On Philanthrocapitalism – Part One

Writing for The Daily Mail in 2008 (says it all really doesn’t it) Richard Branson said: “Entrepreneurs have made the world a better place, taking the risks involved in innovating products and services that make people’s lives easier, better and safer.” A bold, sweeping statement that is not entirely accurate.

Branson’s piece for the newspaper was titled “In defence of capitalism” and is precisely the argument you expect to hear from a man that is worth, according to Forbes’ latest estimate, some $5 billion.

For Branson, capitalism is the answer to the world’s problems. He admits that it may need a few tweaks and changes, but he is insistent that it is only through the pursuit of profit that societies are to improve.

The Virgin boss is just one of a number of billionaires that appear fairly frequently in Philanthrocapitalism: How The Rich Can Save The World. It is a book that I read a few months ago, but did little to convince me that the wealthy are indeed the world’s saviours.

The book itself reads like an ode to the rich. It lavishes praise upon some of the most shady characters and companies in the Western world and seems to be a fetishisation of the wealthy. As you may have guessed, I am not its biggest fan. Just by simply reading its subtitle, “How the rich can save the world”, you can picture exactly what type of book it is; a grovelling account to the 1%. So obvious, and disturbing, it is that in later editions the subtitle was actually changed. It now reads: “How giving can save the world.” Much more palatable.

This wealth-worship leaves me feeling awkward, with a great sense of unease. Why is it that simply for the amount of money you posses you are then elevated to this seemingly god-like status and put on a pedestal for the rest of society to admire? It is my belief that if people were not allowed to get as rich in the first place the world would have a lot fewer problems.

Undoubtedly, money can do good. The charitable donations from the likes of Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates have helped in certain fields, but what sort of situation has humanity found itself in when we have to rely on compassionate or guilt-ridden billionaires to solve the world’s issues? The situation speaks volumes for where we are as a race.

In 1920 Clement Attlee, the man later voted The Greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century in an Ipsos Mori poll, said that “charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.” Despite working in the charitable sector, I for one agree with him.

In the introduction to Philanthrocapitalism the authors speak of philanthropy as if it is a wonderful thing, deserving of praise and gratitude. In some ways I suppose it is easy to see that side of it, but the reality is that to help those less fortunate than yourselves is a duty, not a praiseworthy decision. The Catholic priest and philosopher Thomas Aquinas once said: “the bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.”

The phrase “golden age of philanthropy” is often used as the authors hark back to glorious bygone eras. They have occurred at numerous points throughout our history, apparently, and happen to coincide with some of the darkest periods in recent memory. The Victorian era is romanticised as one such “golden age”, what with the Great Famine in Ireland, the workhouses for the poor, and colonialism alive and well in the British Empire, what a truly golden era it must have been.

In all honesty, despite the negatives listed above, the Victorian Era did see tremendous progress in societal terms and living standards. Philanthrocapitalism infers that such progress was due to capitalism and subsequent philanthropy, but this completely ignores the role of the state at that time. Political reform occurred, slavery was abolished, child vaccinations were introduced, and so too was the income tax. None of these had anything to do with societies wealthy members distributing their money.

The other so called “golden ages of philanthropy” appear to exist when governments are no longer doing the jobs they should be doing. As a result of poorly structured policies or government withdrawal or non-interference, the duty falls to those with the money and the morality. A duty that should be shared by society as a whole, but instead is left to a small number of individuals.

I would not be so cynical of this concept of philanthrocapitalism if all the world’s billionaires were committed to such giving, as quite obviously such an investment could make a great positive difference. However, one of the problems is that not all billionaires are committed to such altruism. They would much rather spend their money on another yacht for themselves, or another holiday home in the sun. Roman Abramovich for example, the Russian billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, has an apparent net worth of $9 billion. He owns a £70 million mansion in London, a £59 million beach estate in the French West Indies, a $36 million ranch in Colorado, a £30 million mansion in the south of France – which he spent £100 million renovating, a £20 million estate in West Sussex, the Kensington Palace Garden in London worth some £119 million, has four yachts – one of which is the largest yacht in the world with its own missile defence system, has one island, three planes, and a helicopter. He also owns many works of art and sports cars. Quite clearly Abramovich has far too much money.

Rather than attempt to help his fellow humans he would much rather spend and live extravagantly, and he is not alone in his lavish and vulgar spending habits. In 2010 Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet started a campaign called The Giving Pledge in which they attempted to get the world’s billionaires committed to giving away 50% of their wealth to charitable causes. By 2013 it was reported that only 5% of them had signed up.

It was the hope of Buffet and the Gates’ that all of the world’s billionaires would redistribute their wealth to worthwhile charitable causes in order to help the rest of the people on the planet. A naive thought on the face of it, but an admirable target to aspire to. Of course it would be fantastic if all of the world’s billionaires were to give away 50% of their income, and of course such a thing is possible to achieve. Quite obviously it would not come through voluntary pledges, but through taxation, and as French economist Thomas Picketty advocates, a global tax on the world’s elite would have a much higher catchment rate than the 5% of those signed on to The Giving Pledge.  Unfortunately though, no billionaire likes the idea of being taxed more, even those who have signed The Giving Pledge. Bill Gates openly came out as opposed to the idea on his own personal blog.

Even for those billionaires that choose not to spend their money on third, fourth, and fifth houses, and instead decide to donate their money to organisations and projects, there can be criticism. There is obviously a hierarchy of causes when it comes to giving, with those doing the most good and saving the most lives being at the top, and those doing the least good and saving the least lives down the bottom. A donation of £1 million for example could save 250,000 people from malaria, or it could be put towards renovating the local church. Therefore the best thing to do in that situation is to save the 250,000 people, however this is very rarely the reality.

To be fair to the Gates’, they do seem to invest disturbingly large sums of money to worthy causes, whether they are disease prevention or cure, poverty alleviation, or improved healthcare and education. The Gates’ are a rarity however, with many of the 5% of billionaires committed to giving choosing to donate their money to much less worthwhile causes. As the book makes clear, and as I have seen in my own line of work as a Fundraising Officer, there are those who choose to prioritise the restoration of buildings, the opening of new library wings, or providing the financial support for the orchestra to tour the country once again. As if these are pressing and urgent concerns for humanity.

Incidentally, giving only to the most deserving causes, and those organisations that do the most good, is a practice that philosopher Peter Singer calls “effective altruism.”

Number of billionaires in the world 2009 (start of the global recession) – 793
Number of billionaires in the world 2015 – 1,826 (Forbes list can be found here)

Oxfam states that on current trends by 2016 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%

Britain’s current richest 100 people have the same wealth as 30% of all UK households put together

Such is the situation that we have come to find ourselves in that even the English language itself has been unable to cope. According to Merriam-Webster dictionaries “rich” was first used before the 12th century, in the 15th century “wealthy” began to be used around the same time that “superabundance” was also introduced. The 20th century gave birth to “super-rich” or “superrich”, and the 21st century introduced “ultra-wealthy”. Merriam-Webster also state that 1786 was the first year that “millionaire” was officially recognised, with “billionaire” following 58 years later in 1844. “Trillionaire” is yet to be included in the dictionary, but we must imagine that can’t be too long until it is. Analysts are now predicting that the world’s first trillionaire will emerge in the next 25 years.

We should be worried by this trend. Quite literally words are becoming obsolete when describing the wealth that certain individuals have. “Rich” is no longer adequate, “millionaire” is no longer adequate. It is a sign of a sick society that the word “poor” will never be unsuitable as a label, but the words “rich” and “millionaire” will.

I mentioned that the book lavishes praise on some shady characters, and from reading it you will see that it wastes no time in doing so. From the introduction Philanthrocapitalism seems to deliberately target some of the biggest and baddest names in what I can only assume is an elaborate campaign. First to appear is that of Walmart who are championed as a business who have made “advancing the good of society an integral part of their business strategy.” This is the same Walmart that has been consistently paying its workers rock-bottom wages, forcing staff to work off the clock and for no pay, has faced allegations of both racial and sexual discrimination, uses unsafe factories in Bangladesh to manufacture their products, and attempts to prevents its staff from joining unions. It is also the same Walmart, that despite its low pay to staff and huge annual profits, receives tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies estimated at more than $7.8 billion a year.

The list of criticisms against Walmart is almost endless and yet they find themselves front and centre of a glowing review in Philanthrocapitalism. They are not alone in receiving such treatment either, with Shell, Coca Cola, and Rupert Murdoch all getting positive mentions later in the book.

My dislike for the book, and distaste for its arguments, is set to go on for quite some time. With that being the case I am going to limit myself to a more manageable figure of roughly 2,000 words a post. Something that is more easily digested and is a better alternative than having to read a 7,500 word essay. We will return to this in the coming days.

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