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August 05, 2007


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Maya (The New Jew)

Sounds good to me, GiftHub.

Thanks for quoting me.


I look forward to following your blog.


In an optimally "just" world, is there such a thing as philanthropy? I don't mean a perfect world, only an optimal one - a world where people stop their fantasizing about, or striving towards the impossible and accept present reality.

Is there anything in Rawls on that?


"The poor you shall have will you always." As one of my favorite philanthropic planning people said that remark by Jesus has the force of an observation, not a command. In Eden, maybe, there was no need for charity, nor in heaven either. Rawls talks about justifying change, or a new law, by asking if it will lift those who have least. Even so the least may have not much. Optimal gets into how big a pie and also how it is shared. At that point fights seem to break out among theorists. Is optimal, equal shares of a small pie, or unequal shares of a bigger one? And so on.


Peering into the future, Jesus endorsed the philanthropic present.


I don't know much about Jesus or the Bible, but when I Googled for the "the poor are always with..." etc., I read that to myself as if whoever wrote it was saying that Jesus was representing the "impossible," so you should pour that oil on, and not be afraid that you're wasting it, and the reference to the "poor are always with ye" is just like some kind of Jesus codespeak meaning it's bad to capitulate to the present situation. It seems kind of fucked up to me that somebody in philanthropy would say that Jesus was just making a true observation about real life, and use that to convince themselves that everything was alright with the way things are going.


To follow on a comment in another thread, the missing money isn't because there isn't any, after all, there are Ferengi around in latter series. It is because they all work for the same firm. Markets are there, they are just for trading with outsiders. Note also the ubiquitous military command hierarchy for control.

But back to this thread. The context is whether to expend a resource (pour on the oil), to share and experience a luxury, or to save it and convert it to resources for the needy. He is saying that doing so won't eliminate poverty, he is saying that it is ok to share some luxuries among friends, or a feast, etc.

He also said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. In these biblical passages, I think that poverty and riches are not so much physical descriptions as a description of mental state and separation.

Was Diogenes impoverished? Does anyone who meets Tracy Gary or the other philanthropic exemplars feel like they are meeting a "rich person"? Yes, the economy will always create disparity or outcomes, but if the resources are allowed to flow freely to where they need to be whether you call these transfers gifts, philanthropy or something more neutral like social supports. The question is why accumulation? What rights are concentrated with wealth and is that even desirable? The gifts of a gift economy seem like a much more equitable way of dealing with the disparities that are systematic for any economic system. With wealth comes the responsibility of allocating capital for investments vs. consumption. The real question is whether this is exclusively personal consumption or do you define family more broadly and share fellowship across class lines.


Take poverty and ask is the solution
- jobs driven by business sector
- public policy with transfer payments
- public education and traing
- charity among the poor
- philanthropy from rich to poor
- religion to teach the poor work ethics
- prison to motivate them
- army to employ
- lower minium wage to get them off the dole

These questionars are systemic. Unfortunately, the most creative and bright people who seem to obsess over these issues are not John Rawl's heirs, but those of Hayek and Ayn Rand at the Conservative Think Tanks. The trend is towards less public policy solutions, and more peer to peer self help. Philanthropy for the poor is just a tiny sliver of the philanthropic pie, most of which goes to universities, museums, orchestras, pets, and hospitals, things from which the rich themselves benefit. "The meek shall inherit the world"

Maya (The New Jew)

Why does philanthropy have to be about helping the poor? That's one component, for sure, but it's the baseline.

Philanthropy, philo and anthro (or their equivalent) is about love of people, love of one another. If we raise another, then we also raise ourself by contributing to a better world. (I'm sounding starry eyed, but I truly believe it.)

I don't know that "just" has anything to do with it. Is rising above poverty or any kind of similar injustice a fantasy or an impossible dream? Is our socioeconomic background our ultimate station in life to which we are permanently assigned?
I'm interested to hear your thoughts further.


As long as there is significant economic disparity in this nation and the world, then the issue of justice is central. Note Phil's list, each of them comes with a set of values, moral judgments, etc. If you really attack root causes and create a transformation in the economic sphere, poverty can become a thing of the past.

It's about justice not just for human beings, but for the human beings as part of a living world. There is no question we are transforming the planet, the question is are we killing it and will we stop in time.

No, philanthropy isn't about the poor, it is about all of us. No, we aren't our social status, but we live in a very stratified world.

This drift came from Saluk's question about an optimally just world. I would think we would have moved up the hierarchy of needs, and philanthropy wouldn't have the kind of marked status crossing it does today.

My imaginings of an optimally just world would likely involve a significant gift economy, and much of what we fund with philanthropy today would function differently. More gifts would be flowing than the value of market transactions, so you wouldn't say it was dead, but invisible. Accumulation of monetary wealth would be passe.


Is optimal justice equality of outcomes? As Marx and Engels put it: "From each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her need." That might be how it is in a loving family. Is it how we want it in society? Is that fair? For the low contribution person to make what the high contribution person does? What incentive then do we have to raise ourselves? Or is fair related to contribution, to merit? Is fairness built into the rules, so that we seek fairness of starting point and equality of opportunity? I personally gravitate to that. I believe at the end of a Monopoly game we put the money back in the box. Hence we need a high estate tax. Otherwise we end up with blue blood and dynasties. Likewise I resonate with Rawls's criterion for public policy: Enact policies that leave the worst off better off. That view was replaced with trickle down economics, and so far the trickle has not been much while the torrent of benefits to those who have most has grown, and with it their control of our government through lobbying, think thanks, and the revolving door between private and public and philanthropic high level jobs.


I don't expect equality of outcomes, but we don't even have a reasonably level playing field.

I've been reading Lester Thurow, "The Future Favors the Bold", and he spends a lot of time talking about the instabilities of capitalism, and that we have bubbles and crisis all the time, and Americans seem to be better at clearing the decks and starting over. He talks about Japan's current problems and how they are stuck with a lot of bad debt and have no process to clear it. We clear it, but all the chips end up in a few hands. Is that fair? I can't see how it can be. Whey don't the rest of us ever get a break? What I come away with is that so much is arbitrary (what you can get through with your lobbyists), so why not just "put the money back it the box and reset?

I'm actually saying something more radical in the above post. I'm saying that if the system is basically equitable, so that anyone working hard and playing by the rules can do ok for themselves and their family; in this context we could develop a robust gift economy that does the important things we expect from philanthropy. It provides a safety net for those who don't make it, or for whatever reason cannot be as productive as their peers, it provides for the arts, education and cultural pursuits of all kinds, and for science and research. Everyone would have enough to support what they are passionate about, and there would be no need to beg wealthy patrons for alms. That's what I would like to see. Is it practical? I think so, but it might be hard to establish the conditions that get it started in that direction.


Maya raised an interesting question: "Why does philanthropy have to be about helping the poor?"

Maybe it's a chicken and egg problem. What if philanthropy was precedent to the poor, and the question of "the poor" never arose until some proud person decided he wanted to help the "less fortunate?" Then you could say that philanthropy was producing the poor in order to help them. Then you could ask more accurately, "Why does philanthropy have to be about creating the poor?"

If philanthropy is about love, what sense can you make of a post like "Philanthropy’s Emotional Connection: 3 Ways to Harness the Power of Donor Emotions" - which suggests philanthropy is about harnessing power? My naive understanding is that love does not wear a harness, wealth bondage notwithstanding.

Gerry, I don't think Jesus was saying "it's OK to waste rare medicinal herbal ointment imported at great expense from India on your friends just because they are your friends when otherwise you could make steep prophet off of the poor folks who are jonesing for its sedative properties." I think whoever wrote that was saying that it's okay to splurge because Jesus was "out of time" - not just personally because the bad people were about to kill him, but because he was literally "out of time," a disturbance of the temporal, a still point of a turning wheel, and he was saying, when he said the poor are always with ye, that "always" was tainted by temporality, not that it's "natural" that there are always poor people.

Or something like that.


Do the poor have a moral right to alms?
To social programs?
To restitution?
Time was when that case was made, within living memory. Not anymore. Hence philanthropy shows up as a hot topic at Hudson. It closes the last door in an airtight system. Giving to the poor is voluntary. Knock yourself out, but it is bad for them, bear that in mind. Makes them dependent. Our obligation is to live well in order to motivate the poor to emulate our moral example. That is the greatest gift we can give.

No way to refute that picture, what you can do is to mimic it in such a way as to create a moral grotesque.


No way to refute that picture, what you can do is to mimic it in such a way as to create a moral grotesque.

I say do both. You can refute it, and we have in this and other blog conversations. One plays off against the other as well, on the one hand spotlighting hypocrisy of the leaders, and the other laying out the intellectual foundations of a just system.


I wonder how you would create such a foundation. In science the practitioners know how new truths are demonstrated and integrated into the knowledge bank, but in the social/political spheres it is contested. The interest money fueled sound bite debates are obviously disfunctional, but how would you construct civic spaces where these ideas and their advocates could encounter each other. This cannot be a winner take all battlefield, opponents must find a way to at least accommodate each other.


Bait the think tank thinkers into an open forum. Inviting them to blog conversations has not worked too well. They come read the talking points in response to civil questions, respond to questions in generalities and talking points, and return home to write the next series of polemics to be published in the trade press. Breaking the frame and spilling the contents into the streets is a cruel strategy and will be resisted by those ensconced in their little business models, hierarchies and squirearchies. Polite well educated people knowingly and unknowingly doing the work of darkness unchallenged. So, we loiter with intent around a Dumpster, like Diogenes, challenging the passing Sophists to a winner take all contest of wits in real time, in the most open of spaces. They know better than to take the bet.


I don't know much about economics, but when I looked up "Gift Economy" in Wikipedia and half-read the article they have about it, the first thought that popped into my head is that "gift economy" is just a nice-sounding phrase that appeals to people who would be scared of other phrases like "abolish private property." If you abolished private property, then the whole question of alms would be moot. That's why there's no philanthropy in Cuba, for instance. So "gift economy" sounds to me like not so much a radical alternative - despite its Kropotkinian associations - but more like just another strategy to make sure things stay just the way they are at the present, except with a sugary, tastier glaze. I suppose that's okay for some people, but I don't like sweets, on account of my bad teeth.


Saluk, if you got with the program you could get dental insurance. Waiting for the abolition of personal property may not keep you from going toothless. After the Rapture who gets the stuff of the Rapture Ready Christians? Their heirs, maybe, but what if the kids are raptured too? That might be your time to advance the idea of a Communal Utopia, amidst the ruins.


You're saying that you're not in the midst of the ruins now? That's a peculiar form of nihilism to say the least!


Ruins, yes, but at pre-Rapture prices.

Albert Ruesga

Sorry I missed this conversation. I've been in the woods (the Sierras) for a week, a place where it's every mule deer for himself. I'm heading for the trees again in a few hours, but wanted to join in for a bit.

When Jesus said, "For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them," he also added, "But you will not always have me," something I believe the Gospel writers and others after them interpreted as a reminder to attend to matters of the spirit. I feel lucky to have the community of the Blogosphere, where I believe that spirit is nurtured. I recall that when Christ encountered the sick, he healed them. He didn't tell them they were on the wrong end of the bell curve and shouldn't expect handouts from itinerant preachers.

Phil's post was about The New Jew. I've always been impressed by the degree to which the Jewish philanthropic community has embraced social justice issues. The Jewish Fund for Justice is a great modelfor people working in that space.

My own views on distributive justice, which I don't have time to defend, are partly Rawlsian, partly pragmatic. You develop, behind the veil of ignorance, the principles that will govern a just society. As Phil points out, Rawls has taken time to think through the conditions under which wealth inequality should be permitted to arise and exist, and to what degree. Beyond that, I believe there are strong practical arguments for absolute limits on income and personal wealth, but I've gone on too long already.

Warm regards to all. See you on the other side of mosquito heaven.


Thanks, Albert, particularly for the gloss of the biblical passage. Jesus was well-meaning, but a product of his time. We are fortunate that Christianity has evolved to meet our contemporary needs.

Maya (The New Jew)

Saluk (and Gerry and Phil):

Thank you for taking the time to read the entry on donor emotions at my blog. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts, however I think you are taking my phrasing of "harness the power of donor emotions" too literally. Perhaps a better way would have been to say "channel."

I do think philanthropy is about love in its most essential form-- it is about identifying problems affecting humanity on the grandest scale, and communities and individuals on the more practical level.

Although philanthropy and the egg- or was that the chicken (no, just kidding) is an interesting way to look at the question, I don't see it in the same way. People were poor, not having enough to eat or live on far before anyone cared about giving them anything. I don't see ancient fiefdoms with serfs thinking about philanthropy and what was owed or due out of social responsibility.

However, the question of whether the act of giving, in whatever form, creates relationships of dependency which can then manifest in exaggerated forms is certainly an interesting one that I hope to think and talk more about.

In response to your idea about the 'creation of the poor' or impoverished as a social construct, it's a very valid question. If we lived in a "just" or more communal society, poverty, and therefore philanthropy, would not be needed as each would give to each other what help s/he needed as part of that social relationship.

Very interesting. I look forward to hearing your ideas further.





, Maya?


Sure, Maya, if I get around to it. But shorthand, I see the Rawls advocacy here as representing the triumph of - not the prevention of - the importation of postmodern concerns into politics; i.e., Rawls' attempt to cleanse liberalism of any metaphysical taint is very parochial in its misapplication of the continental.


An this.

Maya (The New Jew)


Maimonides ladder: I absolutely agree. That's the difference between charity, which has the potential for (or in the worst case scenario, the intention of) forming relationships of dependency, and philanthropy, which seeks a relationship of empowerment with the goal of sustainability and independence.


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