- - Wednesday, July 12, 2017




By David Callahan

Knopf, $28.95, 343 pages

David Callahan is worried. He sees America headed toward a period of ever-growing influence by the super rich: a new Gilded Age dominated by men and women of wealth, especially those who are interested in giving away — as well as amassing — their wealth.

“[A]s more megadonors emerge, with any number of grand ambitions, we need to ask much harder questions about the accountability of philanthropy, which operates outside of familiar checks and balances,” he writes, adding that, “[w]hile CEOs can be overthrown by shareholders, and senators rejected by voters, nobody can stop billionaires from using great wealth to push their schemes for society, however misguided.”

There’s a rather obvious reason for this: CEOs are spending their shareholders’ money and senators are spending voters’ tax dollars. Philanthropists are giving away their own money, not somebody else’s. “You may need at least some intelligence and talent to amass great wealth,” Mr. Callahan continues, “but anyone who’s rich can be a major philanthropist regardless of his or her qualifications for this role. And just because you’re good at making money doesn’t mean you’ll be good at giving it away.”

It is at least as true to say that just because politicians are good at raising tax revenue doesn’t mean they’ll be good at spending it. When a philanthropist spends his money foolishly, he’s wasting his own money; when a politician spends foolishly, he’s wasting our money, not his.

This simple truth undercuts the basic rationale behind much of Mr. Callahan’s interesting, well-assembled collection of facts, figures and interviews on the subject of American philanthropy. His book is more valuable for the meticulous details it contains than the ideologically driven conclusions he chooses to draw from them. The subtitle says it all: “Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.”

Before considering the pros and cons of an alleged “New Gilded Age,” it might be helpful to remember what the original one was like. Post-Civil War, 19th century America was a time and place of incredible, dynamic growth and innovation. It was an era when — like today — new technologies revolutionized communications, education, transportation, agriculture and industry. If the Civil War had been the bloody crucible that forged an indissoluble federal union, it was the Gilded Age that saw America emerge as a massive, transcontinental economic power, soon to be the mightiest on earth.

Fortunes were made by the innovators and entrepreneurs who built the railroads that spanned the continent and brought unprecedented mobility to both men and merchandise, and by the pioneering founders of energy and industrial behemoths, some of whom were less than fastidious in the accumulation of their wealth.

But the same robber barons left behind libraries, museums, educational endowments and vast, diverse charitable works of a scale, quality and diversity it is impossible to imagine federal politicians and bureaucrats creating in the first place and then effectively micromanaging from Washington, D.C. forever after.

Just as trust-busting measures and mandated workplace standards curbed the most glaring abuses of the original Gilded Age without destroying the material and social progress it had made possible, ways should and will be found to loosen the monopolistic grip that some of today’s new moguls — people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — hold over the fields they helped to create.

In the meantime, the more generous they want to be with their own surplus wealth the better. I’d rather have them deciding what to do with it than have it confiscated and “redistributed” by a federal bureaucracy that has amply demonstrated its incompetence and irresponsibility when it comes to spending other people’s money.

Mr. Callahan does an excellent job of examining what makes some philanthropies more effective than others, and his book makes for fascinating reading on the subject. But his “progressive” political bias tends to skew his bottom line conclusions. He dreams of a “new era of economic democracy” where, via federal interventions, “ordinary workers” will get “a bigger share of the pie” thanks to “higher taxes on the rich” that would “limit the size of fortunes at the top of our society — along with the philanthropic power that can come with such wealth.”

In short, he would like to replace the new Gilded Age with a new Gelded Age where he and like-minded ideologues can surgically impair the ability of wealthy members of society to share their wealth in the ways they choose rather than in the ways Mr. Callahan wants them to.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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