Tuesday, October 18, 2011


With the poverty rate at 15% in the world's richest nation and with private philanthropy this year (at best) flat this sign on the door of a New York City East Village soup station says it all.

The delivery of basic services to the most vulnerable has always been an uneasy and highly unbalanced partnership between public money and private charity. The majority provider has always been the public side. The idea that private charity can replace government is a long discredited notion that nonetheless has gained new currency (so to speak) in this presidential election cycle.

Republicans and Democrats alike are falling all over themselves in arguing that less government is more and that government is the root of evil. As Occupy Wall Street underscores, government is not the problem except in the sense that Obama inherited eight years of increasing laissez faire among government regulators. The unhappy result is known to all.

Now comes Howard Schultz founder and CEO of Starbucks who has had the simple and possibly loopy idea that with the support of its millions of customers the chain can act as a middleman for delivering micro-loans to American small business. Schultz is very much among the 1% against whom OWS rails, But he demonstrates that not everyone is driven solely by self interest. That this scheme will drive up Starbucks' sales (that fell off during the worst of the recession) is quite unlikely and, call me silly, not his motivation. It is just possible that he is sincere. I am a Starbucks guy, always have been. (Road warriors know to look for a Starbucks as very often it is the only place to buy a New York Times - and enjoy a good if not sublime cuppa).

That one of the country's great banks could have come up with this seems to me obvious. Other than finding new ways to gouge customers in the new ideas department the banks are closed. Until further notice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


On Sunday October 9th we walked down to Zucotti Park, 2 blocks north of Wall Street, and the Occupy Wall Street locus.This movement is catching on not because it's an alternative to the Tea Party but because, far more fundamentally, this country is a mess, our political institutions are a mess, the president's leadership is - to say the least - wanting; a growing number of people, especially young people, see their lives in turmoil and without a lot of good options for the future. That heady brew, not tea, is what the growing protests are all about.

To blame this all on Wall Street is of course a bit simplistic and I know better. But the sad fact is that they got us into this mess and they are still running the economy. Because he was inexperienced Obama did not thoroughly clean house and the unfortunate result of having a Geithner rather than say a Krugman as treasury secretary has, in my view, really worsened the situation.

Peacefully raging against "the interests" is absolutely right on and clearly I am not alone. What's left of the Left is out there. But it's more than Birkenstocks and guitars: the Democrats finally woke up and to the extent they can would like to co-opt the occupation. Organized labor, sidelined for years, has come aboard. Even Ron Paul, that nerdy dyspeptic, was represented by a noisy claque.

The paradox is this: I spend my professional life helping our clients extract from corporations and foundations (whose portfolios are made up of those same companies)as much as they can in charitable gifts. Unfortunately the exchange is far from even. The vast harm that's been done by corporate and individual greed unchecked and lack of any effective brake on the piggery is far greater than the modest sprinkling of money called "corporate philanthropy."

Wall Street may be laughing all the way to the bank. But metaphorically at least it has to cross Zucotti Park to get there. The coming New York winter will inevitably end the Occupation. Until then I"ll stop by occasionally for a reality check.