One of my first assignments as an intern at BusinessWeek in 2005 was to write a capsule profile of Eli Broad, the real estate magnate who has, in retirement, become one of the country’s foremost philanthropists in the arts and education. His project at the time was the flash-in-the-pan reality television show "The Scholar," which provided the high school winner with a $250,000 college scholarship paid for by Broad. Today the New York Times uses Broad as a jumping off point for an exploration of philanthropy’s utility, asking the question of whether society benefits more from lavish private acts of charity that earn tax-breaks, or simply from the taxes the wealthy pay. For every $3 a wealthy person donates, the government loses $1 in tax revenue.
The wealthy generally favor museums, universities, libraries, and other cultural insititutions in their philanthropy. In my view, high culture, and even beautification of the public space, is important. The Jackie Kennedy Onassis-championed renovation of New York’s Grand Central Terminal in the 1980s restored grandeur, safety, and a sense of pride to one of the city’s most important landmarks. And when I travel in Europe, I’m consistently struck by the fact that most of the magnificent public buildings we enjoy today were paid for by regressive, anti-democratic regimes whose values we now abhor. Yet from Michaelangelo, to the Impressionists, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Western high culture has always been in thrall to the wealthy institutions and individuals who can pay for its production. Today, philanthropists argue that by funding elite institutions, they are creating a trickle down effect; for example, a better funded university biology lab might make a stem cell breakthrough that could save millions of lives.
Still, the Times reporting is pretty depressing. It seems that the richer an American is, the less likely they are to direct their philanthropy toward poor Americans: "Research shows that less than 10 percent of the money Americans give to charity addresses basic human needs, like sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and caring for the indigent sick, and that the wealthiest typically devote an even smaller portion of their giving to such causes than everyone else." That should quiet claims that the private sector can fight poverty, disease, and inequality as effectively as government could — if it tried.