Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 15 April 2023




Ross Douthat

Why the Left and the Right Hate Kenneth Griffin’s Huge Gift to Harvard

An illustration of an elephant, wearing a mortarboard, passing a bushel of hay to a donkey, also wearing a mortarboard.
Credit...Alain Pilon
An illustration of an elephant, wearing a mortarboard, passing a bushel of hay to a donkey, also wearing a mortarboard.

Opinion Columnist

You’re reading the Ross Douthat newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  The columnist reflects on culture and politics, but mostly culture. 

The news that Kenneth Griffin, a hedge fund billionaire, is donating a cool $300 million to Harvard University, where his name will adorn the entire Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, provoked the kind of pan-ideological revulsion that in our polarized times only the richest Ivy League schools still reliably inspire.

From the left came disgust not only at the wastefulness of the gift itself, so much money given to a hedge fund — sorry, hallowed seat of higher learning — with over $50 billion in resources already, but also at Harvard’s willingness to honor Griffin in particular. In addition to being an alumnus, class of 1989, he’s also a notable donor to the Republican Party, and lately to Ron DeSantis. To fulsomely praise a Republican-leaning plutocrat for his philanthropy and even affix his name to your institution, the civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis tweeted, exposes the Ivy League’s pretensions to high-minded social concern as “a cruel charade for laundering generational wealth.”

From the right came the same disgust but in reverse, at the giver’s ideological betrayal rather than the school’s hypocrisy. Here was a Republican donor, with every cause in the world to choose from, giving an absolute fortune to, of all places, Harvard — the Kremlin on the Charles, the fons et origo of so many liberal follies, the central shrine in the academic-progressive cathedral. At best, you could describe Griffin as a sucker, a more extreme version of the many right-leaning donors who gripe about wokeness at their alma maters but keep on writing checks out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. At worst, his donation just shows that the right’s leading donors aren’t conservatives at all, that the party is ruled by big money that’s functionally liberal on every issue except the marginal tax rate.

Since I wrote a newsletter a few months back defending “ineffective altruism,” meaning the virtues of giving to eccentric and personal causes without careful cost-benefit analysis, I briefly looked for something to defend in Griffin’s gift. Maybe his donation would smooth the way for some personal passion project, endowing chairs in obscure economic subfields or setting up a center to study esoteric languages. Maybe he wanted Harvard to establish an intramural Calvinball association or build a Theosophist chapel in the Yard.

Alas, no: The gift basically funds Harvard qua Harvard, carrying coals to the Newcastle that is the school’s almost bottomless endowment, which even by ineffective-altruist standards seems indefensibly useless and pathetic. Even if Griffin’s interests were ruthlessly amoral and familial — all-but-guaranteed admission for all his descendants, say — the price was ridiculously inflated: The Harvard brand and network might be worth something to younger Griffins and Griffins yet unborn, but not at that absurd price. And if he’s seeking simple self-aggrandizement, he won’t gain it, since nobody except the chatbot in charge of generating official Harvard emails will ever refer to the “Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.” (At least make them build you some weird pharaonic monument along the Charles, Ken!)

The sheer unimaginativeness makes Griffin’s gift a useful case study in one important ingredient in our society’s decadence: the absence of ambition or inventiveness among of our insanely wealthy overclass when it comes to institution building. There was a time when American plutocrats actually founded new institutions instead of just pouring money into old ones that don’t need the cash. And for the tycoon who admires that old ambition but thinks playing Leland Stanford is too arduous these days, there are plenty of existing schools that could be revived and reconfigured, made competitive and maybe great, with the money that now flows thoughtlessly into the biggest endowments.

I’ve been critical of Elon Musk for burning money on Twitter in the misguided belief that you can reorient elite culture from inside a social media platform, when really the things he disliked about the old Twitter culture were downstream from more old-fashioned institutions (like, say, Harvard!). But Musk’s folly is at least that — a personal folly, an overreach, an ambitious but misguided gambit. It seems foredoomed, but at least it will be remembered, which is more than you can say for flavorless philanthropy that benefits the Ivy League.

As for the ideological critiques of Griffin’s gift, they both capture key dilemmas facing our political coalitions. For the left, to imply that Harvard is functionally right-wing because it takes money from Republicans is wildly overstating things, but the truer observation is that progressivism’s self-image as a champion of the underdog is in deep tension with progressivism’s entrenchment as the official ideology of the highly educated upper classes, and Griffin’s largess is a condensed symbol of that tension.

Can a movement for social justice be credible and capable if it’s intertwined with plutocracy and seems to originate and thrive in institutions that perpetuate socioeconomic privilege? Or is the contemporary left destined to always be a handmaiden for the woke-washed forms of capital, the Bernie Sanders vision of class warfare yielding to Pride flags and consciousness-raising H.R. sessions inside Fortune 500 companies?

If the likely answers should be depressing for anyone genuinely committed to social democracy, the symbolism of the Griffin gift for cultural conservatives is even grimmer. Liberalism’s increasingly upper-class identity undermines the economic left, but at least progressives can expect a substantial alignment between their ideals and what their donors want to fund. Maybe rich Democrats aren’t down with the socialist revolution, but they’re onside, indeed sometimes to the left of Democratic voters, on a range of issues that progressive activists are passionate about, like climate and racism and abortion rights. You wouldn’t need to worry, as a progressive, that a big Elizabeth Warren donor would also be giving money to Christopher Rufo or the Heritage Foundation, the Southern Baptist Convention or The Daily Wire. Whereas many Republican donors are either indifferent or actively hostile to the binding cultural commitments of the right — which is why they can be entirely comfortable supporting the institutions of cultural liberalism with one hand even as they try to influence Republican politicians with the other.

Julius Krein, the editor of American Affairs, has written perceptively about what the Republican Party means to this kind of donor (in an essay for the Harvard Kennedy School Review, amusingly enough), arguing that some of the right-wing coalition’s funders are perfectly happy not to have a Republican Party with a coherent conservative agenda, let alone a culturally conservative agenda. They just want to prop up a Republicanism that keeps the more left-wing factions in the Democratic Party in check:

The Republican Party’s remaining connection to the dominant sectors of the American economy occurs through its usefulness as a tool to selectively balance and discipline the members of the Democratic coalition. Big Pharma, for instance, will throw money at the Heritage Foundation to rant against “socialized medicine” whenever talk of the government negotiating drug prices surfaces, but pharma is hardly interested in repealing Obamacare, much less dismantling Medicare. Financial lobbies will rent the Republican Party to ward off troublesome regulations or taxes, but are hardly interested in “sound money” policies or big spending cuts that would derail financial markets, never mind social conservatism. Big Tech will team up with Americans for Prosperity to oppose legislation limiting app store developer fees, all while more aggressively controlling conservative speech online, and so on.

… the point is not that the Democratic coalition is perfectly consistent or that its donors are perfectly sincere; they are not. But the relationship between America’s most powerful industries and the Democratic Party is different from their relationship with the Republican Party. These sectors look to the Democrats to positively promote their interests and to the Republicans merely to obstruct any developments adverse to their interests. In other words, the Republican Party’s primary — or even sole — value to “capital” at present lies not in any positive agenda but in the ability to constrain other members of the Democratic coalition. In this respect, the only plausible role for today’s Republican Party is as an obstructionist party. And its obstructionist conservatism — whether in its “principled” libertarian or reflexive “own the libs” shades — is a perfectly serviceable ideology for this role, perhaps the only serviceable one.

I can’t see into Ken Griffin’s heart or mind, so I don’t know if he personally understands his seemingly contradictory support for DeSantis and for Harvardian cultural liberalism quite this way. But as a general description of how certain big businesses and socially liberal rich people remain invested in the G.O.P. coalition, and what they get out of that relationship, the Krein analysis seems all too accurate.

And for conservatives who’d prefer some kind of positive agenda, the reality that much of the money in their coalition doesn’t give a fig about those aspirations is a bitter pill indeed.

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