The Ozymandias Philanthropy Problem

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58 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    I don’t think there is problem per se with people donating to allready wealth non-profits. The problem is assuming charity or whatever we call donating to non-profits will take the place of government, at whatever level, properly funding socially beneficially orgs. Let people buy themselves a school and signal the hell out of whatever they want. Just don’t make safety nets or important services dependent on them.

    This is really no different that all the rich dudes heavily funding college sports teams like the U of O Nikes.Report

    • SaulDegraw in reply to greginak says:

      I don’t think Jordan Weismann or Dylan Matthews wants to replace charity with government. They are both firm liberals. Both point out that there are a lot of “unglamorous” non-profits that actually do aid work that is really important but these often operate on shoe-string budgets.Report

      • greginak in reply to SaulDegraw says:

        I’ve heard the replace gov with charity argument although not from liberals. Having worked in non-profits i know how shoe string they are. The problem is not Harvard getting an ego donation but that we let so many other important services go underfunded. But people will always want their name on a school or stadium. Let them keep buying it.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to greginak says:

          You’re saying that the problem is that services are not sufficiently funded, and that what ought to fund them is government, because philanthropists will always misdirect their patronage no matter what we do, so government should be the one to ensure that if it’s important or beneficial, it gets funded. Is that right Greg?

          I’d be interested in how those who would like to see private charity – instead of the government – do a lot more of what the government currently does, or what some argue it should do, in terms of advancing citizen welfare, would respond to that. Does this path require that philanthropists be efficient in their giving? Will they be? How will they be brought to be? Are you cool with that? Or is the view just that, hey, we should be thankful for whatever we get, and leave it at that?Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Drew says:

            This is an age old debate between the left and the right wing generally. Centuries years old and all over the Western World.

            The rise of modern liberalism came from classical liberals like Lloyd George realizing that private charity could not change inequity or deal with everything. The Great Depression gave rise to the Democrats and FDR when private charity was over-stressed and collapsed.Report

          • greginak in reply to Michael Drew says:

            @michael-drew yeah pretty much. People give to charity for all sorts of reason. One of those is their own ego, so they want to give to a charity that will name a school after them or at least show them very thankful recipients of their charity ( charity is self serving…shout out to jason) But what gets people names on things or produces thankful smiling recipients is different from the actual needs of a community. I’ll tell you one thing most communities need is half way houses for addicts, treatment programs for sex offenders and long term housing for chroniclly homeless. Nobody really wants their names on those things and they dont’ want smiling pix of creepy looking ex sex offenders.

            I’ve worked in a large national catholic charity. Great place, loved working there. Before my time there the priest who started the charity was accused of doing things other Catholic priests have often been accused of doing. When that happened, unsurprisingly, donations cratered for years. The homeless/runaway teen we served in every city we had shelters were screwed. We have few employees and resources so the need went even more unmet then previously. Charities aren’t like sub shops or nail salons, a new one wont and can’t just move in to fill a need easily or at all.Report

          • Tod Kelly in reply to Michael Drew says:

            @michael-drew I suspect that it’s not quite like that in the eyes of a lot of conservatives — maybe even most of them.

            Contra to @sauldegraw ‘s experience noted below, I don’t know a lot of conservatives who — as an example — don’t want the government to fund the care of people with developmental disabilities. In fact, I don’t even know a single one. The only people I’ve every encountered that make that kind of argument tend to be a certain stripe of Utopianistic libertarian.

            I think when most conservatives I know get cranky about government funding charities and non-profits, it’s for places like Harvard or the New York Philharmonic — organizations that, in their mind, get plenty of money from the people who consume them. And to some degree, I think they have a point. Why *should* tax dollars go to fund a private university that has a 38 billion dollar endowment? Why *should* tax dollars go to grants to help reduce the ticket cost of concerts that are attended primarily by people who could afford increased prices, in a place that has more culture than you can shake a stick at?

            There are lots of other examples, obviously. Tax money going to places like United Way, where most of the money seems to go to pay marketing and admin costs, is one. Conservatives who volunteer at churches who tend to the needy and do so far more efficiently and — more often than not — effectively than the United Way see it as a kind of corruption that they don’t get any money at all.

            Which isn’t to say that I necessarily agree with these arguments. I tend to disagree with them, or at least I do mostly. But I also think it’s important to understand where they’re coming from.Report

            • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:


              I wonder how conservatives would feel about the fact that the Koch Brothers give lots of money to Lincoln Center and the Met.

              This might be anecdotal evidence but during the original ACA debates, a distraught woman spoke at a town hall with Tom Coburn about her husbands neurological diseases and how he required 24/7 care or something close to it. Coburn told the woman that it is the role of the community and private charity to provide aide in this circumstance, not the Federal Government.

              I think that it is kind of a lie to say that only upper-middle class people attend the Ballet or Theatre or go to museums. There are probably a not inconsiderable number of people that can afford a 25 dollar museum entry fee but would balk at 40 or 50 dollars. The reason you support these activities is that they bring prestige to the area and the country.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                @sauldegraw “I wonder how conservatives would feel about the fact that the Koch Brothers give lots of money to Lincoln Center and the Met.”

                You know, you could ask them. It’s not like they’re in stasis.

                I suspect what you’d find is that they have zero problem with it, and think that if that’s what the Koch Brothers want to spend their money on then good on them.

                “I think that it is kind of a lie to say that only upper-middle class people attend the Ballet or Theatre or go to museums.”

                Then it’s a good thing I didn’t say that.

                “There are probably a not inconsiderable number of people that can afford a 25 dollar museum entry fee but would balk at 40 or 50 dollars. ”

                I suspect that there are more than those two options, and in fact I doubt very much that the government subsidizes $25 per ticket for, say, Portland Art Museum.

                In fact, I suspect that government subsidies don’t actually effect PAM tickets all that much. Instead, I tend to suspect that the one of the biggest impact government subsidies has on art museums has is on driving up prices for dealers.

                And I should stress that I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. I think on a fundamental level, a government should support the arts for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is for symbolic reasons.

                But if tax dollars stopped flowing to NY Symph tomorrow, the NY Symph would still remain and largely the same people who attend now would still attend it.

                Which, when you think about it, begs the question, why shouldn’t those tax dollars go to fund classical music somewhere where it wouldn’t exist otherwise?Report

              • ktward in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                I wonder how conservatives would feel about the fact that the Koch Brothers give lots of money to Lincoln Center and the Met.

                Actually, it’s only one Koch Bro who cares about NYC. David. Why? Because he lives there, and he and his wife are aggressive social climbers.

                A lot has been written about David, including the odd schism that seems to exist between him and Charles. Whatever. Wiki David- he has been, in fact, a huge patron of the arts. For sure, NOVA would feel a serious pinch without his support.

                Having said all that, yeah, I myself doubt that either Koch bro is interested in public policy that doesn’t manifestly benefit their business.Report

              • aaron david in reply to ktward says:

                So how would the pro SSM stance the take effect their business?Report

              • zic in reply to ktward says:

                There’s also this weird purity standard implied.

                My pedophile, to build goodwill which gave him access to his victims and deflect suspicions, did a lot of good for a lot of people.

                Just because he was a total shit for what he did, doesn’t mean the people who benefitted from his good deeds didn’t experience goodness. And I’m like 100% sure that doing good became a habit for my pedophile, he didn’t always have ulterior motive, it was just a good, general habit to have.

                My one complaint about the whole Duggar business is that, if what we’ve been told is true, Josh Duggar confessed his sins. Now I am skeptical of that; it seems more likely he got caught or told on, and when confronted, confessed; and it’s being presented as volunteered. But I don’t hear a lot of liberal discussion of this detail, and that troubles me; because it’s a thread in our purity standards; as is thinking all the Koch’s philanthropy must be devious and we should speak out against it instead of commend it even as we condemn their wrongdoing.Report

              • Will H. in reply to zic says:

                The Kingdom of Abu Dhabi gave quite a bit to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
                Not quite sure what to make of all that.

                For me, I would rather take it at face value.Report

              • Notme in reply to Saul Degraw says:


                I couldn’t care less how the koch bros spend their money. Give it away, burn or bury it. Why should anyone care, its theirs?Report

            • zic in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              Excellent comment, @tod-kelly

              I concur.Report

            • ktward in reply to Tod Kelly says:


              Whether liberal or conservative, well-intentioned folks simply hope to see their collective charitable donations resulting in measurable success. It’s not an unreasonable expectation.Report

    • zic in reply to greginak says:

      I would build on this a little, because I don’t think there’s much appreciation for some of what already happens.

      I live at the edges of what’s called the Northeastern Forest, stretching across northern Maine, through to Upstate New York. Environmentally and ecologically, it’s an extremely important forest, it filters and holds fresh water, provides habitat and diversity for numbers of species threatened by development and the weight of humans just south of it. It also absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere every day than is produced by the eastern seaboard of the US; so it’s ongoing health is very important when you consider climate and greenhouse gasses.

      About 15 years ago, most of that land (at least in my state and NH, which has a pretty good chunk of the forest,) was owned by the paper industry, and management was really controversial and there was a lot of development pressure on it; and huge concerns when huge chunks of it were sold to an LLC. A chance encounter in a bar one night and some research following up on that encounter were really revealing — the encounter was with an officer of that LLC, and I learned that the investors in it were the endowments of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and a few other Ivy-leagues; organizations with enough money to purchase the land, and long-term interests in maintaining it as working landscape that maintained it as a source of wood (for paper, building, etc.,) sustainably so that it’s ecological and environmental functions were also maintained.

      My liberal impulse is to say that these are things government should do, but my libertarian impulses counter that’s probably unreasonable when we fight over the pennies necessary for things as simple as food security and basic health care.

      So large ego donations that fund good things getting done — like maintaining a forest that helps minimize the harm we do strikes me as a very good thing. And it was done without ego in any way shape or form, though I suspect there were plenty of ego donations and building names used in the purchase of that land.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

      The problem is assuming charity or whatever we call donating to non-profits will take the place of government, at whatever level, properly funding socially beneficially orgs.

      We should have given that money straight to the Haitian government.Report

      • Notme in reply to Jaybird says:


        Why not cut out the middle man and put the money into the swiss bank accounts of the bureaucrats that would end up stealing it from the hatian govt?Report

  2. Will Truman says:

    Instinctually I agree with you about Harvard, though someone here made a good point that the more Harvard gets in donations, the more financial aid they can give non-rich students.Report

    • SaulDegraw in reply to Will Truman says:

      Potentially but often not. My alma mater gets a lot of reognition for helping low-income students. Other really rich universities, not as much.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman says:

      Most of the students at Harvard aren’t poor though.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @leeesq Yeah, but it’s not hard at all for me to imagine that giving money to not-wealthy kids is somewhat low on Harvard’s priority list, and so donations on the margins actually end up helping with that.

        @alan-scott That could well be. The question is whether or not it can afford to give everybody a free ride and stay among the top five universities in the nation. And if they have to choose between the two, they’ll choose the latter, which means that bonus gifts help them avoid scenarios where they have to choose.

        @michael-drew (below) They may be separate things, but I’ve seen a whole lot of ink about how their endowment makes their generosity towards non-wealthy students possible. Could be the case that adding more money does nothing further as far as that goes, but it also could be preventing them from being in the situation of having to choose.

        All, I am not at all committed to this defense, nor do I reject it. Mostly interested in it. Heaven knows I like hating on Harvard and like the idea of saying “Don’t give those bastards any more money!”Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Will Truman says:

      I though Harvard was already pretty close to being able to give every student a full-ride, should they choose to. There is a point at which more money can’t mean more aid to students unless they also admit more students–something they seem to be reluctant to do.Report

  3. Damon says:

    “So how do we encourage charities to actually use the money they raise… ”

    Based upon the NPR/pro pubilica reporting I heard today, the red cross had no problems spending the money, but their return was crap. They didn’t have experience doing the work they wanted. They subed out the work. Their subs were incompetent, there were hr/institutional delays, and mismanagement.

    How do we fix that? Just what NPR did. Make it public.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Damon says:

      Just want to add that this was some very solid investigative reporting by NPR/Pro Publica. Efforts like this are one of the reasons I listen to & support NPR.Report

      • I’m kind of giving the nod to PP here. I applaud NPR for pursuing the partnership, but I rarely hear much of any real investigative reporting originating from their own reporters.

        I also am kind of withholding judgement on the Red Cross story. It’s an example of mismanagement… but sometimes that happens. It’s hard to go into already-crushingly-poor regions that have then been shattered by natural disaster and apply efficient use of resources to produce impressive outcomes. Not that they shouldn’t be expected to do so, but that the failed once means they failed once. Show me a pattern of waste and mismanagement across projects, regions, and time, and then I’ll say there is a critical problem with the org. Otherwise it seems like an example of performance that simply needs to be improved.Report

        • Damon in reply to Michael Drew says:


          Caugh. This was from last year by the same group dealing with Sandy/Issaac

          Also, I don’t recall if it was Katrina or something like that, but there was something in the news quite a while back about the red cross taking money ostensibly to help out x and not spending it all on that cause but banking it and increasing their endowment to help other folks later. Remember that?Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Drew says:

          I didn’t hear the whole NPR piece, but my impression was that, probably because of the amount of money involved, the international nature of it, and the visibility of the event, Red Cross HQ tried to manage the efforts directly, instead of putting trusted boots on the ground, handing them a checkbook, and delegating it by saying “call home if you need help or have to spend more than $X on any one thing, otherwise go forth & do good things” (where X is a big integer followed by at least 4 or more zeroes).

          Which actually does relate to Saul’s original tangent about ego. Ego is what prevents leaders from having trust in & delegating important tasks to subordinates. Ego like that is bad in business & government, it’s even worse in the military & charity.Report

  4. aaron david says:

    I think that the best way to handle it would be to get Harvard to stop taking donations. Then the money will go elsewhere.Report

  5. Oscar Gordon says:

    Ego donations are the private sector equivalent of politicians earmarking funds for a building with their name on it. At least Paulson is using his own money.

    As for the Red Cross, they made the mistake of stepping out of their wheel house and assuming competency despite not having the associated experience (understandable given the huge influx of cash they got – no one wants to admit that they are not competent to manage the money & efforts that money will fuel). That, and their own bureaucracy getting in their own way. Note that government also suffers from this. Hell, any sufficiently large organization will suffer from this.Report

  6. Christopher Carr says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with a rich person interested in philanthropy choosing to reward success. I struggle seeing the “Ozymandias Philanthropy Problem” as anything other than petty jealousy.

    The Red Cross at least claims to allocate funds where it determines funds should go, and not to the event that prompted your donation – that is, your donation to the Red Cross in response to some Haiti disaster porn or Facebook meme will not necessarily go to Haiti if that isn’t what the Red Cross mucky-mucks determine is the most cost-effective use.Report

  7. Michael Drew says:

    Re: gifts increasing Harvard’s student aid.

    Harvard can be a university that helps lower-income students a lot, and it can still be the case that the more money they are given, not necessarily will they give more help to students. They could determine that X amount of help (that they happen to be already providing) is enough, and that certain gifts (i.e. ones not specifically directed to need-based student aid) will be used for other improvements, facilities, or simply to buttress the endowment. Could – not saying they will. We don’t really know what they’ll do.

    So it’s kind of irrelevant that more revenue means they could, if they were currently up against a limit of some kind, give more help to students. In fact, how much Harvard spends on need-based aid is really its own thing, because they have the resources now (i.e. prior to any particular gift) to do more than they already do, but instead they’re doing what they’re doing. In theory, the more they bring in, the more help they could give, and any individual gift might mean that they will increase aid. But just because they now offer a lot of help to students, doesn’t mean that every individual gift they bring in will increase student aid.

    I think the best way to put it is that, knowing nothing else about the gift other than that it’s not earmarked for student aid, any individual gift could increase the aid that Harvard offers to students. But to know how likely that is would require a lot of knowledge about how Harvard decides about student aid and how it handles its revenue. If there’s reason to have an issue with giving to Harvard in general, to me a sense that doubtful about the possibility the gift will lead to more student aid doesn’t do much to resolve that issue, especially when presumably any such gift could be earmarked for student aid (though possibly that could mean not having a school named after one).

    More generally. To me the issue is teasing out why exactly Person X is donating the money in the first place. Do they think they are doing significant good with it – significant enough that they think they are in the ballpark of doing the most good they could do (possibly within some domain, such as “advancing higher education for American kids of undergraduate age” or some such)? If so, then it does seem to me that a program to suggest possibly more good-doing donees might be appropriate.

    OTOH, is the person simply self-consciously interested in having her name on a school at her alma mater? If so, we might privately wonder about her values or self-regard, but ultimately, it’s her money. There’s not much basis for telling her should could do more good with it if she isn’t even trying to do roughly the most good with it. Then you have to go down the road of auditing all high-end spending decisions, which, I mean, I know some wouldn’t mind. But then there’s no real reason to go after people who give to Harvard specifically to get their name on something first: you might as well go afar the people who buy a third yacht first, then come around to vanity philanthropists once you’re through with the yachters. There might be better recipients than Harvard’s engineering school (or better ways to direct the gift than the way that will get the name applied to the school), but that’s probably preferable to having it be spent on a yacht, even from the perspective of those who’d rather give reasons not to give to Harvard.

    So a lot depends on the intentions of the givers. It might be the case that until sue saturation point, basically every gift ought to go to mosquito netting and antimalarial meds, but that doesn’t render every gift to a symphony delinquent. People can want their city’s art museum to be able to purchase some nice pieces. That doesn’t do as much good as more mosquito nets, but it’s also not completely bereft of philanthropic motive. But that’s the issue, really, isn’t it: the credit that comes with certain terms – charity or philanthropy, namely. Taken on their own, do the critics of giving to Harvard or the opera really have a problem with those gifts? Must every spare dollar be precisely perfectly given or spent? Or is the issue a poverty of terms: is the issue that givers to the symphony and givers to malaria charities both get called philanthropists? I don’t see a lot of impassioned resistance to giving to the opera per se, so my sense is that it’s really the latter: that people get roughly equal credit for doing either, simply because we don’t really have a term to distinguish them, and certain folks think that that equal credit is misplaced.

    But does anyone really not recognize the distinction between these kinds of gifts? Where people really thin that giving to the symphony and giving to a malarial charity are the same kind of gift and d equal good for the world, okay, tell those people it ain’t so. But I don’t think many people think that. People with mo ey to give roughly give it to the charities/orgs they want to give it to, with only some fraction thinking they’re thereby doing maximal social or human good. The trouble is, they all get called philanthropists. If that weren’t the convention – if there were another word in use for those who make the more spendy kind of gifs – on nice stuff they like, albeit stuff their gift makes more available to the public – would people really be going after them for that? Are people really calling for all gifts to symphonies to cease in favor of gifts to mosquito-net charities? Or are people actually just calling for things to be called what they are, with certain preferred words reserved for certain kinds of giving?

    Isn’t it mostly the latter? So how about lowering the temperature by dealing with the actual problem: rather than implying an argument about gifts to superfluous/noncritical/wealthy nonprofits that you don’t really believe in, why not come up with a term you like for the less-good kind of giving/spending and try to get people to use it instead of philanthropy or charity or whatever term you’re trying to preserve against dilution by those other kinds of luxury gifs?Report

    • I mean, I guess I would ask people like Jordan Weissman: should gifts to organizations like symphonies or rich universities simply not be made? If they should be made, then broadly what point are you making about charitable giving? How are you defining the problem here? Who is doing what wrong, and/or what system-rules are wrong? What should they/we do differently?Report

      • …A distinction to be made is that not all gifts in the not-utilitarian-efficient/quasi-consumption sector of charity (like symphonies, etc.) are Ozymandias gifts. Some people recognize that without philanthropy directed to them, some organizations will wither, and as a matter of preserving that which they want to be preserved, give the gift. It’s not always about erecting a monument to Self (one’s name in a symphony program is a pretty modest monument; moreover many such gifts are anonymous).

        So the problem, such as it is, of inefficient charity or spending masquerading as charity is not identical to the Ozymandias Philanthropy Problem. They’re overlapping circles, or maybe the OPP is a subset of inefficient or false charity.

        Just an observation.Report

        • DavidTC in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Some people recognize that without philanthropy directed to them, some organizations will wither, and as a matter of preserving that which they want to be preserved, give the gift.


          I think it’s entirely reasonable to come up with a different word for ‘designed to support things I like’ besides ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy’, especially in a world with Kickstarter.

          There is a difference between giving as actual charity, and giving that you expect to rebound, in some way, to you.

          I volunteer at a not-for-profit community theatre that is, technically, a ‘charity’, in that it is a 501(c)(3). But we don’t use the term ‘charity’ to describe ourselves, or giving to us, because, well, we don’t do a lot of ‘good’. You give us donations, we’ll keep the building running and put shows on stage which you can, additionally, buy tickets to.

          That is not, in any real sense, ‘helpful’ to non-customers. It’s *nice*, but not helpful. And to the sense it is helpful, it’s helpful to the business community and tax base, drawing people into town. (In fact, the Chamber of Commerce had a pretty big hand in our creation, for exactly that reason.)

          People probably should not get ‘equal credit’ donating to us instead of some program that actually saves lives…but, who exactly is in charge of allocating ‘credit’? Just because the same word is used, do we really think people think of them the same?

          The tax code treats them the same, but is that really an issue?

          On top of that, donations to *Harvard*, specifically, have another problem. Harvard has enough money sloshing around, and paying their staff, that it does not actually look much like a non-profit to start with. (Additionally, Harvard *doesn’t need any more money*.)Report

    • …I will say this, though, and maybe this constitutes a record-time 180. The Ozymandias background reading I just did sort of puts things in a different light. I maintain that if what rich people want is their names on things, there’s not much we can say: it’s their money, and we have to prefer the gift to the engineering school to the purchase of another yacht. That’s from our perspective.

      But from theirs, which is a perspective we can only idly consider, not prescribe about, the question does seem that it might be one of legacy. The desire to place names on institutions suggests as much. But what will those inscriptions be monuments to? Ozymandias is about kings who erect monuments to their greatness, only to have their societies crumble around them. It feels good to think that giving to a university that will put your name on an engineering school neatly threads the needle: it’s not an outright monument to yourself (though it ultimately is that), and supporting an engineering school seems like it might marginally forestall civilizational collapse. But it does seem vaguely possible that democratizing access to higher education could turn out to be the more critical task for preserving civilization. It’s by no means a certainty, but it does seem like something you might consider if your primary concern is for your own epochal legacy. But it’s ultimately up to you.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Drew says:


        I’m glad I was able to introduce you to Shelly.

        The issue is that Harvard has a 36 billion dollar endowment that is well-invested. They could probably take 5000 very bright low-income students and give them a full ride for undergrad-PhD. They could take an entire freshman class and make it 100 percent low income students.

        But they will not.

        Harvard might do more for low-income students than other elite universities. I have seen mixed reports.

        The issue seems to be mainly a 1 percent issue when it comes to charitable giving in general. Places like Harvard or the Susan Komen foundation get the big bucks and less glamorous places do not. The less glamorous orgs might do the best work or the most hands-on work.

        There is a lot of evidence that shows bright but low-income students generally do not apply to elite schools because of a lack of guidance and other issues. So the schools that end up educating most low-income students are operating on shoe-strings.Report

  8. Dan Scotto says:

    One (cultural) way to reduce these sort of huge donations to well-endowed universities is to stop privileging students from these particular universities in things like hiring processes. But there’s a reason that companies like to hire from the top Ivies, so moving to a broader process is not without cost.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Dan Scotto says:


      I largely agree with everything you write here. I think students from elite colleges and universities often do get their through hard work and are generally ambitious people. But there are still aspects of the old days where it was more like a Country Club admission that are troubling. I do think that it would be good to see if you can get HYPS grads to think about hiring non-HYPS grads.Report

  9. j r says:

    As @oscar-gordon alludes to above, these are two separate issues. Paulson’s gift to Harvard is an ego donation. Harvard, despite being Harvard, does not have a particularly impressive engineering program, at least not on par with its other programs. US News and World Reports ranks Harvard’s engineering grad program at #20. They want to fix that and are trying to invest more money and attract more prestigious faculty. And if that works and Harvard’s engineering program ends up competing with MIT and Stanford and CalTech, then John Paulson gets to be the guy with his name on the program. Both parties want something; both parties get something. Easy Breezy!

    The background to Paulson’s donation is the sort of thing that one might expect to find in stories published at Slate and The Atlantic, if the likes of Weissmann and Matthews did actual reporting and/or semi-serious analysis instead of typing out sloppy opinion pieces disguised as “business and economic,” ‘splainin’.

    The problem of charity and aid effectiveness is a whole other issue from rich people putting their names on buildings at prestigious institutions; we could get into those issues, but talking about the latter in terms of the former does not even begin to scratch the surface.Report

  10. Notme says:


    The soution is for you to make a fortune and donate to whomever instead of judging others.Report

  11. Oscar Gordon says:

    Speaking of vanity/ego projectsReport

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Yeah that sounds like a horrible project. So does Pier 55. Now can we get rich people to donate to the subway system?Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        They both actually sound like very nice projects, and would be just fine if paid for (& maintained) entirely with private funds, or if the city had all the major infrastructure work done & the coffers were doing well.Report

  12. Patrick says:

    New York’s personal income tax system consists of eight brackets and a top rate of 8.82%.

    If Mr. Paulson donated $400 million to Harvard, then presumably he took a $400 million write-off on his income taxes for this year. That’s a decrease in state income taxes of $35,280,000. New York spends 24% of its budget on the public school system, 21% in public health, 8% in welfare, 10% in transportation (

    Which means that $400 million gift to Harvard sucked $8,467,200 out of the New York public school system, $7,408,800 out of the New York public health system, $3,528,000 out of the transportation budget, $2,822,400 out of the welfare budget. And $158,400,000 out of the federal budget, but that’s a rounding error as far as the federal government is concerned (well, to be fair, the New York state public school system is ~$20.6 billion, so even the $8.5 million loss is pretty small, too).

    I don’t know if I have a substantive point here. Just musing.Report

  13. Creon Critic says:

    I really don’t understand the either/or nature with which some people are framing this donation – here’s Malcolm Gladwell, “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 million it doesn’t need. Wise choice John!”.

    Is it really “the worst form of charity” to support an engineering school where researchers and students work on some of the largest challenges facing the world today. The Times has a paragraph on some of the research underway:

    the engineering school’s labs have developed an organ-on-a-chip platform that can be used for drug testing, self-organizing robots, nanotechnology devices that are changing optical electronics, an implantable cancer vaccine and new knowledge about the links between atmospheric chemistry and climate change.

    Given the consequences of climate change for those with the least resources to adjust to it, $400 million for Harvard’s engineering school could very well be a way of helping the world’s poor. Also, I think the tradition of giving generally is part of what keeps American higher education at the top of world higher education, which has many benefits for the American public generally, whether or not they end up getting a degree from Harvard or similarly wealthy institutions – by attracting researchers, entrepreneurs, and direct investment America’s way for instance. (Lastly, and this is probably the least convincing, but I think Harvard’s development people would say, if you look at endowment dollars per student, Princeton is the really wealthy school, not us. That’s certainly an argument that many billion-dollar-plus universities make to their alumni anyway)