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How Billionaire 'Philanthropy' Is Fueling Inequality and Helping To Destroy the Country

Much of philanthropy today has become a weapon in the class warfare of the 1 percent.

Peter Buffett, the second son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, worries that the state of philanthropy in America “just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.” At meetings of charitable foundations, he says “you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.”

Describing the stunning growth of what he calls a “charitable-industrial complex,” his recent New York Times op-ed reads in confessional style: “People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.”

An insider’s critique from someone like Peter Buffett is certainly welcome. Charitable giving, after all, has seen a meteoric rise in recent years, virtually unchanged amid a historic global recession. In what the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy calls a “New Gilded Age of Philanthropy,” the ballooning fortunes of the 1% seem to mirror levels of giving by foundations:

(Source: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy)

As Buffett suggests, this growth in elite largesse, totaling $316 billion in 2012, has done little to combat economic inequality. But the problem isn’t just one of ineffectiveness. A recent paper published in the Journal of Economic Inequality shows philanthropy hasn’t simply failed to meet its goals; it’s made the situation worse.

"Using measures of both absolute and relative inequality,” the study’s authors conclude, “we have shown that philanthropy may actually exacerbate inequality, instead of reducing it.”

It’s hard to believe that all the industrial titans and Wall Street tycoons shelling out billions on charitable projects don’t understand this. They spend their lives swimming in numbers. What, then, might their real goals be? A closer look at how the world’s wealthiest are choosing to give away their money provides clues. While pretending to fix inequality, contemporary philanthropy’s actual role has been to strengthen the arrangements that make gross inequality possible in the first place. It has become a weapon in the class warfare of the 1%, the carrot to win people over to their ideology complementing the stick of political spending to coerce them into the same.

The Koch brothers

David and Charles Koch, together worth $35 billion, have perfected this philanthropic misanthropy perhaps better than anyone else. Their Kansas-based Koch Industries is the second largest private company in the country after Cargill, with annual revenues estimated to surpass $100 billion. Together they control thousands of miles of oil pipelines from Alaska to Texas; fertilizers, minerals and biofuels; Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Lycra.

A research team at American University found that from 2007 to 2011, Koch foundations gave $41.2 million to 89 nonprofits and sponsored an annual libertarian conference. The report details how Koch Industries’ $53.9 million federal and state lobbying budget routinely goes hand-in-glove with Koch-affiliated nonprofits’ “public advocacy” for reasons having little to do with the public and everything to do with the brothers’ sprawling business interests. Koch lobbyists advocate for bills like the Energy Tax Prevention Act — which sought to roll back the Supreme Court ruling allowing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases — that are then supported in congressional testimony by “experts” from Koch-funded nonprofits.

Though private foundations cannot legally “be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests,” the study’s authors note that IRS enforcement is largely “sporadic and somewhat mysterious,” and even in the case of an investigation communications between the foundation and the government are generally kept from the public. The Koch nonprofit machine has exploited this loophole for all it’s worth, testifying before congressional committees at least 49 times since 2007.

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