Though President Obama noted wealth inequality as the defining issue of our time and said “I realize we are not going to resolve all of our political debates over the best ways to reduce inequality and increase upward mobility this year or next year or in the next five years”, less than a year later and the White House is bringing in the heirs to America’s great fortunes not to discuss help with bringing back a meaningful inheritance tax, but planning how those soon to be oligarchs want to shape the country. Talk about a mixed message.
Philanthropy is not charity. It is using the power of wealth to shape society (for both good and ill). It is a power asymmetry that is, most fundamentally, antidemocratic. That the Obama Administration has decided to try influence the next generation of plutocrats to use their power in a positive manner rather than to take on entrenched interests is unlikely to be the kind of hope and change many Obama voters were hoping for.
On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House…
The daylong conference was organized by Thomas Kalil, a deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the help of Nexus, a youth organization based in Washington that seeks to “catalyze” the next generation of billionaire philanthropists and other stakeholders.
Does Ralph Nader have an office at the White House? Is the Obama Administration so demoralized and fed up with Congress that all they can think of is to ask the super-rich to save us?
Then again, part of the calculation is undeniable. The people in that room and the small gang of heirs across America are going to inherit an amazingly amount of wealth in the next few years.
Policy experts and donors recognize that there’s no better time than now to empower young philanthropists. Professionals in the field, citing an Accenture report from 2012, estimate that more than $30 trillion in wealth will pass from baby boomers to younger generations by around 2050. At the same time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (no relation to this reporter) and the nonprofit consulting group 21/64 have concluded in a recent study on philanthropic giving that heirs are becoming involved in family foundations at an earlier age — specifically in their 20s and 30s — and imprinting them with the social values of their generation.
The Accenture report makes it clear that even if you buy the propaganda of the “meritocracy” for this generation of plutocrats, the next one will be made up of those inheriting their wealth. As Paul Krugman says when noting the research done by Thomas Piketty, not Gordon Gekko, but the sons and daughters of Gordon Gekko will be the economic elite.
Throw in some recent Supreme Court rulings and research that shows America is already functionally an oligarchy and the picture of the future seems quite feudal. It is bad enough that America’s democracy is shutting down but the White House should, in theory, be fighting that trend not – to quote a famous ex-House Speaker – “embracing the suck.”