STANLEY N. KATZ AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Shown here with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Stanley N. Katz wears the National Humanities Medal he received from the president in 2011. Mr. Katz shares his thoughts (and fears) on the rise of mega-foundations in a talk a on “Philanthropy: Private Wealth and the Public Interest” at the Princeton Public Library Tuesday, January 20 at noon. (Photo Courtesy of Mr. Katz)
Ever wondered about the apparent explosion of non-profit organizations in recent years, and pondered the effect on society of a growing independent sector? If so, Stanley N. Katz is the go-to expert.
As part of the Princeton Public Library’s Spotlight on the Humanities: Justice, Ethics, and Public Life series Mr. Katz will discuss “Philanthropy: Private Wealth and the Public Interest” in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library next Tuesday, January 20, at noon.
Mr. Katz has been observing philanthropic foundations since a friend was asked to become president of one in the 1970s and suggested they write a book together on the subject. Since then Mr. Katz has noted an important change in the field of philanthropy, the emergence of enormous foundations concomitant with the growth of enormous wealth in the 1990s. His talk will focus on this change and some of the history that led up to it.
His focus, therefore, is not on the small non-profit groups set up by individuals and local groups but rather the enormous foundations that have been created by the extremely wealthy. The term he uses is “Mega-Foundations,” which he defines as those with net assets of more than $1 billion.
Formerly Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor of the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University, Mr. Katz is a specialist on American legal and constitutional history, and on philanthropy and non-profit institutions.
According to the scholar, a decade ago there were only four or five philanthropic foundations that could be called “mega.” When he last checked, about six months ago, there were at least 40, he said, and now there are even more.
“An increase in nonprofit institutions began after World War II,” explained Mr. Katz in a recent telephone interview. “What was a steady increase started ratcheting up around 1990. The third sector, that is to say the non-profit or independent sector is a major force in civil society along with the state and the for-profit sectors.”
According to Mr. Katz, the privately funded institution, at the time of its creation, was a uniquely American product in the tradition of the American tenet that “government is best which governs the least.”
Beginning around the turn of the 20th century when rich “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr. were willing and able to use their money for the public good, philanthropic foundations were a mechanism for them to use pass on their enormous wealth to the public rather than leave it entirely to their heirs.
Although both Carnegie and Rockefeller were widely criticized for their tough self-interested behavior, their efforts seen at the time as “attempts to cleanse their reputations,” their intentions were to do public good, said Mr. Katz, who is interested in comparing today’s philanthropically inclined wealthy individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett with their predecessors.
How are they similar and how are they different? How are today’s mega foundations spending their money? Mr. Katz suggests that contemporary mega-foundations are significantly different.
Citing Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the controversial book by French economist Thomas Piketty, published in English last March, Mr. Katz said that today there is a much greater asymmetry of wealth in the United States than there was before the eventful year of 1929.
Mr. Piketty’s book examines historical changes in the concentration of income and wealth since the beginning of the industrial revolution and concludes that the importance of wealth in modern economies is approaching levels last seen before World War I. One of the French economist’s recommendations is that governments should step in now and adopt a global tax on wealth so as to prevent soaring inequality leading to future economic or political instability. His book prompted a broad and energetic debate about global inequality.
Mr. Katz wants to know how this present day inequality came about and what are its consequences? Are these mega-foundations influencing public policy in a way that threatens the democracy of the country?
With a core concern for what it take to sustain a democratic society, Mr. Katz has observed fundamental changes over the past two decades that he finds worrying. The expert in American legal and constitutional history as well as philanthropy and non-profit institutions will share his fears about ways in which public policies such as K-12 education are being determined by today’s mega-wealthy.
The author and editor of numerous books and articles and a member of various boards of trustees and scholarly organizations (he’s been president of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Organization of American Historians and the American Society for Legal History) Mr. Katz received his doctorate in British and American history from Harvard, where he also attended Law School in 1969-70. He has honorary degrees from several universities.
His writings on higher education policy can be read in the Chronicle of Higher Education and his recent research focuses upon the relationship of civil society and constitutionalism to democracy, and upon the relationship of the United States to the international human rights regime.
Co-sponsored by the the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library’s Spotlight on the Humanities: Justice, Ethics and Public Life series explores issues related to public life in an increasingly complex and global society. Future talks include Sam Daley-Harris, author of Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break between People and Government, on Wednesday, February 11, at noon. Titled “Making a Difference,” Mr. Daley-Harris’s presentation will include ways for individuals to make a difference in solving many of the world’s worst problems.
For more information about library programs and services, call (609) 924-9529 or visit www.princetonlibrary.org.