Sunday, April 3, 2016

Throw Enough Money Around...

...Even a good charity can be corrupted, to one degree or another.

As we have already learned from the Wounded Warrior charity, once serious money starts flowing into the coffers of an organization, the temptation to start taking advantage of it personally, grows proportionally. Now we learn that Habitat for Humanity New York got taken for a ride by a wealthy property investor, with the very people this charity is supposed to help ending up getting kicked out of their apartments.

What is especially sad about reports like this is that, for the most part, these, as well as other charities, work very hard to make sure that a high majority of the funds given actually get spent on the need targeted. And every time one person, or even a group, within an organization gives in to the temptation, the will to give by the rest of us is damaged a bit more; an erosion, given difficult times, that these normally well intentioned organizations can ill afford.

When I ponder things like this it always emphasizes a certain ambivalence I have for the whole notion of charity if the first place. Societies have always had inequities in the distribution of needed things, just as there has always been injustice in general, to various degrees. It goes hand in hand with the frailties of the human condition, being subject to the various temptations that spring from greed, hatred, envy, and all the rest. And we are certainly all subject to them.

Things get tricky for me, however, when you start to consider things in the kind of highly refined, and so universally distributed, form of organized wealth creation that we call Capitalism now; a systematic powerhouse of not only the ethic of personal gain, but of the absolute control of the public narrative that makes that gain seen as for the good of everyone. And one of the ways it helps itself in this endeavor is to advertise, as much as possible, the good works that not only charities, but philanthropy itself, does to further this sense of at least some good measure of bettering the general welfare of all.

The perversity of this is at least two fold: 1. The very fact of a money/consumptive form of economy ensures that the craving for more of same will be forever assured in its amplification; hence the hothouse environment to encourage the very selfish behavior behind what temps us to ignore the plight of others in the first place. 2. Having some small part of those sums sprinkled back to the bleeding masses gives a great facade of kindness to the institution as a whole; giving a small kernel of truth to the idea, engraved in that "narrative" already mentioned, that money, and those who create it, can do good selflessly. And for some that is precisely why they do it. Most of the rest don't have to care because they know it will change very little overall, and it does give a good shine to that facade in the bargain.

So.  With this kind of ambivalence the bottom line here is complicated. Are the works of charities, and philanthropies as well, better than nothing at all? Yes. Clearly they are. And we should support them even as we encourage more to do the same. Is that reason to think these can put in abeyance the need for fundamental change? Absolutely not.

How Habitat for Humanity Went to Brooklyn and Poor Families Lost Their Homes

The charity paid millions in federal stimulus funds to developers shortly after longtime tenants were pushed out. “We are spending federal money to throw low-income New Yorkers out of buildings,” wrote a Habitat whistleblower.