Monday, August 17, 2020

If You Have Enough Money To Endow Foundations Why Not Pay More Wages And Taxes?

tabletmag |  Big Philanthropy. Today’s Silicon Valley and Wall Street tycoons who endow foundations bearing their names—Gates, Bloomberg, Milken—are little different from Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller a century ago.

In his 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie, the immigrant Scottish American steel magnate who built his fortune on brutal treatment of American workers and the suppression of organized labor, declared that society was better off when the benevolent rich were allowed to spend their fortunes on charitable causes than when they were taxed to pay for public spending directed by politicians. Recently Bill Gates made a nearly identical argument, claiming that governments are so incompetent that large-scale spending decisions are best entrusted to enlightened billionaires like himself: “Philanthropy is there because the government is not very innovative, doesn’t try risky things and particularly people with a private-sector background—in terms of measurement, picking great teams of people to try out new approaches. Philanthropy does that.”

For a century labor leaders and populists have replied to such self-serving arguments by asking arrogant plutocrats like Carnegie and Gates an obvious question: “If you have enough money to endow a foundation, why don’t you pay your employees more?”

Theodore Roosevelt, who despised Carnegie, observed privately: “All the suffering from Spanish war comes far short of the suffering, preventable and non-preventable, among the operators of the Carnegie steel works, and among the small investors, during the time that Carnegie was making his fortune ...”

Modernism in the arts. Even in matters of art and fashion, American business elites and the working-class majority have been at odds for a century. America’s 20th-century managers and capitalists as a rule have been more avant-garde in their tastes than most of their fellow citizens. The Rockefellers and other plutocrats patronized the Museum of Modern Art, which during and after WWII dismissed the kinds of figurative art and traditional architecture that the working class liked as “kitsch” (trash) and smeared it by comparing it to Nazi and Soviet propaganda. Despising popular figurative painters like Norman Rockwell and later Thomas Kinkade has been a marker of ruling class membership for nearly a century. Vulgar, rich arrivistes like Donald Trump may favor traditional architectural ornament, but the taste-makers in the business community for decades promoted sterile glass-box International Style architecture and abstract painting and sculpture as the more or less official style of corporate America and the Free World.

Now more than a century old, the modern style long ago ceased to be modern. Herbert Hoover’s ultramodern house, now owned by Stanford University, was built in 1919-20. The ambition of many corporate executives and professionals of the mid-20th century was to live in a home inspired by the Glass House of Philip Johnson, the court architect of the Rockefeller dynasty. The protoplasmic blob in an abstract painting on the wall would gaze lovingly at a Noguchi coffee table, a glass amoeba with two wooden pseudopods that bore The Joy of Sex on its back next to the latest issue of the New Yorker.

The post-New Deal new normal, then, is very similar to the pre-New Deal old normal. The present is not a rerun of the age of the age of robber barons after the Civil War, but of the subsequent age in which university-credentialed corporate elites have usually favored free markets and free love and freedom from organized labor, while working-class populations, white and nonwhite, have typically favored a mix of moral traditionalism with pro-labor protectionism in economic policy.

This is not the second Gilded Age. It is the second Jazz Age. And from the perspective of America’s disfranchised and alienated working-class majority of all races, that is bad enough.