Monday, March 9, 2020

Gates Foundation Funds Covid-19 Testing Project in Seattle: Good Billionaire Philanthropy?

Yesterday I noticed that the Gates Foundation would be providing the funds to back a program to provide at home testing in the Seattle area for Covid-19  I tweeted the following:

"I am no fan of billionaire philanthropy - I think it skews our democratic project in problematic ways - this on its face though seems like an excellent use of that money all the same."

In effect, I think of billionaire philanthropy as a problem as a synonym for the idea that we have enormous income and wealth inequality in the United States. The problem has nothing to do with the billionaires themselves as individuals. Instead, because some people have vastly greater resources than most other people, those individuals arbitrarily wield much greater power than the rest of us in deciding what the group is going to do. This political voice imbalance harms the democratic order that would ideally give each of us an equal voice in group decisions.

We also provide incentives to these wealthy individuals to make more efficient tax use (some might say take advantage of) contributions they make to charitable organizations. When they then use those tax-subsidized dollars to wield greater power, we might be doubly troubled.

For instance, the Gates Foundation invested an enormous amount into changing the way we conduct education in the United States. Though there are many community activists around the country that have a great depth of knowledge in how to best arrange our educational institutions, their voices have been likely crowded out by the Gate's Foundation effort. Today, even Bill and Melinda Gates agree their effort did not have a good effect.

The interesting thing to me in the current potential pandemic we face is that even with all the resources of an institution like the Gate's Foundation, their resources are still puny compared to the need to fight a potential pandemic. They cannot close down a country's borders or support all the people who have to go without income as a result of the crisis.  They are puny in comparison to the worldwide need.

To fight such a gargantuan problem, we really need a coordinated governmental effort ideally along international lines. But we in the United States do not have that government capable of such an effort right now. So, in steps the Gates Foundation, with what I think has to be a good use of its dollars, providing the funds to develop a test for home use to end reliance on having to go to the doctor to both test (for containment) and keep people out of doctors’ offices and hospitals (to deal with overwhelmed health professionals). 

All the same, I can't help but think the existence of billionaire philanthropy (and perhaps a certain reliance upon billionaire philanthropy) may be a symptom/cause of our current malaise. This is not to say I don't think philanthropy has a role to play in this crisis. I clearly think it does. I hope to look at this question the rest of the week while I blog on Nonprofit Law Prof Blog.

Philip Hackney

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