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April 19, 2014 12:21 PM Did someone say patrimonial capitalism? The White House hosts a meeting of teenage billionaire “philanthropists”

By Kathleen Geier

Thomas Piketty, call your office!

Today’s New York Times — in the Fashion and Style section, but of course! — reports on a White House meeting of “100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes.” Some of the people quoted in the article are as young as 19, and they are from family names you’ll recognize: Marriott, Pritzker, Rockefeller, etc.

The whole article is creepy beyond belief. Let me count a few of the ways:

1. A Democratic White House is hosting this plutocrats’ party? Really?

2. While the article does emphasize the youth of the “philanthropist” attendees, in a way that seems to demonstrate skepticism, it does not examine the truth value of their do-gooding claims. For example, this is briefly mentioned, but goes unanalyzed:

One topic that seemed to generate intense interest among the wealthy heirs was impact investing, which refers to a socially conscious form of investing that seeks to generate both a social benefit and a meaningful financial return.

I for one would like to hear more about this. Without knowing more, I’m extremely dubious. It sounds like another variation of those “public-private partnerships” we hear so much about, that so frequently end up doing little more than enriching private actors, creating bad jobs, and robbing taxpayers blind.

3. There is of course the Piketty angle, which has to do with the rise of patrimonial capitalism, or capitalism dominated by inherited wealth. These kids are the nouveau American version of ancien regime European aristocracy. As the Times reports, this class of young plutocrats is about to inherit a virtually unprecedented amount of loot:

Policy experts and donors recognize that there’s no better time than now to empower young philanthropists. Professionals in the field, citing an Accenture report from 2012, estimate that more than $30 trillion in wealth will pass from baby boomers to younger generations by around 2050. At the same time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (no relation to this reporter) and the nonprofit consulting group 21/64 have concluded in a recent study on philanthropic giving that heirs are becoming involved in family foundations at an earlier age — specifically in their 20s and 30s — and imprinting them with the social values of their generation.

4. Finally, this section of the piece, by reporter Jamie Johnson, is beauty itself. Oh the irony!

(Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.)

Atrios recently wrote, “If only it could be revealed that the New York Times Style section has actually been fiction penned by Andy Kaufman for the past several decades [!]” If only!

UPDATE: Digby and Harold Pollack have more, and both are extremely astute as usual. Digby really gets to the heart of it, I think:

It’s very nice that many of these young idealistic aristocrats want to do good deeds. But this is really nothing more than good old fashioned noblesse oblige which basically leaves the betterment of man to the whims of rich people. One of the big improvements democracy was supposed to bring was that the people themselves decided how to organize society rather than depending on the kindness of aristocrats. Even great philanthropists of the gilded age like Andrew Carnegie believed in a huge confiscatory tax of great estates in order that the government of the people might make the decisions rather than the heirs of great fortunes.
But we’re going the wrong way again. So if you have a good idea or want to help people or just need a job —- figure out which of the wealthy young scions of the new aristocracy might be amenable to your needs and figure out a way to kiss their asses in exactly the way they like them kissed. That’s the major skill we’re all going to need in our so-called “meritocracy”.
Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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