Is All Money Good Money?

How 'tainted' must a funder be before a charity is obliged to reject the donation?


Ginia Bellafante, the Big City columnist for the NYT asks a perennial question: “When Should Cultural Institutions Say No to Tainted Funding?

The setup is long and uninspiring:

On Monday afternoon, Jerry Saltz, the longtime art critic at New York Magazine, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he has gone nearly once a week for three decades. After two hours of taking in “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” he left and headed toward the fountain on the northern end of the plaza out front, which bears the name of its benefactor, David H. Koch. Mr. Saltz was carrying a long strip of paper that had been printed to blend in with the granite used for the fountain. The words on it matched the typeface of the fountain’s inscription. Mr. Saltz then attached his sign to the fountain, so that it no longer read “David H. Koch Plaza.” Instead it declared, “Climate Change Denier Plaza.”

People cheered and clapped and took out their phones. Mr. Saltz, who is married to the co-chief art critic of The New York Times, Roberta Smith, picked up the scraps of tape he had used that had fallen to the ground — he did not want to litter — and shared a picture of his act of guerrilla resistance with his 502,000 followers on Twitter. The Met removed the sign quickly and offered no comment when I called its spokesman to ask how the gesture was received. Had the museum banned him from going back, Mr. Saltz told me, he would have prostrated himself before its executives and begged to be readmitted. “I can’t live if living is without the Met,” he said. “I know the act is riddled with protest, but it was a guttural response. I’d walked by so many times and seeing the name David Koch had bothered me for such a long time.”

In the fall of 2014, the plaza in front of the museum, which runs along Fifth Avenue for four city blocks, opened to the public after a two-year reconstruction that cost $65 million, the entire sum of which was supplied by Mr. Koch, the famous backer of right-wing causes and work in climate-change skepticism in particular. Among the many recipients of the family’s largess is, for instance, the Competitive Enterprise institute, a nonprofit libertarian think tank that published a blog post several years ago comparing a prominent Penn State climate scientist, Michael Mann, to the former football coach and pedophile Jerry Sandusky, arguing that Mr. Mann had “molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

The Trump presidency has, in many ways, been like a tuning fork applied to the city’s soul, causing it to vibrate again after years in which it had seemed incapable — dulled and flattened by the growing presence of Rite Aid and meal kits and complacency and billionaire dormitories. On a Friday evening last month, a dozen activists stood up in Clyde Frazier’s, a Midtown restaurant, chanting, “No justice, no bread,” in protest of Tom Cat Bakery, a major supplier, that has attracted the antagonisms of the group Rise and Resist for its treatment of immigrants. In January, protesters lined up in front of the Museum of Natural History to call for Rebekah Mercer, another influential conservative philanthropist who has supported climate-science denial, to step down from the museum’s board.

Frankly, I find all of those examples poor. I get why the Koch brothers are so controversial but they’re solid citizens. And, seriously, the worst they can come up with is that an organization that they help fund ran a blog post one time that made an off-color comparison? I suppose being a climate-change denialist makes one a poor fit for the board of a natural history museum but, really, meh.

Still, the overall question is interesting:

But even Mr. Staltz, in all of his newfound rebel spirit, does not believe that unattractive money should be rejected altogether. “I know we need the money of rich people in America to fund the arts. I’m very glad that the government doesn’t control art in this country,” he said. “I just don’t think that museums should sell out so easily.” On the other hand, Mr. Koch is so famously associated with his opinions that the matter of his name featured so prominently in front of one of the world’s most celebrated museums would fool virtually no one into thinking that maybe, in fact, he is a lot more like George Soros than we think.

Bellafante conflates three issues: accepting donations, naming rights, and power.

I’m a near-absolutist on money: take it.

In principle if, say, David Duke wanted to write a check to the Holocaust Museum, I’d say “cash that puppy.” The caveat is that some would go bonkers over the contribution and generate a false controversy that’s probably not worth the institution’s time. But I see no moral problem with taking money from someone whose politics differ even from a core mission of the institution in question; the money spends the same.

On the less extreme cases presented here, I just don’t see any issue. My politics are closer to Koch’s than Soros’. The Koch brothers are doctrinaire free-market libertarians and Soro is a devout social democrat. But they’re both well within the pale. The notion that someone ought reject their money because their politics are controversial is absurd.

It gets more complicated when we get to naming rights and much more so when it comes to power over an institution’s direction. Money is one thing. But if that money comes with strings that forced the institution to compromise its mission? Of course you reject that.

David Koch is a well-known patron of the arts. I don’t see any problem with his name going on an art museum he’s generously funded. But I don’t care how much money David Duke contributes; his name simply can’t go on a Holocaust museum, let alone the Holocaust Museum.

Rebecca Mercer, though, is an odd choice for the board of a natural history museum. But, really, it depends what her role is there. If it’s basically honorific as a reward for fundraising prowess, it’s not a big deal. If she’s steering them to hide the history of climate change, it’s a non-starter.

The piece closes:

In the same vein, museums might strongly consider rejecting further donations from the Sackler family, major philanthropists in the arts, whom the world recently learned bear a large share of responsibility for the opioid epidemic, through their pharmaceutical company’s production and fervid promotion of OxyContin. Having facilitated one of the biggest public health crises in modern American history, they need a new profile. The art world should not help them achieve it.

I’m not sure I agree.

Virtually any longstanding foundation one can think of traces its origin to an individual or family trying to burnish its reputation. Everything from the Nobel Prizes to the Rockefeller Foundation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation comes with some baggage. The path to acquiring such massive amounts of wealth that you can fund a major charity almost always entails some level of controversy and human misery. While it’s perhaps problematic to allow them to plaster over their sins with charitable giving, I’m not sure why we’d want to stop them from balancing whatever harm they’ve caused with good.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Modulo Myself says:

    Saltz isn’t really wrong here–ranging from the existence of Jeff Koons to rip-off exhibitions, the art world is as evil as climate change denialism, which itself is no different than Holocaust denialism. But a far more worthy cause would be looking at the combination of high profile donors wishing for publicity and the Met’s financial problems. If the Kochs cared about the institution or art, they would be donating money so that the Met did not have to charge a fixed admission for the first time in its history. Of course, they’re weird selfish guys who inherited their lives and are resentful they don’t have the cache of Rockefellers. But the museum’s leadership is equally at fault. They should be making donors pay for what builds institutions rather than some bs plaza.

    And if the Kochs really wanted to put their name in the minds of liberal NYers, they would be paying for free admission for the next ten years with the Koch Ticket.




    0



    0
  2. michael reynolds says:

    How about this for an obvious idea: we want to take bad people’s money for good causes, it means they’ll have less to spend on bad causes.




    5



    0
  3. Modulo Myself says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Except non-profits can be perfect examples of a bad cause. Only a non-profit with probably the highest-profile profile charitable board in America could manage to have a 3B endowment and an 8M operating deficit.




    0



    0
  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    … no. All money is not equal.

    Sure, it is equally fungible, but not at all equal.

    There is money that will get you killed, and as Trump will find out, expedient easy money that will cause him to lose the presidency.

    To quote a financial muse, Courtney Love:

    Go for credit in the straight world
    Look a dealer in the eye
    Go for credit in the real world, won’t you try
    I got some credit in the straight world
    I lost a leg, I lost an eye
    Go for credit in the real world you will die
    It’s the credit in the straight world
    Leave your money when you die
    Lots of credit in the real world gets you high
    I got some credit in the straight world
    I lost a leg, I lost an eye
    Go for credit in the real world, you will die

    If money was money and it didn’t matter, then there would not be laws against money laundering.

    Bad money for good purposes doesn’t work. Too easy to justify what “good” is.




    3



    1
  5. Andy says:

    I agree with you here. It seems to me that reasonable people can walk and chew gum at the same time – ie. they can oppose the Koch’s positions on Climate Change and laud their support for the arts and other efforts.




    2



    0
  6. James Joyner says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    If money was money and it didn’t matter, then there would not be laws against money laundering.

    I think that’s a completely different category. We make money laundering illegal to prevent covering up an underlying illegality. But if, say, a drug kingpen died suddenly and law enforcement was for whatever reason unable to go after that money, I’d be perfectly fine with a charity he’d willed his estate to taking the money. Ditto a Bernie Madoff’s money.




    4



    0
  7. michael reynolds says:

    Money has no morality. The moral effect of money is the issue. Is the money being used to cure cancer? Then the money is ‘good.’ Is it being used to advance genocide? Then the money is, ‘bad.’ The money is defined not by the giver but by the use it is put to.

    If a bad man gives a dollar to a homeless guy is the homeless guy obligated to give the money back? Or can he buy himself a cup of coffee with a clear conscience?




    6



    0
  8. MBunge says:

    @Modulo Myself: as evil as climate change denialism, which itself is no different than Holocaust denialism.

    I will give you $100 to say this face-to-face to an off-duty member of the Israel Defense Force.

    And as long as you are enjoying the benefits of living in a country founded in part on the enslavement of Africans and the virtual genocide of American Indians, I’m not sure how much moral standing you have to object to money from either of the Kochs.

    Mike




    1



    10
  9. Modulo Myself says:

    @MBunge:

    The parents of a close friend of mine survived the camps as teens, and he thinks the same as I do, so I’ll take my chances.




    6



    0
  10. gVOR08 says:

    Climate change denialism is something of a proof test. It is a clear case where all the evidence is on the other side. While people like George Will make a living off silly semantic arguments, no scientific argument really exists. Therefore anyone arguing against acting on climate change is motivated by ideology and/or greed. The Koch Bros are willing to see widespread suffering to maintain their profits.

    But climate change denial is hardly the extent of their sins. Without looking very hard, they heavily support:
    – the supposedly grass roots Tea Party
    -ALEC
    – anti-union activism
    – opposition to the minimum wage. Not to raising it, to the concept.
    – Republicans in the midterms
    – much of the conservative Think (sic) Tank and activist infrastructure
    – Scott Walker
    – Mike Pence

    Now James, you might not feel strongly that all of that is evil, but should we really let these people buy our governments?




    4



    1
  11. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    Now James, you might not feel strongly that all of that is evil, but should we really let these people buy our governments?

    I’m generally against regulating campaign contributions and advertising, for a whole variety of reasons. But that’s not what this thread is about.




    2



    1
  12. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Money has no morality.

    Technically speaking, yes. That said, money is controlled by people, and they do have morality.

    In the case of non-profits – well, there wouldn’t be a single one of them in NYC that would be in existence if they’d primly turned their noses up at the robber baron money which established them. That was then, though. This is now.

    The choice for a premium non-profit today is the association which unavoidably comes with accepting the money – and the potential consequences that association might have with respect to future fundraising if your donor base at large tends to find the associations connected with the donor they’ve accepted from to be objectionable.

    Koch doesn’t care. He’s trying to buy something to take a little of the stink off, IMO, which is why he plastered his name all over the thing. He wants people to know he gave the money. Contrast that with Chuck Feeney …

    Sadly, those days of anonymous philanthropy are largely over. People today want the association, and they’ll avoid giving (or worse, give somewhere else) if that association is a negative one.




    1



    0
  13. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Joyner:

    But if, say, a drug kingpen died suddenly and law enforcement was for whatever reason unable to go after that money, I’d be perfectly fine with a charity he’d willed his estate to taking the money.

    But likely, it doesn’t, it goes to kids. And again, as with Trump getting his father’s money, we see the problem that developed.

    Even more so, Ivanka thinks that she’s presidential.

    I would rather the government seizes it all and funds social security and Medicare.

    (Yes, I do have a problem with Citizen’s united and the elimination of the “death tax”.)




    3



    1
  14. James Joyner says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Again, that has fuck all to do with this thread.




    3



    2
  15. wr says:

    @HarvardLaw92: The Morgan Library is a beautiful place, as is the Frick. And the Getty Center and the Huntington Library. I don’t care if rich people want their names whitewashed after they’re dead.




    2



    0
  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @wr:

    I totally agree, but those instances either date from a different time (Morgan, Frick and Huntington) or the guy whose name is on the building didn’t actually have anything to do with building it (Getty was essentially created by other people long after Getty himself had died).

    The thing today, sadly, is more aimed at purchasing either notoriety or acceptance, IMO, than it is at altruism. These donors are more concerned with the benefits they accrue from giving than they are with the mission of the org they’re giving to.




    3



    0
  17. gVO08 says:

    @James Joyner: Allow me to expand, in line with the post. The issue with David Koch is not simply that he is a climate change denier. The issue is that he and his brother have put tens, more likely hundreds, of millions into preventing any meaningful action on climate change. They have also put huge sums into buying anti-democratic political success on other issues. They put huge sums into the arts and other good causes to buy approval. In a just society everyone with a good cause would cheerfully take their money, but otherwise shun them from polite society as evil gnomes who are actively trying to destroy the world.

    How would you feel about George Soros if he were really doing what the right accuses him of, spending sums comparable to the Koch Bros to achieve a socialist overthrow of the U. S.?




    2



    0
  18. DrDaveT says:

    I get why the Koch brothers are so controversial but they’re solid citizens.

    Unless you are yourself a climate change denier, you are aware that the Koch brothers are working hard (and spending a fortune) to ensure that tens (or perhaps hundreds) of millions of people will die, in order to protect their…something. Not sure what, given that they’re willing to spend so much on it.

    You seriously consider that the behavior of a “solid citizen”?

    You are not doing much for the stereotype that a “Conservative” is someone who will kill thousands of random innocents to protect the property of one.




    5



    1
  19. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Joyner:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Again, that has fuck all to do with this thread.

    James, it could be that our beliefs on capital and morality differ greatly.

    You say: “I get why the Koch brothers are so controversial but they’re solid citizens.” On this, I disagree. @gVO08 seems to agree with me on this.

    You say: “I’m a near-absolutist on money: take it.” I disagree. I strongly disagree.

    People are flawed. Yes. Poor people are flawed. Sure. Rich people are flawed. OK… but a flawed rich person can do SO much more damage to those around them and depending on their capabilities even damage the country itself.

    Our system no longer taxes the rich, or companies, or familial exorbitant inheritance. So we have people that have MASSIVE financial capacity for destruction. (Wealthiest 1% will soon own more than rest of us combined)

    So, if you are saying that money is money and museums should take it… I can’t agree. Maybe I’m just distrustful, but somehow an ego-stroking building with a name on it may likely just be a more appealing choice than actually paying taxes.

    But as you say, you are closer to the Koch “free market libertarians”. Which is why you can’t see my position. Libertarians don’t need to actually expect to function in the real world.

    Which brings me to the Trump man-child. Money and Power. This person in one year has destroyed the perceived American global leadership. And those around him seem completely corrupted by money.




    4



    0
  20. Liberal Capitalist says:

    James, I’m in moderation for quoting you.




    1



    0
  21. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    Again, that has fuck all to do with this thread.

    There are things that really can’t be viewed in isolation. Large piles of money do not come with no strings attached — the donors want something for their donation.

    It’s like you are modeling equations for cattle ranching with the assumption that the entire mass of the cow is in a single point. Point-cows might be good enough for some measurements, for instance if you were tracking the cow’s trajectory over the moon, but the model breaks down if you are trying to put them on cattle cars.

    (If a cow were to jump over the moon, she would burn up on reentry)




    1



    0
  22. de stijl says:

    From the OP:

    I suppose being a climate-change denialist makes one a poor fit for the board of a natural history museum but, really, meh.

    You literally just went with “meh” as your response.




    1



    0
  23. de stijl says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    To quote a financial muse, Courtney Love

    I up-voted you but this deserves a follow up comment.

    Courtney Love is an obviously flawed human being. Publicly melting down is kinda her go-to move.

    But she is a good song-writer. And Hole was a good band.

    She writes from a place where she does not care what you think about her but she is going to say her piece anyway. I like her defiance.




    0



    0
  24. de stijl says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Courtney Love is a great example on this thread.

    She is talented. She is hated. She married some rando dude who did nothing with his life. Seriously what was that dude’s name? He was in a band.




    0



    0
  25. de stijl says:

    Another up for Courtney is that she was basically the #MeToo ur-girl. And she was owning that hard and proud 20 years ago.

    Think through her lyrics in “Malibu” or “Violet” or “Miss World”

    She was talking about sexual abuse in the music / entertainment industry and we just ignored it. It was right there in plain sight 20 years ago and we just ignored it.

    Listen to “Violet” and really hear that “Go on take everything / Take everything/ Take everything / I want you to” lyric.

    She made some sub-optimal choices in her life, but that woman is undoubtedly a Bad Ass.




    0



    0
  26. James Joyner says:

    @gVO08: @DrDaveT: I think it absurd to argue that, because they have different policy preferences, they’re literally trying to kill people. I think the science is settled on the fact that the climate is getting warmer and that mankind is a major contributor to that. What to do about that isn’t a matter for science, although science can certainly help point us to likely effects.

    @Liberal Capitalist: If your argument is simply that “All money comes with strings,” it’s on topic and interesting. I don’t know all that much about how art museums are run. How does having David Koch’s name on MOMA lead to public policy outcomes? Just because his name is legitimated? Or is there more to it?

    @de stijl: Yes because, as I note later in the post, it depends on what her role is. If she’s setting policy, it’s a problem. If she’s just on the letterhead in thanks for helping raise a ton of money . . . meh.




    0



    1
  27. James Joyner says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    James, I’m in moderation for quoting you.

    The post in question had three links in it (2 @ replies and one other) but the system isn’t set up to automatically moderate posts until they have 5 links. I’m not sure what’s triggering the moderation queue for some of these; I’ve put in a ticket. Ideally, I’d exclude @ replies from the count altogether, since they’re not likely to be generated by spambots.




    1



    0
  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    Ditto a Bernie Madoff’s money.

    Have to disagree with this. Bernie stole all his money, including any money he may have given to charity. It wasn’t his money to give away. Any charities who received money from him should give it to whatever restitution fund there may be.

    As much as I loath the Koch Bros and everything they are doing, they have not, AFAIK, engaged in outright theft.




    2



    0
  29. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Bernie stole all his money, including any money he may have given to charity. It wasn’t his money to give away. Any charities who received money from him should give it to whatever restitution fund there may be.

    Sure. The “Ditto” was in reference the preceding sentence: “But if, say, a drug kingpen died suddenly and law enforcement was for whatever reason unable to go after that money, I’d be perfectly fine with a charity he’d willed his estate to taking the money.” Presumably, there are procedures in place to take Madoff’s money and restore some of it to defrauded investors. I’m just saying that Madoff’s taint wouldn’t follow the money.




    1



    0
  30. PJ says:

    David Koch is on another level of evil than David Duke. David Duke is a two-bit player.

    Not saying that David Duke doesn’t have horrible views and ideas, but the impact and destruction (on society, to the the US, and to the World) he’s responsible for pales compared to what David Koch is responsible for. And the worst is yet to come.




    1



    0
  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    Presumably, there are procedures in place to take Madoff’s money and restore some of it to defrauded investors.

    There was a fund set up by the NY AG to distribute all his seized assets, not sure about the details.

    I’m just saying that Madoff’s taint wouldn’t follow the money.

    But his cocaine would. 😉




    0



    0
  32. wr says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I’m really not disagreeing with you. I shudder when I see the Koch name on an institution I respect. Unfortunately we’ve set up the country now so that such institutions have to depend on these evil rich bastards, because the notion of us coming together as a people to support our culture — say, through the instrument of government — is now considered worse than communism.




    2



    0
  33. gVOR08 says:

    The Kochs have been disputing the very existence of global warming, not details of what we should do about it.

    To be clear, James, I’m not inflating political differences into a hyperbolic statement about killing people. I am also not saying the Kochs are “trying” to kill people. They, probably more than Exxon, are responsible for us not dealing with global warming. Global warming is killing people.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/global-warming-and-health/
    Therefore the Koch brothers are killing people.

    And whatever BS, and perhaps even genuinely felt motivated belief, they throw out, they are doing it to protect their profits.




    1



    0