In last Sunday’s New York Times, Times writer Alessandra Stanley had the lead op-ed, explaining the changing face of American philanthropy and arguing that those changes are rooted in the economic dominance of the tech industry.
For the most part, it’s a pretty good piece—but the beginning seems a little extreme and out of context. Stanley presents the theories of reform and philanthropy that many tech entrepreneurs adopt, in a pretty clear way. She also presents arguments against those theories. That is entirely reasonable. She presents arguments against the theories, both in their own terms (logical and empirical objections, that kind of thing), and in the terms used by rival theories of philanthropy. This is reasonable, as well. As you’d expect from newspaper journalism, she attributes these objections to her sources (she doesn’t come up with her own, which would be inappropriate). This is reasonable.
And yet: It causes the piece to suffer from two flaws. One: It presents what should be a discussion of ideas as if it were just a contest between two different groups of people with different opinions. What’s at issue isn’t just “group A feels this way but group B feels that way, and it’s interesting from a news point of view that they can’t agree,” but that’s what reporting like this inevitably conveys. But also: The groups presented by the piece don’t match up. The dispute, as presented here, is asymmetrical. Stanley has matched leaders of philanthropical foundations—experts in philanthropy—against people who donate to philanthropical foundations—people who rely on experts in philanthropy to tell them what the best arguments are. Since the setup is lopsided from the start, the article inherently takes the side of one group over the other.
The first part of the piece is basically straightforward reporting about a lot of disparate things that are being done and said by important, wealthy people within the West Coast tech world. However, this reporting is not evenhanded. This section of the piece discusses, on equal terms, the actions of the Gates Foundation and tweets that (entirely seriously?) propose AirBnb as a path out of poverty. It includes things like, “they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.” It holds people involved up to ridicule, quoting CEO wives from a New York Times “Style” Magazine article on each other’s charity work, and pointing out that the husband of one of them is accused of failing to accomplish the results he’d promised, and of lying about whether he’d done so. The latter part of the piece consists of a string of criticisms from people involved in philanthropy in other parts of the country or the world, and from academic experts. The impression left is that there’s no merit in any of the ideas presented in the first half of the article, but that those ideas are simply crazy and were dreamed up out of whole cloth by tech entrepreneurs who don’t know their own limitations. Stanley writes as if those techies’ ideas were the inventions of people out of touch with the long history of Western philanthropy, and of academic thought about it.
That’s undoubtedly the case for some of them. But these articles on effective altruism in the Boston Review were not written by techies and were not written about techies’ ideas. These represent an important vein of thought in academic ethics these days—not the only one, of course, but an important one—and are taken seriously in several parts of the political spectrum (though probably rejected outright with greater frequency among conservatives than on the left). And these ideas aren’t the province only of Ph.D. experts in philanthropical theory, either. They’re not an obscure school of thought, or a radical one, or one only a few years old. These ideas are widely circulated among ordinary educated people, the kind of people who read generalist journals like Boston Review.
It’s a bit peculiar to see liberals criticizing others for taking an “engineering” approach to social change, when the charge of “social engineering” is a standard one parts of the right currently make against liberals who push for reform; and it’s peculiar to see the case for reform made alongside the suggestion that “wealth redistribution” is allied with the religious practice of individual charitable donations or “tithing” rather than institutional change.
There is, in fact, some context in the article, but it’s political rather than intellectual or ideological. Silicon Valley has come into conflict with local reformers and activists in San Francisco and the surrounding area. This is perhaps a good enough reason to frame the piece as Stanley has done. On the other hand, only some of those conflicts have much to do with the way tech entrepreneurs do philanthropy. Others are really more like community coexistence issues, which can’t be addressed directly if the focus remains on comparative theories of global philanthropy. (The reverse is also true. Showing how poorly tech companies have sometimes treated their neighbors will do absolutely nothing to discredit the CEOs’ ideas or those ideas’ originators.)
It seems that the simplest explanation of what’s going on here is, as it is so frequently, “neoliberalism.” Ideas about global philanthropy and reform—filtered through suitable journalistic outlets, like the Boston Review, the New York Times, and TED Talks—are taken up by people who’ve already made a lot of money in the system, want to consider themselves right-thinking, and are looking for a way to do some good. Yet those ideas, predictably enough, offer only a limited challenge to the system itself. Most tech CEOs aren’t looking to present an enormous challenge to the status quo (except in their small area of expertise), and initiatives presented by CEOs aren’t in any essential way challenging. Others who might want to present initiatives for change—activists, the poor, minorities, the homeless and their advocates, and other oppressed groups—are left with the option of vocal protest and attempts to wield the tools of partisan politics and its related institutions. This is true of previous generations of philanthropists, as well as new ones, and is probably always going to be the case when the question is asking rich and powerful people to lend their money and their name to social causes.
In reaching for preexisting narratives to structure her reporting, Stanley not only reinforces those narratives, but lends them more weight than they should have in the actual context. She presents old-style philanthropy as the ally of activists and the poor, leaving an impression that they’re more on board with radical change than they actually are, and describes a conflict within philanthropy as a dispute over whether or not—not how—to help the domestic poor. She suggests that the old way of thinking about philanthropy is warm and human, while the new style is excessively rational and computer-like, drawing on yet further narratives that imply science is harmful and scientists should have less influence on the public sphere. She presents her narrative as a simple rewording of the opinions of experts, but in reality she’s arguing that people should ignore the most recent thinking of those experts, and stick to the tried and true. And she suggests that philanthropy could be “fixed” by eliminating the influence of one group who shouldn’t get to have a say, or at least by asking that group to subordinate their actions to what she presents (probably inaccurately) as “traditional.”