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We live in a new age of philanthropy. And it has David Callahan worried. More gilded than golden, it has been marked by the accumulation of unimaginably vast private fortunes, conspicuous and self-congratulatory “giving pledges” and unabashed confidence in the power of beneficent billions to fix society’s most intractable problems—even, indeed especially, those democratically elected polities have been unable to solve. Not coincidentally, it has also been dominated by a politics of public austerity and marketized reform, especially in such traditionally philanthropic areas as education, social welfare, and basic scientific research.
However much we might be expected to welcome the prospect of having private billions to make up the slack, Callahan wants us to pay attention to what he sees as a deeper threat. Rather than a tool for democratizing and sharing the fruits of capitalist wealth, he argues, in the new era of billion-dollar fortunes philanthropy has become an extension of the growing concentration of political and cultural power in the hands of an extraordinarily rich, unaccountable and self-appointed civic elite. And the more big philanthropy exercises its influence in policy and public affairs, the more it contributes to the diminished capacity of government, labor unions, political parties, and civic organizations to operate as a countervailing political voice.