The Darker Side of Philanthropy

I tend to get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I think of philanthropy. It’s sometimes the only succor to society’s pain. For example, in this current political climate, absolutely no progress would be made toward a greener environment if it weren’t for charitable giving to worthy causes.

In addition, those of us who feel the pain the most are most likely to support social causes. It’s not hard to find articles like this one, which says, in part:

“In an article in The Atlantic this month, author Ken Stern details the charitable divide between the income classes. The author of “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” writes that in 2011, Americans with earnings in the top 20% of income levels contributed, on average, 1.3% of their income to charity. Those at the bottom 20% donated 3.2% of their cash to charity—more than double of what their more-wealthy counterparts donated.

What’s more, Stern says those at the bottom income levels often do not itemize their tax returns, so they aren’t taking advantage of the charitable tax deduction.”

I suspect that the lower classes give more generously because their motivations are more pure. They genuinely want to help various causes. They are less likely to have another agenda.

The rich, on the other hand, quite often do have their reasons. Here are some:

Public Relations. Often, the super-rich obtain their wealth in less than ethical ways, and making donations to charities is one way to whitewash their reputations.

Political motivations. The rich tend to be socially liberal but economically conservative. They’re all for supporting same sex marriage or reduced carbon emissions, but they definitely do not want their taxes raised. So rather than give the money to the government, which would allow we, the people (also known as the unwashed masses), to set the agenda (theoretically) as to how that money gets spent, they prefer to pick and choose their causes themselves with zero oversight and all the power to set the policy.

“No wonder so many prefer philanthropy over taxation. In philanthropy, you can do whatever you want, no matter how misguided you are, no matter what other people think. Taxation, unfortunately for certain rich people, is a collective enterprise in which we make decisions together.” –Anand Giridharadas, American writer, former columnist for the New York Times

“We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” -Leona Helmsley

Talk about setting policy. According to this podcast from the Religion and Ethics Report, Charles Koch, of Koch brothers fame, donated 1 ½ million dollars to Florida State University, but it came with strings attached. He wanted some control over their hiring and firing, and he wanted them to teach his free market libertarian agenda and downplay climate change.

Hiding Your Agenda. Unfortunately, there are a lot of anonymous donations floating around. This is often played off as a humble donor trying to avoid praise, which might be the case sometimes, but there are also a lot of nefarious nonprofit organizations that rely on philanthropy. This article discusses three different foundations that the Southern Poverty Law Center deems to be white supremacist hate groups. Who donates to them? It’s hard to say.

We Know Best. Rich people also have an annoying tendency to be dismissive of the grass roots community. They want to throw money at causes without knowing what works or does not in certain places. According to this article, in the aftermath of a hurricane, one philanthropist wanted to give money for solar panels, when the people still did not have roofs on which to put them. That’s a problem.

I can understand the instinct to give to causes that you’re personally interested in, but this means that the opera tends to receive funding long before the local soup kitchen does. This desire to avoid estate taxes by delving into philanthropy allows rich people to shape society in any way that they see fit. They want to be in control of what we learn, what laws are made, how our environment is looked after, and how our criminal justice system is managed. These are realms that all members of a democratic society should have some influence over. But that’s not how we roll.

Just something to think about the next time you’re praising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Philanthropy

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College Admissions Scandal? Seriously?

Here’s what I find most scandalous about the college admissions scandal: that people are scandalized by it. I mean, come on. Does the fact that rich people are using their money, fame and influence to get their (sometimes undeserving) children ahead in this world come as a surprise to anyone? Does the fact that colleges and/or their employees are motivated by greed shock you? Honestly?

Do you really think that Donald Trump, whom analysts have determined speaks on a 4th grade level, and has the attention span of a hummingbird on crack, was good college material? Please. He has an economics degree from Wharton and has absolutely no idea how his policies impact the national and global economy. If he were proud of his SAT scores, he wouldn’t be trying so hard to suppress them. Somebody needs to covfefe his diploma.

Both presidents Bush went to Yale. That makes me think rather less of that institution. But it doesn’t exactly astound me.

Nor does it surprise me that so many football hotshots take no advantage of their academic opportunities, and aren’t really expected to. They are the athletic equivalent of cannon fodder. Their existence is only suffered because they fill the overpriced stadium seats. (There are exceptions, of course.)

Do I think it’s right that these rich kids and athletes have an unfair advantage? Of course not. Do I wish the playing field were level for all of us? Yes. Being able to purchase a degree lowers the value of the degrees the rest of us worked so hard to obtain.

But if you think this “scandal” is in any way new, you’re delusional. And yes, things will tighten up in admissions offices, for a time. But I guarantee you that in about 5 years, when we’re focused on something else, the status quo will reassert itself.

Trust me. Richie Rich is always going to land on his privileged feet.

End of cynical rant for the day.

Graduate

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The Ingredients of Happiness

It always comes as quite a shock when someone famous commits suicide. Hearing on the radio that Anthony Bourdain chose to take his own life nearly caused me to swerve off the road. This is someone I’ve envied. He got to travel. He had crazy experiences and met fascinating people. He won countless awards. No doubt he also made a boatload of money.

This was someone who was successful, rich, and had an exciting life. Three things many of us strive for, and yet, now he’s gone. On the surface, you’d think that his was a life worth living. But to make this permanent choice, he must have been in a great deal of emotional pain. He must have been suffering. Surrounded by all of us, who admired him, he must have been all alone. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. I doubt any of us will ever know the full story.

The only thing I can know for sure is that I am happier than Anthony Bourdain was. I would never have guessed this a week ago. But there’s incontrovertible evidence of this now. I’m still here.

So, what constitutes happiness? One thing is for sure: it isn’t money. I know that’s a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason.

I know someone who is a millionaire, but he’s also a divorced, estranged father and a raging alcoholic. He’s one of the most miserable people I have ever met. Money does nothing to solve your problems when all is said and done. Most of us know this, and yet so many of us still seem obsessed with filthy lucre. It’s such a waste of time.

As far as I can tell, the two things you need to be happy are connections and purpose. Humans are social animals. They need community. The more you surround yourself with people you love who love you back, the happier you will be. And having a purpose, such as a job you love, or a goal to strive for, or even a hobby, makes life worthwhile. If you have none of those things, I encourage you to become a volunteer. Helping others is the noblest of purposes.

Don’t get me wrong. None of us can be happy all the time. People who are happy all the time are mentally ill. It’s how we cope with the rough patches that truly defines us. But there’s a lot that you can do to make your life satisfying overall.

If you are contemplating suicide or know someone who is, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Here in the US, a great resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255. Please, just do that one last thing before taking any steps that, once done, can never be undone. Surely you owe yourself that much.

Anthony Bourdain, I hope you have found the peace you apparently could not find in this life. I wish you had made a different choice.

Anthony Bourdain

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Entitlement

I recently wrote a blog post about the cubic yard test, an antiquated test that the Seattle Department of Transportation uses to see if you’re qualified to work in one of their field positions—a test that I suggest excludes most women. Apparently this post struck a nerve for some people, but not in the way that I expected. It sparked a discussion about people who bend the rules for their own benefit, and then that got us talking about entitlement, in general.

Rich people would love it if you thought of poor people when you heard the word entitlement. As in, “those welfare types sure think they’re entitled.” Don’t fall for it. Entitled to what? Subsistence income that keeps you right at the poverty line, in substandard housing, in dangerous neighborhoods, with inadequate health care, humiliating hoops to jump through every month, and a dependence on the arbitrary whims of insane politicians? Yeah, that’s everyone’s goal in life.

No, it’s rich people who have the appalling sense of entitlement. I once worked with a guy who drove a Mercedes to work, and was only working to keep from being bored. He asked me how I liked my 8-year-old Hyundai hatchback. He wasn’t just making small talk. He said he needed to get a “junk car” to drive around in “neighborhoods like these.” I nearly lost my lunch. Some of us don’t have a spare car to use when we’re “slumming it” at work, dude.

And a friend sent me this article, about a bunch of rich idiots with beachfront property in Florida who took it upon themselves to have sand bulldozed off of public beaches so that they could have dunes protecting their houses from the sea level rise that is occurring because of the climate change that they refuse to acknowledge. Potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of damage, not to mention the environmental impact, but by all means, help yourself!

That prompted someone else to send me this article about a judge here in Seattle who had his gardener cut down 120 trees in a public park in order to improve his view. He was fined $500,000 for his hubris, but has only managed to cough up 200k of that so far, and it’s been 15 years. He still owns, but no longer resides in, that 2.4 million dollar house, so it’s not like he doesn’t have the money. He’s trying to get his homeowner’s insurance to foot the bill. All I can say is: Solid. Brass. Balls.

That’s almost as brassy and solid as when Ben Carson tried to buy a $31,000 table for his office using taxpayer money, and when he got caught, blamed it on his wife. Seriously, Ben? You’ve proven that you are a stupid, stupid man, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are as stupid as you are.

There are so many stories about people with a “let them eat cake” attitude that I could go on forever. I don’t know what disgusts me more: that people like this exist, or that they don’t even bother to hide their shenanigans anymore. When are we going to say that enough is enough?

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Shoe Shock

Recently I was downtown, and while there, I decided to visit the Nordstrom department store. Not that I needed or wanted to buy anything. It’s just that I’d never been in one before. I figured at the very least, it would have cool Christmas decorations. So, in I went.

And I quickly discovered why I’d never been in one before. I got that feeling that I get whenever I enter a rich people’s place. It’s as if someone is going to somehow figure out that I couldn’t even afford the socks in this store, and I’ll be quickly ushered out the service entrance and left on the loading dock like yesterday’s trash.

I wandered around, praying that I wouldn’t accidentally knock something over. The bejeweled wedding dresses were gorgeous, and had no price tags. No doubt they’d cost about a half year’s pay for me. (Not that I need a wedding dress. I can’t even get a date, even when I do the asking.)

The shoes, too, were stunning. Extravagant. Works of art. The kind of things you’d never wear in the rain. I didn’t even bother looking at the prices. I did go over to what looked like a sales rack, and sure enough, accidentally dropped a shoe. When I picked it up, the price on the bottom was 768 dollars. And I had just dropped the thing. Eeep.

This is why I’d never make a good rich person. How does one buy 768 dollar shoes, have them rung up by a cashier that doesn’t earn that much in a week, and then saunter out the door, past homeless people begging on the sidewalk out front? How do you justify paying that much for a shoe, which you’ll only wear a certain amount of times before it either wears out or goes out of style or gives you bunions? It’s just not in me.

Finally, I had to get out of there because I was being overwhelmed by a tsunami of income inequality, and I was afraid I might blow my stack right there amongst the Hermes scarves. I can’t relate to this type of consumerism. It makes me sick to my stomach. I was glad to make my exit and return to the real world, where my discount shoes are the norm.

And then I passed a Coach store. Amongst their outrageously priced handbags, there were really cute change purses in the shapes of animals. They fit in the palm of my hand. And they were 85 dollars each. They were probably made in china by someone who earns a dollar a day.

There’s a special circle of hell for people who sell these unnecessary things, and for the people who buy them, or even think there’s a need for them.

The fact that stores like this can thrive in Seattle is exactly why the majority of us can’t afford to live here anymore. Then who’s going to sell you your shoes?

Shoe
This lovely shoe “only” costs $1,195.00 at Nordstrom.

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An Open Letter to White Supremacists

First, let me give you my “bonafides”. According to Ancestry DNA, I’m about as white as a human being can be. That always has, and probably always will give me a leg up in society. I won’t even try to deny it. I also won’t deny that I’ve done little or nothing to earn this leg up. I was born into it, and oh, do I ever take advantage of it.

I can go weeks, months, even years not having to think about pesky racial issues if I so choose. I can live in a white bubble and have absolutely no contact with any minority for days on end. I don’t have to watch “them” on TV, or listen to “them” on the radio if I don’t want to. I can simply close my eyes and clutch my pearls. If I so desire, I can shop exclusively at white-owned stores without putting forth much effort at all. I probably do without even realizing it. I have the luxury of not having to care one way or the other.

People assume I’m law-abiding and honest. People assume I’m non-violent. People assume that I’m supposed to be wherever I happen to be, any time of the day or night. I’m a harmless fat old white woman. I’m as likely to get shot as I am to be struck by lightning. Most people don’t even look at me. I can become invisible. I often feel invisible. It’s lonely, but it has its advantages.

No, I’m not rich. I’m barely middle class, and I’ve only clawed my way up to this precarious and ever-shrinking perch in the past 3 years. I know what it’s like to be down there in that bucket of crabs, where everyone is scrabbling to get out, and just when you think you’ve made it, the other crabs pull you back down. I was there for 50 years. It’s frustrating. It’s heartbreaking. I understand that despair.

But here’s where you and I part company: I don’t assume that all the crabs that have been pulling me down are non-white. I don’t even bother to blame the other crabs regardless of their color. If you’re caught in a crowded, desperate bucket, it’s only natural to want to get your crabby butt out of there. It’s not the other crabs, guys. It’s the freakin’ bucket. There shouldn’t be a bucket.

That bucket was made by rich white people.  It’s the corporations and the politicians and the institutions that are your biggest threat. It’s the military-industrial complex that is using you as cannon fodder and replaceable cogs in the machine.

Railing at your crab-mates is a mere distraction. Glorifying Confederates, who lost for good reason, and Nazis, who lost for good reason, makes you look like fools. Being violent because you’re angry does not further your cause. It will never bring you respect or support or dignity. It won’t get you out of the bucket. Fascism has never benefited the masses, and like it or not, we are part of the masses.

I know it sucks that we’ll never have a delightful and stress-free retirement. I know it’s scary that things are getting more crowded and therefore more competitive. It’s high time you realize that automation is a much bigger threat to your job than other humans are. And most of those machines, by the way, are owned by white people.

If you honestly think for one minute that your crab-mates are out to destroy you or your way of life, ask yourself this: why are all of us striving for the same things? We all want a decent, safe, secure life. A way to feed our children. A roof over our heads. Peace. We have a lot more in common than you seem to think.

Don’t you get it? We are all in this together. And together we are stronger. The very fact that we are a mass is the one thing we have that those bucket manufacturers do not.

The reason you have the day off today is thanks to the labor movement, a movement of the masses. We can do great things if we stand shoulder to shoulder rather than turning our back on each other, or even worse, locking ourselves into mortal combat with each other while the bucket manufacturers gleefully watch from a distance.

Turning on each other is the last thing, the absolute last thing, we should be doing. Don’t be a pawn.

crabs

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Whistler

During my most recent trip to Canada, I had the opportunity to visit Whistler, which is the ski resort mecca of British Columbia. That was a surreal experience. Everything was clean and well-manicured. Even the concrete looked somehow artificial. It was like being in Disney World without the rides.

That is, if everyone who visited Disney had a six figure income. The second I stepped on the promenade, I felt extremely out of place. People kept looking at me as if they were outraged that I didn’t arrive through the service entrance. I swear that rich people can identify a poser by some pheromone or something. I definitely wasn’t supposed to be there.

I have no doubt that I could have eaten their overpriced food off the sidewalk and would not have caught a single disease. I also could have scotch-taped my money to my behind beneath a sign that said “steal me” and it would still have been there when I left. I stuck my head into a few shops, and quickly retreated. Everything was so outrageously priced that it seemed tacky to me. The whole place is a monument to crass consumerism.

I walked past several young men with chiseled jaws who were wearing watches that were worth more than I earn in a year. You couldn’t have slung a dead cat without hitting a designer label of some sort. One little blonde girl with very expensive hair extensions asked us where the “Olympic Ring thingy” was, and when we pointed her in the right direction, she ran off as if she was afraid her coach was about to turn into a pumpkin.

Is that what it’s like to be rich? Do you live your life in some sanitized bubble of a fantasy world, where everything is safe and predictable? Do you wander, care-free and entitled, from one vacuous place to the next, your only worry being the need to marry well?

I’ll pass. I’m glad I went to the rich people zoo once, just to say I’d done it, but I won’t be back. I prefer the real world.

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