Philanthropy and Inequality

Responding to the Forum on Philanthropy & Inequality

Editors’ Note: This past Friday, Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer reached out to co-editor Maribel Morey with some reactions to the ongoing forum on philanthropy & inequality. Below is a snapshot of their dialogue:

KRAMER: Pablo Eisenberg’s response is the latest in what has been a line of surprisingly unhistorical and depressingly superficial posts. Most have simply assumed or asserted—with nothing remotely resembling an argument or analysis—that some kind of unspecified radical reform is the only path forward in dealing with income inequality. Even the posts that purport to draw on historical evidence, describing what some major foundations thought or did in the 20th century, have been glaringly presentist and anachronistic.

MOREY: You mention that there has been a “line of surprisingly unhistorical and depressingly superficial posts.” In our pieces, Benjamin Soskis, Alice O’Connor, and I pulled from our historical research, but at least three of the eight contributions were very traditional academic discussions on the history of philanthropy: Leah Gordon and Karen Ferguson discussed their rather recently-published books and Daniel Geary reviewed ch. 2 of Gordon’s book. Could you tease out exactly why you found these historical analyses “unhistorical and depressingly superficial” and/or “presentist and anachronistic”?

KRAMER: I didn’t find the historical posts superficial, which is why I separated them out.  I did find them anachronistic, especially in the implicit assumptions about intellectual frameworks being used at Carnegie and Ford.  I think one of the replies made this point, as I recall.

Most irksome for someone in my position is the implicit (or, as in Eisenberg’s post, explicit) insult that those of us working in foundations know that radical reform is the answer and are just too craven or stupid or corrupt to take the obvious path of working to upend the existing economic and political order. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the bloggers in this series that some of us might actually have thought about it and drawn different lessons from the experience of the 20th century, that we might think differently about the appropriate role of philanthropy or about how best to address income inequality. Or, another shocker, that some of us might actually think there are other problems equally worthy of attention (can you say “climate change”?)

It is, as I always tell students (and, yes, I still teach), a mistake to assume that people whose position differs from yours “really” know that you are right and they are wrong and only take their position for nefarious or self-interested reasons. As hard as it can sometimes seem, people can look at facts and history and arguments and reach different conclusions.

As for income inequality, my own view—based on my reading of U.S. history, and stated very briefly—is that there is more than enough room within American liberal democracy for reforms to temper the harsh consequences of unbridled capitalism while still capturing its benefits, and that more radical paths are unlikely to make headway and more likely to leave everyone worse off along the way.

MOREY: You say that your thinking on income inequality is based on your reading of U.S. history. What are these examples and sources? In this vein, could you explain a bit further what you mean by American liberal democracy and its benefits, and also by “more radical paths”?

KRAMER: The different lessons of the 20th century, for me, are reflected in the mid-century experience of communism and fascism versus New Deal style liberal democracy and then the later failure of radical politics in the 1960s. The only movements that had any lasting success were the ones that worked from within the liberal democratic tradition, including capitalism: the civil rights movement, the Great Society (which for all the criticism cut poverty by more than half in ways that have endured despite backtracking), etc.

The problem is that America’s existing democratic processes—never perfect, but when operating still our best hope—have broken down and are not functioning. That breakdown is a cause of increasing income inequality, moreover, not the reverse, which is why we need to repair the political system, not undo it. We need to shake loose the gridlock produced by political polarization, recover the ability to have reasoned and reasonable public debate, and restore space for progress and compromise within our representative institutions. These are the goals of the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative.

MOREY: I’m intrigued by your mention of the Foundation’s Madison Initiative: Could you spell out a bit more its connection to your critique of Eisenberg and HistPhil’s philanthropy & inequality forum?

KRAMER: The direct goal of the Madison Initiative is not to reduce income inequality. It is to restore the Madisonian conception of how republican government should work under our Constitution (the subject of my Roberts Lecture at Penn). When we were first thinking about what the initiative should do, we were urged by some to make income inequality the focus: it is this inequality, we were told, that has produced polarization, and you won’t eliminate polarization until you redress it. I think that’s exactly backwards. Income inequality has grown as Congress’s ability to reach compromises that can temper the harshest effects of free markets (while still preserving most of their benefits) has diminished, and we’ll be able to do something about inequality only if and after we restore the capacity to reach such compromises. Hence, while the Madison Initiative isn’t about just that one issue, it is I believe the best way to address and redress the problem.

Others may diagnose problems differently or favor different approaches or solutions, which is surely desirable, since none of us can be sure we have it right. But maybe, in that spirit, those who favor different approaches might want to be a little less condescending.

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