Compensation: The Cultural Contradictions of Philanthrocapitalism

Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is appropriate that Robin Rogers begins her informative essay on the state of philanthrocapitalism with a very large number — the 600 billion dollars in charitable donations promised by 40 über -rich Americans through the Giving Pledge; for both the current corporate culture whose private wealth feeds contemporary philanthropy and Bill Gates, the public figure who features most prominently in any account of the field, are deeply invested in the philosophical presumption that material quantity (as measured by goods produced, profits made, gross efficiencies achieved, effective methods scaled) can reliably generate social quality. Because overall and in the end, more engenders better, the business of government (and most everything else, including scholarship, medicine, and public education) should be conducted in the manner of a corporate business — that is, by and for “the numbers.”

This doctrine, which I have been calling quantiphilia, has so saturated American culture that, like any commonsense belief, it now appears to be immune to effective critique. Despite a near total collapse of the global economy as generated by the egregious incompetence of corporate finance, the core notions of quantiphilia, including the idealization of corporate techniques, still dominate the position papers of our policy elite, and with our final assessment of value in all things now commonly defined as “the bottom line,” its logic has also succeeded in “monetizing” our everyday speech. The credo that more must equal better is crudely manifest in the super-sized meals that weigh down the trays in our fast-food restaurants, and in the super-sized cars and homes (faux chateaux) that were popular until the economy collapsed. Most relevant here, that credo can be counted in the super-sized pay days of our corporate CEOs and venture capitalists, whose astounding income is the source of the 600 billion pledged.

There is, however, an alternative way of assessing social health and pursuing social quality, one that values harmony over sheer quantity, the complementary actions of homeostasis over the aggressive mechanisms of linear progress. This was the broader theme of that most American of philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Compensation,” from which my title and epigraph have been taken. His assertion there that “every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess” highlights the irony that haunts recent assertions that philanthrocapitalism, as distinct from both democratic government and more traditional forms of philanthropy, can solve our social ills. For the excess, and so defect, most obvious in American society today is the severity of our economic inequality, which has dramatically increased over the last forty years as the agenda of quantiphilia has taken hold. In 1970, the wealthiest one percent of Americans received 9.7 percent of the national income; now that number has surged to 23.7 percent, and the top one-tenth of that one percent (the targets of the Giving Pledge) receive 12.3 percent. America’s latest score of 45 on the Gini Index, which measures disparities in income distribution, is conspicuously worse than all our Western allies. These statistics matter because nations that suffer such economic disparities are more susceptible to the very social ills — cyclical poverty, early mortality, illegitimate births, poor test scores — that philanthrocapitalism now aims to cure.

In one sense, of course, the Giving Pledge is heeding Emerson’s principle of compensation, striving to restore social balance through self-conscious acts of generous giving. As the authors of that pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet appear to be following an age-old moral imperative, one concisely expressed by Simone Weil:  “If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale.” ­1 What differentiates today’s efforts from earlier ones is the ideological presumption that the same techniques, management style, and value system that helped to generate the excessive income that is funding the pledge can also correct the social defects historically associated with income inequality.

No individual can fully represent an entire movement, but as the wealthiest man in America and the most proactive of today’s philanthrocapitalists, Bill Gates comes close. A preliminary examination of the man’s stature, intentions, characteristic strategies, past accomplishments and current failures illustrates why a democratic citizenry might doubt this movement’s redemptive claims.

The Royal Status of Today’s Philanthrocapitalist

“Businessmen and businesses are best placed to save the world.”

Page 1 of 8 | Next page