On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.
Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.
“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.
The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.
A freshman at Georgetown University, Mr. Gage was among the presenters at a breakout session, titled “Combating Human Trafficking,” that attracted a notable group of his peers. “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,“ he said. “And when I told her about trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that."
Thomas Kalil, a deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and one the event's main organizers, described the intent of the event: "A lot of this is not just, you know, collaborations between the administration and philanthropists...but philanthropists finding each other, finding other philanthropists with shared interests." In other words, networking for the 0.01 percent.
Justin McAuliffe, a 24-year-old heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, was similarly impressed by the crowd. “Hilton, Marriott and Carlson,” he said. “That is cool.”
The article is quite timely. In light of Thomas Piketty's recent tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century, we have seen a lot of discussion of the resurgence of "patrimonial capitalism", as vast inequality reproduces the character of Old World aristocracy (despite the continued use of democratic rhetoric and mythology).
A forthcoming article by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page has also received a fair amount of attention. By analyzing 1,779 policy outcomes during a period of over two decades, they conclude that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."
Campaign finance reform that helps counteract the effects of Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC is important; however, as events like the one above show, incessant fundraising isn't the only way in which money corrupts democracy. Politicians still value the opinions of the rich more, and we can see this in countries that have far stricter campaign finance laws than the US. (See Europe, austerity.) With money, comes access the power and the ability to help shape the national agenda. Money might not be speech, but it makes your speech worth listening to, in the eyes of politicians (many of whom, themselves, are of the same class).