Monday, September 10, 2018

Stop Calling It Philanthropy

Last week, Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville ran a piece about "Chan Zuckerberg's $300 million push to reshape schools." The piece qualifies as newsy because they had an actual number for how much Mark Zuckerberg and his wife had pumped through their initiative (CZI); Barnum and Darville were almost able to report on where about a third of that money went.

"Yeah, I don't know much about education, either."
This comes on the heels of the Gates announcement of a "new direction" fueled by a new pile of money. This new push comes packaged differently for different markets. In California it was about some major non-profit grants, while in other markets the emphasis was on lifting up poor schools,
and other coverage focused on a "local school" emphasis. This is of course roughly the forty-third time Gates has set out to redesign US education.

And don't forget-- here's Politico boosting again the Laurene Jobs XQ school reinvention competition, because if you wave enough money at some people, they'll let you experiment on them.

It's good to cover all this stuff, but I have a request-- can we please stop calling it philanthropy.

Let's say I'm a rich guy, and by some bizarre quirk of fate, I'm living next to a lower-middle class family. They have a couple of kids, a beat-up old car, both work, and clearly struggle to make ends meet. I can see through the window that their meals are meager, their clothes are worn, and their furniture is a little beat up. Let me propose two scenarios.

In Scenario 1, I visit the family. I say, "Here's a wheelbarrow full of money. Make yourselves a better life. I'll be over on Saturdays to mow your lawn and make sure that everyone's doing okay."

In Scenario 2, I visit the family. I say, "Hi. I can see you could use some help, so here's my offer. I see you could use some help with your food budget. As it happens, I have it in my head that a diet entirely of squid and scallops would be really healthy for people, so I'll pay for all your food if you'll eat nothing but squid and scallops. I can see that your car is on its last legs-- I'll give you $50K to spend on a car if you buy it off the lot at a dealership a buddy of mine owns. Also, you look a little run down. I've designed an exercise program-- no, I don't have any medical or health care background-- and I'll give you guys a couple of hundred a week as long as you keep doing these exercises. And I'll double that if you spend an afternoon or two every week passing out fliers and telling people who awesome the program is. Also, I have some thoughts about fireplaces, so I'llk give you a few thousand dollars to build a fire in the middle of your hardwood living room floor, because that should be interesting. Oh, and one more thing-- the Mrs. is very attractive, but she wears such frumpy clothes. I have some much more attractive stuff designed that I would like to see her in. I'll cover your clothing budget if she'll wear my clothes and pose on the back porch every morning."

Scenario 1 is philanthropy. Scenario 2 is something else. Something intrusive and creepy.

Modern fauxlanthropy is not about helping people; it's about buying control, about hiring people to promote your own program and ideas. It's about doing an end run around the entire democratic process, even creating positions that never existed, like Curriculum Director of the United States, and then using sheer force of money to appoint yourself to that position. It's about buying compliance.

It is privatization. It is about taking a section of the public sector and buying control of it so that you can run it as if it was your own personal possession.

Yes, philanthropy has always been at least a little bit about using money to impose your values on others. Andrew Carnegie paid for over 2500 libraries, and that certainly reflected his values, but he didn't dictate what books could be included, nor did he create fake civic groups to promote them, and he didn't personally try to manage them. Philanthropic money has always come with some strings attached ("I'll buy the university a new science hall if you put my name on it"). But what we're seeing nowadays is different.

Gates is not saying, "Find people who are doing good work in education and fund them." He's saying "Find people who are doing the work I want to see done. In fact, encourage people to form new groups to do the work I want to see done, and fund them." That's not philanthropy-- that's just hiring someone to work for you.

It is somehow not so obvious because most of these projects do not directly profit the fauxlanthropists involved, but they are still essentially business transactions. Hire some people to promote Common Core. Find a school system that will let us pay them to implement our will in place of their judgment. Find a school system that is willing to accept money in return for letting us use their students as lab rats.

How is this any different than hiring somebody to paint the house or mow the lawn or do the accounting for us? The difference is supposed to be that the work fauxlanthropists are hiring for will somehow benefit society rather than benefitting themselves. But modern philanthropists don't do their homework well enough to know whether they'll doing any good or not (e.g Bill Gates and "we'll have to wait ten years to see if this stuff works"). And of course they do benefit-- they get to feel like philosopher kings and queens without having to do any of the hard parts. And they get to avoid the part where someone of lower stature says, "Your ideas are bad and destructive and dangerous." It lets them have control without responsibility or consequences for their bad choices.

So let's find something else to call this. I don't really like "fauxlanthropy" because there is real money involved, and "paying to impose their personal will on society" is a little wordy. For the time being I'll go with "allegedly benign privatization," but the floor is still open for suggestions. As long as we stop calling it philanthropy.


  1. They also benefit from taxes breaks on top of tax breaks and free publicity. (Tax break one is corporate welfare and tax relief not available to others. Tax break two is the charitable giving tax breaks. )

  2. Thanks for this. I wrote a post that's tangential to this about how we've slowly allowed the wealthy to dodge taxes as they've increased their "investment" ("contributions," which are tax deductible) in areas the government should be regulating and funding. If you're interested, more here:

  3. My classicist spouse recommends "dysphilanthropy."

  4. Co-option.

    The word's primary meaning is appointment by invitation, but its secondary meaning is spot-on: the subsuming and consequent subversion of a political asset.

    Acquisition isn't bad, either. Has a nice, predatory financial ring to it.

  5. I think the situation is even worse than Peter Greene describes... because a lot of the "reform" money is coming from hedge fund philanthropists who made their $$$ as vulture capitalists. These "philanthropists" dodge federal, state and local taxes which starves public schools of the money they need to operate effectively. These same "philanthropists" then invest in "grassroots" tax-exempt organizations, some of whom promote the notion that market competition is the solution to all problems and others of whom promote the notion that standardized test scores are the ideal proxy for "success". These "philanthropists then persuade the public that they have a "product" that can improve the "failing" schools. In some cases the "product" is a technology-based solution like ECOT, but in most cases the solution is the same blunt instrument they've used in the private sector: outsourcing the work to lower wage employees who can deliver the same product for a lower cost. 

    The hedge fund philanthropists view "failing" public school districts the same way they view "weak" corporations. Their plan is to take them over the same way they've taken over businesses in the private sector: by getting enough seats on the boards to dictate the "corporate policy". They are using their vulture capitalism skills to take over the school boards... then replace experienced teachers with high legacy costs with low-wage charter school chains or CAI companies they operate. They can then pocket the "profit" and use it to start the cycle all over again. These vulture philanthropists look at the tax dollars currently going into public education as a pot of gold... and they are going after the big fish in the urban pond first knowing that eventually the smaller fish will follow. 

    These "investors" in public education are not getting the publicity that the tech moguls receive, but they are making inroads....