Sucking up to the super-rich: The Times' Iain Martin doesn't love charity, he just hates taxes

A very charitable interpretation of philanthopy ignores the facts in favour of the same old lies.

It’s common for columnists to lick the boot of the establishment but it takes real talent to fully deep-throat the leather (as M.C.Hawk noted on Twitter). Iain Martin is a past master of justifying obscene wealth, privilege, and inequality, but his column in yesterday’s Times took it to a new level.

Behold a headline of supreme gaslighting power:

Everyone wins if the super-rich keep giving

Boy, don’t you feel like we’re all winning? Look at these other winning headlines:

Martin begins his column by discussing a £10 million contribution to the refurbishment of the Courtauld Institute of Art. He writes:

The Times described Sir Leonard as the “go-to person” for institutions seeking big donations… Tate Modern has received more than £50 million and the Victoria & Albert Museum £5 million. The Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford was established with a grant of £75 million. He has plenty to spare. The Sunday Times Rich List 2020 placed him fourth in the rankings with £15.781 billion.

It is easy to be cynical about such vast charitable largesse. Sir Leonard’s fortune is rooted in investments in aluminium in the former Soviet Union. Unlike some of the business people whose wealth is derived from similar sources, he has not been subject to sanctions because he is both a British and a US citizen.

Yes, you’re right, Iain, it is easy to be cynical… watch me do it right now:

In 2017, when Blavatnik gave £75m to Oxford in return for having his name slapped on the School of Government, Bo Rothstein — then professor of government and public policy — resigned after another donation of £1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee came to light.

Professor Rothstein said:

I’m not going to be the Blavatnik chair of government and public policy because I’m not going to give legitimacy and credibility to this person. $1m is a sizeable amount… In my book by donating to the inauguration of Donald Trump you are supporting Donald Trump.

Even before Rothstein’s resignation, Oxford received fierce criticism about its association with Blavatnik, in an open letter, whose signatories included Pavel Litvinov — one of the eight 1969 Red Square protestors — and Vladimir Bukovsky, a Russian dissident who exposed the Kremlin’s use of weaponised psychiatric treatment against political prisoners. That letter urged Oxford to “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”.

One benefit that Blavatnik has received for his charitable largesse is a knighthood. He became Sir Leonard on the back of all his philanthropic efforts and with all that money washing towards British academic and artistic organisations, he’s become someone who government and establishment figures of all kinds want to keep sweet. He’s the Russian gift that keeps on giving.

But none of these concerns appears in Martin’s column, because in his conception of the world super-rich man doing super-rich charitable things is good and it’s best not to explore the reasons behind it or the source of the money too much. Martin concludes the section of the column on Blatvatnik like this:

The man clearly likes Britain a lot, and if he wants to spend hundreds of millions of pounds boosting our institutions, then great.

For Martin, charity is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but a vital to have, a far superior alternative to taxation where the super-rich get to choose what to support and what to let wither. He writes with what I hope is studied and deliberate ignorance (but I’m not so sure):

Britain should welcome the wealthy, when they obey the law, and make encouraging more philanthropy a priority. After the pandemic, government finances will come under intense strain. Encouraging the rich, and the rest of us, to contribute directly to worthy projects is going to be vital if the social fabric is to be protected and the nation’s cultural life restored.

Britain, especially the Conservative Party, already does ‘welcome the wealthy’ but the whole ‘obey the law’ bit can seem optional or at least extremely flexible.

When it was revealed that he had received £25,000 from Lubov Chernukhin — a banker and the wife of Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister — and £23,000 from Alexander Temerko — a former boss of a major Russian arms company, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis just shrugged.

In July, in an interview with the Today programme, Lewis was asked if he thought donors “do it for the love of the Conservative Party and admiration of individual ministers.” He replied: “I think they do.”

The Times reported that 13 cabinet ministers had received large donations from Temerko and Chernukhin. Mr Temerko is the Conservative Party’s second-biggest donor — having contributed more than £1.3 million to it since 2011. Mrs Chernukhin, whose wealth has been obtained it oblique ways, is its largest, handing over £1.7 million to the party in the same period.

After skimming lightly over the tax advantages of charitable giving in the United States, Martin comes to this galaxy brained conclusion about the prevalence of big-money donations in the US:

Perhaps the US fascination with charity stems from the way in which the country at birth had a limited, ramshackle state infrastructure and people had to band together. Religion is also a powerful force in encouraging giving. Benjamin Franklin, a founding father, was obsessed by the notion of fostering charitable enterprises.

The truth is that the rich and super-rich do not splash so much money around because they are more good-hearted than the rest of us. It’s because inequality has grown and their beautiful houses being surrounded by pitch-fork wielding mobs would probably have a deleterious effect on property prices.

In 2010, in response to the Giving Pledge — which called on billionaires and multi-millionaires to give away half of their wealth, and was heavily pushed by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates — the German billionaire and philanthropist Peter Kramer was critical. Kramer who donated millions to UNICEF programmes told Der Spiegel:

I find the US initiative highly problematic. You can write donations off in your taxes to a large degree in the USA. So the rich make a choice: Would I rather donate or pay taxes? The donors are taking the place of the state. That's unacceptable.

It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it's not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That's a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?

The Global Policy Forum, an independent watchdog that monitors the United Nation general assembly’s work, has repeatedly warned governments and international organisations that before taking rich donors’ cash they should “assess the growing influence of philanthropic foundations… and analyse the intended and unintended risks and side-effects of their activities.” Those include “unpredictable and insufficient financing of public goods, the lack of monitoring and accountability mechanisms, and the prevailing practice of applying business logic to the provision of public goods.”

But, of course, none of this makes it into Martin’s thinking. He will bend over backwards to justify lower taxes for the rich and more of the burden of funding the state falling on the rest of us while the rich get to pick and choose what they want to support and what they choose to value. Here’s the almost psychedelic conclusion to Martin’s column:

Well-targeted philanthropy is likely to do a lot more good, efficiently and at speed, than the cumbersome, immoral and economically destructive wealth tax that was floated last week to raise £260 billion for the Treasury, post-Covid. The Wealth Tax Commission (how about organising a Wealth Creation Commission instead?) envisaged taking 5 per cent of assets above £500,000, with exemptions, over five years. The problem is that wealth is mobile and the very wealthiest would simply leave if a government tried it. It would be the affluent but not super-rich who ended up being clobbered.

A statist assumption is creeping into the field of philanthropy too. The OECD published a paper this week saying that “to stem abuse” there should be global reform to ensure charitable giving furthers the aims of government policy.

That is a terrible idea. Governments are frequently wrong and large-scale charitable activities often fill the gaps left by their mistakes. The moral point is that charity is an essential element of a free society. It rests on free individuals making free choices, some right and some wrong, to give. Initiatives such as the Courtauld renovation, or the work of the Gates Foundation on healthcare, need big donors with the wherewithal to move nimbly when it would take governments decades.

It is a messy, imperfect process but it is far healthier than government trying to do everything.

And there we have it. There’s the whole reason for his econium to the exceedingly wealthy — he’s dancing on his hind legs for his rich friends. He doesn’t love charity, he simply hates the idea of the rich and super-rich having to pay more to, you know, make society better. In fact, he’ll continue banging the drum for tax cuts for the wealthy, because they’ll keep giving lots of money to charity, right?

And, of course, Martin rolls out the old myth that if we tax the rich properly they will simply leave. It’s bullshit. There is plenty of evidence to show that when taxes are raised on the rich, they lobby against them, they thrash and rage, but… they don’t generally leave.

In The Myth of Millionaire Tax Flight, Cristobal Young, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Stanford, crunched a huge amount of data — tax returns, census records, rich lists and more — and discovered that while economic elites have the resources to flee higher-tax countries they don’t tend to because where they live is often tied to why they’re right. The rich often continue to be rich because they are powerful insiders, with connections to the state and other institutions, and if they ‘flee’ those connections have to be established again. The rich also don’t want to uproot their children or leave their friends.

Writing for The Guardian, Young noted:

It turns out that place still matters for the rich – much more so than we might think.

Only about 2.4% of US-based millionaires change their state of residence in a given year. Interstate migration is more common among the US middle class, and almost twice as common among its poorest residents, who have an annual interstate migration rate of 4.5%.

Martin would dismiss these figures out of hand because he is a servant of the class that wants to be lauded for charity and free from the obligation to pay transformative taxes on their vast wealth. Notice how Martin lobs in a little distinction for ‘the affluent’ in his column. He’s like the guy on Question Time during the election who vehemently denied that he was even in the top 50% of earners despite his £80k salary.

There is absolutely nothing new about Martin’s take. It’s a reheated, half-baked, undercooked — insert your own culinary metaphor here — rehash of the same old libertarian shit. He castigates government for being slow and inefficient without spending a moment on analysing why. Could it be, perhaps, that the hoarding of wealth and the pick-and-choose policies of the unelected and unaccountable philanthropists contribute to that chaos?

Henning Wehn’s quote about charity — “We don't do charity in Germany. We pay taxes. Charity is a failure of governments' responsibilities." — sums up the problem with philanthropy in 16 words. Iain Martin took hundreds of words to excuse the broken system we have and only the people benefitting from it will buy what he’s selling. Or perhaps they’ll just donate… if they feel like it.