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Why philanthropy can't save Philly

Warren Buffet's son blows the lid on the philanthropy racket in America.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway at the same time, philanthropists are very different from you and me. They have more money. They also have more power. Maybe it's time to re-think where we're going with this.

Week by week, more people are coming to grips with the reality that income inequality is the monster that is devouring the American dream. President Obama recognized this -- in word if not in deed -- over the weekend when he told the New York Times that the wealth disparity and its crippling effect on the middle class is "not a future we should accept."

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported some alarming numbers on poverty in America, that racial differences in poverty are disappearing largely because economic woes for whites are catching up to the unacceptable poverty numbers of minority groups -- and that four out of five Americans now experience some type of economic insecurity like unemployment or collecting food stamps in their lifetime.

The other one out of five? Some of them are doing well, and some of them are doing so well that they have more money than they know what to do with it. And so they're giving some of it away -- maybe, if, your lucky, in your town or even at your school. They call these millionaires and billionaires with a spare check book "philanthropists" -- and it's all good! Right?

Well, yes and no. There are worse scenarios -- billionaires who pay employees nearly slave wages and pay little income taxes and keep everything, for example. On the other hand, the more we look toward philanthropy to solve all our social problems, especially in America's deindustrialized cities, the less democratic we become -- because a) you and I didn't vote for these guys and b) their money usually comes with massive strings attached. This weekend, a man who became a leading American philanthropist not by choice but by circumstance, Peter Buffett (you may possibly have heard of his father, Warren) wrote an op-ed, also in the New York Times, blowing the lid off what essentially has become a racket.

"As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to 'give back,'" Peter Buffett writes in a piece called "The Charitable-Industrial Complex." "It's what I would call "conscience laundering" — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity."

Buffett said that too many philanthropic efforts are geared toward keeping our system of global inequality in place, often using the same principles that made a small handful rich and so many others poor in the first place. "Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner?," Buffett asks. "No. It's when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we've got a perpetual poverty machine."

The thing is, you don't have to look very far to see this poverty machine in action. If you live in Philadelphia, it's probably grinding down your neighborhood public school as we speak. After decades of mismanagement and starvation at the state and federal level, Philadelphia's beleaguered schools are turning to the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates or Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad for any measure of salvation they can find.

It doesn't always go as planned -- this report notes that the gleaming Microsoft-backed "School of the Future" in West Philly was flopping because students had laptops but lagged in basic skills and still didn't have old-fashioned textbooks. Late last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Philadelphia a $2.5 million grant that came with more strings than a puppet version of "The Ten Commandments," steering money toward things like more standardized testing and training of non-traditional principals and boosting charter schools -- the tenets of "corporate education reform." The Broad Foundation -- which trained or worked with the last four Philadelphia school leaders -- has the same agenda.

Meanwhile, a coalition of rich folks -- including three Bala Cynwyd based hedge fund billionaires and the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton -- have funded a myriad of efforts locally to boost charter or parochial schools and sympathetic pols. All at the expense of traditional urban neighborhood public schools -- the places where people like Eli Broad once took their first baby steps toward becoming billionaires.

Is there an alternative? Sure -- community involvement and a truly democratic school system would be a start, leading up to a fair and reasonable funding system and common sense reforms -- not reforms aimed at enriching charter school operators and testing companies, creating the billionaire "philanthropists" of the future. That's empowerment. Or...we can stick with the current plan: Begging.