Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.

 

 

The Truth About the Ultra Rich

They’re very different one from another. Too often, people paint them with a broad brush.

The Buffets, Gates, Bloombergs, Allens are intent on contributing to the common good. Big time. In the case of the Gates Foundation, they seek to enhance global healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in America, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.

Then there’s the oil billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Read what motivates them, in “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country“.

“The Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways.

One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs’ conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts. Even as Americans for Prosperity opposes public investment in transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.

‘Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry,’ said Ashley Robbins, a researcher at Virginia Tech who follows transportation funding. ‘But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them.'”

The Koch brothers oppose whatever slows their fortune from growing ever larger. Things like low income people gaining mobility and conserving natural resources.

David Koch’s networth is between $50 and $60 billion. How much is enough? Based on his actions, no amount.

Help Me

Help others.

When Mother Dear died two years ago, my brothers, sister, and I inherited what was left in her charitable foundation. Meaning every four years I get to give away some money. This year it’s my turn and I’m not sure whom I should give the money to. Leaning towards a few non-profits that work with the homeless in our fair city.

How do you decide whom to give to? My thinking is guided by two important things. First, the gifts have to be ones moms would’ve made. Second, the gifts should have a lasting impact.

The first principle is a breeze because Mother Dear was profoundly generous. Unlike me, she didn’t overthink things. Instead, she instinctively gave when made aware of obvious needs. No paralysis by analysis.

The second principle is where I need your help. Consider this philanthropic case study. Tom and Christy Lee deserve lots of credit for their selflessness and for helping me refine my philosophy of philanthropy. Consider the math, $5,495 donated to forgive the school lunch debts of 262 families. An average of $21 per family.

It’s possible that an unexpected $21, like tiny micro-loans that have received so much positive press, could make a meaningful difference in a low-income family’s struggle to turn an economic corner. But if the families who received the unexpected loan forgiveness don’t address any of the underlying causes that resulted in them falling behind on their children’s school meals, won’t they be in the exact same place in a year’s time? Does the $21 have a lasting impact? I’m skeptical.

And isn’t the same conundrum even more pronounced for the organizations I’m considering giving to? If the organizations I’m considering giving to feed, clothe, and shelter the most vulnerable members of our community, but don’t also provide substance abuse and mental health counseling or job training and low income housing, won’t the numbers of homeless continue to tick upwards?

So is the answer to give to “both/and” organizations, non-profits that both meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable and work equally hard to remedy one or more of the underlying causes of institutional homelessness?

Also, how do I assess the relative efficiency of the local organizations I’m considering? The overhead of medium and large sized non-profits are carefully scrutinized by excellent websites, but not smaller, grass-roots ones. How can I know whether 50 or 90 cents of every dollar ends up directly benefitting those in need?

Ultimately, how might I maximize the long-term benefits of these gifts, honor my mom, and extend her legacy?

 

A Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.

 

 

A New Philanthropy

My university’s decision to sell its public radio station (KPLU) to Seattle’s (KUOW), has upset lots of KPLU listeners both on and off campus. You can read the PLU president’s rationale here and decide for yourself how persuasive it is.

The sale is being reported as $8m, but it’s really $7m since $1m is $100k worth of radio advertising for ten consecutive years. At a recent faculty meeting the president said young adult radio listening is down 41% which prompted me to ask him why then the $1m in advertising.

Tacoma’s newspaper puts the sale in a larger context:

What’s happening to KPLU’s news team has been happening across the United States for the last decade. Battered by the Great Recession and the migration of audiences to the Internet, America’s traditional news operations . . . have collectively been forced to shed many thousands of professional journalism jobs.

That would merely be tough luck for those companies if new digital media were picking up the slack. Many traditional media companies . . . have successfully migrated to the Internet themselves. But online news rarely attracts the kind of advertising revenue that the old media once enjoyed.

It’s not just lost advertising revenue, it’s Craigslist and other on-line publications which have siphoned off classified revenue, another critical stream.

The Tacoma paper predicts what will happen next:

Shrunken newsrooms and fewer reporters and news editors. With fewer reporters, there’s less news. Pardon the sarcasm, but it’s remarkable how much less scandal there is in government and the corporate world now that fewer journalists are on the lookout for it.

The Web creates an illusion of abundant news. There is in fact an abundance of commentary about the news; political websites and blogs are saturated with punditry and ideological spin. There’s also a lot of news that’s been recycled, aggregated, tweeted, repurposed and attached to ads on the Web. But there’s less real bedrock information out there than it appears.

The Good Wife and I went a little cray cray last weekend and went to two movies. One of those, Spotlight, is the story of the Boston Globe’s 2000-2002 reporting on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.

Even though the story happened only 14-15 years ago, it felt like much longer. Almost like entering a time capsule. It’s a last gasp salvo against the march of the internet, an engaging case study of important investigative reporting. Unbelievably, the editors kept slowing down the journalists, telling them to take more time, meaning using more resources.

Since power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a vibrant democracy depends in large part on a free and tenacious press that repeatedly asks challenging questions of people in power. Legions of journalists are sounding a warning, saying few media entities have the financial wherewithal to do original, excellent investigative reporting.

But I’m unaware of journalists thinking creatively about alternative revenue streams. So I will offer an idea. What if super wealthy philanthropists gave less to the (normally) already super wealthy universities they attended, and instead, made seven and eight figure gifts to our once great newspapers, or their newer online competitors, to create endowments for them, just like colleges and universities have, so that they can count on the revenue those endowments would generate.

And what about endowing journalists more specifically, like an endowed chair at a college or university? The Daniel Pearl Chair of Southeast Asian Reporting. The David Carr Chair of Media Studies. Seems to me this idea might appeal to super wealthy lefties and right wing nutters since the resulting investigative light would shine on scoundrels of every conceivable ideological bent.

Postscript/Administrivia:

• Thanks to Adele for filling in for me last week.

• I just don’t get the Kobe worship (Rest in Peace moms). He’s shooting 31%! If he cared about the Laker’s future half as much as he does himself, he’d retire right now.

• Happy to report that I ran the Seattle Half Marathon Sunday without either calf rebelling. My time suggests what I’ve suspected, I’m getting older. My brother informs me my time was five minutes slower than his personal record. Forgets to mention Grease was the top grossing movie when he ran that race.

 

 

 

I Need Your Help

At a dinner at my university recently, I was seated next to a nice guy from our Development office. That means he asks wealthy people for money for a living. Wooing wealthy donors entails nonstop travel and an uncanny ability to feign interest in rich strangers’ lives. I would rather work in China retrieving cell phones from shit-filled porta-potties.

This Saturday I’m cycling from Portland to the Pacific Ocean on a ride designed to raise money for the American Lung Association. To participate, I had to raise at least $100. Instead of asking you my loyal readers to consider chipping in at so many cents a mile, I paid the $100 myself.

That’s not to say I don’t ever need other people’s help. The truth of the matter is I need something else from you—a female Democratic candidate capable of winning the 2016 Presidential election. Not named Clinton. We desperately need to shatter the political glass ceiling once and for all, but count me among the “Can’t we be more creative than Bush v Clinton?” contingent.

Clinton’s smart and progressive, but her public persona really rubs me the wrong way. No, that probably shouldn’t matter, but it does. Of course it’s impossible to be a Presidential candidate if you’re not hyper-ambitious. With Clinton though I don’t get a sense that her intense desire to be president is motivated by even a semi-selfless sense of public service, instead it seems like pure, unadulterated personal ambition.

Can’t wait for eldest daughter, who is going to work for her campaign, to write on Facebook or here, “You would never say a male candidate’s public persona rubs you the wrong way.” Save it sister. Ever seen Al Gore in a debate? Detached stiffness personified.

Before you attempt to help by suggesting Elizabeth Warren, know that she has been consistent in saying she isn’t running. If she did, I’d support her in a heartbeat. So someone Elizabeth Warren-like.

I’m counting on you. Thank you in advance.

This is who I thought eldest daughter would work.

This is who I thought eldest daughter would work.