Tag Archives: Housing

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Against Philanthropy

As Hurricane Victims Freeze, Billionaire Mayor Gives Away $1 Billion to Wealthy Med School

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines over the weekend with his announcement that he has donated $345 million to Johns Hopkins University. Added to his previous donations, the media baron has given his alma mater over $1 billion – the largest charitable contribution to an educational institution in US history.

Bloomberg received plaudits for his generosity by the usual media sycophants. Along with death and taxes, another thing you can count on is being told to be grateful when masters of the universe give away some of their loot (even if none of it goes to you.) As pundits fawned, thousands of New Yorkers – residents of Queens whose homes got damaged by superstorm Sandy – were shivering under blankets in heatless homes in 15° weather because restoring electricity and housing storm victims isn’t one of the mayor’s top priorities.

Disgusting.

This was a man, New Yorkers remember, who wanted the mayoralty so badly that he subverted the people’s will, bribing and bullying the City Council into overturning term limits passed by an overwhelming majority so that he could keep the job a third term.

No one should claim that he didn’t want responsibility for those poor cold slobs out in the Rockaways.

If there’s anything more nauseating than watching this rich pig bask in the glow of his philanthropy while the citizens he is tasked with caring for turn into popsicles, it’s the failure of anyone in the system – columnists, local TV anchor people, even Bloomberg’s political rivals – to call him out. For $345 million the mayor could have put his city’s storm victims up at the Four Seasons for years.

Bloomberg’s donation to one of the wealthiest universities on earth, with an endowment of $2.6 billion, serves to remind us that philanthropy is evil.

You could argue that generous rich people are better than cheap rich people. And if you like the way things are, with the gap between rich and poor at record levels and spreading – you’d be right. But most people are not happy with our winner-take-all economy.

No one deserves to be rich. And no one should be poor. Everyone who contributes to society, everyone who works to the best of their skills and abilities, deserves to earn the same salary. Of course, I realize that not everyone adheres to such basic Christian – er, communist – principles. (Anyone who denies that Jesus was a commie never cracked open a Bible.)

But most people – certainly most Americans – agree there’s a line. That too much is too much. People like Michael Bloomberg and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates may have worked hard and created products that consumers purchased in great numbers – but no one can work $25 billion hard (Bloomberg’s estimated net worth). There aren’t that many hours in the day; the human skull doesn’t contain enough synapses; no idea is worth that much.

One of the big problems with charitable giving is that it mitigates the injustice of inequality: sure, maybe it’s a little crazy that Bloomberg has 11 luxurious homes while people are starving to death and sleeping outside, but at least he’s generous. He’s giving it away. The implication, that the chasm between rich and poor isn’t that bad, is a lie. It’s also evil: If inequality isn’t that bad, it’s not important to talk about – much less fix.

“For many people, the generosity of these individuals who made so much money eliminates the problem that wealth poses, inequality poses, in the society,” says Robert Dalzell, author of “The Good Rich and What They Cost Us.” “We tend to conclude that such behavior is typical of the wealthy, and in fact it’s not…This whole notion of ‘the good rich’ I think reconciles us to levels of inequality in the society that in terms of our democratic ideology would otherwise be unacceptable.”

It’s better for society when rich people are unlikeable jerks like Mitt Romney. Knock over old ladies, stiff the waitress, talk with a pretentious fake British 19th-century accent, install a car elevator. Bad behavior by our elite oppressors hastens the revolution.

Bloomberg’s billion-dollar gift to a school that doesn’t need a penny illustrates the inherent absurdity of capitalism: aggregating so much wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals. It’s obscene and morally reprehensible to allow a disproportional share of resources to fall under the control of the arbitrary whims of a few quirky rich dudes.

Why should National Public Radio, which received a $200 million bequest by the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, get all that cash while the Pacifica radio network – more avant-garde, better politics – teeters on the edge of bankruptcy? It’s nice that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation fights AIDS in Africa, but who are Bill and Melinda Gates to decide that AIDS in Africa is worse than, say, diarrhea, which kills more people? It’s amusing to hear that the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune gave $100 million to an obscure poetry journal – but again, people are sleeping outside. Why not musicians? Or cartoonists?

People are dying because they can’t afford treatment by a doctor. People have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit and executed because they couldn’t afford a competent lawyer to defend them.

If a government agency were allocating public funds based on the personal whims of its director, there would be a scandal. Under the veil of “philanthropy” billions of dollars that could help millions of people are being spent in a haphazard manner – and we’re supposed to applaud because it’s up to the “private sector”?

In an ideal world no one would have that kind of power. We’d be as equal as the Declaration of Independence declares us to be. We’d make decisions about who to help and what problems to try to fix collectively. The most unfortunate people and the worst problems would get helped first –long before Johns Hopkins.

Our world isn’t perfect. But it is our duty to do everything in our power to make that way. Toward that end, billionaires like Michael Bloomberg ought to have their assets confiscated and redistributed, whether through revolutionary political change or – for the time being – high taxes.

If we can’t pull off nationalization or truly progressive taxation, if we are too weak, too disorganized and too apathetic to form the political movements that will liberate us, the least we should do is to denounce “generous” acts of philanthropy like Michael Bloomberg’s for what they are: arbitrary and self-serving attempts to deflect us from hating the rich and the inequality they embody.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Cats and Dogs

I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles).

This week: Under a bill approved by the California legislature and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, landlords who allow pets in their buildings cannot advertise in a way that discourages cats with claws or dogs that bark.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Some Weasels Are More Equal Than Others

Liberal BS on Income Inequality

Everyone talks about income inequality, but no one does anything about it.

Lately they’ve been talking more than ever.

“The United States is the rich country with the most skewed income distribution, ” Eduardo Porter asserts in his upcoming book “The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do.”

Porter continues: “According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average earnings of the richest 10 percent of Americans are 16 times those for the 10 percent at the bottom of the pile. That compares with a multiple of 8 in Britain and 5 in Sweden. Not coincidentally, Americans are less economically mobile than people in other developed countries. There is a 42 percent chance that the son of an American man in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will be stuck in the same economic slot. The equivalent odds for a British man are 30 percent, and 25 percent for a Swede.”

For students of history and economics, this is shocking stuff. Europeans came to America in search of opportunity, for a better chance at a brighter future. How can it be that it’s easier to get ahead in Britain—famously ossified, rigidly class-defined Britain?

Yet it’s true. David Leonhardt of The New York Times writes: “Income inequality, by many measures, is now greater than it has been since the 1920s.”

According to Nicholas Kristof, also at the suddenly class-conscious Times, we live in a time of “polarizing inequality” during which “the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent.”

This, we are informed, is bad. Not just for us. Income inequality hurts everybody—including the rich.

Cornell economics professor Robert Frank notes the correlation between financial stress and social dislocation. “The counties with the biggest increases in inequality also reported the largest increases in divorce rates,” reports Frank. Children of divorce are more likely to become a societal burden, committing crimes against everyone, including the wealthy.

Frank argues that our quality of life is suffering across the board due to income inequality. For example, traffic jams are getting worse: “Families who are short on cash often try to make ends meet by moving to where housing is cheaper—in many cases, farther from work. The [U.S.] counties where long commute times had grown the most were again those with the largest increases in inequality.” Everyone sits in traffic, even millionaires.

The “middle-class squeeze,” Frank explains, pressures voters to vote against higher taxes that would support improvements in public infrastructure. We all pay: “Rich and poor alike endure crumbling roads, weak bridges, an unreliable rail system, and cargo containers that enter our ports without scrutiny. And many Americans live in the shadow of poorly maintained dams that could collapse at any moment.”

Is it wrong to giggle at the thought of selfish millionaires being washed away by a flood?

Citing the work of the British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Kristof blames just about every societal ill on income inequality. Among the highlights: infant mortality, drug abuse, teen pregnancies, heart disease, even higher obesity among people who don’t eat more than others. This may be why high-unemployment Michigan has some of the nation’s fattest people. (The hormone cortisol, released when humans are stressed, increases fat retention.)

Porter notes that the income gap is increasing across the spectrum—including among high earners. One study shows that in the 1970s the top ten percent of corporate executives earned twice as much as the average exec. Now they get four times more. “This has separated the megarich from the merely very rich,” he says.

Rising income inequality means trouble. Not just for our waistlines, but for the system that has created the problem: corporate capitalism.

“If only a very lucky few can aspire to a big reward,” Porter warns, “most workers are likely to conclude that it is not worth the effort to try.” That would lead to less legitimate innovation, fewer new businesses. The best and the brightest will conclude, as they have in post-Soviet Russia, that crime is the only economic activity that pays.

So what is to be done?

Here the income-inequality-is-bad crew falls flat on its collective face.

Kristof’s prescription: “As we debate national policy in 2011—from the estate tax to unemployment insurance to early childhood education—let’s push to reduce the stunning levels of inequality in America today.”

Push? How?

Porter’s solution: “Bankers’ pay could be structured to discourage wanton risk taking.” But bankers aren’t the only culprits. How would this restructuring take place? Who would force bankers to accept it?

Frank’s answer: “We should just agree that it’s a bad thing—and try to do something about it.”

Workers of the world, try to do something about uniting!

I’m going to climb out on a limb here: The guys I’ve quoted are all smart. They know exactly what is causing this relentless increase in income inequality. Ruling elites have exploited globalization and technological advances to increase corporate profits through deregulation, union busting, and lobbying for federal subsidies and tax benefits. We’re witnessing exactly what Karl Marx predicted at the dawn of industrialization: capitalism’s natural tendency to aggregate wealth and power in the hands of fewer people and entities, culminating in monopolization so complete that the system finally collapses due to lack of consumer spending.

The pundits are also smart enough to know that there’s only one way to equalize income: revolution.

Increasing riches leads to increasing influence. No matter how nicely we ask, why would the rich and powerful give up their wealth or their power? They won’t—unless it’s at gunpoint.

Nothing short of revolution stands a chance of building a fair society. Not “pushing.” Not “restructuring.” If working within the Democratic Party and the election of Obama prove anything, it’s that reform within the system is no longer a viable strategy for progressives.

We’re way past “trying to do something about it.”

The sooner we start talking about revolution, the closer we’ll be to a non-BS solution to the social and political ills caused by inequality of income.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL