Philanthropy That Upends the Status Quo

Being rich is kinda hard, at least in some ways, according to the book I’m reading, Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence.

Sherman asserts that we don’t know much about the wealthy. Maybe that’s because of one thing she learns from her in-depth interviews with fifty affluent New Yorkers. They avoid talking about money. Sherman examines their lifestyle choices and their understanding of privilege.

Here’s the book’s marketing blurb, written by Sherman herself I suspect:

“Sherman upends images of wealthy people as invested only in accruing and displaying social advantages for themselves and their children. Instead, these liberal elites, who believe in diversity and meritocracy, feel conflicted about their position in a highly unequal society. They wish to be “normal,” describing their consumption as reasonable and basic and comparing themselves to those who have more than they do rather than those with less. These New Yorkers also want to see themselves as hard workers who give back and raise children with good values. . . .

Although their experiences differ depending on a range of factors, including whether their wealth was earned or inherited, these elites generally depict themselves as productive and prudent, and therefore morally worthy, while the undeserving rich are lazy, ostentatious, and snobbish. Sherman argues that this ethical distinction between “good” and “bad” wealthy people characterizes American culture more broadly, and that it perpetuates rather than challenges economic inequality.

As the distance between rich and poor widens, Uneasy Street not only explores the real lives of those at the top but also sheds light on how extreme inequality comes to seem ordinary and acceptable to the rest of us.”

That pitch pretty much jives with my reading of it. I get the sense though, if asked off the record, Sherman would say the majority of her interviewees are full of shit, masters at rationalizing their privilege and a large part of the problem when it comes to extreme inequality. As a qualitative researcher she’s walking a delicate balance, developing a rapport with participants most of whom I doubt she likes very much.

My reaction to the fifty is more sympathetic and bifurcated than Sherman’s mostly negative one. I could easily be friends with the subset that are most conscious of their privilege and intentionally living below their means. Despite this difference, I found Sherman’s fourth chapter on philanthropy, titled “‘Giving Back,’ Awareness, and Identity” especially interesting in ways that charitable people of any means might as well.

In particular, when it came to the considerable amounts of money Sherman’s wealthy interviewees gave away, I was struck by how disorganized they were. Few if any had committed the time and energy into developing a philosophy of giving; as a result, the sum of their gifts wasn’t close to the individual parts. One said, “I literally gave five hundred dollars to hundreds of organizations. I exaggerate not. Hundreds of organizations.” He had done this, Sherman said, to stay below the radar. To not draw attention that he was giving a lot of money in order to avoid subsequent requests for ever larger gifts.

Another participant said rather than developing a coherent plan, she and her husband gave to friends who asked for money for their pet projects:

“Right now, it’s pretty pathetic. I think we donate a decent amount of money to our schools. And the only reason for that is because we don’t feel like we’ve been able to get our act together enough to actually give in a thoughtful way. We give to people when they ask, and not because we feel like it’s aligned with what our values are. . .  . And we just haven’t had the time and energy to research all the organizations that we feel like are worthwhile. So we end up getting lazy.”

I have a rule that applies here, whenever you hear “haven’t had the time”, read “haven’t made the time” meaning it just hasn’t been important enough. I have an advantage in this regard in that The Gal Pal has committed considerable time to developing a coherent plan. I have a coherent plan too. At the Pearly Gates I’m going to say, “I’m with her.”

Of philanthropy more generally, Sherman notes:

“Sociologists have tended to question the motivations and functions of philanthropy and volunteerism, often arguing that these actions both depend on and justify class privilege and that philanthropy essentially reproduces class divisions. People I interviewed . . . tend to focus their giving and volunteering either on their own communities, especially their children’s schools, or on organizations that help the very poor (thereby ameliorating the worst effects of capitalist inequality rather than changing the system).”

Like researchers before her, Sherman found her participant’s giving did not challenge structural inequalities in any way. However, some did critique the system from which they benefit. Of these people, Sherman wrote:

“. . . they often supported organizations advocating gender, race, and economic justice. They knew such giving was unlikely to lead to major change, but it was not clear what else they could do to challenge inequality.”

Miriam, one of the participants said,

“Is the division of income in society fucked up? Absolutely. And do we value they wrong things? Absolutely. So you know, what I get paid is ridiculous. And then, if you think about it, like a teacher or people who are like giving a ton—a firefighter, right—I mean, they’re not making anywhere near as much. . . . And you know, that is crazy.”

Miriam mostly donated to organizations that served people struggling to survive.

“But,” she continued, “I definitely feel guilty, and I try to assuage some of that by giving. But I don’t know what else I can do.”

Sherman concludes:

“. . . ‘giving back’ in whatever form it takes, ultimately does not lead to broad structural transformation. For most of the people I talked with, this kind of change was not the goal; ‘giving back’ was a less conflicted, more taken-for-granted part of their identities as good people. For those who would have wanted more radical change, it was frustrating not to be able to make it.”

Apart from the aforementioned reference to “organizations advocating gender, race, and economic justice,” I’m not sure how philanthropists interested in broad structural transformation might maximize their giving.

But I bet you the Gal Pal does. Here’s hoping she’ll enlighten us.


There Is No Process For Writers Who Aren’t On Staff To File Complaints

Deborah Copaken’s story, “How to Lose Your Job From Sexually Harassment in 33 Easy Steps”, is why the #MeToo Movement is so important.

“Sexual harassment. . . is not about sex. It’s about a person in power systematically leveraging that power to lure you into his orbit and either proffer or take away your money, work, healthcare, and financial stability, depending on your positive or negative response to his sexual overtures. Respond in the affirmative, and you’ve prostituted yourself. Respond negatively, do not respond at all, or get a lawyer involved, and there goes your career.”

On Invisible Backpacks

We don’t forgive and forget. We do the opposite. We remember and grow resentful.

Loyal Pressing Pausers may remember I’m serving on my church’s 12-person Council which provides leadership for the congregation. We’ve been working tirelessly to resolve a protracted conflict between our pastor and staff. Most recently, we tried mediation by asking everyone involved to participate in conversations with trained facilitators.

Despite being complimentary of the co-facilitators, the pastor and staff reached an impasse after just two meetings and decided not to continue with mediation. In hindsight, the impasse was predictable because of the resolution center’s philosophical orientation of quickly pivoting from the past to the present and future.

Far too quickly. Because we do not fully forgive or forget, protracted group conflict can’t be resolved quickly.

The mediators would probably say their emphasis on the present and future is because people get mired in the past. Certainly some do, but that’s because things stick. To varying degrees to different people. There’s no one for whom everything “just rolls of their back”. We range from “kinda sensitive” to “hella sensitive”, meaning in dysfunctional work environments, negative interactions and experiences build within people. I think of this in terms of invisible backpacks.

Everyone in your workplace, and maybe even church, walk around with invisible backpacks on. Some people only have one or two negative interactions or experiences in theirs, meaning it lies almost flat against their backs. Other’s backpacks are jammed full of years of negative interactions and experiences. Those backpacks in particular are heavy, meaning they have a daily, deleterious effect on those people.

Negative interactions and experiences are endemic to every workplace, no matter how wonderful the culture. The difference is at some places there are regular opportunities for co-workers to openly and honestly discuss low-level frustrations thus keeping their backpacks almost imperceptively light. People need opportunities to say, “It really hurt me when. . . ” And “I feel. . . was unfortunate or unfair because. . .” Or “I’ve been frustrated every since. . . ”

Absent those mechanisms, resentment and antipathy builds to the point that positive interactions are highly unlikely because harmonious relations require people to give one another some grace, or cushion, or benefit of the doubt in the form of, “You don’t have to communicate or even act perfectly all the time, because we’re only human, and I know from previous experience that you have my best interest in mind.”

Apologizing for communication or other missteps is the other half of the reconciliation equation, but when the past is deemed relatively unimportant, people are unaware of how they have contributed to what’s in other’s backpacks.

While on a whole different scale, South Africa’s and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions illustrate that a person, a couple, a workplace, a nation proceeds at their own peril if they try to finesse the past. As Justice Murray Sinclair of Canada says, “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts.”

Amen to that.


Friday Assorted Links

1. How to Buy a Gun in 15 Countries. Despressing as shit. Here’s hoping the Parkland FL students and their peers can inspire the rest of us to defeat the NRA and join the civilized, sane portion of the world, that doesn’t mutter nonsense about an “armed militia”. And consider this if you think a takeover of the government is possible.

2. Silicon Valley’s most recent attempt to reinvent schooling. . . in Australia.

“’I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,’ said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. ‘In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.’”

3. Damn the Harvey Weinstein effect.

4. I believe quality of life is improving, but this makes me wonder if my privilege is blinding me.

5. Somewhat related. From someone I’m proud to call a friend.

6. On your and my lack of self-awareness.

“Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance. As a social scientist, if I want to get a read on your personality, I could ask you to fill out a survey on how stable, dependable, friendly, outgoing, and curious you are. But I would be much better off asking your coworkers to rate you on those same traits: They’re often more than twice as accurate. They can see things that you can’t or won’t—and these studies reveal that whatever you know about yourself that your coworkers don’t is basically irrelevant to your job performance.”

I believe self-awareness is among the most significant variables in a leader’s success. Put differently, failed leaders often display a shocking lack of self awareness. Interesting throughout.

7. Grade inflation is alive and well.

How Finland Gets People Biking Through Winter

This may not be a NEWS ALERT, but I’ve gone super soft.

When I lived in Norway for a few winter months, I commuted to the University everyday on a mountain bike. At times, like skiing in fresh powder, I had a lot of fun making virgin tracks in 10-15cm of snow on a dedicated bike path. Everyone says I have amazing bike handling skills. And they’re right.

Fast forward a decade and I spend the winter spinning easily indoors while watching Frontline documentaries.

I need a kick in the ass or a ticket to Oulu, Finland. Or both. Here’s how Oulu, Finland gets 27% of it’s population to cycle to and from work all brutal winter long.

I think Dan, Dan, Washington State’s Transpo man should accompany me on my trip to Oulu. He has so much to learn.

“Oulu’s bike lanes are the result of decades of municipal leadership. The city’s first cycling plan was developed in 1969. . . . It was understood early that walking and cycling [have] to be treated as equal modes of transportation.

In this context, winter maintenance of bike routes is a natural extension of investments in cycling infrastructure. . . . .Keeping cycling routes open year-round was there from the beginning. Citizens never had to fight for it. . . . It was very much a civil servant-driven process.

The local government continues to prioritize active transportation, especially when the temperatures drop. Starting in October, Oulu is launching a new level of ‘super’ maintenance for cycling infrastructure during the winter months. Essentially, 15 per cent of the network, or about 150 kilometeres, will be maintained 24 hours a day.”

Given his Midwestern mix of charisma and charm, I’m sure Dan, Dan, WaState’s Transpo man can convince MC and everyone else in Washington to pay more in taxes to replicate Oulu’s commitment to cycling infrastructure including a nice cushion for winter maintenance.

At which point I won’t have any excuses for being a full-fledged winter weather wuss.

Bonus vid.




Trump Really Say That?

Did he say, “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”? Or did he say. . .

  • “If I wasn’t watching Fox News in bed, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
  • “If I wasn’t tweeting, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
  • “If I wasn’t golfing, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
  • “If I wasn’t bloviating at CPAC, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
  • “If I wasn’t having sexual relations with a porn star, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
  • “If I wasn’t looking in the mirror, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
  • “If I wasn’t having sexual relations with a Playboy Playmate, I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”

There have been so many selfless acts of bravery, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.


Assorted Links—Winter Olympics Edition

1. Do ice dancers get better scores if they’re sex partners? A very odd mix of science and tabloid journalism with references to “knocking boots”, “boning”, and “the dirty deed”.

2. The 10 most memorable figure skating routines at the 2018 Olympics, ranked by song.

The Good Wife and I have picked this song for our 2022 ice dancing debut. Thanks to our sub-freezing temps, practice has already begun. Look for us in Beijing.

3. No One Gets Redeemed at the Olympics.

“Even starry athletes have bad days or, in the case of high-pressure Olympic competition, bad milliseconds. When they get it together — the next day, or the next minute — it’s a reset, and it happens because the athlete is serious, committed,  has talent, and knows how to push through. In other words, they have resilience.

It’s not about sin or shame or failure, though implying that that’s the case makes for eye-catching headlines, especially when there’s a bright ending to the tale.”

4. As Medals Pile Up, Norway Worries: Are We Winning Too Much?

“To thrive, cross-country needs national heroes in places like Germany, which has a population of more than 82 million. And while the United States, Sweden and other countries have lately won some major titles, the Norwegians took gold at all five of the women’s events at the world championships in Finland last year, and won a total of 18 medals, more than any other country. Norway won 15 in cross-country. The next-closest country won four.

All of this presents a conundrum for Norwegians. They want their athletes to destroy everyone in their favorite sport, but the sport could be destroyed unless other countries win.”

I’m sure my Swedish friend, Anna Rappe, who has a special fondness for her neighbors, feels for the Norwegians.

“The love for nature and skiing has given rise to some 1,000 ski clubs. Informal and low budget, many of them are driven by volunteers and overseen by parents. But they give the sport a vast and fertile grass-roots base.”

I’ve been privileged to travel the world and swim, ride, and run in many awe-inspiring places, but one day I spent cross country skiing in Norway was the most memorable, insanely beautiful, and spiritual outdoor experience of my life.