Philanthropy Capitalism

Two years ago at this time of the year I attended the annual conference of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, a celebratory event for the almost exclusively Republican and conservative local business community.  Keynote speaker was Ken Langone, the founder of Home Depot and one of the kingmakers of the Republican Party, a billionaire who had the NYU Langone Medical Center named after him.  A year earlier Langone had given up trying to get Chris Christie in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination.  Christie had felt that the time was not yet ripe for him, obviously not knowing that Bridgegate would all but close the door to any future attempts two years later.

Langone hammered home a simple message: the government should get entirely out of the way of entrepreneurs and big business, so that the former can become rich and executives and shareholders of the latter even richer.   Eventually these millionaires and billionaires would ‘give back’ to society, which would provide funding for the few public institutions he deemed necessary.  The speaker brought up his own generosity towards the NYU hospital as an example, and mentioned the many millionaires in executive positions Home Depot had created, who were now starting their own careers in philanthropy.  A couple of times he said that he had no idea what his net worth was and that he didn’t care, which seemed strange for someone who simultaneously talked so much and so proudly about the money he had made.

The audience rewarded Langone with a standing ovation that lasted at least five minutes, and everywhere businessmen were enthusiastically telling each other how much they were going to give back.  In the eyes of the executives, bankers, securities traders, stockbrokers, real estate developers and lawyers present you could see that Langone had answered existential questions and possibly even erased self-doubt that had tormented some of them.   It was no longer greed and selfishness that motivated them to get rich, it was their social consciousness, the will to build a splendid society, which could so much better be done voluntarily by wealthy individuals than by the government, as Langone had convincingly shown.

When I suggested to the company at my table that it would be hard if not impossible to run police departments and public schools, not to mention the military, on charity alone, and that therefore this kind of philanthropy capitalism would never work, I got mostly angry looks.  They realized that I was not one of them, working at a public college that was part of a state-funded university system, and that I could never be as enlightened as they were now and as generous as they were going to be.  “You have no idea how much giving back is already taking place,” snarled one of them, before turning his back towards me and continuing his travels in Langone’s fantasyland with his peers.

It looks like a small number of billionaires will each ‘own’ a candidate on the Republican side in the upcoming primaries.  At this point Christie is still Langone’s favorite, which is why he can stay in the wings until the fallout from Bridgegate becomes clear.  Christie says that he has mastered what he calls the hardest skill for politicians, saying ‘no’ to large backers, but if he runs, expect him to pursue the destruction of the public institutions Langone doesn’t like.  And if he doesn’t run Langone has to find another puppy to do that for him.

Hugo Kijne

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