April 9, 2019; Business Insider and WTSP-TV (Tampa, Florida)

Yesterday, NPQ wrote about a $100 million challenge grant made by hedge fund Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio and his wife Barbara to the Connecticut Public Schools, specifically to be used to strengthen the learning environments of kids in low-income communities. It was a relief, honestly, that the rhetoric to date on this grant doesn’t reflect another harebrained scheme (unlike here and here) based on a deficit view of the schools and communities. Rather, it seems to be aimed at building on assets already present.

Of course, there’s many a slip betwixt cup and lip, as they say, and maybe between now and when the remainder of the $300 million planned for the program is raised some other billionaire will convince the Dalios to impose another bright idea on this new bunch of schools. But it sounded, at least for the moment, like the Dalios were not starting from that place.

But it turns out the context is more complicated. First of all, Dalio has recently declared that this country’s wealth gap constitutes “a national emergency” and that “the American dream is lost.” This donation, announced the day before, is clearly inextricably connected to that recent reveal. Second, Connecticut has the largest gap of all 50 states between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent, and Dalio himself, who lives in Greenwich, skews that a bit with a net worth of more than $18 billion.

Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All, did not get overexcited about either the grant or Dalio’s declaration of concern for out-of-control capitalism. About Dalio’s conversion, he writes:

What Ray Dalio needs to understand, which members of his class so often struggle to understand, is that the reason his class has too much money is because it also has too much power. Power in Washington. Power in an under-taxed, under-regulated economy. Power exerted through big philanthropy. Power lubricated by a cultural narrative that deifies wealth and marginalizes democratic solutions. Power to have his musings on inequality be aired on ‘60 Minutes’ just because this fox suddenly has thoughts on hen protection, even though others who have been doing the work of narrowing the divides for decades would never get that kind of platform.

And, about the grant:

It is fine to donate money to Connecticut. But Dalio’s personal preferences should have zero influence on how the money is spent. This is the problem with the public-private-partnership model he venerates: It puts some rich guy and the State of Connecticut on an equal footing to negotiate a plan to enhance the general welfare. Why? You wouldn’t ask an arsonist to lead the firefighting brigade, and you shouldn’t ask those who have benefited most from a rigged system, and who have the most to lose from genuine reform, to lead the reformation of the system.

Giridharadas has hit the nail on the head. Placing a rich hedge fund manager in a co-equal position with public governance is anti-democratic and, where the public schools are concerned, doomed to be counter-productive in terms of lived-out notions of equity.—Ruth McCambridge