#5 Philanthropy and Inequality in American Life

February 14 and 28, 2017 - 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.

Stanley N. Katz, Ph.D., Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

We will examine the origins of the modern American conception of “philanthropy” as an innovative method of using private wealth to secure the public good.  This was a conception, institutionalized in the private philanthropic foundation, of private investment in research on the underlying causes of fundamental societal problems, in the hope of identifying strategies to address the underlying problems of humankind.  John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Andrew Carnegie were the model-builders, and over the course of the last century the philanthropic foundation grew in size, function and mission.  But, as Thomas Piketty has explained to us, we now live in a society in which the wealthy can expand their existing wealth much more quickly than the less economically advantaged.  This is creating a radical asymmetry in the distribution of wealth in the U.S. (and globally) that has given the upper 1% of the population a huge wealth advantage.  This is intersecting with the philanthropic system put into place a century ago.  The result is that over the past twenty years we have seen the emergence of mega-foundations (think the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) that have taken the institution in new directions.  The question I want you to ask is whether these new directions are good for democracy?