Tuesday , August 3 2021

Tainted money is better than none for charities

One of the most celebrated passages in the Bible occurs in St Matthew’s gospel. A rich young man asked Jesus, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Jesus responds, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” Alas, charity has always been easier said than done.
“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful,” Matthew’s text continues, “for he had great possessions.”
Throughout the succeeding two millenniums, the wealthiest inhabitants of the Christian and non-Christian worlds have been groping for compromises with such teaching. Many give some fraction of their riches to the poor or to good causes, maybe to secure some fraction of eternal life, or more plausibly perhaps in hopes of being remembered as decent citizens.
There is also a tradition of people and businesses that amass wealth by dubious means seeking to atone through acts of generosity.
In Britain, it was long understood that all but the most conspicuously crooked charitable donors could go a long way to ensuring knighthoods, and even peerages, by giving a million or three.
Today, however, philanthropy is under the microscope. A rising chorus of skeptical voices is raised against allowing rich people or companies to purchase respectability. Yet many good causes, especially arts institutions, have suffered crippling financial losses from the Covid-19 pandemic, which can only get worse if they are forced to adopt the code of ethics proposed by those who deal in shame rather than solutions.
In the US, left-wing critics denounce so-called philanthrocapitalism, whereby some among the vastly wealthy seek a reputation for generosity, while at the same time gaining vast income-tax breaks or retaining control of money they have supposedly given away.
Garry Jenkins, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, suggests that charitable foundations funded by big businessmen are becoming “increasingly directive, controlling, metric-focused and business-oriented.” He highlights the danger of a takeover of charities by commercial interests which may be less committed to the public good than they would have you believe.
Meanwhile, a legal firestorm assails the Sackler family, which for decades was praised for international philanthropy until it was noticed that much of their wealth derived from Purdue Pharma Inc.’s manufacture and sale of addictive opioids.
Critics are unimpressed by the Sacklers’ donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Gallery, American Museum of Natural History, British National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, Kew Botanical Gardens, New York University’s Langone Medical Center and other institutions. If all their benefactions are added together, say Sackler foes, they amount to only a mouse’s portion of the $11 billion they are estimated to have amassed.
In Britain, the actor Mark Rylance is among prominent lobbyists for Extinction Rebellion, a green advocacy group demanding, among much else, that Sadler’s Wells ballet company cease accepting money from Barclays Bank, which it describes as Europe’s largest financier of “fossil fuel extraction.” Barclays’ cash is being used to subsidise tickets of just 10 pounds for young fans to attend performances.
Likewise, the British Museum is targeted for its partnership with oil company BP Plc, and the London Science Museum faces criticism for allowing Royal Dutch Shell Plc to sponsor an exhibition on climate change. Research into historic philanthropists with links to slavery has proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic. Oxford University is racked by controversy over a statue of the 19th-century mining tycoon Cecil Rhodes, who after a lifetime of exploiting Africa and Africans created the great scholarship scheme that bears his name. Honore de Balzac exaggerated somewhat when he observed, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” But among the participants in a dinner party conversation I heard recently was a woman, heiress to millions made by her late father, who demanded with a shrug, “Is any great fortune made by moral means?” With heroic restraint, the rest of us held back from discussing her dad’s wealth, created through property development and ruthless asset-stripping. Yet she has been one of Britain’s leading philanthropists, responsible for raising and distributing tens of millions to good causes.
It was ever thus. In 1888, the brother of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel died in France. A French newspaper, muddling family identities, published an obituary denouncing the dead man for his invention of dynamite and other explosives. Alfred read this and, the story goes, was appalled at the notion that he might go down in history attached to such a reputation. Whatever the true impetus, he set about an extravagant program of good works, prominent among them the annual prizes that have been largely successful in sanitising its honour.
Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American industrialist, is likewise remembered as a great philanthropist. His book “The Gospel of Wealth” asserted that rich men should consider themselves mere trustees of their fortunes for future generations. Believing that access to learning is key to opportunity, he founded some 2,500 libraries. Carnegie’s later life was exemplary, but nobody made a fortune in steel and railroads during the late 19th century while playing Mr Nice Guy, least of all to those who labored on the tracks or in the foundries.
It was the same story with Henry Ford, who to his credit assured his employees the unheard-of wage of $5 a day, and promoted hiring black workers. Yet he was also a rabid anti-Semite and ruthless in crushing unionisation efforts. In 1936, his son, Edsel, created the Ford Foundation, which has since funded a host of liberal causes. It remains a nice question whether those good deeds balance the dark side of Henry Ford’s record. The same can be said of John D Rockefeller’s legacy.


Max Hastingsis a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy” and “Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943.”

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