Friday, November 12, 2021
Social media has been filled recently with criticism of the University of California at Santa Barbara and billionaire Charlie Munger for plans to build a massive dorm at the University following detailed plans provided by amateur architect Munger and paid for with a $200 million donation from him. A Washington Post headline summarizes the criticisms (Two doors, few windows, and 4,500 students: Architect quits over billionaire's mega dorm). Of course questions about the possible undue influence of major donors are not new, although usually they involve less prominent projects. For example, earlier this fall the N.Y. Times reported Leader of Prestigious Yale Program Resigns, Citing Donor Pressure (additional coverage: The Economist).
What is perhaps new, or at least newly prominent, are similar controversies relating to donations to governments. For example, over the summer NPR reported A GOP Donor is Funding South Dakota National Guard Troops In Texas, and this fall the Texas Tribune reported Texas has raised $54 million in private donations for its border wall plan. Almost all of it came from this one billionaire. But the biggest such recent gift was detailed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Should Philanthropy Fund Government? A $400 Million Gift Settles That Question in Kalamazoo, Mich., for Years to Come (subscription required, but also available from U.S. News/AP). The anonymous gift is almost double the city's annual budget.
Donations to governments raises additional issues, including whether they risk distorting government priorities that otherwise would be decided through the political process and whether they shift power to executive branch officials who solicit such donations and away from the legislatures that normally control government spending. Of course not all government agencies can accept donations. For example, GoFundMe shut down a campaign to raise funds for the federal government's border wall in part because it would have required congressional approval for the government to have accepted the funds. So it is unclear how widespread such donor influence can be on government actions, absent legislative action.