Skip to main content

Jacobin - April 20, 2021

For the wealthy, philanthropy is the main generator to increase their political/social capital. No more than a tax deductible business expense. 
"Bill Gates — who mysteriously increased his wealth by about 60 percent in roughly the decade and a half after pledging to give it all away."

n 2018, the richest man in human history donated roughly 0.1 percent of his wealth to charity. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, meanwhile, proved in a more giving mood, donating 3.9 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively, to charitable causes. For most other billionaires in the top twenty as ranked by net wealth, the figure was typically somewhere between 0.1% and 0.3% — which is not exactly “generous” as most of us understand it. Generosity, by definition, must involve a degree of sacrifice, and what, exactly, is a person worth billions giving up by shelling out a hundred million or so in support of a voluntarily chosen cause?

Not much — and, in fact, the question should really be inverted, because the enterprise of big philanthropy ultimately benefits the wealthy a great deal. Though this news is something less than earth shattering, a newly published review of scholarship surrounding elite giving in the United States and UK makes the case with particular force. Jointly authored by four academics based at different universities in Britain, “Elite philanthropy in the United States and United Kingdom in the new age of inequalities” both lends weight to the existing critiques of big philanthropy and offers some useful theoretical foundations for critics moving forward.

The authors begin by noting the flourishing of philanthropy and charitable societies during the first great period of inequality in the capitalist era — which extended from the mid-nineteenth century until early in the twentieth. “Then, as now,” they write,

entrepreneurial elites amassed vast fortunes while large numbers of people struggled to make ends meet. Civic‐minded entrepreneurs with the wherewithal to improve the lives of others led the way in solving many social problems created by industrialization and the triumph of capitalism.

Read full commentary at Jacobin