Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Too Much or Too Little?

In a provocative working paper prepared for the Washington Legal Foundation, and discussed recently at the fall meeting of Giving USA Foundation my colleagues Suzanne Garment and Les Lenkowsky - scholars at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University - attempt to make the case that " ... [w]e are witnessing the most aggressive challenge in 80 years to the idea that the private sector is largely capable of running its affairs without government intervention" and that this applies specifically to the non-profit sector (as well as business and finance).

In particular Suzie and Les take on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NRCP) whose recent report Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best: Benchmarks to Assess and Enhance Grantmaker Impact says that "grant-making foundations, supported by federal and state tax subsidies - have generally proved inadequate or unwilling to meet the charitable obligations tax breaks are supposed to stimulate." Put another way foundation dollars are, NRCP asserts, "partially public dollars." But are they? Les and Suzie argue they are not and particularly assail the notion that foundations have failed to serve the needy, an idea that they say is not "easily" verifiable.

Citing other scholarly investigations Suzie and Les conclude that [the claim] "that foundations are not doing enough for the underserved should be greeted skeptically" and refute NCRP's argument that "generous tax subsidies ... make the government and the public partners with philanthropists" because this concept does not rest on historical or legal fact but is simply a political fig leaf. Their paper Public Philanthropy?: The Unpersuasive Case for More Government Control - the basis for a forthcoming book - is I believe a long shot in the national dialogue.

A few days following the Foundation meeting another colleague, and old friend, Pablo Eisenberg a scholar at Georgetown University (and founder of the Center for Community Change) opined in the Wall Street Journal. Pablo has exactly the opposite view and he takes on foundation and individual giving frontally: "Much of current philanthropic giving, by foundations and individuals, neither meets the needs of our charitable organizations nor addresses some of our most urgent public needs." Re foundations Pablo's arguments boil down to [1] getting foundations to increase their payouts (from the required 5% to a higher minimum) and [2] much greater accountability in partial justification for the tax subsidies they enjoy as a matter of public policy.

I have been thinking about this coincidental juxtaposition of opposite scholarly opinion for the past few weeks. In some personal ways I am a left wing libertarian; call it my savage side: I detest the role of government in purely private business, e.g. reproductive choice. And I am preternaturally anti-authoritarian (i.e. my wife says I'm an eight year old): In practice I rarely work professionally for a sub-division of government.

Like you I am living through, and been much affected by, the recession to which the government, in my view, has delivered too little too late. The nearly trillion dollars put out so far has dripped down slowly and benefited the least needy the most. To many economists, viz Paul Krugman of the Times, the feds have done about half of what will be ultimately needed.

In the end I am intrigued by the intellectual position set out by Suzie and Les. because it confronts and contravenes the conventional view. But in my opinion they're wrong at the working level. I agree with them, in theory, that we don't need more government control. But for me it's hard to escape the idea that in this day and in this hour we need more - not less - from government!

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