Our Policy Plutocrats
by Kristin Goss
May 25, 2021
This interview with Kristin Goss, Kevin D. Gorter Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Kristin | I am a political scientist. I study civic engagement and political participation in the United States. One of the things I think a lot about is philanthropy.
frank | You wrote a paper on “policy plutocrats” — what do you mean by that?
I was interested in what I perceived to be the growing interest among the very wealthy in affecting public policy. There's a long tradition in the U.S., and other countries, of wealthy people doing charitable good works — giving money for scholarships or hospital wings or museums. That is lovely and worthwhile.
I think we've all benefited from those gifts, but it seemed to me that increasing numbers of these very, very wealthy individuals were trying to have an impact on public policy.
This means something sort of broad — the framing of public ideas, influencing public debates, trying to influence legislation, litigation, executive branch regulations, and the way that public services are administered and implemented.
I took an encompassing view, but I was interested in that subset of very wealthy philanthropists. The Gates family would be a good example, or before them Walter Annenberg, who was very interested in public school reform. Michael Bloomberg is very interested in gun control and climate policy. We have all this anecdotal evidence that there are these very high-profile figures deeply engaged in policy work, but there wasn't really a good estimate of how many of our nation's biggest philanthropists were engaged in policy, how much money they controlled, what they were giving, and what their interests were.
[Barbara Jordan Sitting With a Man at a Table], photograph, 1978; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth843502/m1/1/?q=Walter%20Annenberg: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Southern University.
There's not a national database of these folks. My article was a first attempt at really trying to get a handle on how big that universe is. It's hard because philanthropists can do a lot of their work privately or non-transparently.
There's a big debate about whether this is a good thing, in a liberal democracy, to have a lot of relatively unaccountable and non-transparent wealth affecting the policies and structures of our public life.
Was there an acute change in the way the very wealthy were moving philanthropically?
I didn't do an over-time analysis. My perception is that this phenomenon has been growing probably since the 1990s, but that's just a perception.
There are a lot of people who think about the motives of big philanthropists. I think that's an interesting debate. My father was a trial lawyer and he said that you can never really understand people's motivations. That is not something that I've studied directly or that I've especially been concerned with because I think it's sort of unknowable.
I think it's interesting to see how major philanthropists present themselves. There has been work around the Giving Pledge. There are letters where a lot of these folks stated their rationale for joining the pledge. There have been scholars who have gone through and coded those rationales. But, are those their true motives?
Or are they self-described motivations intended for public consumption?
I don't know.
I'm more concerned with the effects of the gifts and their implications for democratic theory. When you get closer to the world of public policy and policy implementation, you're going to get more controversy than perhaps if you were endowing a hospital wing. And this is sort of anecdotal, but big philanthropy seems to be moving increasingly into the public sphere, as opposed to the more traditional charitable sphere. That's generating a renewal of this debate, over whether we want that kind of power in a few hands with little formal accountability.
[Photograph of Ronald Reagan at Barbecue Meal], photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth875718/m1/1/?q=reagan: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting University of Texas Permian Basin.
This growth is in tandem to the decrease of government trust.
Reagan validated distrust in government, but it had been rising since the mid 20th century. Just as a political science geek's side note, one thing we have to be cautious about is that there weren't really good measures of government trust before the mid 20th century. So it looks like a decline, but what we don't know is if that mid-century was, in fact, a really unique time. It may be that we're at a more normal level of trusting government now and mid-century had an unusually high level of trust.
Portrait of Governor Beauford H. Jester, photograph, January 18, 1949; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth74359/m1/1/?q=government: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
But trust in government has been coming down since mid-century. Reagan's whole ideology was to be highly distrustful and actually to degrade government as a concept. He had that famous line — "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help."
And that continues. There are some issues that are perpetually at the forefront of political debate and philanthropic giving – gun control, immigration, education – is any amount of money or attention making a real difference?
That's a terrific question. And I think the problem with trying to measure effectiveness is philanthropy is such a broad topic and there is money going into so many different things. I think philanthropists would say that the only way you can really bring social change to scale is through the market or the government — as others have noted, those are the two big scaling mechanisms. So no matter how much money philanthropy has, it's not going to bring wholesale change in the same way that the market and the government can. Seniors used to be one of the poorest demographic groups, and they're now fairly comfortable.
That wasn't because of philanthropists funding social entrepreneurs; that was because of Social Security and Medicare.
[Senior Day at the Capitol], photograph, February 10, 2009; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth129982/m1/1/?q=seniors: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Wilson County Historical Society.
I think philanthropy can be really effective, not at supplementing government, but at finding points of leverage for testing new ideas.
The part of philanthropy that I'm the most interested in is how philanthropy helps amplify voices that may not be heard otherwise. I study gun politics, for example, and I do think that big donors have made a difference in helping the gun violence prevention movement consolidate and sustain itself. I think about the issue that the gun owner groups, NRA being the most prominent example, have some inherent structural advantages in organizing and sustaining a broad membership. So there is an asymmetry. And what we call “patrons” (or philanthropists) can step in and level the organizational playing field. I think that that has happened. You can look back at what Michael Bloomberg has done, for example. I haven't checked the numbers recently, but Everytown for Gun Safety, which he substantially funds, really dwarfs all the other gun violence prevention groups in revenue.
[Members of the Alamo Muzzle Loaders at the Texas Folklife Festival], photograph, [1975-08-07..1975-08-10]; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth227838/: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UT San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.
Organizing is everything. You brought up the question of whether philanthropy is an expression of democracy or a threat to democracy. Do you feel one is more true than the other?
I take the critique really seriously. I think that we should, as democratic citizens worry about concentrations of power in whatever form, whether it's philanthropy, business, or government. I subscribe to calls for philanthropy to be more transparent and more accountable in some ways. I'm a little bit of a contrarian in that I don't think it is automatically a terrifying thing to have a very strong philanthropic sector. You could actually argue that some of the freedom the philanthropic sector has can actually be a virtue. If you take seriously, as I do, the possibility that we may not be a flourishing democracy forever, one conception of civil society, of which philanthropy is a part, is that it can be a source of countervailing power against an overweening or autocratic state. Maybe it's not a terrible idea to have other sources of power that can stand up to the excesses of government.
[People Marching in Port Arthur], photograph, 1970~; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth202370/m1/1/?q=marches%20: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Museum of the Gulf Coast.
I think a lot about the last four years that we have been through, and I do not say this in a partisan way, but there were some pretty alarming things that happened. A lot of civil society groups popped up and fought through the courts, through Freedom of Information Act requests, through protests, through the media — through our systems. Those groups, a lot of them, were not funded by everyday donors. There were patrons behind them. They popped up fast, and they were pretty effective at slowing down a lot of what I would consider to be highly questionable actions by the former administration. And who funds these groups? Big donors. They are not going to get a bunch of money from workplace drives. That's not how it works. I think we have to be vigilant. I think we need more transparency, more reporting, more cracking down on the dark money methods of giving, but I'm probably less concerned than some of my peers about the threat of philanthropy. I see a little bit more redemption in philanthropy done responsibly.
It’s interesting to look at who stepped in to challenge the previous administration. But there is an active right-wing sector of philanthropy that helped usher in a lot of that administration. The Heritage Foundation, the Koch money.
I mean, I agree with that. I think the Koch money is interesting. But I actually don't have a huge problem with a principled conversation between the left and the right. If the Koch brothers want to fund an infrastructure that calls for less regulation and lower taxes, that's their right. Donors on the left can call for a more robust welfare state and higher taxes. That's their right.
Children's Puppet Theater, photograph, 1958; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth59306/: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library.
I have some concerns about a reality where wealthy plutocrats are having an argument up there, and the rest of us are down here, disconnected – an argument that David Callahan has made.
But it is hard for me to draw a line from the Kochs to Trump. It's easier for me to draw a line from the Kochs to the conservative wing of the Republican party. I think the more interesting connection is maybe not the money, but rather the feeling that the middle class isn't growing and the returns of the knowledge economy are going to the people at the very, very top.
The vast income inequality, which the philanthropists are symbolic of, is driving a fair amount of the neo-populist wave.
Racism is as well. The Koch brothers did not create structural racism. I also want to separate philanthropy from other forms of spending. I'm not talking at all about spending on campaigns and candidates. That is for other people to think about.
[GOP Officals in 1958 GOP Convention], photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth847118/m1/1/?q=state%20convention: accessed May 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Midwestern State University.
I think a lot of stuff that's happening in this country philanthropy benefits from, and probably could push back against harder. I mean, what are the core underlying problems here that are often mentioned? One would be structural racism. I don't think philanthropy created that. I do think they could have done a lot more to challenge it. I think they're doing a lot more now. Or take income inequality. Philanthropists as individuals, not foundations because they can't lobby, but the individuals could be doing a little bit more to accept higher taxes or close some tax loopholes. And some of them have fought for that. But they didn't really create income inequality. Think about the media landscape. Philanthropists didn't create Q Anon or misleading media. They're actually doing a fair amount to help rebuild journalism. My point isn’t to exculpate or celebrate philanthropy – but just to keep the focus on more central drivers of democratic dysfunction, including historical structures and contemporary policy choices.
For me the question is, is this a system anyone would have designed? No. Are there excesses? Yes. But, this is the world we're in right now. I deal in the art of the possible because I'm a political scientist. I'm pragmatic. I don't think that there's going to be a mass confiscation of wealth from foundations or from individual rich people. I just don't see that happening. I think there'll be a tax increase. I think it won't make much of a difference in the vast amounts of wealth that these folks have. So then the question is, how can these people spend this money in a way that is responsible, and in a way that enhances democracy rather than undermining it?