The Growing Edge of Things
October 23, 2005
A SPEECH BY BILL MOYERS FOR THE WEALTH & GIVING FORUM
I was pleased to be asked to join you today. I take hope from the presence in one room of so many people who are committed to using their means to make it possible for so many other people to do good things.
Some people I know love money for its own sake. Some I know love power for its own sake. Sometimes they are the same people.
But over the years I have found that the people of means who are the happiest and most deeply satisfied are those who use their money to empower others. They feel more than lucky; they feel blessed.
It's not easy giving money away. I found that out during my l3 years on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and over the past l4 years as president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation (now the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy) where I have been working with a family who decided to spend down their assets in their lifetime and asked my help in doing so. In that role I've wound up working with and advising a score of other foundations. But I've also been on the other side of philanthropy. As a public broadcaster I've had to raise every penny for every production I mount on PBS – millions of dollars over the past thirty years, much of it from foundations. I have had a window on the world of philanthropy that enables me to see both sides – supply and demand. I know first-hand the hazards, limitations, and frustrations of the field.
For one thing, when you make a mistake, people are loathe to tell you. Unlike investing, where the market delivers quick verdicts on mistakes or business, where bad decisions cannot go long undetected, the feedback loop in philanthropy rarely turns up irrefutable evidence that you blew one. I have long wished to talk to the great British economist Walter Bagehot, who once wrote that "the most melancholy of human reflection, perhaps, is that on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does more harm than good." I'd like to know where he came down on the matter.
Of course there are people who don't see us as benevolent after all. Back in the first Gilded Age one aroused critic described philanthropy as "the Nero of modern times," fiddling, so to speak, while Rome burned. And in his Life of Johnson Boswell quotes his companion and mentor as saying that human benevolence is so mingled with vanity, interest, or some other motive that Îto act from pure benevolence is not possible for finite beings." I often quote this one to remind my colleagues and myself that if we give away money to be loved or even appreciated, we are longing for what can never be purchased, unless we buy a dog.
The hardest thing about philanthropy, I believe, is the effort to reconcile its profound inner tensions. It's a curious thing: Americans worship wealth; just about everybody wants to be rich. But as Michael Lerner, a leading philanthropic adviser reminds us, people who inherit great wealth often suffer an agony as difficult as what afflicts those who struggle with the more common conditions of life. The angst can be particularly exquisite in our culture, he says, because those who suffer from wealth can find almost no sympathy outside the direct circle of family or peers. Let's face it; this is a deeply contested activity that can even put you in a relationship of psychic toxicity with those you want to help. I am not at all surprised that John D. Rockefeller thought it was harder to give money away than to earn it.
But when you get it right – when you have squared your expectations and your reach and know as only you can know that what you have done matters – it can be sweet.
John Wesley got it right. If you have made a passage of faith similar to mine you will recognize the name. In the l8th century, in Britain, with his brother Charles, John Wesley founded the Methodist movement that gives rise to benevolent impulses and institutions that survive to this day. In my seminary days one of the wisest of my own mentors, a professor of social ethics named T.B. Maston, believed that we Baptists had a lot to learn from our Methodist kin. So he suggested that I read John Wesley's Journal. It's a remarkable account of a discerning man who lived almost the whole of that tumultuous and transformative century. People were flocking from the rural areas to the cities as agriculture gave way to industrialization. The cities choked on crime, disease, and pollution. Poor e were crushed under debt and often found their only escape in alcohol and drugs. The five percent of the population at the top controlled nearly one third of the national income and did what elites often do – they spent their money walling themselves off from the lived experience of ordinary people.
Not John Wesley. The best-known evangelist of his time – the Billy Graham of his day – was so popular the offerings poured in, making him a well-to-do man. But Wesley put himself on a budget of 30 pounds a year and gave the rest of it away – over the course of his lifetime he gave away nearly all of what he earned. "If I leave behind me ten pounds," he wrote, "you and all mankind [can] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber." In one of his most famous sermons he spoke on the Biblical passage that says "the love of money is the root of all evil" – but he had in mind "not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it÷..In the hands of [God's] children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked. It gives to the traveler and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of a husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. It may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death." I don't think philanthropy has had a more compelling mandate than John Wesley's. It was his inspiration to see that while charity may be good for the soul, justice is the salvation of society. Social justice became his great passion, the moral purpose of his calling.
Eliot Rosewater got it right. He's the multimillionaire protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut's satiric novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine. As Vonnegut put it, "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees." Read the book if you haven't, but be sure to wrap it in plain brown paper, because in can be quite subversive, as I discovered when I gave copies to some fellow trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation back in the late 60s.
Eliot Rosewater is not your typical buttoned-down philanthropoid. He is the heir to the fabulous Rosewater fortune – the fourteen largest in the nation, created, Vonnegut tells us, during the Civil War "through cowardice and knavery." He decides to leave the life of an international playboy to go home to his native Indiana – to the town of Rosewater, no less – to take over the family foundation. There he undergoes a transformation, becomes a volunteer fireman, throws open the office to all comers, and simply asks those who show up, "How can we help you?" He even runs ads in the local paper that say "Don't kill yourself, call the Rosewater Foundation." When they do call, he answers the phone himself. The town fathers are alarmed, to put it mildly, when they realize Eliot Rosewater intends to give all the money away to poor people –- many of them poor dirty people. They decide they must stop him, and the only way they can do so is to prove him insane, which they set out to do. I won't spoil the story for you, but I will tell it's a witty and wise book. One reviewer said that "Kurt Vonnegut managed to write a book about money and love without the ugly word versus between them" (and in doing so) shows that "money and love can exist together." Although the story does not end with the promise of a perfect world, its message – as other readers will tell you on Marek Vit's Kurt Vonnegut Corner – is worth hearing today: that if we can't change the world, we can at least help it, and that while "we may not be able to undo the harm that has been done, we can certainly love, simply because they are people, those who have been made useless by our past stupidity and greed, our previous crimes against our brothers. And if that seems insane, then the better the world for such folly."
Rachel Naomi Remen got it right. You may have heard of Rachel. She's a physician, teaches community medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, and co-founded (with Michael Lerner) Commonweal, the center for cancer patients in northern California. Several years ago I featured her work in a series for PBS called Healing and the Mind – about the impact of emotions on our health. In her recent book, My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel writes about how one day she came into an unexpected legacy of $20,000 on the condition that she give it away in any way she saw best. Even for so modest a mount of money she found herself on a steep learning curve, learning that "giving away money can be demanding and even lonely." She had developed a therapist's eye for growth in people, but "had never before noticed the places where things were trying to move forward in the culture, groups of people or individuals whose vision, if nurtured, could lead to a better world. She writes: "I suppose that I never saw them because I did not think I personally had the means to be of help to them and so they had nothing to do with me. You might never notice plants struggling to grow around you, either, until some one hands you a full watering can. But I could see them now. They were everywhere."
She was still trying to figure out what to do with the money when one evening she and a friend went out to eat at a local restaurant. At the very next table two men were dining so close she couldn't help overhearing them. One was telling the other about a program he and some of his Spanish-speaking colleagues had been running as volunteers, providing support groups for poor families who had lost children to illness, accident, or violence. Over a hundred couples had been helped to preserve marriages torn open by grief and blame and to parent their remaining children. But now many of the city's hospitals had merged or gone out of business or been taken over by organizations that had no interest in supporting such a program. For lack of money it was about to close.
Rachel says that by now she was eavesdropping shamelessly. She heard the second fellow ask the first one – whose name was Steve – "How much do you need to keep things going?" Steve answered sadly, "A great deal of money. More than we could ever raise." "How much is it?" his friend asked again. "Four thousand dollars," Steve replied. At this Rachel Remen reached across the few feet separating the tables, touched the man lightly on the arm, and said: "You got it, Steve." And reaching into her purse for her checkbook she filled it out on the spot.
Without this admittedly modest opportunity, Rachel says, "I doubt that I would have responded to the conversation at the next table or even heard it. I knew [now] that I had something of value to give [and once I gave it away] an odd thing has happened÷. I still notice the growing edge of things and I still respond to it. I give away my time, my skills, my network of friends, my life experience. You do not need money to be a philanthropist. We all have assets. You can befriend life with your bare hands."
This seems to me philanthropy at its most basic – to spot people at the "growing edge of things" – people whose vision, if nurtured, could lead to a better world – and give them the means to do more than they could do with just their bare hands.
It's what the Schumann brothers – Robert and Ford – were doing when they asked me to join them in 1991. We had become acquainted when their foundation underwrote some of my work on PBS. We discovered a mutual obsession about the state of democracy, including a belief that the fate of our country is bound up in the quality and integrity of news and information. Over the years many of our grants have gone to alternative media – to independent journalism and non-commercial public radio and television. Commercial media had made its peace with the little lies and fantasies that are the by-products of the merchandising process. From that Faustian bargain has come a steady gusher of the nonsense, violence, and trivia that today are the opiate of democracy. As the late scholar Cleanth Brooks wrote, on every front we are being assaulted by "the bastard muses:"
Propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause at the expense of the total truth;
Sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by and in excess of the occasion;
Pornography, which focuses on one powerful drive at the expense of the total human personality.
Day and night the media pipe these images into our culture and consciousness, bombarding us with mass-produced and mass-consumed carnage masquerading as amusement. We can no more escape their effects by turning off our own television or radio than we can escape the effect of automobile emissions in the neighborhood by leaving our own car in the garage. This coarsening of popular culture and public discourse has created a society where vulgarity, banality, and brutality are profitable commodities for corporations but at a great cost to democracy. The philosopher Leo Strauss once told his students that the Greek word for vulgarity – apeirokalia – means "the lack of experience in things beautiful." It would perhaps have come as no surprise to Strauss, as it came as no surprise to me, to read a few years ago that 50 million children in America are afflicted with a sickness for which our society has no name – the writer simply called it "intellectual poverty." Another version of "the lack of experience in things beautiful." The educator Herbert Kohl warned us: If television does not provide time for the consideration of people and events in depth, we may end up training another generation of TV adults who know what kind of toilet paper to buy, who know how to argue and humiliate others, but who are thoroughly incapable of the social and political literacy necessary to preserve and extend democracy. His plea fell on the deaf hears of the media tycoons who decide so much of what we see, read, and hear. But you and I can do something about that by putting money in the hands of creative spirits – producers, writers, journalists, and filmmakers and editors who share Henry David Thoreau's conviction that "to affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts."
At the Schumann foundation we have have also helped people without means buy a turn at the megaphone. You are no doubt familiar with the critic A. J. Liebling's remark that freedom of the press in America is guaranteed only to those who own one. Well, it's also true that freedom of speech is guaranteed only if you can afford it. There's a wonderful New Yorker cartoon of the newly crowned king who summons his courtiers to his throne and announces, "I want only three things during my reign: Wisdom, humility, and media exposure." It's not enough today to be wise and virtuous; wisdom and virtue don't guarantee you a hearing. "Out of sight, out of mind is the old adage. Out of media, out of mind is now the rule." In America today you have to buy your way into the public square.
Here's an example of what I mean: Some years ago people in the Ohio Valley of West Virginia woke up to the news that one of the largest pulp mills in America using chlorine dioxide bleach was going to land in their front yards. The operation would need ten thousand trees a day and would threaten three national forests as well as the region's drinking water. The deal had already been struck behind closed doors, the polluters and the politicians were in cahoots, and it looked like the public would be shut out altogether. But some outraged citizens decided to fight back. They organized the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to try and stop the plant. They had all the elements in place for a grassroots campaign: a dedicated volunteer base, strong leadership, and sound scientific and legal research supporting their position. But they didn't have a megaphone. Without a megaphone the press could ignore them and the general public would remain unaware of them. So the Schumman Foundation provided them a grant and some counsel on how to use it. With some of the money they bought newspaper, radio, and billboard ads urging the public to turn out for vigils and protests. They produced a video that was shown on local public television and then distributed to civic, school, and religious organizations. And they spent a few bucks on rallies including a costume and horse for "Paul Revere" to show up at the governor's mansion – on the anniversary, by the way, of the original Paul Revere's ride. Attendance at their rallies went from l00 to l000. And they won the fight: the developer gave up and canceled plans to build the plant.
Another example: A dozen years ago the Disney Corporation decided to build a sprawling amusement park in northern Virginia near the site of the first Battle of Bull Run. The fact that he intended to turn a piece of America's hallowed ground into a circus, parking lots, and traffic jams meant nothing to the Disney CEO, Michael Eisner: "I sat through many history classes where I read some of this [history] stuff," he said, "and I didn't learn anything." We thought it was time he learned something about history. So Schumann put up the money and a coalition of historians – C. Vann Woodward, David McCullough, Shelby Foote, John Hope Franklin, Arthur Schlesinger, and Doris Kearns Goodwin – began running ads to rally the public to the cause. One ad teased: "Mr. Eisner, maybe you didn't learn anything from history, but that doesn't give you the right to desecrate it." As more ads followed Disney saw that it faced a determined and skilled opposition and folded. . The last word belonged to Vann Woodward, who said: "Sometimes a few people can win great battles with words."
But someone had to buy the megaphone.
Our other main focus at the Schumann Foundation has been on money in politics. It became obvious to our board that issues of great concern to society – jobs, health, education, the environment – were all held hostage to the power of organized economic interests that could buy the representation they wanted in state legislatures and the Congress. Many of our grantees were citizens at the grassroots standing up to polluters, like those folks in Ohio. But even when they had their facts down, even when they had the support of their neighbors, even when they could claim the high moral ground, once they went to the state legislature or Congress to codify their success, they discovered the government had been bought right out from under them. . Voters may pull the levers in the voting booth but behind closed doors moneyed interests are pulling the strings.
So we threw ourselves into the fight to level the playing field. We funded investigative journalism to expose the corrupting power of money in politics. We funded legal strategies to challenge it. And we funded public information campaigns to mobilize against it. Polls we commissioned found that the majority of Americans want a different system, one where private money cannot buy public policy. The best alternative we've seen is called "Clean Money" under which qualified candidates who agree to abide by spending limits and refuse private donations can receive enough money from a public fund to compete against candidates who are privately financed. Just about every time voters have had a chance to pass "clean money" financing of state elections, they have done so – in states as disparate as independent Maine, liberal Massachusetts, and conservative Arizona. Arizona especially has become the most promising laboratory for opening politics to regular people with clean money. After all, the late Barry Goldwater had warned his native state to tame the power of money. Our republic is at stake, he said: "Electors must believe their vote counts. Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups who speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community." Goldwater was right: If we are to keep our democracy we have to take down the "For Sale" sign that hangs in the corridors of power. Otherwise, we'll be living in a country where winners take all and it won't be a healthy, safe, or fun place to be, even if you have the coffers of King Midas.
My Schumann colleagues and I believe equitable access to opportunity is the core of the American promise – that every citizen is meant to be politically equal and that each of us has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Because equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of democracy, Americans made primary schooling free to all. Because everyone deserves a second chance, debtors – especially the relatively poor – were protected by state law against their rich creditors. Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land and even supported squatter's rights. Equal access, long a hope, began to become reality in this country for millions of us. Although my parents were knocked down and almost out by the Depression and were poor all their lives, I went to good public schools. My brother made it to college on the GI bill. When I bought my first car with a borrowed loan of $450 I drove to a state university on free public highways and rested in public parks. Like millions of others, I was heir to a growing public legacy that shaped America as a shared project and became the central engine of our national experience.
A profound transformation is occurring in America. Inequality is greater than it's been since l929. Forty years ago the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent was 30-fold. Now it's more than 75-fold. Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately. But that's not the case. Middle-class and working people have to run harder and harder just to stay even and our social stratification has become alarming. Just this week the conservative journalist David Brooks, quoted in Time, points out that if you come from a family earning over $96,000 a year, your odds of getting a bachelor's degree by age 24 are one in three. If you come from a family earning under $36,000, it's one in l7.
Time is no Marxist rag. Neither is The Economist, which is considered by many to be the most principled and ablest defender of capitalism in the world. Earlier this year The Economist produced a sobering analysis of what is happening to the old notion that any American can get to the top. A growing body of evidence led the editors to conclude that with income inequality reaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age and social mobility not increasing at anything like the same pace as inequality, "The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society." Let me repeat that: "The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society." That alarm echoed a report last year by the American Political Science Association which found that "increasing inequalities threaten the American ideal of equal citizenship and that progress toward real democracy may have stalled in this country and even reversed."
Our political class seems indifferent to these warnings. Indifferent to the fact that more children are growing up in poverty in America than in any other industrial nation. Indifferent to the fact that millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago. Indifferent to the fact that while we have the most advanced medical care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans – eight out of ten of them in working families – are insured and cannot get the basic care they need.
There's a book I wish we could make required reading for every member of Congress: Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The Pulitzer Prize winner tells us that one of the main factors in the decline of earlier societies was the insulation of elites. Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula, for example, suffered as environmental degradation – deforestation, soil erosion, and poor water management – diminished food supplies. Chronic warfare made matters worse as more and more people fought over less and less land and resources. Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills eroding, "They were able to insulate themselves from problems afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving." Too late the elites realized they could not reverse the deteriorating environment, and they became casualties of their own privilege.
Any society, Diamond warns, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if people at the top insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions and from an awareness of the commonplace experiences of life. He goes on to describe an America where elites cocoon themselves "in gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools." Gradually they lose the motivation "to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Society Security, and public schools." At the end of this road is a state of nature – a war of all against all – "where the strong take what they can, and the weak suffer what they must."
Here is one of the great moral issues of democracy – and it's one you have the means to address. I applaud you for wrestling with the challenge of wealth, for coming together to explore how people of means can engage life's realities and the perils to democracy instead of denying or running from them. And I am honored that you asked me to join you. As I thought about this occasion I remembered my introductory course in anthropology taught by Gilbert McAllister at the University of Texas half a century ago. I can see "Dr. Mac" right now, in my mind's eye, recounting the years he had spent among the Apaches as a young graduate student... They had taught him the meaning of reciprocity. In the Apache tongue, he said, the word for grandfather and the word for grandson are one and the same, indicating the bond between the generations, linked to one another in an embrace of mutual obligation. With that he was off, expounding on the conviction that through the ages human beings have advanced more through collaboration than competition. For all the chest-thumping about rugged individuals and self-made men, he said, an ethic of cooperation inspired the social compromise that is the basis of civilization. Civilization, after all, is but a thin layer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. "Live and let live" is not enough to sustain a civilization; we have to move toward an active commitment of "live and help live."
My own father used to reminisce about growing up on the Red River, between Oklahoma and Texas. He was fourteen when his own father died during the flu epidemic in 1918. Neighbors washed my grandfather's body, neighbors dug his grave, and neighbors laid him in the earth. Through the years my father was one of several men in our church who took turns sitting beside the corpse of a departed friend or fellow congregant. He often drew the midnight shift and would go directly from his vigil to his job. Shortly before his own death, as we sat talking on the front porch, I asked him: "Why did you sit up all night when you had to drive your truck all the next day?" He seemed surprised by the question, as if it had never occurred to him, and then, without hesitation, he answered: "Because it was the thing we did."
The thing we did!
There, I suggest, in the commonplace philosophy of an ordinary man, is the antidote to the cynicism that grips our embattled and endangered democracy.
There is "the growing edge of things" that awaits your resources, and mine; your bare hands, and mine.
Democracy is the thing we do together, if it is to be done at all.
(Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, formerly the Florence and John Schumann Foundation)