Let's be clear about one thing right off the bat: You probably wouldn't be reading this column right now were it not for both the generosity and the unique vision of one man: H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the Philadelphia entrepreneur and philanthropist who died last Sunday at age 88.
Lenfest was, by all accounts, a man who lived modestly even though he thought big as a businessman and — getting in the cable TV boom early and getting out at exactly the right time — that savvy turned Gerry into the billionaire next door. After selling his company to Comcast in 2000 for $1.3 billion, he devoted almost all of his energy to charitable work, confiding to a friend who found himself seated next to the billionaire on a flight that his plan for the rest of his life was, simply, "Figure out how to give all my money away." Which he essentially did — to a list of cultural, educational, and antipoverty causes that would use up all my column inches if I actually tried to list them.
In 2014, through a weird series of unexpected and sometimes unfortunate events, the then-85-year-old Lenfest found himself the sole owner of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, which in the prior decade had seen a grim ownership parade of various capitalists — conglomerate, local, hedge fund — and even spent some time in Chapter 11. He soon got behind a first-of-its-kind idea to put the newsroom on solid ground, by creating a novel type of nonprofit entity.
"Of all the things I've done, this is the most important," Lenfest said of keeping journalism and its role as a civic watchdog alive in America's sixth-largest — and founding — city. By the time he died, his gifts to journalism totaled an estimated $129 million. It's not hyperbole to wonder whether I — otherwise unemployable at age 59 — and some of my wonderful friends in the newsroom would even have a job today were it not for Gerry Lenfest.
I've certainly been thinking of that remarkable (and, according to some of my emailers, undeserved) good fortune in the last few weeks as I've followed the economic carnage in other newsrooms, from Manhattan to Denver. In those places, hedge-fund owners eager to suck every last dime out of the struggling entities that dropped into their luxurious laps have laid off some amazing journalists who deserved the same break that we've received here in Philly.
"Seeing that slaughter is just, I mean, it gets to me," New York Daily News reporter Chelsia Rose Marcius told CNN after getting laid off by Tronc, a company that had just slashed half the newsroom of the iconic tabloid, months after paying a $15 million "consulting" fee to its former CEO forced out amid sexual-harassment allegations. "I woke up crying this morning because it's still, it's going to be hard for a while." It's hard not to think Marcius would still be pounding the sidewalks of New York for stories — and I'd be frantically searching LinkedIn on my tearstained keyboard — if Lenfest had somehow ended up living in Manhattan and not here in Philadelphia.
And Philly journalists are far from the only Americans to benefit from the vagaries of geography. Consider the 240 at-risk third and fourth graders in Akron, Ohio, enrolling this month in the "I Promise" school that basketball superstar LeBron James is partially bankrolling (donating $2 million a year) in his hometown. The reason, of course, that the school — with its perks like free meals, free transportation, a food pantry for struggling families, and a promise of free tuition at the University of Akron — is such a big deal is because these are the things that millions of urban children don't get in their rundown, underfunded public schools. And the at-risk kids of Akron would still be in that same sinking boat if King James had been born a few exits down the interstate, in Canton.
Increasingly, America amid the cruel winds of late-stage capitalism is becoming a lottery economy, with two kinds of winners. There is, of course, the small circle of billionaires and multimillionaires who benefit from the rigged match of ever-lowering taxes and the government they've bought with their campaign contributions. And then there are the few lucky victors of the more capricious game of trickle-down philanthropy, whose "winnings" are the things like decent schools or job stability that folks in other developed nations take for granted.
The gaps of a not-civil society in these United States have become so glaring that charity for the basic things is actually flowing in two directions — trickling down from the more generous wealthy folks and now, thanks to the innovative power of websites like GoFundMe, trickling up in $5 and $10 drops from everyday citizens simply heartbroken over horror stories from the front lines of inequality.
The other day, the left-leaning website ThinkProgress assembled a remarkable compilation from a recent surge of these "feel-good" stories about people — rich and poor — chipping in to provide common folks with the kind of things that every citizen takes for granted in a more fair society like, say, Norway.
"These are dispatches from the darkest, dankest cesspools of late-stage capitalism, where a person enduring a financial hardship through no fault of their own — like, say, you have leukemia — must be wholly dependent on the charity of others, and the spotlight is thrust on the charity, not the circumstances that caused the dependence," wrote the author of the piece, Jessica M. Goldstein.
Her article included the leukemia patient whose medical bills are getting paid through GoFundMe even though he's an executive for the Washington Nationals baseball team, whose owner is worth a reported $5.2 billion; the woman who's getting eight weeks of paid maternity leave only because her coworkers donated their vacation time; and the man who walked 20 miles to get to work, prompting his boss to give him a car. It was written before the latest so-called feel-good, feel-bad story — the Atlanta entrepreneur who donated a new car to her kid's schoolteacher after she learned the instructor had been taking multiple buses to get to work every day.
It was a beautiful act of not-quite-random kindness — but it's hard not to ask when America stopped paying schoolteachers enough to buy a car on their own paychecks. If you think America's unique brand of "thousand points of light" lottery capitalism is increasingly crazy, you're not alone.
"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,' " a New York Times op-ed writer opined a couple of years ago. "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." What raving bleeding-heart socialist wrote this? It was Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and himself a philanthropist. He said that "as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we've got a perpetual poverty machine."
More recently, Morris Pearl, chairman of a group calling itself the Patriotic Millionaires — wealthy Americans who think the wealthy don't pay enough taxes — used the term patriotic philanthropy in a blog post bashing billionaire David Rubenstein, who was donating money to repair the Washington Monument at the same time he was lobbying Congress to preserve the obscene loophole that often means hedge-fund managers pay a lower tax rate than their executive assistants. "There's nothing patriotic or philanthropic about subverting the fabric of our democracy," he wrote.
Pearl told me this week "that growing inequality is bad for everyone — including us rich people." His Patriotic Millionaires group vehemently opposed the recent GOP-and-President-Trump-led $1.5 trillion tax cut that showered most of its cash on corporations, which are largely using the money for stock buybacks benefiting rich investors, and on the wealthy. As the bill's impacts work their way through the U.S. economy, you can expect even more "feel-good, feel-bad" stories.
The problem, of course, is that for every generous Gerry Lenfest determined to give his wealth away, there is one billionaire — and probably more — like Education Secretary Betsy "Nine-Is-Not-Enough-Yachts" DeVos, who makes sure her $40 million vessel in landlocked Michigan is registered in the far-off Cayman Islands, lest America's tax coffers get one drop from her massive pleasure ship.
Meanwhile, there has been so much clucking from the chattering classes about young Americans embracing "socialism" — a word that allows right-wing talkmeisters to conjure up fiery images of a devastated Venezuela, But my sense is that most people who aren't swooning for modern capitalism also don't want Hugo Chavez-ism, or state ownership of private companies. They just desperately want a society that's fair, that doesn't depend upon the kindness of strangers.
Imagine a just and equitable America where a smart businessman like Lenfest can still earn enough to support a pet cause like a Museum of the American Revolution, but in which the basics — good schools in low-income neighborhoods, universal health care, affordable college education, workable public transportation — are provided for every citizen. And that it happens because billionaires like Lenfest, DeVos, and Rubenstein are all contributing their fair share into our common democracy — and not just to their pet causes, which might be a newspaper or a grade school but which also just might be another yacht.