Joanne Barkan has written powerful articles in Dissent about the power wielded by billionaires to control and direct public education. (See here.)


Now she has written an article in The Guardian about the Zuckerbergs’ pledge to place 99% of their Facebook stock (value: about $45-46 billion) in a limited liability corporation, which they will use to influence public policy. Her article has the title “Wealthy Philanthropists Should Not Impose Their Idea of the Common Good on Us.”


She writes:


There’s a strong argument to be made that the private tax-exempt foundation doesn’t fit well in a functioning democracy. As the eminent US jurist Richard Posner wrote: “A perpetual charitable foundation, however, is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. It competes neither in capital markets nor in product markets … and, unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either.”


Although the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative isn’t a foundation and will pay taxes, nothing about their project changes the fundamental contradiction of mega philanthropy: the wealthy have the power to impose their personal visions of the common good on everyone else while calling it charity. In the tug-of-war between government by the people and social engineering by multibillionaire philanthropists, Chan and Zuckerberg pull on the side of the powerful social engineers.


However, in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes “In Defense of Philanthocapitalism,” a spirited defense of the Zuckerbergs, the Gates, and the other billionaires who are willing to try bold new approaches that government is too timid to try. So I assume he includes the Koch brothers, who use their wealth to reshape the economy to benefit the 1%, and Art Pope, who has used his wealth to hand the state of North Carolina over to the Tea Party, and the Waltons, who use their billions to stamp out unions and public schools.


He writes:


In an ideal world, big foundations might be superfluous. But in the real world they are vital, because they are adept at targeting problems that both the private sector and the government often neglect. The classic mission of nonprofits is investing in what economists call public goods—things that have benefits for everyone, even people who haven’t paid for them. Public health is a prime example: we would all benefit from the eradication of malaria and tuberculosis (diseases that Bill Gates’s foundation has spent billions fighting). But, since the benefits of public goods are widely enjoyed, it’s hard to get anyone in particular to foot the bill.


Ah, yes, what would we do without the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, and other billionaire foundations that do not believe in the public sector? What would educators do if they didn’t have the Gates Foundation to tell them how to evaluate teachers and how to turn public assets over the unaccountable charter schools and how to teach reading and mathematics? What would Los Angeles do if it didn’t have Eli Broad picking its superintendent and deciding to take control of half the children in the public schools and hand them over to privately managed charters and at the same time underwriting coverage of education in the Los Angeles Times? What would Philadelphia do if it didn’t have local foundations deciding to privatize its public schools? How many other cities have private foundations that have decided to lead the charge for school privatization? How many rightwing think tanks would shrivel and die without the support of the same billionaires and their foundations?


Who should shape the public good? The philanthrocapitalists or the public? Who holds the foundations accountable when they make a mistake? To whom are they accountable? No one. How can they preach accountability to everyone else but not for themselves?


Please read and comment.