Over the holidays I read Patrick Radden Keefe’s magnificent book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. If you haven’t read it already, you really should. I’ve been thinking about it nonstop ever since I finished it last weekend, and it has led me to make the following modest proposal. I should add, before I go any further, that I didn’t come up with this idea. Someone else did, but for the life of me I can’t remember where I heard it first. So if you are that person, and you are reading this, you are a diabolical genius.
The Sackler family, as I’m sure you know, are the people who brought us the painkiller OxyContin through their company, Purdue Pharma. Without the extraordinarily aggressive campaign that Purdue waged to promote OxyContin—even after the deadly addictive effects of the drug became clear—the opioid epidemic would have been nothing like what it was.
The awkward thing about the Sacklers, however, is that they took the billions they made off the opioid epidemic and gave a big chunk of it away. They are one of the greatest philanthropic families in American history, and their name is everywhere. There are Sackler institutes for biomedical sciences at Columbia, Yale, and King's College London; a Sackler Museum at Harvard; several Sackler arts programs at the University of Connecticut, and a Sackler Library at the University of Oxford. There is a Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, a Sackler Wing at the Louvre in Paris, and a Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
So if you are one of the many prestigious institutions that benefited from the Sacklers’ generosity, what do you do? With a few exceptions, the institution can’t just remove the donor’s name from the building they paid for. When a rich person gives an institution millions of dollars in exchange for their name being on a building, there’s a long contract that says that as a condition of the initial gift their name has to stay on the building. Which makes sense: if you are Harvard, you can’t sell naming rights to your library to one rapacious robber baron and then, when that robber baron dies, resell the naming rights to the next willing robber baron, and so on and so forth, down the long (and presumably endless) list of rapacious robber barons whose every movement is tracked by the Harvard development office. Rapacious robber barons are not stupid. That’s how they got to be rapacious robber barons in the first place!
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Museum in New York—which was one of the primary beneficiaries of Sackler money—removed the Sacklers’ name from seven of its exhibition spaces. But that was with the approval of the particular branch of the Sackler family that endowed those seven spaces in the first place, after what I’m sure was many many months of legal wrangling. Other branches of the Sackler family—the ones who sold their interest in Purdue before the advent of OxyContin—declined to follow suit. As a result, the Met still has the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Asian wing and the Marietta Lutze Sackler Gallery in the Modern and Contemporary wing. If I was the Met, I would buy a massive bulk order of Patrick Radden Keefe’s book and give it to every visitor to the Arthur Sackler Gallery and the Marietta Lutze Sackler Gallery so that all museum-goers to that corner of the Met can understand the full theoretical distinction between the Sackler money that is considered OK and the Sackler money that is considered not OK. As I said, the whole thing is awkward.
Meanwhile Harvard’s President Lawrence S. Bacow has maintained that it would be “inappropriate” for the school to remove the Sackler name from its Sackler buildings. He didn’t really mean “inappropriate,” of course. He meant “impossible.” Or, more accurately, he meant, “I just got off a conference call with an army of trust and estates partners at the biggest and meanest of all big Wall Street law firms, and they told me that if we go down this road of willy-nilly removing the names of donors from buildings then good luck with our next capital campaign.”
America: We have a problem. Many of our fanciest institutions depend, for their continued existence, on separating very rich people from their money. But every now and again, the ways in which those very rich people made their money turns out to be embarrassing. And that embarrassment is now emblazoned in large letters across the front of some of our shiniest and most important buildings. What should we do?
Hence my modest proposal.
Let us start with some scripture, because—as is nearly always the case—the Bible holds the solution to our most pressing contemporary problems.
Matthew 6, verses 1 to 4:
What Jesus is saying here is that philanthropy has two very different benefits to the giver. There is an earthly benefit: “to be honored by others.” And there is a heavenly benefit, which is the pleasure of God. Jesus, it is clear, thinks that the latter purpose is the moral one. But the broader point he’s making is that these two motivations are incompatible. Givers can reap the worldly rewards from their generosity, and bask in the praise and gratitude of those around them. But in that case, God will frown upon them. Or, they can forgo worldly praise and give silently, in which case God will smile upon them. They can’t do both. You can’t get earthly rewards and heavenly rewards simultaneously.
I think you can see where I’m going with this.
The very rich person who wants his or her name on a building, likewise, gets two benefits from that act. The first brings them a heavenly benefit. They get the pleasure of doing something that benefits the public. And because society wants to encourage people to do things for the public good, acts of generosity like this are tax deductible. In other words, all taxpayers chip in to subsidize the very rich person who wants to donate a building to a university.
The Sacklers, in their many years of largesse, benefited in both these ways. They got to build socially useful projects, and avoid paying a whole lot of taxes along the way. And they got to burnish the value of their family name, by associating it with some of the most prestigious institutions of the world.
But what does the Matthew 6 rule suggest? That if you want to give to the needy, you shouldn’t get to benefit twice. You should have to choose whether you want your reward now or your reward in the afterlife.
The modest proposal, then, is a simple change in the tax laws. You can donate the money and get the corresponding tax deduction. But if you chose to exercise the tax deduction for that gift, you cannot have the building named after you. Or you can donate the money for a new building and put your name on it, but in that case you cannot exercise the charitable tax deduction.
So what would this have meant for the Sacklers’ many institutes, wings, and endowed funds? Well, it would have given institutions like the Met or Harvard University a much better answer to the question of what to do about money from such a dubious source. If the Sacklers had gone for the heavenly benefit—and made their donation anonymously—this whole embarrassing issue would never have come up at all. And if the Sacklers had gone for the earthly benefit, and given money without asking for the rest of us to subsidize their philanthropy—then the people who cashed their checks could say, in good conscience, that at least some small portion of the proceeds from this very corrupt enterprise was put to good use.