Seattle Philanthropy

Seattle is home to the Gates Foundation, and the Seattle Foundation, which in 2014 was #22 in terms of the largest community foundations nationwide. We also benefit from the substantial giving of the late Paul Allen, of the Schultz Family Foundation, The Ballmer Group, the Raikes Foundation, Jeff Bezos, and other super wealthy individual donors.

Beyond that, though, Seattle punches below its weight in philanthropic giving, despite the number of high salaried and high net worth individuals who live here. Tony Mestres, President and CEO of the Seattle Foundation, just wrote an article for the Seattle Times documenting that Seattle giving is below both the national and state averages in terms of giving as a share of adjusted gross income. Our level of giving places us on par with Phoenix, Baltimore and St.Louis — cities with far less abundant economies than ours. Mestres, of course, writes to urge the community to do more. He cites a sense that the presence of  “big givers”, Gates and Allen et al, seem to give people a pass in terms of thinking about giving. Because we have the Gates Foundation here, in some sense people seem to think we’ve got giving covered.

Jerry and I shared the value of charitable giving, even in years when we were starting the business and money was tight. We transmitted that value to Sara and Matt. Now, I’m doing Heifer Project with Archie and Else — a worthwhile charitable initiative and a tangible way to talk with young children about giving. I get the paper brochure, and go through it with each child. Each has $120 to give, and they get to pick a goat or a sheep or a share of a larger animal or several clusters of honeybees or chickens or rabbits. We talk about what Christmas means when toys have to come second to something far more basic: food for the family, clothing, fresh water.

Many  of the institutions that used to teach the value of giving, like religious bodies, have faded in importance. As little Catholic girls growing up, my sisters and I filled mission boxes with spare change for the poor. I’m not sure we had much idea what that meant, but we got the point that life was not just about us. In raising Sara and Matt, that responsibility shifted to Jerry and me.

I’m often struck, in the village in Panama, how families serve as the safety net for each other. Sharing is family based, and doesn’t usually extend much beyond. But if there is a crisis in any part of the family, whoever happens to have money coughs it up. When Gloria’s father died two years ago, I had just paid her the generous amount I give for her weeks of work. Although she has eight siblings, no one had any money to spare. Gloria wound up spending all of the money I gave her on her father’s funeral needs. Could she have said to her siblings “I’m paying a ninth, and the rest of you will have to come up with your part because Tia Pamela is always telling me I have to save”? Not really.

Caring for those in need, to me, is part of the basic fabric of humanity — both locally and globally. Giving short shrift to giving diminishes all of us, and it’s not an attractive trend.

Nuns with a Gambling Problem

During my years as a consultant, and especially after my first book How Much is Enough? came out, I often got work in church settings — usually on the stewardship side, sometimes working with the lay governing body on leadership. Rarely did the clergy think they needed any help with their own leadership or financial skills. I often brought up the issue of religious bodies having adequate financial controls, because after all, people are people. I got a lot of pushback, under the premise of “but it’s the CHURCH! No one would steal from the church.”


Two nuns in California, the principal and vice principal of St. James Catholic School, are accused of stealing half a million bucks, give or take, from the school budget over a decade. Turns out Sisters Mary Margaret Kreuper and Lana Chang had a gambling problem.  The light fingered ladies, vowed members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, are 77 and 67, respectively. The Order will reimburse the school. The L.A. diocese initially didn’t want to press charges –that old Catholic thing about not causing scandal for the church — but changed their minds when the amount of missing funds came to light. No one knows exactly where the Sisters are now; the Order has them “under supervision” someplace.

Why do people steal from churches? For much the same reason that Willie Sutton said he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Churches take in Sunday collections, tuition payments for the parish school, large donations to the Bishop’s Annual Fund and the like. And, church accounts are much easier to raid than banks were for Sutton to rob, because churches assume no one will steal from them. Eventually, though, even in the most trusting of settings, somebody notices something.

Honestly, Sisters, did you really think you’d never be caught and have to pay the piper?

Robotics: Making the World a Giant Roomba

Trump is raging against the desperate migrants at the U.S. southern border, but he seems oblivious to the ways that robotics is already changing our work force.

WalMart is deploying 360 AI powered robotic cleaners as a test in various of its stores. The robotic Roombas will replace humans pushing brooms and mops. The store claims this will free up associates to offer more customer service, but I have my doubts. I last entered a WalMart in Rochester many years ago, but my overwhelming impression was that it’s next to impossible to find anyone to ask anything. I suspect WalMart is simply eliminating those cleaning jobs — most of which probably happen overnight anyway, while the store is closed.

Quartz, reporting tongue in cheek on the trend, says we’ve seen the future and it’s a Giant Roomba. CNBC describes how the robotic floor scrubbers work:

Brain Corp. makes the robot floor scrubbers, called the Auto-C, powered by the company’s BrainOS technology platform, which includes autonomous navigation that uses multiple sensors to scan the robots’ surroundings for obstacles, like people. (That means the autonomous robots could even be used when customers are in the store.)”

I have no plans to return to WalMart, and I’m not enticed by the image of a large moving object sharing my aisle but designed specifically to navigate around me. And if I were a member of WalMart’s low wage cleaning staff, I’d be really worried.

Conscious Aging: Wild Stock Market Swings

Those of us who live on the income from our assets — invested in the stock market — are rarely happy with wild swings such as we’ve seen in the last few days: 500 points up when investors thought Trump had a deal with China, 800 points down when the “deal” began to appear more like the usual Trump smoke and mirrors.

The point here is simple, was visible before Trump was elected, and should be evident to all by now: the man lies as easily and readily as water flows out of a faucet. When not outright lying he’s exaggerating, or making things up out of whole cloth. No one can rely on anything he says, unless corroborated by real time transcripts. Certainly the sycophants who attend meetings with him, people like Pompeo and Bolton, can’t be relied up for corroboration. They are too busy trying to backtrack to account for Trump’s wild stories.

Investors and money managers need to stop taking action based on what Trump says. The word of the President of the United States is useless as a barometer of anything.–alert-national&wpmk=1

High Fashion

High fashion used to mean Rose Kennedy going to Paris every year in the spring and fall to buy from the new season’s collection. High fashion used to mean her daughter-in-law, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, being dressed by Oleg Cassini, who created the distinctive “Jackie look” that millions of ordinary American women tried to emulate. First Lady Michelle Obama changed the story somewhat. She wore designer clothing, but also dresses by J. Crew bought off the rack — and she looked stunning and distinctive no matter what she wore.

Now, according to Quartz, high fashion for millennials means $900 sneakers and $1500 jogging pants.

I’ve never cared enough about what I wore to pay that kind of money for a garment, much less for athletic wear. And I keep things forever, as long as they still fit and haven’t faded out and bear a passing nod to what’s in style. Even when I do buy new stuff, I tend to put on the things that are familiar and comfortable — making me look much the same most times I go out.

High fashion, or even medium fashion, is just not my thing. I buy good quality, but not a lot of it. Suffice to say that a large bedroom closet is not high on my list of “must have’s”.

I think about Minga’s daughter Ana, and our recent trip to the mall. Ana is a skilled seamstress, and she could have made any of the dresses we looked at with a higher degree of skill and better fabric, but there was something alluring about buying from a store with racks and racks of glittering options. In the end she opted to be practical and buy nice jeans and a denim jacket, which we bought for nothing remotely resembling millennial high fashion prices.

Income Inequality

Americans don’t resent people getting rich. In fact, we are fascinated by wealth. Remember the TV show Lifestyles Of the Rich and Famous? The show was a big hit, with Robin Leach as host. The first episode aired in 1984; episodes continued until 1995.

Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” That’s how Leach signed off at the end of each show.

If we don’t resent the rich and indeed harbor a secret hope that one day we’ll be one of them, we also have to believe that ordinary people have a realistic chance to move up. That’s a core part of the American dream.

It’s less and less true. Wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top, and there’s not much left over for the rest of us.

“The three wealthiest US families are the Waltons of Walmart, the Mars candy family and the Koch brothers, heirs to the country’s second largest private company, the energy conglomerate Koch Industries. These are all enterprises built by the grandparents and parents of today’s wealthy heirs and heiresses.

These three families own a combined fortune of $348.7bn, which is 4m times the median wealth of a US family.

Since 1982, these three families have seen their wealth increase nearly 6,000%, factoring in inflation. Meanwhile, the median household wealth went down 3% over the same period.

The dynastic wealth of the Walton family grew from $690m in 1982 (or $1.81bn in 2018 dollars) to $169.7bn in 2018, a mind-numbing increase of more than 9,000%.”

These wealthy families use their fortunes to hold sway over Republican Congressmen, and to demand legislation that protects their wealth in current time and their ability to pass on their wealth free of estate taxes.

Most Americans don’t even know what the word “plutocracy” actually means, but that’s what we’re becoming.

There are a few notable exceptions, like Warren Buffet. But mostly, rich families are intensely focused on getting richer, and isolating their wealth from the clutches of the tax man.

It wasn’t how democracy is supposed to work.

Who’s the Biggest Employer?

People need work in order to thrive economically and to feel good about themselves. Regions of the country where available work has been decimated — as in the coal mining states — have high rates of poverty and associated problems, like drug abuse.  Regions of the world that never had much work to start with other than subsistence agriculture are at the root of destabilizing mass migrations.

My former home town of Rochester used to have lots of recognizable companies that provided good jobs with benefits that lifted a lot of people into the middle class, even if the worker had only a high school education:  Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox, Gannett, French’s Mustard. Guess who’s the largest employer now? The University of Rochester and the UofR Medical Center.

I just read an article in the London Guardian about Atlanta. Who do you think is the largest employer there? Coca Cola? CNN? Neither. The largest employer is Hartsfield-Jackson airport, which lists 63,000 people on its company roster.

The world of work has completely changed. When I was small, we thought of growing up to be a fireman or policeman or teacher — because that’s what we saw in our neighborhoods. At a point, aspirations shifted from roles to companies: a Kodak guy — usually it was a guy — could get his kids summer jobs there and then, often, a bid to join the company full time. Then, aspirations became linked to industries: finance, tech.

Now, people look for jobs where they can find them. What little kid grows up thinking “I want to be a Harsfield-Jackson airport worker”? But if you live in Atlanta, that’s probably a pretty good job to seek.

Donor Lunch with Senator Patty Murray

I give to Democratic candidates and office-holders at a level that gets me invites to things like a small group lunch with Washington’s Senator Patty Murray. These events are tightly scripted and last no more than 45 minutes to an hour — the Senator’s staff keeps her on schedule — but there are opportunities to ask a question and hear the Senator respond.

We covered much ground, and I came away with a lot of feelings — sobering ones. Things really are as bad in Washington D.C. as we fear. Totally aside from Trump’s pot-stirring tweets, his lies and demonization of huge swathes of the country, his cabinet appointees like Betsy deVos, Ben Carson, and Jeff Sessions are radically reshaping the missions of the departments they lead. Mitch McConnells’ singular focus is stacking the federal judiciary with as many Federalist Society approved hard right judges as he can. Senator Murray said that for all of her time in the Senate, she and her counterpart in the Senate from Washington — early on, Republican Slade Gordon and more recently, Democrat Maria Cantwell — the two Senators agreed on a bipartisan commission that would recommend exceptionally qualified judges from a variety of perspectives. The two Senators would work together to have those judges elevated to the federal bench. The Trump administration has thrown all of that out, and Senators are simply told who is coming to fill openings in their state — all deeply conservative judges, mostly white men, schooled and supported by Koch-funded Federalist Society money. Damage to the credibility of the court system is one of the most destructive elements of the nearly two years that Trump has been in office. With a Democratic Senate takeover unlikely, the damage to our justice system will continue unabated.

As Justice Kagan recently said, the viability of the court system rests on all of us accepting that the process is fair, and agreeing to abide by legal rulings whether or not we agree with them. Once the majority begins to feel that the process is rigged, that key institution in our democracy falls apart.

Trump voters are not the majority.

Patty Murray said she honestly believes our country is better than what we’ve been since Trump burst upon the national scene. The November election will tell the tale.

The Impulse to Do Good

This is a really long ProPublica piece, which you should surely read if you ever feel tempted to give money to organizations working in developing countries that are run by young white people from the U.S. whose main qualification is an impulse to do good.

Creating real, sustainable change in another country with a different culture and likely a welter of different languages is extremely hard. I’m thinking of my own Peace Corps service in Panama, and of my niece’s stint as a volunteer physician in Africa. Humility is called for. An ability to work with and through local resources is a must. Being on site to see what is actually happening rather than taking high profile fund-raising tours in the U.S. is essential. Keeping appropriate personal boundaries with on site staff goes without saying. Actually have some skills in the area you hope to influence — like running a school — matters.

A college classmate of mine, a Maryknoll nun, has been living and working in Arusha, Tanzania for decades. Mary runs a home where Masai girls come and live while they go to high school rather than being married off. Mary lives on site. She has the professional skill and educational background to tutor the girls in math and science. She controls who has access to the girls, and watches what happens with the adults who do. She supervises the local staff, who have taken on more and more of the responsibility of running the place as Mary gets older.

There’s a world of difference between that and what you see described in this article.

If you have good intentions, and the capacity to give, and an interest in developing countries, beware.

Why Tax Fraud is Easy — For the Rich

People can be forgiven for thinking that the New York Times expose’ of the longstanding pattern of deception and fraud perpetrated by Fred Trump and his son Donald will result in consequences. Surely now the Republican Congress will demand Trump’s tax returns — the story was based on Fred’s — to see what Donald has been up to recently. Surely, if a civil case can be documented and proven, the IRS or New York state authorities will bring one.

Probably not. The IRS is badly outgunned by rich families who can afford to hire layer upon layer of the best legal and accounting talent to help them avoid, and in some cases evade, their fair share of taxes. Think about it: if you were at the top of your accounting classes and a whiz at taxation, would you go to work for the IRS and be paid as a pubic servant, or would you go to work for a firm that serves families like the Trumps? The IRS doesn’t have the talent, the manpower, or the political running room to take on the Trumps, not before Donald became president and certainly not now.

Bernie Madoff, he of the colossal investment scam that took place right under the noses of the SEC and the NASD, finally got his comeuppance — but only because he cheated rich people. Fred and Donald Trump cheated low income residents in their housing projects and the taxpaying population of the country in general, and there’s a lot more tolerance for greed when it’s ordinary people who are taken for suckers.