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Wealth, Philanthropy, and Regular People: An Interview with Nicholas Kulish

Editors’ Note: This is the second installment of an interview series conducted in collaboration with the Stone Initiative on Inequality at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Directed by Professors Margaret Weir and Jim Morone, the initiative brings together the Brown community—as students, teachers, and scholars—for an urgent conversation about the consequences of great wealth and inequality on American politics, society, and culture.

Nicholas Kulish is currently an enterprise correspondent for The New York Times, where he has been writing since 2005. Over the course of his career, he has covered topics ranging from German politics to New Orleans’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina. He is also the author of Last One In and The Eternal Nazi. More recently, he has written extensively about wealth and philanthropy in the United States.

Mira Mehta: Great wealth is a complicated and controversial subject. How do you approach covering it, and do you have any advice for student journalists who want to write about it? 

Nicholas Kulish: I was a foreign correspondent for a lot of my career, and in other countries, especially in EU countries, there’s just not this extreme, extreme level of income inequality that we see in the United States. Philanthropy is also viewed very, very differently in Europe than it is here. I think it’s because the gulf between everyday people, even what we used to think of as rich people—doctors and lawyers and business people—and the ultra-wealthy is so great that it can be difficult to conceptualize. The New York Times Magazine did a series of illustrations in its billionaires issue to try to put Jeff Bezos’s wealth into some kind of context, like mountains and trips to Mars versus one step. And I think it was still very difficult to conceptualize, but I think that my advice is to try to always keep in mind what the median American or the average citizen of the world is experiencing, how they’re living, and what is available to them. It is very important to keep the emphasis on regular people and let things turn into a celebrity magazine version of looking at billionaires. There are royals, movie stars, and now billionaires have fallen into that mix as well, and it becomes voyeuristic the way that we’re looking at them, rather than thinking about things from a policy standpoint or from a “what is a just structure for society?” standpoint.

MM: We’re now seeing a lot of billionaires working on their public image because of that celebrity culture, and you’ve written about the rise of professional philanthropy consultants to help them navigate this. At the same time, many billionaires seem to have different approaches to their philanthropy. Considering both of those factors, do you think it’s fair to categorize all philanthropy and charitable giving from billionaires as strategic, or is there a more altruistic and positive way to see it?

NK: I think that philanthropic consultants and the effective altruism movement both start from the same point, which is that there are efficient ways and inefficient ways to give money. A lot of very wealthy people made their money in private enterprise, and they talk about how, without the pressure of the market, it’s hard to tell when your methods are working. If your job is to sell laundry detergent, and you make Tide—the number one laundry detergent for many years running—you can tell you’re doing something right because people are taking it off of store shelves, as they like to say. But if you’re running a small Montessori preschool as a nonprofit, as a charitable enterprise, what are your metrics? Is it attendance? Is it test scores? Is it test scores today or test scores when the kids are applying to college? Is it life outcomes 30 years down the road? How do you control as you would in an experiment for all these different factors? I think most billionaires would say that their giving was altruistic and positive in some way. Michael Bloomberg, for example, is someone who’s given away a lot of money. It has bolstered his political career, but I think if you asked him, honestly, he would say that he thought he was doing good, not that he was just being strategic. But there’s a second lens for looking at all of this, and that’s just that America has become so polarized that even charity starts to fall into “good charity,” which is the charity that sort of aligns with one’s own political views, and then “sinister attempts to control,” which is charity that aligns with a different set of views from the ones that you yourself have.

MM: What do you think is a healthy level of skepticism to have about the way billionaires see themselves and project their own intentions?  

NK: As a journalist, part of your job is to be skeptical, and part of your job is to examine and stress test and try to get to the bottom of what something really means because good intentions are not always enough. There are people who have done some pretty bad things in a given history with what they would see as good intentions and good motivations. And so I think it’s very important for us as journalists not to simply take what they say at face value. I think another aspect that is maybe less understood is becoming a billionaire, especially the top people that we constantly talk about (the Musks, the Gates, the Bezoses) really does isolate you in many ways from other people. The people who are around you are often paid to be around you. Your friends are often friends but also hoping that you’ll invest in their businesses, or that you’ll bring them on your payroll. And I don’t get the sense from the reporting that I do that very many of these ultra-wealthy people hear, “Oh, you’re totally wrong,” or, “What a silly idea, that’s been tried a hundred times,” or, “Actually malaria doesn’t work at all like that other illness, and so trying to solve it that way doesn’t make sense.” They get “yes” a lot. They may not like critical coverage from the press; they may even benefit from it more than they realize.

MM: How do you see philanthropy changing the way the public views the wealthy?  

NK: I think that philanthropy really does help the ultra­wealthy with their images, and I think that the biggest givers provide a lot of cover for other people who aren’t giving as much. There is this idea that if MacKenzie Scott gave billions of dollars, people hear that and think, “Oh, the rich are generous, the rich are giving back, the rich are paying to help the poor.” But there are many rich people who appear not to give very much, and whose wealth has increased exponentially in the past decade. And so the idea that this has given them cover to continue to claim a larger and larger share of the pie is something that I think needs to be examined. I think through the work of individuals like Anand Giridharadas, Linsey McGoey, and others, there has been a more critical lens put on philanthropy in recent years.

MM: How would you counter the argument that the system is functioning as it is supposed to because people are generating large wealth and then using it to further the greater good?

NK: I wonder how many people would really say that the system is functioning right. I think the answer is probably not that many because you see a lot of populism on both the left and the right and more of a sense that these spoils are being divided unequally. There’s more of a sense that whether you’re voting for Trump or you’re voting for Biden, you’re still working at a Dollar General for a very small amount of money. And I don’t know how many people will actually say, “Oh, my life was improved by this billionaire giving this money.” It would be interesting to check that. Maybe that’s something I should pursue—the people who have been helped by these specific billionaires—but by and large, it does feel as though people are struggling to understand how to make a more equitable and more just world, even if they’re coming at it from different approaches or different perspectives.

MM: Can you speak to what the idea of becoming a billionaire means as part of the American dream?  

NK: I do think that a lot of Americans really do still believe in the American dream, even if statistics show that income mobility today is far less than it was in previous generations and far less than even in some countries that are more associated with having advanced welfare states. I’ve been looking recently at some of the newer tech fortunes, and you might look at someone, say, the founders of Airbnb, for example, and those people who, like in the old stories, have had a good idea and suddenly became fabulously wealthy from it. I think that people are still attracted to that idea, that if they could come up with a great idea that they might have a yacht and an airplane and go to the Academy Awards and live that lifestyle. The question I think that we always hold in the back of our minds as skeptics is: Can every person with a good idea have equal access to the means and support necessary to turn that into a billion-dollar idea? And the answer is definitely no. Facebook was not the first social networking site. Airbnb was not the first site to provide that kind of alternative homes vs. hotels as a system. And maybe fitting a certain profile and being in San Francisco and having access to venture capital and support is actually more important than the quality of the idea. And that I think is something that we always have to keep in mind, even as the dream itself does still look great from afar when you don’t scrutinize it too closely.

MM: What makes the difference between a likable or sympathetic billionaire and a billionaire who’s  seen as more out of touch?  

NK: Well, I think the very fact that we’ve both used the word billionaire so many times in this discussion shows that it has become a very politicized label recently. It is a designation that means a person with assets worth more than a billion US dollars, but it is also now a very freighted, weighted term that I think implicitly suggests a person who has more money than anyone could ever need or use. If Michael Bloomberg had stood on the Democratic debate stage and just been a very successful businessman who was a popular mayor of New York City, it would have been perceived differently than knowing that he was a billionaire and knowing that the likes of Elizabeth Warren would use him as a stand-in for income inequality and wealth accumulation in the United States. That being said, I do think that people make distinctions in terms of how money was accumulated. I think younger people especially are very conscious of whether the wealth comes in a way that promotes rapid climate change, for example. I think if people realize that wealth comes from subprime lending or other issues that can be seen as, generally speaking, predatory, it’s a concern. If something seems entrepreneurial and generally good, then I think people are willing to cut them a little slack. But again, you can look at Uber, and they seem ingenious and revolutionary. But then if you look at the lives of taxi drivers that are upended and the pay that the drivers are making, that changes. Or Airbnb might seem like a great idea, but then you could say, “Is it actually making housing shortages in cities worse and rents higher? So I think we have probably reached a point where the designation billionaire brings a lot of questions with it, almost no matter what the source of the wealth is.

MM: Institutions of knowledge, culture, and community outreach seem to be increasingly reliant on philanthropy and the generosity of the ultra-wealthy. What does that mean for the content and longevity of these institutions?

NK: In the United States, broadly, you have this really intense income inequality. So there are so many people who are living on the edge and don’t really have money to give away at this point. In the era between World War II and maybe the late 1990s, when income inequality was less of an issue, I think you had a lot of middle class giving. People were giving to their churches and to the Red Cross and to the American Heart Association and volunteering at their local food bank and all of those kinds of things. And now, in a lot of the population, you have people maybe working two or three jobs, and they’re still in debt. And so the idea of broad-based community support for organizations has fallen somewhat by the wayside. There’s also the very technical issue that the Trump administration disincentivized many millions of Americans from giving because the standard tax deduction is now so high that the average American doesn’t receive any tax benefit for giving. But the wealthy generally, and the ultra-wealthy in particular, have more and more money at their disposal and plenty of incentive to give. Now, in terms of how that affects institutions, I think that’s more of an open question. The longevity of a Harvard, a Yale, or even a Brown is not in jeopardy. They have these huge endowments, and their rich alumni keep giving them more and more. The same thing is true for other big institutions—your Museum of Modern Arts or your Metropolitan Museums. I think that the giant elite institutions benefit a great deal from that. The smaller organizations that neither you nor I have heard of, I think less so. But then there’s also the question of: Will these institutions focus more and more on elite tastes and priorities? And at least from a fundraising standpoint, I do think those organizations know what their true constituencies are, and there is some danger of that.

MM: Given the financial pressures on newspapers, do you see a path forward that allows news outlets to stay open without putting pressure to compromise journalistic integrity?

NK: I think there’s still a lot of great journalism out there, certainly more than I can read or listen to or watch in my day. I believe there’s a place for philanthropy in journalism. The Marshall Project and ProPublica are both hugely successful and hugely valuable. And of course, I do think it’s very important that there are as few strings attached or conditions to the money that is given as possible. But it’s hard not to think about where money is coming from at the end of the day. That being said, I think that investigative reporters are probably as likely to bite the hand that feeds them as almost any group in demand. I definitely have friends and colleagues who would take a particular pleasure in writing an expose about a group that they thought was trying to cover up bad deeds through philanthropic giving. But I do think that with The New York Times, where I work, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal, a lot of the best journalism is coming from the for-profit sphere as well. And I haven’t noticed The Washington Post pulling punches just because Jeff Bezos owns them. Rich people have long owned media outlets, and some have even in the past used them as their playthings, and others have supported their missions in an honest, open way, and some simply use them to make money. But I think anywhere you have good journalists, you’re going to get good journalism. 

MM: What does it mean to be losing the more local focus of many smaller news outlets?

NK: I think that local journalism has definitely been correctly identified as the important place where more resources and more effort is needed. People are going to cover the White House and the American Congress and the war in Ukraine, but it’s those school board meetings and city council meetings and water board meetings that are not getting the due and the scrutiny that they deserve and that they need. And when I’m out in other parts of the country and working with local journalists, I’m always stunned and impressed by how much each of them has to do. A single reporter will be doing the job of four sections worth of reporters at The New York Times and running off to cover a local sports game immediately after covering a government meeting and trying to fit in their investigation between them. So I hope that some of the new models that are being explored, both nonprofit and for-profit, to try to bring back local news will be successful because  American democracy really relies on good information about the issues that are affecting people’s everyday lives.

MM: How do you think that billionaires’ donations to political groups impact American democracy?

NK: I think there is absolutely no question, especially since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, that political influence has tilted heavily toward wealthy donors and corporations. Spending by billionaires is not good for American democracy. At the same time, you saw Howard Schultz of Starbucks was pursuing a run for president. Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg both ran, but ultimately, a career politician, Joe Biden, won both the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Trump may be or may have been, a billionaire, but that I think is ultimately not why he became president. I think that he won because, as we saw as far back as the 1980s, and certainly with his television show, The Apprentice, he is a very effective communicator. So I do think that there are limits to what billionaires can buy for themselves, and then that is a saving grace. Even as their influence outstrips their numbers on the American political system and the political process, they cannot completely just buy themselves the offices or the politics that they want in every instance.

MM: What influence do the ultra-wealthy have on policy and the ideas people consider acceptable and favorable, even when they’re not in office?

NK: I think that the ultra-wealthy definitely have a lot of influence on politics and policy, and a lot of it is subtle, and a lot of it takes place behind the scenes. I think that when you have a political system that is as reliant on campaign spending and therefore on fundraising, as our system is, it means that, first of all, a lot of politicians themselves are very wealthy. The number of millionaires in the Senate is really quite extreme compared to the US population as a whole. And then you also have them spending a lot of their time fundraising, and therefore spending a lot of their time at events with other extremely wealthy people. And groupthink is real, whether it’s us with our friends at the cafeteria or the bar, or it is a group of people at an expensive restaurant, even from stray comments like, “Oh, these regulations are killing my business,” or “You wouldn’t believe how much I paid in taxes last year.” Beyond the direct lobbying and the groups that are attempting to write laws for legislators, there is also that sort of soft power or influence of who your peers are and who you’re trying to appeal to. You’re not spending a lot of time with laid-off steelworkers or Lyft drivers who barely make back their gas money or grocery store clerks; you’re spending your time with other extremely well-to-do people.

MM: What is something people misunderstand about philanthropy or the ultra-wealthy?
NK: As someone who writes about philanthropy, the one thing that I think gets overlooked a little bit is that philanthropy is more of a symptom rather than a root cause. People are scrutinizing philanthropists, and rightly so, but the issue that lies at the heart of it is how can anyone be worth $100 billion or now even $200 billion. And that is ultimately the core issue, even beyond how exactly they spend that money for either good causes or political ones. I just always kind of try to return to that core question of the wealth disparity as much as the fight about philanthropy itself.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.