Peter Buffett and the Media-‘Karpman Drama Triangle’ Complex

Yesterday, I was disappointed to see the op-ed by Peter Buffett in the NYT decrying philanthropy as a superficial form of absolution for the rich. That said, I’ve learned to understand that when you see an extreme opinion like this in the public sphere, it exists because there is some important truth to it that the public wants to hear; you just need to be careful not to accept that truth as the whole story. Usually, over the next few days, a real conversation ensues that integrates that viewpoint into something more balanced and complete. Indeed, Howard Husack at Forbes has already published a rebuttal. This is another, as well as an attempt to acknowledge some of the good points that Buffett makes.

Humans love to create villian-victim-hero narratives, and the rich are our very favorite villains in a world of high inequality. The rich have so much, and the poor so little, so surely the latter only exists to support the former, right? It is true that much suffering in the world is caused by exploitation and selfishness. I am a big believer, for example, in the idea that domestic farm subsidies are distorting the global market in a way that negatively impacts the developing world. These too, however, are enacted in the name of protecting the American poor, who just happen to be quite a bit richer than the foreign poor. It’s complicated.

Suffering is not always caused, however, as much as we’d like to believe that. In many cases, it simply exists, and capitalism does quite a bit of good to counteract it. Capitalism did not invent malaria or (most) other ailments, but it did create the infrastructure that allows for the invention of vaccines and other kinds of cures. Pharmaceutical companies may withhold expensive drugs from people who would benefit from them in the name of profit, but you cannot state this fact without also acknowledging that they brought something into the world that provides great benefit to many people. Capitalism did not invent warfare, but trade provides everyone with a clear reason not to fight. Capitalism did not invent rape, but economic empowerment does help young women avoid being trapped in dangerous situations. Excessive consumption is tautologically bad, but consumption itself is not. We should avoid propagating a perverse culture to the developing world, but it is equally wrong to characterize all of the fruits of the western economy as toxic.

Buffett similarly casts the term “R.O.I.” in an unambiguously dissatisfactory light, but he neglects to mention that this came into the vernacular as a counter to the conspicuous lack of concern for leverage and efficiency among non-profits. This is particularly ironic in a post which partially argues that philanthropy fails to get beyond intentions. We hate the acronym because it reminds us of financial returns, but why is that rational when “return” is really used here to refer to lives saved and empowerment created? Is there any motive at all for hating this term other than mental association with a sector that people love to hate? This is no better than the use of the term “death panels” to try to vilify Britian’s NICE institute, whose raison d’être is to ensure that every dollar spent on healthcare helps as many people as possible. Colorful language misleads and we must look beyond it to reach understanding.

I am grateful for many of the points Buffett raises in his article. We do need to make sure we’re making investments that will have lasting impact and don’t just “kick the can down the road”. We need to be thoughtful and wary of unintended consequences. We need to avoid spreading the over-consumption built into our culture. We also, however, need to avoid demonizing groups that can be (and in many cases, already are) a force of good. Not all philanthropists are the same, nor all philanthropy. We can eliminate much of the waste in the system and focus more on better opportunities. We can move towards humanism and raise awareness for the fact that we are all part of one community. We can build towards the future. We can help humanity thrive. We can try.

P.S. If you want to learn more about finding leverage in philanthropy, I highly recommend GiveWell. If you want to counteract inequality, consider giving directly.

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