A plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, 'wealth' + κράτος, kratos, 'rule') or plutarchy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income.Here's plutocrat:
A person whose power derives from their wealth.Interesting... perhaps my title is not that misleading after all because here's where my title comes from...
Towards the end of Captain America: Civil War there's the quote "The futurist, gentlemen! The futurist is here! He sees all! He knows what's best for you, whether your like it or not."No, I'm not going to talk to you about Tony Stark. Not even now when it's kind of relevant (early August around when Infinity War made it to home release) let alone when this is being published (mid-September). What I want to talk about is the potential of the super-rich to take transformative actions in society today. So let's get into it...
|David Koch by Gage Skidmore|
I don't know too much about what the Koch brothers actually do. Their interest in libertarian and Republican causes does suggest that I wouldn't care for those activities. At least, not all of them. But this isn't why the Koch brothers aren't really what I mean by transformative impact. I'm sure they've used their wealth to achieve some stuff they find to be fairly meaningful. Some of it might even be pretty transformative. But, to me, the Koch brothers are just campaign donors. They do more than that, as you can read, but that's the archetype of plutocrat I want them to represent.
The archetype that Trump represents is not celebrity wealth (see below) but plutocrat as politician. Yes, Trump is undeniably a media personality. Referencing the cameo in Home Alone 2 (it's real) is fairly facetious but his role in the Apprentice is really the only reason I know who he is. Well, until he became a birther leader and, soon after that, a Republican politician. And... as you can probably guess from the vitriol I've thrown Andrew Little's way, I'm not a fan of Trump. But he's done something eminently respectable... he's gone out there and got involved in politics. More people need to do that.
But I'm not really talking about wealthy politicians.
|Oprah Winfrey by Alan Light|
Celebrity Wealth is always an interesting question. In some ways the appropriate currency here isn't money but followers. And certainly in her heyday Winfrey had that. Given all the talk about her Trumping it up some years ago and gunning for US president, she's probably still got it. So if it's not money that matters with celebrities and I'm obviously pretty dismissive of philanthropy why have a celebrity wealth archetype of the plutocrat? And the answer is that it's precisely because I have to ask this question. People look at America's 2016 election and talk about celebrity as a feature of the Democratic campaign.
Money is just another currency. And when celebrities have money as well as fame, they can do more than just guide opinions or represent a target lifestyle. This is an important category of analysis.
|Elon Musk by Steve Jurvetson|
You see, the thing with Musk is that he's all show and no go. Most of what people know him for is just media spin... he was pretty lucky with PayPal and he's been riding that wave ever since. And most of the media spin, come to think of it, exists simply because of Musk-spin. But this kind of character is important because they trade on the ideas of "Great Man" historiography... the idea that the right person, at the right time with the right idea can change everything. The world doesn't work like this but because people think like this you can get a lot done.
Musk has put a lot of ideas out there and because it was him doing that, people listened. But unlike the celebrity plutocrat (which Musk has shades of) the self-proclaimed transformer has credibility in technical matters. And that credibility is hard to erode.
Musk is alternatively an example of the industrial messiah plutocrat. I didn't run with that because it's less spicy and I don't like Musk (obviously). The point here is that airtime can be given to people based on being very successful in business, at least when they are at the forefront of the age (it's hard to imagine, say, an Oil Baron doing the rounds in the way Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates do today).
|Bill Gates (left) and Andrew Carnegie (right) from GeekWire's Article|
If you're thinking it's odd to juxtapose what amounts to an insult (plutocrat) next to a compliment (philanthropist) remember that I wrote this, remember that opening Tony Stark appraisal (also click on the philanthropist link) and read this from a GeekWire comparison of Gates and Carnegie:
But the field of philanthropy has gotten more sophisticated and more controversial over time, with critics calling out the tremendous wealth disparity that fuels the sector, allowing the rich to wield unaccountable, unchecked power through their donations.
“That’s clearly become something that a lot of critics are concerned about,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “When you have wealth that is as big as a small country’s economy, should you be allowed to influence things that much without democracy?”Philanthropy is power. Never forget that.
At the same time, donating money is often basically just like throwing it into the void. It can help people in the moment out a lot but it doesn't lead to meaningful change. What you need to do, if you can donate at scale, is target some sort of system. But when you do that, well, that's when you get to this democracy point being raised here. Andrew Carnegie is the closest example I know of this... without getting into the difference between philanthropy and philanthropic imperialism and colonialism. Here's what I mean via another comparison article:
Carnegie and Rockefeller were pioneers in bricks-and-mortar philanthropy. After Carnegie sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan in 1901, he plowed his nine-figure fortune into limestone. He built the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institution in Washington and seeded the nation with more than 2,800 libraries. "His focus was to uplift humanity, and libraries for him were the best way to reach the broadest spectrum of the people," said Peter Krass, author of "Carnegie."Carnegie's libraries weren't just built in the US either: there are a couple in NZ, for instance. And, in fact, they were what drew my attention to Carnegie as a philanthropist in the first place... as part of an economics internal I did some research on libraries. Actually, with the controversy about economists and libraries of late, that internal might make for relevant reading here. Hmm... would probably be best if I could remember why I only got Achieved for it, I'll think about it. Anyway, the second article's main thrust is the different, less material, approach taken by Gates:
"They're giving money to school systems and telling them to restructure, to reduce the size of their schools," Professor Frumkin said.
The Gates Foundation has given more than $100 million to New York City's public school system alone, to encourage the creation of smaller schools within existing school buildings. The foundation says its programs currently touch about 8 percent of the nation's public high schools.This is more concerning, to my mind... as in it gets a lot closer to cutting across democratic processes. Think about it.
|A Memorable Cartoon by Rod Emmerson|
Take up the White Man's burden —
The savage wars of peace —
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
I mean, if you think that doesn't sound anything at all like World Vision or Unicef or anyone like that, you need to scrub your ears out. Sure they don't dress up their appeals as a moral duty of "Whites" or colonial masters or use phrases like "half devil and half child" but they do propose a moral duty and they do want to address famine and sickness. If you're still not convinced, read Wikipedia's article on the poem. Notice, particularly, that philanthropic, strategic and financial imperialism are not mutually exclusive or even contradictory. It might be said, in fact, that back in the days of Empire, people believed the only way you could address things like famine and sickness was imposing an entire structure on an area... and that they were okay with all that entailed.
But we were talking about Bill Gates. And it turns out that we can use Gates as another example of philanthropy gone wrong, from the GeekWire piece:
The Gates Foundation itself has faced criticism over the years. That includes programs delivering dramatic and sometimes unsuccessful changes to public schools and initiatives supporting charter schools. Critics have pushed back on agricultural funding in developing countries that relies on technology-based solutions with less attention to bolstering traditional approaches.I've often wondered why people are so keen to see dramatic changes in education policy. Well, okay, I don't wonder. Most of the people who say such things are in the minority who had bad experiences at school or who have no contact whatsoever with state education (being home or privately schooled... often to the nth generation). What these people don't understand is that if you screw up your policies, you screw over people for their entire lives and their families' lives (often, again, to the nth generation).
|From another Blog.|
So, to recap, what have we covered:
- Philanthropy is power.
- It's got the potential to be highly plutocratic.
- There are lots of different kinds of plutocrat, not just those who rule in a plutocracy.
Which is pretty much the reverse order to how I covered them. And there's a reason for this and that's because what I really wanted to write about is what I'd do if I had the sort of money that Bill Gates or the Koch Brothers do. Hell, Musk is rich enough. So, what would I do with $50 Billion (NZ)?
|Greater Auckland's (transportblog) Congestion Free Network|
THE networked approach to philanthropy recognises that it's hard to make a huge impact on your own, no matter how much money you have. The Gates Foundation gave out $1.3 billion in 2005. With Mr. Buffett's pledges, it will be able to double its philanthropic output, to about $3 billion a year.
That sure sounds like a lot. But it represents only about 1 percent of annual charitable giving in the United States — which was $260.3 billion in 2005, according to Richard T. Jolly, chairman of Giving USA, based in Glenview, Ill. The Gates Foundation has $30 billion in total assets; the National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of $28.6 billion.I told you Trump was a pauper. But I also disagree here. It's just as easy as it ever was to spend your insane wealth in ways that could make a huge impact basically on your own. You've just got to spend it on the right sort of thing. And infrastructure? Infrastructure is forever.
|Early Underground Stations (1860s), Roman Aqueduct (ca. 100; by Bernard Gagnon) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937; by Rich Niewiroski Jr.)|
However, infrastructure spending is far from being free of value judgements: just look at all the hissy fits over the City Rail Link or Light Rail in Auckland. But what I'm suggesting is that these super wealthy individuals look at public transport projects which local and national governments want to build and fund those. It's what I'd do. Or, at least, what I hope I'd do. I could really transform Auckland if I could fund, say, the Light Rail L. Which, strictly speaking, isn't a project democracy is just trying to find the funds for, but I wouldn't pretend to be apolitical about it. I'd make people know that I reached out to AT, NZTA, Auckland Council and the Government specifically in order to implement a particular vision of choice, equity and development.