January 24, 2019; New York Times
Readers may recall the flap around Kenneth Griffin’s 2014 gift to Harvard University, where you have to go way out of your way to log in a “biggest ever” contribution. Harvard, of course, has the biggest endowment of any university in the country, so, as was observed by Matthew Yglesias, Slate’s business and economics correspondent and author of The Rent is Too Damn High, the gift stunk of over-the-top wealth ostentation. As Yglesias wrote:
Let’s say I was feeling inspired to give someone $1,500 tomorrow. Who should I give it to? That’s a difficult question to answer. Should I give it to Kenneth Griffin? Nope! That’s a really easy question to answer. You don’t give extra money to Kenneth Griffin because Kenneth Griffin is already really rich. And guess what: Harvard is already really rich.
Now, Griffin, the founder and chief executive of the global investment firm Citadel has captured himself a second “biggest-ever” title by laying out a record $238 million for a residential property—in this case, an as-yet-unbuilt penthouse in Manhattan. Where will he stay until the residence, which required the eviction of dozens of tenants from formerly rent-stabilized apartments, is finished? Maybe he can camp out in his $60 million home in Miami or trot across to his $122 million mansion in London. Does Griffin’s philanthropy make up for his flagrant hoarding of the world’s resources, even if it tends to focus on elite institutions in education or art?
Reporters Nikita Stewart and David Gelles call Griffin’s abandoned display provocatively tone-deaf in the face of public sentiment.
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“The plutocrats continue brazenly flaunting the excesses that have enraged much of humanity,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, and a critic of wealthy philanthropists. “They’re displaying very little awareness of the moment that we are in.”
On Thursday, economic advisers to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president, said that she would propose introducing a new “wealth tax” on the richest Americans.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has long pushed for a tax on millionaires earning more than a certain amount of money, but legislators in Albany have not supported that plan. On Thursday, he called for an expansion of the mansion tax. Currently, buyers of homes that sell for $1 million or more are required to pay a 1 percent tax. The tax, the mayor said, needs to be adjusted to “explicitly” target “high-value purchases” to generate extra revenue that could be used to create affordable housing.
The article also features a small argument among observers about whether Griffin is a celebrated philanthropist to be eagerly courted or simply reprehensibly greedy. It’s a half-hearted choice at best, since most of us have long since understood that the two designations are often found together.
Meanwhile, the wealth gap is beginning to annoy ever-increasing numbers of people. In that fertile ground, proposals for taxes on the unreasonably rich are proliferating, starting with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her recent proposal for a 70 percent graduated tax rate for incomes over $10 million.—Ruth McCambridge