantive that I or my fellow “idealistic young heirs” said in our interviews. The author approached me and other folks involved in this fundraising project and in Resource Generation, pitching a story about what she called “punk rock philanthropy” (otherwise known as social change philanthropy) to run in the Fashion and Style section. Kind of ridiculous, but I was hoping it would be a useful way to direct some media attention to important social justice organizing, raise some simple critiques of philanthropy, and set a positive example for all the rich people who read the Fashion and Style section of the NY Times.

Unfortunately, the article left out all of our critique about philanthropy as an institution that almost entirely benefits the wealthy – as well as everything we said about the connections between race and class, any comment on the way gross wealth accumulation is created in the first place, almost any mention of the organizations we gave money to (aside from a simplistic characterization of Critical Resistance as a group that “tries to prevent the construction of new prisons”), and basically anything about privilege, institutionalized oppression, or economic justice. I know, I know, way too much to expect from the New York Times, but I was hoping for something at least slightly critical (of the U.S. economic system and philanthropy, not of the choice to give money to grassroots social justice organizations).

Instead, we got an overplayed theme – about naive, idealistic rich kids trying to save the world with wealth – that I begged the reporter not to replicate. That theme is such an example of the insidious ways that wealth disparity is normalized; instead of drawing attention or critique to the fact that young people like us are inheriting thousands, millions, or billions of dollars while the majority of the world remains in enforced poverty, the article brings in psychologists and financial advisers to speculate about what could possibly be motivating us to give away even a percentage of our inherited wealth. Could it be rebellion? Guilt? Youthful folly? Freakish altruism? As my friend Jamie, who also shows up in the article, said: “Can you imagine if they asked a Marxist to comment on why capitalism is a bad idea every time they wrote a story about people starting a hedge fund or doing investment banking?”

By framing voluntary wealth redistribution as a bizarre, incomprehensible phenomenon, articles like this just validate the rules that encourage wealthy people to maintain and pass down enormous fortunes despite increasingly extreme worldwide poverty. It’s so disappointing to be in an article that uncritically quotes people like Ron Gallen, an Upper East Side financial adviser who sounds like a capitalist caricature when he absurdly advises young millionaires to ignore the suffering and injustice of events like Katrina and focus on protecting their own fortunes – because otherwise, they’ll end up broke. As if young inheritors accidentally giving away all of our money in a fit of empathy and ending up destitute is an actual risk – or even an actual possibility, since most wealthy inheritors have lifetime financial safety nets in the form of family, property, education, or a million other manifestations of class privilege.

We wrote this (unpublished) letter to the editor:

To the editor of the New York Times:

As philanthropists profiled in “Easy Come, Easy Go for Idealistic Heirs,” we were disappointed by Sunday’s article. We had hoped to find less on the supposed psychology behind our giving and more on the political and economic analysis that inspires our actions. We had also hoped to share some of the inclusive, democratic processes that characterize our philanthropy and the groups we fund.

Our experiences as inheritors have left us far from idealistic. We have been given an inside glimpse into how economic injustice is perpetuated over generations. That we have chosen to use our resources to work for change may be poor wealth management by Mr. Gallen’s standards. But we refuse to abide by the values of wealth management that are untempered by the values of justice and compassion.

We told our stories in order to inspire others to join us. We hope that message won’t be lost.

Sincerely,

Anne Glickman, Tyrone Boucher, Karen Pittelman, Jamie Schweser

2 thoughts on “Easy come, easy go for punk rock philanthropists

  1. Anna

    I thought the reporter took an even-handed approach. I wouldn’t give my money away, but it’s great that you can do whatever you want to do with your money. I would have kept it, but I’m just like that.

  2. Greg

    I think the use of the word “idealistic” in the title of the article is a tip-off that the reporter wants to explain-away why somebody could possibly give away a large sum of money. Because the system is built, in part, from a sense of entitlement — that you deserve any material windfall that comes your wall, no matter how absurdly large — I imagine that people find it deeply unsettling when that entitlement is questioned or challenged. The reporter presents a two-part explanation: that heirs are too guilty to hold on to the cash, and that they rationally understand that they can still live comfortably while giving most of their money away. I agree with Tyrone that a political critique was totally absent, and my guess is that it probably cuts too deeply. Guilt and thriftiness are forgivable flaws (if you’re willing to accept the possibility that you will have no retirement fund, as the reporter suggests), just as long as you accept the terms by which they come.

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