Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Peter Buffett: Is Charity Nothing More Than 'Conscience Laundering'?

GuiltNew York Times op-ed:  The Charitable-Industrial Complex, by Peter Buffett:

I had spent much of my life writing music for commercials, film and television and knew little about the world of philanthropy as practiced by the very wealthy until what I call the big bang happened in 2006. That year, my father, Warren Buffett, made good on his commitment to give nearly all of his accumulated wealth back to society. In addition to making several large donations, he added generously to the three foundations that my parents had created years earlier, one for each of their children to run.

Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.

But now I think something even more damaging is going on....

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life....

Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.

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"Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex."

This program sounds marginally successful. An increase in the cost of sex should ostensibly curb the spread of AIDS.

Posted by: HTA | Jul 30, 2013 3:11:31 PM

I think that this is a bit extreme, to say that charities don't help. Sure some charities are allowing people to just stay where they are, but others are pushing people to take the next step in their lives and do something with themselves. I think Buffet is just going a bit extreme by saying all charities are just keeping " the existing structure of inequality in place"

Posted by: Joan A | Jul 30, 2013 6:30:42 PM

Worst case scenario - even if the donor had NOTHING BUT selfish reasons for giving, would it be better that the same monies ended up in the hands of our gov't programs for their discretion?
1. It's still his money! And he is parting with it! When you get their, you can then critique him honestly.
2. If he is greedy in his heart, who knows what more positive affect it can have on his children and friends? We all know the three generational curse.
3. Every great institution, hospital, museum, and yes - even the concert halls that Mr Buffet and his peer musicians plan in, were founded by donated wealth.

We must always be sure we walk a mile in someone's shoes before we "cast the first stone".
Societies and communities strengthen via E pluribus unum, while one of Marx's primary principles was the fueling of class warfare.

Posted by: George Cisneros | Jul 31, 2013 6:37:50 AM