Journalists lob softballs to billionaires touting charitable deeds while failing to probe the ethically dubious enterprises that underpin philanthropy.
By Hazel Henderson
You may not remember interviewing me a couple of times over the years. I still catch your show. Your recent segment on CBS 60 Minutes raised a recurring question of transparency. Ethical journalistic standards usually require interviewers and anchors to ask their guests to reveal their clients and other interests which audiences need to know to evaluate their opinions expressed: How else can viewers spot the spin?
Charlie, you generally observe this tenet of ethical journalism, despite occasionally pandering to your very wealthy guests.
Your 60 Minutes segment on the “Giving Pledge” featured Warren Buffett, Steve and Jean Case, Bill and Melinda Gates and other billionaire philanthropists. Their motivation for pledging to give away much of their wealth was heartening in this era of growing inequality in the USA.
You also probed this worsening issue and the huge rewards to capitalists and the shrinking share to employees as noted in The Economist (Nov. 25, 2013). You raised the key question: are these super-rich capitalists in the USA getting too powerful?
We all see, since the Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision, how our politics is now dominated by the super-rich and incumbent special interests, especially those in finance. Investigative journalism, a dying breed, still manages some exposure such as the movie Inside Job, the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, Frontline, Positive Money, as well as our Transforming Finance TV series and “The Money Fix.”
What is needed is more transparency about how philanthropists make their money, what holdings are in their portfolios and those of foundations, college endowments and other charities.
Charlie, you missed an opportunity on 60 Minutes to ask Warren Buffet why he recently made a large investment in Exxon Mobil and what is actually in the portfolios of others featured in your segment. What investments and businesses throw off all this money that our tax laws shelter for philanthropists and foundations to give away?
Students in the 350.org campaign want their university endowments to divest from fossil fuels. What percentage of grants go to self-aggrandizing donations to high-profile buildings, “think tanks” and policy organizations with special interest agendas? You could invite Robert Monks, author of Citizens DisUnited to explore fully.
In today’s fragile US economy, we still have millions of long-term unemployed, short-changed workers struggling for living wages, shrinking pensions, 401ks, savings and continuing home foreclosures. Yet, many philanthropists who have signed the “Giving Pledge” still donate to policy think tanks that urge further cuts in social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other safety nets. Some oppose increases in the minimum wage even to offset its loss of purchasing power due to past inflation.
For example, Giving Pledge signer Peter Peterson, whose wealth comes largely from tax-favored private equity, funds organizations and even public campaigns focused on deficits so as to cut “entitlements.” Signers John and Laura Arnold’s money came from energy trading at Enron and hedge fund Centaurus Advisors. Their foundation’s $725 million focuses on pension “reform” – prompting push-back from labor unions (Institutional Investor, Nov. 23, 2013, p. 38-9). All this is key to our political polarization and the deeper politics of money-creation itself.
Meanwhile, our Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation takes on pension liabilities shed by many re-structured corporations, with only 20% still offering employees defined benefit pensions. The AFL-CIO’s Damon Silvers notes “billionaires fund attacks on public pensions for the same reason they fund attacks on Social Security. They don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes” (Institutional Investor, Nov. 23, 2013, p. 39).
Now this last leg standing of that “3-legged stool” of US retirement, as 401ks and private pension fail, may be supported by the bill to raise Social Security from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-CA), co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
This not only addresses inequality and fairness, but maintaining aggregate demand in our US economy (70% supported by consumption). As I noted in “Facing Up to Inequality,” adequate consumer purchasing power is essential to buy the cornucopia of goods and services pouring out of our economy.
I believe that today’s economic problems are structural in the great global transition from the fossil-fueled Industrial Era to the fast-growing Solar Age of more equitable, distributed benefits of the cleaner, knowledge-rich societies of the global green economy.
Charlie, wouldn’t all this be a good topic for one of your shows?