Intriguing look at the world of big-ticket philanthropy, which shows promise of surpassing much governmental social-service spending in the near future.
Political journalist and Demos think-tank founder Callahan (Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America, 2010, etc.) opens with a moment that caused an odd flurry of controversy when it was announced a little more than a year ago: when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife pledged to use 99 percent of their shares on charity spending, they set off a wave of discussion and objection for what some perceived as “tax avoidance and an undemocratic power grab.” Whatever the merits of that view, Callahan reminds us that the sum in question, totaling about $45 billion, is greater than the budgets of about two-thirds of all American states—and in that sense alone a harbinger of the future, since most of those cash-strapped states are not the place to look for relief for such things as medical research or meaningful education reform. The best part of Callahan’s book is not its account of the various players in this mega-giving, the Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses of the world, but instead his view of the machinery that has grown up to surround big giving. In the case of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for example, some 2,500 employees disburse more than $700 million per year, an activity that, given the depth of its pockets, may go on for hundreds more years, effectively in perpetuity. The thorniest problem that Callahan explores is not the good that such philanthropies do but the larger import of what happens when the rich get to decide what’s important to fund. “Even when wealthy donors are expanding debates,” he writes, “true to the spirit of pluralism, we can’t forget that it’s they who are choosing which voices and ideas get extra juice.”
An eye-opening view of a vast sector of the economy that lies in the shadows but has undue influence, for ill or good.