A little bit public, a little bit private, and not all good.

Thanks to a public health doctor friend who forwarded to me this opinion piece in The Toronto Star. Raising issues of control, public subsidies for tax-exempt dollars, and the lack of public input, Anne-Emmanuelle Birn offers an opinion on the Buffett-Gates Gift. According to the listserv from which this came, this opinion piece was rejected by over 30 US papers before being accepted by the Star.

Rick Cohen of NCRP has raised many of these same issues. The one I find most disturbing - not because its worse than the others or newer, only because this incident is so flagrantly documented - is the effect of these gifts in letting the public sector off the hook. Both Cohen and Birn raise the issue and Cohen notes that the Bush Administration's 2007 budget directly "credits" the availability of philanthropic resources as a reason to cut the federal budget for school programs.

I know the current administration loves the private sector and hates the public one. What amazes me is their belief that private dollars must actually be worth more than public ones - is there some internal exchange rate I don't know about that makes a philanthropic dollar worth 4, 5, or 10 public ones? Even if we could ignore all the issues raised by Birn, Cohen and others (and we can't and shouldn't), there are simply not enough philanthropic dollars to let the public sector off the hook.

Sure $60 billion is a helluva philanthropic pile. But the $3 billion that will become available in Gates' grant funds is less than 25% of the Bush Administration's budget line item for the Title I Education programs, is less than the Administration requested for the HHS budget for pandemic flu preparation, and is a pittance compared to almost any line item in the budgets of Homeland Security, Defense, or Energy.

Philanthropic dollars are not democratic. More important, philanthropic dollars are not enough to run anything. Even when there are a lot of them - and Gates/Buffett have plenty - they are not sufficient to address the problems of a democratic society. We must recognize the downsides and shortfalls of philanthropic dollars. And it is the public sector, and the choices it makes, that allow philanthropic dollars to accumulate and direct how they function. This regulatory relationship has lots of room for improvement. But its more important that we don't ever confuse the private funds for - or expect them to replace - public responsibilities.

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