20 October 2011

Huntsman sympathizes with Wall Street occupiers

Psyche! It's not John Huntsman Jr. the presidential candidate but his father, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist John Huntsman Sr., who expressed sympathy with the Wall Street occupiers in an interview with the New York Times. He tells reporter Kirk Johnson (who was probably interested mainly in Huntsman's snarky comments on fellow Mormon and onetime political ally Mitt Romney) that he agrees with the occupiers' presumed premises that "the political system is broken" and that "ethics have foundered." The elder Huntsman also proposes himself as a greater philanthropist than the vaunted Warren Buffett. When Buffett invited him to give away half his fortune, Huntsman says, he suggested 80% instead. It's not clear how much of his fortune goes into his subsidization of cancer research, but plans to "keep opening [research] centers until we're the Mayo Clinic of cancer." Where Huntsman seems to differ with Buffett is in a belief that a billionaire's resources are more productively expended through philanthropy than through taxation. According to Johnson, Huntsman Sr. believes that "the rich, if they could be induced to greater generosity — and not simply be more stiffly taxed — could go a long way toward fixing things." His own work presumably serves as an example. Huntsman must suppose that he can do more to eradicate cancer by concentrating his wealth against it than if the government dispersed that wealth in many directions, and given the government's current priorities, he may well be right. But what if the government declared a "war" on cancer and committed the kind of resources to it that are usually committed to a war against another country? Might Huntsman then pledge more than his share of taxes to the effort? Or if he was concerned about effective management, would he offer his personal services to the government? Rather than jump to conclusions, let's observe that the theoretical raises some core questions about philanthropy and politics. Huntsman notes that too many people in his income class do little or nothing philanthropic. He'd like to see them "induced to greater generosity," but this inducement is apparently to remain a matter of moral suasion. Presuming that his own sense of obligation is sincere -- it's rooted in cancer's toll on his parents and his own close calls -- it still seems to fall somewhere short of a sense of duty. It's admirable for him to expect such an effort and expenditure of himself, and for him to expect it of his peers, but would he also allow that the public has a right to demand it of him and his more recalcitrant peers? Is Huntsman's philanthropy virtuous only because it is voluntary? Or does the need involved make the work imperative or mandatory regardless of his own motivations? Perhaps in utopian conditions billionaires could be depended upon to volunteer their resources for great public purposes, whether out of altruism or pure ego gratification -- but would you want to depend on voluntarism alone? Would there even be billionaires in utopia? That depends on the utopian you talk to, but in our own very topian (if not dystopian) conditions we can respect Huntsman's dedication, and even concede that some research might not get done without it, while we question whether he should have had to step in as a private philanthropist to further such an obvious public good, and whether some sick person's dependence on his good will is a good thing in the long run.


Anonymous said...

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Huntsman's donations to cancer research actually managed to pay for a breakthrough cure. Would that cure be readily available to everyone with cancer or only those who can afford to pay "what the market will bear"?

Judging by the history of the pharmaceutical industry, they would charge up the wazoo for the cure. So for the working class/poor people, Mr. Huntsman's philanthropy still does less for them than charging him a higher tax rate (coupled with electing responsible politicians, not partisan ideologists into office).

Samuel Wilson said...

Depends on whether Huntsman is running a pharmaceutical business or not. And the benefit to voters from taxing him depends, as you suggest, on whether politicians spend the money on curing cancer or killing dictators.

Anonymous said...

Then perhaps we (the American people) need to redefine "American interests" in terms of we, the people, rather than in terms corporate or business profits.