Mingus the Super Dog and I took our lunch break out the door and up past Marin Stables along Wood Lane Creek – here he is doing his best imitation of Dug (“squirrel!”) from the Pixar movie, UP! – and then over the ridge and back down again along Deer Park Creek (these out-the-door hikes being yet another reason I love this town…).
Those creeks got me thinking about today’s report from the conservative Philanthropy Roundtable (paid for by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation), which disputes the right of “governmental authority to regulate the activities of American philanthropists.” (h/t to @sharonschneider – you can read her stuff here). This is but the latest salvo in a spitting war ignited by a recent report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which had the audacity to suggest that foundations ought to straighten up and fly right or risk greater scrutiny from the federales. Imagine that: a watchdog organization that committed the inexcusable philanthropic faux pas of being impolite! Quel horror!
I’ll leave it to the lawyers and the good folks at NCRP to do the internal critique, but here’s the thing: any kindergartner knows that if someone does you a favor, hey buddy, you owe something back. And let’s be clear: the charitable tax deduction is a major solid to the wealthy in our society, something that goes way beyond the altruistic desire to serve the public good, whatever that is. Anyone who doesn’t think there’s a quid pro quo here – sheltered assets in exchange for a modicum of regulation – is kidding themselves. Maybe that’s not so important for the $25 bucks you’re going to donate to Mother Jones right now (hey! that means you! now!) but put a couple hundred mill on the table and you’re talking serious money. Take the charitable deduction away, and let’s see how long Fidelity and Schwab stay in the charitable giving business. Or how long it takes for the next Gates Foundation to pop up.
So how do Wood Lane Creek and Deer Park Creek come into the mix? Living out west for the past twenty-five years, you get a pretty finely tuned sense of two things: how much water is in the Marin Municipal Water District reservoir system, and how long it’ll be til the earth stops shaking. Can’t do much about the latter, but there’s an entire body of law – OMG! Regulation! – that’s been built up to help us figure out how to manage our water supplies.
It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (read this to see why) but there’s one thing that’s settled: the land alongside Wood Lane and Deer Park Creeks may be partways privately owned, but the water that flows down those creekbeds is held in the public trust. That’s true even if you have a grandfathered right to withdraw water out of the Corte Madera Creek watershed. You can do it, but you can be damned sure that there will rules about when, how much, and so on. And guess
what: the endangered steelhead that spawn in our creeks have rights too! Just ask anyone (that would be me) who’s had to repair their creekbank after a nasty winter storm;we’re talking permitting hell, shall we?). Hell, they’ll actually put you in jail if you’re caught sucking water from those little fishies! (Try explaining that to the dudes at San Quentin…)
Well, the way I see it, philanthropic money is just like the water in our creeks: it’s being held by private hands on behalf of the public trust. And the way the public trust gets expressed and defined is through our public institutions, namely, the govmint. Now the quality of public decision making may not be a whole lot better than what happens in private, but you know what, that’s besides the point. The point is that “we the people” have a permanent, standing claim on how private philanthropic actors behave. And if we don’t like what they’re doing, we have every damned right to get our elected officials and agency bureaucrats to make new rules and regs to get them to behave properly.We can argue about the extent of that regulation – that’s called politics – but no amount of conservative legal sophistry can extinguish that right.
That’s the tradeoff, guys.
Because you know what? We all live downstream.