LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When Forbes Magazine first ranked the 400 richest Americans back in 1982, there were 13 billionaires. On the latest list, every single person on the Forbes 400 is a billionaire. America's ultra rich - you know some of them - the Gates, the Kochs, the Waltons, Mercers, just to name a few - they're now donating their dollars like never before and reshaping public policy.
DAVID CALLAHAN: We're seeing just an escalating ideological arms race as more money pours in from wealthy donors across the spectrum.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's David Callahan. He founded the website Inside Philanthropy, and he has a new book called "The Givers: Wealth, Power, And Philanthropy In A New Gilded Age."
CALLAHAN: You know, one wealthy donor, Laura Arnold, told me that, you know, when you open the newspaper in the morning and you see things that you don't like, things that upset you, if you have a foundation, you can do something about it. You can try to solve the problem. You can take action and in a big way. Whereas most of us, we read the newspaper, we're upset. There's not much we can really do about it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is there anything wrong with this? I mean, so there's people out there in the world who want to use their money for what they believe to be good causes. What could possibly be wrong with that?
CALLAHAN: This money, it's coming at a time when most Americans feel disenfranchised. Poll after poll shows that people feel the wealthy have too much power, and now through philanthropy, we're seeing the wealthy harnessing this kind of new form of power. And more and more public policy debates they look kind of like these sort of Greek gods throwing lightning bolts at each other, you know, billionaires on the left and the right as the rest of us watch from the sidelines.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about the political stripes, as you say, these gods throwing thunderbolts at each other. Who, in sheer dollars, gives more, conservative or liberals, and who's more effective with their money?
CALLAHAN: You know, there tends to be a kind of a-la-carte alarmism when it comes to philanthropy. The left likes to complain about the Koch brothers. The right likes to complain about George Soros. All this money is kind of troubling. And there is a lot of it on both sides. It's hard to say who gives more, the left or the right. But I think it's fair to say that the right has been more effective when it comes to shaping economic policy and fiscal policy. They have bankrolled these big think tanks in Washington that look to cut the size of government. The Heritage Foundation now playing a big role in the Trump administration has been financed over years by wealthy donors. The left, meanwhile, has had a lot of success when it comes to advancing social rights. You know, the LGBT rights movement in the last 15 years, I look at Tim Gill, one of the top philanthropists advancing LGBT rights, quite effective in terms of accelerating the move to marriage equality.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I found really interesting in this book when you talk about these mega donors is how they've been making so much money. Even over the last 10 years, you know, their fortunes have increased in the billions. And they put a lot of these profits into charitable foundations, which are essentially tax shelters, and then they use that money to influence policy. Is this an end run around the democratic system in your view?
CALLAHAN: (Laughter) I do think that it's troubling that so many tax deductible dollars now go to influence public policy. If I give a donation to a politician, that's not tax deductible. If I give a donation to a Washington think tank that whispers in the ear of that politician, I can get a tax break. You know, I can get a tax break for giving donations aimed at abolishing the food stamps program just like I might get a tax break for giving to my local, you know, food bank, right? So the IRS makes sort of few distinctions in what is tax deductible giving, and I think that's a problem.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess a cynic would say this is how it's always been. I mean, we are in the new Gilded Age. Is it so different from the previous Gilded Age? Haven't powerful people always influenced the way that this country's run?
CALLAHAN: What's different now is there's more of these people. There's more wealth coming in. There's more billionaire donors with big ideas. There's more money that is trying to seek influence through philanthropy than ever before. And here's the thing - that's going to only get greater because government has been on the decline. We're seeing cuts to all sorts of government agencies that were happening well before Trump came along. As government steps back, private philanthropy steps forward and does so in a lot of different areas. Public education is a great example.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to ask you about public education because you give an example in the book about exactly how these philanthropists have influenced the debate on public education.
CALLAHAN: Yeah, we've seen just a huge influx of resources to create charter schools and to push more choice within our public school system. What people are maybe less familiar with is the role of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and ushering in the Common Core. The Gates Foundation got behind the idea of the Common Core in a big way and more than any single actor in U.S. education really made the Common Core happen. That's an astonishing achievement for private philanthropy. You know, that a wealthy couple like Bill and Melinda Gates can, through giving a few hundred million dollars, shape what is being taught to students across the country really underscores the power of private philanthropy in this age in which we live.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Callahan - he's founder of the website Inside Philanthropy, and he's the author of a new book called "The Givers: Wealth, Power, And Philanthropy In A New Gilded Age." Thanks so much for joining us.
CALLAHAN: Great to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should note, NPR is a recipient of Gates Foundation funding.
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