Posts Tagged ‘my two questions’

Isn’t It Ironic? On “Democratic Capitalism”

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Carl Schramm, head of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has a piece in Forbes arguing philanthropy exists to advance and perfect democratic capitalism. In response, Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, laments that if this is why foundations exist, “could there possibly be a better reason for dismantling the private foundation as an institution?” Ooh, CEO throwdown!

Less flippantly, what’s going unexamined here, I think, is the term “democratic capitalism.” My guess is that Schramm sees that adjective, which goes unexplained, as significant. Capitalism within the context of a democratic system presumably is different than unmodified, raw capitalism. But here’s where I think the difference lies. My hunch is that Ruesga’s image of democracy and Schramm’s may be different in one significant way.

As I’ve written about, and I owe this insight to my mentor Jeff Weintraub, in one respect democracy and the “free” market are fundamentally at odds. The invisible hand of the market aggregates the individual pursuit of self-interest into social welfare (or so the story goes). But this aggregation is strangely delicate. Try intentionally to generate social welfare, and the aggregation falls apart. This is some of the thinking behind mistrust of government.

Do you see what’s going on here? To avoid suboptimal outcomes, you have to give up the ability to consciously pursue the collective good. So the free market is really unfree, in an important respect.

And democracy is actually, in one version I happen to like, about a community consciously defining and intentionally pursuing the collective good (what Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood”). Which is the opposite of letting the free market operate through the individual pursuit of self-interest. So democracy and the market are in one respect fundamentally at odds.

This is if you define democracy as I just have. It’s sometimes called “participatory” democracy, and associated with Isaiah Berlin’s vision of “positive freedom” – the freedom to do X or Y.

But there’s another version of democracy – a “procedural” one, associated with Berlin’s other vision – “negative freedom,” or freedom from X or Y. This version of democracy is not about the outcomes but about the rules and fair play – freedom of expression, and free elections. There’s a lot to recommend this version! And its achievement and sustainment are to be celebrated.

But for many people, I assume Ruesga included, it’s not enough. “Democratic capitalism” based on procedural democracy and negative freedom is sadly perfectly compatible with high levels of inequality and unjust economic outcomes. In fact, it probably encourages them. But for a vision of the good based on positive freedom and participatory democracy – what you might call social justice – “democratic capitalism” would need to look pretty different than it currently does to make that phrase other than a cruel irony.

And whether philanthropy can contribute to that effort – or whether the most it can and should aspire to is supporting “democratic capitalism” as Schramm might have it – is the real question. One of two, you might say.


Let the River Run

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Hi – back after a couple of weeks under the radar. Per my last post, I was at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and Council on Foundations (CoF) conferences back-to-back in Philadelphia. My guest post on the CoF website on one of the panels I moderated is here.

Welcome to new readers who began following me on Twitter in Philly. My mission statement for this blog is here, and my shtick is to use song titles for blog-post titles.

One of my biggest takeaways from the confluence of the “next-generation” (or really, “now-generation”) EPIP conference and the “mainstream” CoF conference is how distinct they are – like the black Amazon and the brown (sandy) Amazon:

Meeting of the Waters - "Black" Amazon and "Sandy" Amazon

Meeting of the Waters - "Black" Amazon and "Sandy" Amazon

The two conferences were alongside each other and many people, me included, traversed both, but our experiences were very different. I won’t say which one is sandy and which one is clear!

But the main difference had to do with how much the personal level – our individual narratives of class, leadership, social interaction, race, ethnicity – were not the background but the foreground and content of discussions at the EPIP conference. See here for a series of blog posts that break down different elements of the conference content. We heard from foundation CEOs who talked about their personal leadership journeys, trainers who helped us understand and break down narratives of class, social-justice advocates who talked about their organizing victories that sprang from marrying personal transformation with structural change. The personal is the professional, we kept hearing.

And on the other side of the river…nothing. It was all about roles, but not about the people who inhabit the roles. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Panels on “Why Aren’t Foundation Boards More Diverse?” and “Speaking of Race” brought in questions of identity.) I’m reminded of GrantCraft’s work on bringing your “whole self” to your role as a grantmaker. But that narrative, that approach, was absent during the CoF conference.

I came away from the Meeting of the Waters wondering if the EPIP mode is the way of the future. Will Generations X and Y expect the personal to be discussed alongside, as part of the professional, as they move forward in the field and become the “mainstream” audience of the CoF conference? What will this confluence of conferences look like in 10 or 20 years? (Assuming there is still a field of the type we recognize today, which, honestly, who knows….)

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

…or maybe it is.

I was in DC for work last night and stayed with a classmate from my political science doctoral program at UC Berkeley last night. We were talking about how the current moment is when comparative politics, which I was trained in, really has something to say. As I’ve observed based on a great piece published in Alliance magazine, there are a variety of factors that influence why certain regimes are toppling in the face of popular revolt and others aren’t.

So let’s clarify a couple of issues in the current wave of revolt/potential democratization in the Middle East that poli sci can tell us something about:

  • The role of elite-popular coalitions in democratic transitions: Power isn’t given, it’s taken. And one of the ways it’s taken – and kept – is when there are fissures in the elite coalition that help a regime maintain power. Popular movements can ally with elite dissenters to form coalitions that can help democracy to emerge. What those elite factions might look like in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere is an open question, as is what organizational forms their popular counterparts will take when the hard work of negotiating governance begins.
  • The difference between democratic transition and consolidation: When is a democratic transition “done?” “Consolidation” is the problematic but basically helpful concept that tries to describe this condition. It may be a certain numbers of peaceful transfers of power – in which case, we can’t tell what really will stick in the Middle East until we see a new post-Mubarak regime peacefully transfer power via elections. Or it may be an episode – like Argentina in 2001 – when the military could intervene during a democratic breakdown but elects not to do so. I think new chapters in the story of this concept will be written in the Middle East….
  • The varieties of authoritarian regimes: Some regimes are propped up by oil, others by superpower patrons because of their geopolitical importance. But not all dictatorships are of a piece, and not all authoritarian regimes are built the same way – which means that they don’t all fall apart the same way, or leave the same kinds of fragments behind. Understanding better the variety of authoritarian regimes in the region is important.
  • The role of security forces: They’re not unitary – the police and the army (not to mention navies or air forces) often developed differently, may have different institutional affiliations (Ministry of Defense vs. Ministry of the Interior – which is not about the environment like the U.S., but is more like a catchall domestic-governance portfolio in many countries), and may react differently to rebellion – see my conversation with Greg Hoadley about the role of the police vs. the army in Egypt.
  • The nature of political “contagion”: This is one of the most distinctive parts of the current situation – that rebellion has spread so quickly and so far from Tunisia in such a short time. Political science will be figuring this out for a while to come. Usually the study of “diffusion” or “contagion” – for example, of environmental standards – is of phenomena that evolve over years and decades. We’re talking weeks and months here. Much to be learned.

So given that my two questions on this blog are about philanthropy and democracy, I’ll want to look at how philanthropy can play a role with respect to these different issues.

To be continued….

The Rising

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Continuing from yesterday on the uprising in Egypt and the role of philanthropy in democratic transitions: Transitions are actually an area where political science has a few things to say.

It’s important to understand the nature of the coalition that’s pushing for change, a coalition that needs to bridge the opposition and elements within the regime. It’s when you have that combination that a transition becomes more feasible. In studying the “third wave” of democratization that took place starting with Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s and extended across Latin America and parts of Asia in the 80s and 90s, one of the concepts that was coined was “democraduras” and “dictablandas,” a play on the Spanish words “dictadura” (dictatorship), “dura” (hard), and “blanda” (soft). A dictablanda was a dictatorship that wasn’t so hard-line, and a democradura was a democracy that wasn’t so soft-and-fuzzy, but had authoritarian overtones.

It’s interesting how we’re looking at these kinds of grey zones in regimes like Egypt. (I’m totally out of my depth here, my region is Latin America.) There are nominally elections, but Mubarak always wins. There are multiple political parties, and some measure of civil society, philanthropy, etc. Pretty active, at first glance.

So what’s the role of philanthropy, both domestically and internationally, in that kind of a context? Yesterday, I looked at the role international foundations can play. But what about domestic foundations, those based in Egypt? Check out part of an abstract from Mona Atia, a Dissertation Scholar award-winner from the International Society for Third-Sector Research, “Philanthropy: A New Player in Egyptian Development“:

There are three main trends in Egyptian philanthropy: a geographical driven approach to giving, expanding networks and partnerships and finally professionalization of the sector. While the sector faces many hurdles in terms of government intervention, a lack of transparency and few mechanisms for accessing long-term impact, huge strides have been made in terms of thinking strategically about resource mobilization, breaking down barriers to cooperation with NGOs and using the web for advocacy. There remains a great deal of work in terms of actually mobilizing resources in a strategic manner, building capacity for grantees, assessing impact in nuanced ways that do not reduce NGO work to a number, communicating the important work being done in the sector and finally increasing transparency by accurate and open reporting of financial, operational and strategic plans.

These all sound like things NGOs and foundations in the U.S. deal with. Talk about professionalization of the sector….

So the question for me is, to what extent has philanthropy in Egypt been supporting the development of civil society, and what role have civil-society organizations played relative to political parties in current events. That relationship between NGOs and parties is complicated in the U.S., as well as in other countries. I’m interested to learn more about how it’s playing out in Egypt, to understand better the role of philanthropy in a democratic society – or in democratic transitions….

Fire in Cairo

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

I’m a big fan of The Cure, but that was an obscure song to use for a blog post title.

“What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” is one of my two questions behind this blog. I started writing in the fall about the CIVETS, emerging economies that may be the next BRICs – lo and behold, the E in CIVETS is for Egypt. Time to start paying attention to Egypt!

Brad Smith has a post on the Foundation Center’s blog about the role of philanthropy in supporting the institutions that are helping this potential-regime-change happen and that will support the country in the long term, specifically the press. This reminds me that in thinking about philanthropy internationally, we need to remember that many of the things we take for granted in the U.S. as having been “solved” many years ago – free press, infrastructure, relatively open elections – are still being “figured out” in other parts of the world. Granted, our own solutions may be falling apart, but the point remains that you go to a newsstand and buy a newspaper, and you turn on the faucet and water comes out. Provision of water, for example, was solved here and in Western Europe through public investment; in other parts of the world, it may need to be a mix of public and private investment – the nature of the solution will be different, the incentives of the actors to arrive at that solution will also be different.

So it is with building the institutions that, as Brad points out, can be a helpful role for philanthropy. Not just promoting a free press, but supporting universities to supply the human capital a growing economy needs. We take institutions like the press and academia so much for granted in the U.S. that we look for innovations at the margin, in the start-up business or the grassroots nonprofit. Those are indeed important sources of innovation, but in a developing-world context, where formal institutions are thinner on the ground and less closely linked to each other, it’s important to have those centers of intellectual life doing the meat-and-potatoes work of keeping people informed and getting them educated.

Doesn’t sound glamorous, but in a pre-democratic context, it can be hugely empowering, and can build a base for an eventual transition without explicitly attempting to do so. In other words, it’s a long-term investment that’s not about control and wanting to see immediate-term results. The theory of change is, this society needs skilled, educated people for its economic and political future, and we’re going to invest in helping them achieve that tool, to whatever end it ends up getting used.

If many foundations are reluctant to be intentionally “on the edge,” as Brad puts it, it’s important to remember that supporting institutions and infrastructure can help build the conditions for a larger-scale change when the time is right – and to make it possible for those in the midst of the change to imagine what a post-transition world looks like, and fight for it.

(Not to mention the fact that what it means for “the time to be right” for this kind of a democratic potential-transition to happen keeps changing – the phenomenon of diffusion (or spillover, contagion, whatever you want to call it) from Algeria to Egypt is fascinating, and worth exploring in another post….)

Is the glass half cloudy?

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Happy New Year! My goal this year is to build an audience for the blog. I’ve been posting regularly for about six months, and have found a good rhythm, tone, and frequency. Now to get the word out there….

Last time, I made a passing reference to being ambivalent about transparency. The truth is, I’m ambivalent about a lot of good things, like democracy and free markets. That’s just how I’m built. But given how much in vogue transparency is, I guess I should elaborate.

  • WikiLeaks is a good example. I think I’m not off in saying that reasonable people can disagree in whether they’re a good thing. Take the latest release, of diplomatic cables. These embarrassed the U.S., particularly some of our allies. To the extent they made things more difficult for our diplomats abroad, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It might not be the end of the world, but it’s not unreservedly good.
  • Think of politicians as the canaries in the coal mine. Who would want to run for office given how expensive, invasive, and demeaning the process can be and usually is? Who wants to have their live put up for scrutiny like that? In a world where all your business is available online, eventually only the Tracy Flicks will be willing to put up with the hassle. Then where will we be, governed by control freaks and goody-goodies. And that’s just the beginning, what happens as that level of availability and potential for scrutiny becomes more generalized. Will it make us paradoxically less likely to be our full selves with others? I heard an interesting line the other day: “Facebook is where we go to lie to friends and Twitter is where we go to tell the truth to strangers.” The refracted self: many surfaces, all polished to a sheen, but how much light gets through?
  • Aren’t there some decisions that are better made in private? I wonder about the nature of decision-making. Sure, some decisions are better made with more than one person, but are there kinds of decisions that deteriorate in quality the more people are involved. A classic of American politics is Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereigh People; one of its central concepts is the idea that by increasing the number of people involved in an argument, you change the nature of the argument. Extrapolating from that idea, I’d say with more people watching, the arguers start to get self-conscious and perform more. Something is lost. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure how important it is – or under what kind of circumstances. But I can’t shake the feeling that not all group decisions should always be opened up as much as possible.

I imagine this is a theme to which I’ll return, given how important transparency is to one of my two questions, about the role of philanthropy in a democratic society.

What’s mine is yours…maybe

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

On some level, my mission on this blog is to talk about the intersection of philanthropy and politics in a way that gets beyond pat political talking points. So for instance, I’ve looked at the way the privileging of local knowledge happens both on the right and left, and some important differences in the way they interpret that idea.

Along those lines, I think it’s important to acknowledge the truth a talking point that sometimes gets rehearsed in discussions around the nonprofit sector. And that’s the idea that small for-profit businesses are actually doing more good for the world by generating jobs for people.

The truth in that is that the nonprofit sector doesn’t have a monopoly on the production of social goods. All three sectors – public, private, and nonprofit – produce different kinds of social goods (defense/security, jobs, services, to name a few) in different proportions, and it seems to me that where communities get out of whack is when the proportions aren’t balanced – when there’s too much of some social goods and not enough of others. I’m reminded of an article in New York magazine earlier this year about communities upstate where juvenile-detention facilities are located: an excess of security that creates jobs but not sufficient inclusion/opportunity.

At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to think of different sectors only in terms of one kind of social good they produce. As Sean at Tactical Philanthropy likes to point out, nonprofits employ a lot of people too, there are plenty of jobs there. I guess the idea would be to take a more holistic view of the concept of “externalities,” which in economics are the side effects of economic activities. A coal plant produces energy but also pollution, which reduces air quality; the reduced air quality is the externality. Such a bastion of capitalism as the Harvard Business Review has started writing about the internalization of externalities from a corporate-social-responsibility and leadership perspective.

I wonder if there’s not also a role for the intentional socialization of externalities – understanding them in local communities in the context of who pays for them and who tries to alleviate them when they’re bad. Picture a lumber town with a small environmental nonprofit that’s a chapter of a national organization trying to work with a town council that’s dominated by the chamber of commerce, which is filled with folks sympathetic to the lumber mill. How does such a community find balance in the production of social goods – jobs, environment, governance? I don’t know that we have a good way to think through those issues, and communities across the country are dealing with them in the wake of significant budget cuts. May be worth taking this topic up again in the New Year….

As I mentioned yesterday, abbreviated publishing schedule these last two weeks of the year, Tuesday and Wednesday only. See you next week, and enjoy the holiday!

Social distance and the season of giving

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday, and developing some themes I’ve pursued along the way on this blog, the depersonalized nature of charity can, when done a certain way, make the needlessly fragile equilibrium of faith in government even more fragile.

What might be ways philanthropy could do the opposite, make that equilibrium less fragile? Not by making people believe in government more, though I guess that might be a nice change of pace these days, but by helping people understand the experience of those in need in a different way.

As for example, not being “in need,” primarily, but having assets and needing some missing component – a connection, an idea, the inspiration, the space, the opportunity – to deploy those to their fullest effect. And to build more assets. To undermine the narrative of shirking – which erodes faith in government, when people believe (probably falsely, as it turns out) that shirkers get a free ride – philanthropy can replace it with a narrative of potential fulfilled. Look what these members of our community have to offer, how can we afford to miss it, etc.

So think about that when you’re judging fundraising appeals this holiday season. Are the appeals solely about need? Or do they talk about how your support helps those in need build assets to be more self-sufficient? Do they help you understand the situation of the people you’re meant to be helping? Or do they harp on your guilt, further reinforcing the social distance between you and those the nonprofit’s helping? The more we tell and see stories about those in need in ways that bring us closer to them and to understanding them as like us – that lessen rather than increase social distance – the less justification those who would tell us that government is the enemy have to peddle their narrative.

“Get Off My Lawn” vs. “I Gave at the Office”

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Last week, I developed the idea of needlessly fragile equilibria, states of political balance that are thrown out of whack by false beliefs, which generate unreasonable expectations. Faith in government is one of these, and it’s way out of balance these days.

Jeff Weintraub has a recent post on related issues, “Can democracy work when people are idiots?” It talks about patently false beliefs American voters have about the nature and size of different government expenditures, and how these generate self-contradictory expectations about how to reduce the size of government.

This is related to the idea that people hold unreasonable expectations about their fellow citizens, assuming there are shirkers all about who are leaching off government largesse. You dislike them, and you think the government is either stupid for believing their sob stories or actively complicit in rewarding their shirking. In either case, the needlessly fragile equilibrium of faith in government is thrown out of balance.

How is one’s view of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector affected in such a scenario? Is the problem really the shirking or the public largesse? If it’s the shirking, then you wouldn’t be inclined to give to charity. Call this the “Get Off My Lawn” position: go away taxman, go away charity fundraiser. If the problem is public largesse, and you don’t object to those in need receiving help, but just to having public funds appropriated for that purpose, then you’d probably be generous to charity. Call this the “I Gave at the Office” position: go away taxman, c’mon over charity fundraiser.

For these types of (non)givers, the depersonalized nature of charity in the contemporary world reinforces their positions. If people’s experience of the need for which funds are being raised is arm’s-length, this does nothing to change the (false) beliefs they hold about those in need. Not that that’s any particular charity’s job, necessarily, to change those beliefs, but it points to the role philanthropy can sometimes play in a democratic society. Done a certain way, it reinforces the needless fragility of the equilibrium of faith in government.

What might be another way? Tomorrow, I’ll consider some alternatives, in the context of the “season of giving” that’s coming upon us.

Freedom isn’t free (part 2)

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Well, that was certainly an election. One of the things about the current political climate that’s most frustrating to me and I think ultimately most dangerous for the health of our democracy is the meme of free-market fundamentalism. I generally think of “meme” as kind of a lame term, and I’m leery of metaphors that equate ideas with viruses or diseases, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a strain of free-market fundamentalism circulating in the body politics that certain groups, politicians, and parties are more or less susceptible to at different times and in different circumstances.

Only the latest example is kind of a silly one, but symptomatic. A group of Tea Party supporters in Fountain Hills, Arizona are upset about a proposed new method of municipal trash collection because it goes against free-market principles. Not because it costs too much, not because it’s inefficient, not because users weren’t consulted before the change was made (if any of those is even the case) – but on principle, because it consolidates from several carriers to one, and that smacks of “collectivism” or “socialism.” Again, kind of a silly example, but one that’s symptomatic of a broader tendency to view government vs. markets in simple, dichotomous, asymmetric terms, as essentially good vs. evil.

Now there are two things that always get my goat about this. One won’t surprise you given the content of this blog, the other may. The one is, governments and markets are not a dichotomy, they’re symbiotic. Markets need governments to establish and enforce the ground rules, including property rights, terms of trade, and a legal system. What’s more, governments often help markets get going by limiting the initial terms of competition and establishing a playing field in which market actors emerge. A view of the world in which “the market” is a timeless, placeless, yet omnipresent and naturally occurring phenomenon obscures the fact – the fact – that markets are made.

OK, that’s not too surprising given what I’ve been writing on this blog. But the other thought that these topics recurrently provoke for me is the way a form of market thinking can actually be liberating in its depersonalizing of conflict. The arm’s-length, transactional approach to human relations enacted in markets can sometimes be a corrective to the tribalist, hyper-personalized approach embodied in many traditional cultures and ways of life. This is the flip side of one of the undertheorized elements of market relations – how they corrode traditional customs and ways of life.

I say “undertheorized” because we have plenty of examples, so it’s not an understudied phenomenon – locavorism emerges as a reaction to the corporatization of agriculture, for instance. But we don’t often make the connection that it’s a way of viewing the world – in which markets are everywhere, and everyone is acting as a market actor, in every sphere of their lives, even personal life – that undermines many of the things we love most – loyalty, community, family, etc.

But what I’m getting at is one step beyond that: an ambivalence about that undermining, a gut feeling that in many contexts, it can actually be a good thing, because it liberates you from orthodoxy, from doing things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. And in particular, that depersonalizing conflict by putting it in market-actor terms – rather than nationalistic or tribalistic terms – may actually be a step toward resolution.

I’ll need to unpack these ideas further, but this is a start at laying out some thoughts that are ultimately closely connected to my two questions: what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society, and what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?