Historically, my Nation subscription waxes and wanes -- here one year, gone the next. It's just unbearably wishy-washy; some issues are so sodden with the ennui of being the house organ of vectorless Democrats that only a true flagellant could enjoy.
But among the venerable mag's several mitigating virtues one finds a welcome and still somewhat unusual attention to the role of philanthropy in shaping public life -- a touchy, even risky, topic to enage, but one of desperate importance. The field's recondite opacity has largely defied thoroughgoing scrutiny even by the emergent blogosphere, which hasn't been shy to talk dollars and cents in the political arena. [The pseudonymous Phil Anthropoid's "Hail, Sons & Daughters of Carnegie!" blog is a noteworthy exception.] The Nation has tackled the ineptitude of liberal funders; the resulting putsch of conservative funders; the ironic roots of (now) left-leaning capital.
Liza Featherstone's outstanding "On the Wal-Mart Money Trail" in the Nov. 21 issue -- that's the last issue before the one washing its hands of pro-occupation Democrats -- takes this attention to the many-branched tendrils of the eleemosynary creeper in an intriguing direction.
She examines the ideological underpinnings of corporate giving -- "charitable" gifts to advocates of doing away with the estate tax, of course, but also the archipelago of small-time handouts for local civic groups that cheaply buy local goodwill and grease the skids for enormous tax subsidies.
We are supposed to applaud philanthropy--the very word connotes altruism and "giving back"--but Walton and Wal-Mart giving serves as a reminder that philanthropy provides an alternative to taxation, a way for rich people and corporations to decide what to do with their extra money, as opposed to letting the rest of us decide through our elected governments. Since charitable donations are a tax write-off, as Krehely points out, "they are supposed to benefit the public good." He thinks it is reasonable to ask whether a family's--or a company's--philanthropy serves the common good, or at least enough good "to make up for the public revenue that we're losing."
Can I get an amen?
Featherstone's piece forms part of a Wal-Mart-scrutiny quintet orchestrated around the Robert Greenwald Wal-Mart flick being run by our friends at Brave New Films.
The others are:
- "Wal-Mart's China Price" over at DIA user Alternet, on the company's relationship with "industry-written global trade and finance rules."
- Another Alternet piece on the company's exploitation of public subsidies, "Wal-Mart's Tax On Us."
- "Open Doors, Closed Minds" at The American Prospect, about the company beating up an unfortunate naif in its employ.
- In These Times' "Symbol of a System," succinctly subtitled, "What do you get when you cross gutted labor laws with a corporate culture of impunity? Why, Wal-Mart, of course!"
If you didn't get the memo from the MoveOn mailing list, The High Cost of a Low Price is being screened all around the country this week, courtesy of DIA's Distributed Events tool. It's not too late to catch a showing in your area.