Last Monday, Michael Bloomberg released his first annual “Letter on Philanthropy,” detailing his vision for philanthropic giving and reporting on the activities of his multimillion-dollar foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies. Unsurprisingly, much of the letter trades in the vapid "philanthropese" so common to Bloomberg and his plutocratic doppelgängers—talking about "catalysts for social change," the need to "experiment for innovation," and "leveraging resources." But once you clear away the cobwebs of tired jargon the letter is actually helpful, inasmuch as it reveals the deeply disordered presuppositions of modern-day Big Philanthropy.
“I see [philanthropy] as a way to embolden government,” Bloomberg declares in the first paragraph of his letter. Noting with frustration how many politicians and policy-makers “wait for the public” to agree with them before implementing sweeping social policy, Bloomberg claims that mega-philanthropies like his are able to “nudge [politicians] into the toughest battles.” As evidence Bloomberg cites his efforts to ban smoking—a mission that began with his cigarette ban in New York City bars, restaurants, and businesses but has now morphed into a global war on tobacco, with fronts opening up in Uruguay and China. (Now tobacco use can be added to the list of things that are illegal in China, like criticizing the government, giving birth to more than one female child, and Googling “Tiananmen Square.”) Bloomberg also gloats over a newly installed soda tax in Berkeley, California (“a campaign I contributed to personally,” Bloomberg tells us). And in a particularly telling moment of tone-deafness, the billionaire ex-mayor proudly boasts of having closed down 180 coal plants in the United States (plants whose now-unemployed workers, I’m sure, used to enjoy a smoke and a soda after a hard day’s work).
Mayor Mike knows best, it seems, and when the filthy plebs bitterly cling to their Big Gulps and Camels, he’s there to "leverage resources" and provide a "catalyst for social change." He pays no credence to the idea that, for instance, New Yorkers’ unwillingness to ban smoking reflected some real ambivalence among the voting public, who recognized the harmful effects of cigarettes but were at least as uncomfortable with the idea of quarantining the smokers among them. Such organic patterns of political inaction are, for Bloomberg and his foundation, nothing more than roadblocks on the path to a more enlightened future. “We work to identify problems that . . . are too easily accepted as social or cultural norms,” says Patricia Harris, Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO, in the same Letter on Philanthropy; thus philanthropy becomes a way for elites to displace existing “cultural norms,” instead of a natural outgrowth of a civil society trying to preserve such norms.
“Governments have the authority to drive change in ways that philanthropic organizations cannot,” Bloomberg writes; “governments represent our best hope for making broad-based societal change.” But he fails to realize that governments only derive their authority from the just consent of the governed—to speak of a government’s “authority” to act over against the stated will of the people is to describe varying shades of tyranny. But of course, Bloomberg is drawing on a tradition of progressive thought that never much valued consent. Woodrow Wilson, in “Socialism and Democracy,” asks why the government doesn’t “lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control.” The good technocrat, according to Wilson, should be willing to “superintend every man’s use of his [own] chance [i.e., his agency].”
Bloomberg, who New York Magazine has described as an “autocrat for the people,” seems perfectly content with this vision of state-sanctioned paternalism.
And it’s not just his idiosyncratic brand of infantilizing health hang-ups that make Bloomberg’s vast influence so problematic—he also actively funds civic art projects that have introduced ugliness into the daily lives of millions of citizens in some of the world’s most important cities. The Letter on Philanthropy states that, “Art can bring vibrancy and growth to communities, revitalize neighborhoods, and make cities more appealing to visit and live in.” Put aside the total subordination of art to politics in this formulation, and consider the types of projects that Bloomberg has chosen to support. He cites three specifically in the letter: Dazzle Ship, a strange unhistorical defacement of the WWI Q-ship HMS President docked on the Thames; Big Bambu, a violent jumble of wood in Jerusalem named after a Cheech & Chong album; and We the People in New York, which literally deconstructs a replica of the Statue of Liberty and scatters the pieces throughout New York City green space. Click through the above links and look at these pieces. It remains far from clear how these scenes “bring vibrancy and growth to communities” or “make cities more appealing to live in.” Civic art is a serious concern, and Bloomberg’s money could be put to good uses supporting art projects that ennoble and inspire. Instead, millions of dollars are being poured into fuzzy brutalism and ironic deconstructionism.
Such an approach to philanthropy as Michael Bloomberg lays out in his Letter on Philanthropy short-circuits the normal processes of representative government and foists toxic ideas upon an unsuspecting populace. Bloomberg is fond of saying that philanthropy is about “empowering individuals and communities to take charge of their futures.” Unless, of course, those people and communities want to chose policies or values Michael Bloomberg finds offensive or distasteful.
In that case, he’ll be all too happy to make a better choice on their behalf.