A conversation with Jackpot author Michael Mechanic (Part 2 of 2)

Jun 8, 2021

The Mother Jones senior editor talks to Michael E. Hartmann about the need for more and better thinking about the proper role of philanthropy in a democracy and people’s fear about being on the wrong side of America’s economic divide.

Mother Jones senior editor Michael Mechanic’s new book Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How Their Wealth Harms Us All, as we noted in a review, has a little Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to it and is an engagingly humorous look at life for those with a lot more money than most of us. At the same time, often with empathy, Mechanic in Jackpot well-surveys a very wide range of unforeseen and complicated challenges that come with the opportunities afforded by wealth.

Mechanic came to Mother Jones 13 years ago after being managing editor of the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly in San Francisco Bay Area.

In Jackpot, his first book, he also offers his insights into how the super-rich’s wealth does much harm, to both those who have it and the rest of us. He covers more “stakeholders”—many of whom, he argues, are hurt by—than just stockholders who are helped by capitalism, for example.

Mechanic critiques the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in particular, too, and “the kinds of policies that produced this mess in the first place” in general, including what he considers wealth-protecting and -perpetuating tax policies. He includes pointed chapters on “Thriving While Black” and “Women on Top.”

Another strong chapter of Jackpot, “Giving It Away,” really got our Giving Review attention. “[T]he way philanthropy is practiced in our country not only favors the rich, it can actually exacerbate the estrangement between rich America and poor America,” according to Mechanic.

He refers to “the Big Philanthropy juggernaut,” which is made up of unaccountable, taxpayer-subsidized, private charitable foundations that are “beholden to nobody” and “can amass unlimited assets and exist in perpetuity.” He writes that “Big Philanthropy remains profoundly undemocratic, yet the public and our elected leaders rarely complain anymore.”

Mechanic was kind enough to speak with me last week. During the first of two parts of our discussion, which is here, we talk about the state of journalism, including about philanthropy, and his new book on the super-rich, including their problems.

In the conversation’s second part, the almost 21-minute video below, we cover the need for more and better thinking about the proper role of philanthropy in a democracy and people’s fear about being on the wrong side of America’s economic divide.

Mechanic and Hartmann

Money “can tear apart the fabric of your life and decrease your satisfaction in life, if you’re chasing that,” according to Mechanic, “but it also drives us apart as a society and that affects everybody. … There’s also just unfairness baked into a lot of the laws that we put in place. When we fail to really understand that, I don’t think it bodes well for our social fabric.”

Discussing politics and nonprofitdom in America, Mechanic says “nonprofits are not supposed to be overtly political,” citing examples of adherence to this principle—and violations of it, including Koch funding. “They’re doing a lot of sort of political manipulation and spreading political ideology. I mean, it’s free speech. I guess you can do that. But, you know, I kind of wonder whether such things should be subsidized by the public.”

Responding to suggestions that some philanthropy of the left might engage in similar strategy and tactics and whether at least a few of his observations about inequality and charity’s subsidized politicization might partially overlap with what populist conservatives think and say, Mechanic says “there should be a big conference …. I think government has to get interested in this because you have to lay down some ground rules for what constitutes a charity …. These things should be really thought through and debated,” though “it would be hard to do in this partisan atmosphere, too big a thing.”

Near the end of the chat, he says, “There’s fear. I think there’s a fear of being on the wrong side of the economic divide in this country.” Citing figures about large and growing wealth inequality in the country, he adds, there’s a “fear that we’re going to fall behind. I think that’s a problem, because you really want a thriving middle. I think the thriving middle is what ‘lifts all boats.’”

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