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The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture, Jan. 29, 2015
By Carol Jackson
America’s billionaires are influencing public policy. Should we rejoice or worry? New Yorker investigative reporter Jane Mayer, foundation president/political scientist James Piereson and businessman/donor J. Adam Abram discussed the impact of big money on American democracy in a public lecture at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.
Mayer is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has covered the role of “dark money” in politics. She is working on a book about the families who have funded the modern conservative movement in politics, including the Koch brothers.
She didn’t pull any punches with her opening statement. She pointed to the evolution of the use of nonprofit corporations, 501(c)(4)’s, to raise money for political causes.
“The use of this kind of nonprofit for political spending has exploded. I am concerned because the donations are secret, and because of Citizens United, the amount people can give is unlimited,” Mayer said, adding that such secret spending by a very wealthy minority “poses serious questions about the fundamental idea of our democracy, which is ‘one man, one vote.’”
James Piereson brought a different perspective. Piereson is a longtime foundation executive and public intellectual. He currently serves as president of the William E. Simon Foundation, a private grant-making foundation with $125 million in assets. He is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Piereson said that the foundation world has had an influence on politics, but the influence hasn’t been that large.
He also suggested that wealthy people's outsized influence over social and policy change may be coming to an end for these reasons:
- Our stock markets, and our capitalist systems operate in cycles.
- The political agenda is extremely crowded.
- The U.S. “lacks consensus” to solve big problems.
“I think basically, that America’s problems will accumulate in the coming decades. We lack the consensus to address them and the United States will have difficulty sustaining its level of wealth,” said Piereson.
J. Adam Abram is chairman and CEO of James River Group Holdings, and a prominent donor to charitable and political causes in North Carolina and nationally. Abram is a member of The Democracy Alliance, a partnership of business and philanthropic leaders committed to progressive causes and candidates.
Abram said he’s concerned because the U.S. government has been under what he termed “a 40-year assault.”
“I don’t know (as a business person) any brand that could sustain a 40-year assault on its reputation that went unanswered and survived, but that’s essentially what I think has happened,” Abram said. “There’s only one institution that every single one of us in America belongs to,” he added. “We don’t belong to the same church, or the same club or the same organization. The only institution that we share is our government - the fact that we’re all citizens. And this 40-year assault on the one thing, the one vehicle that we can use to work together, is a tragedy in my mind because it prevents us … from trying to reach consensus.”
On the one hand, he said, free speech is important, and a citizen should have the ability to advocate for an idea, or a candidate. But “on the other hand, the pouring of money in, and the vitriol with which it comes in, has so diminished this central connection between us that it really is hurting our society.”
Jane Mayer told a story about an event held by powerful conservative fundraisers, the Koch brothers. Often their donors are secret.
Mayer said that at an event prior to the 2010 elections, a guest list “escaped and became public, so for the first time, people could see who came to these seminars. And I just added up the estimated fortunes of the people in that room who were on the Forbes 400 list, and that small group alone, which was just on the tiny little end of the pinky of the group they had together, was [worth] $75 billion.
“That’s an incredible concentration of wealth sitting in a room trying to decide what to do about the next election,” she said.
Abram said that the reason he wants campaign finance reform is because of “the appearance and the assumption of corruption.”
“I think there’s less actual corruption and a tremendous amount of … assumption of corruption,” he said.
“It’s so complicated, too…” added Mayer, “…and so devilishly dull to try to figure out how money moves in politics. It’s so complicated, I think the public kind of gives up on it, and assumes it’s bought and just bought and paid for.”
The panel did agree on the need to draw a clear distinction between philanthropy and political giving.
The 2015 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture was held on Jan. 29, 2015. Professor of Law and Public Policy Joel Fleishman moderated the panel. It was organized by Associate Professor of Public Policy Kristin Goss. J. Adam Abram has served as chair of the Sanford School's Board of Visitors.
Watch the complete conversation here: