In the opening essay of our forum, Rob Reich argues that American philanthropic foundations are “institutional oddities” in a democracy. Despite their generous tax subsidies, they are largely unaccountable for what they do with the hundreds of billions of dollars in their endowments. Why have we chosen to organize philanthropy in a way that politically empowers plutocratic voices? Can they still play democracy-enhancing roles?
Reich says yes. They can decentralize the provision of public goods, such as the arts, in ways that foster pluralism. And they can conduct experiments in social policy that lie beyond the reach of government and the market. Whether foundations currently meet these normative standards is a further question. But to the extent that they do, they honor democratic principles despite their plutocratic breach.
Responding to Reich’s essay, practitioners and academic experts raise large questions about the core of his view. Do foundations really give the wealthy even more power and influence than they already have? How worrisome is their lack of formal accountability? And—to shift from norms to actual performance—do they conduct genuine experiments? Do they represent diverse views or do they march to the same beat (see Diane Ravitch’s bracing assessment of the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations’ impact on education policy)? Several respondents also suggest reforms to guide foundations to better serve democracy.
Turning from foundations and democracy to criminal justice, investigative reporter Beth Schwartzapfel digs deep into the story of Rodney Stanberry. Convicted of attempted murder in Alabama, Stanberry has spent more than seventeen years behind bars. The evidence Schwartzapfel uncovers almost certainly proves his innocence. It also reveals a legal system that provides no path to exoneration for convicts who can’t be rescued by DNA evidence, even when the facts are plain. She reports too on North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, a pilot project that could make the system of criminal punishment more just.
Finally, Alan Stone settles the heated debate over the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the manhunt for Bin Laden. Does the film vindicate torture? Read the review and find out.