PowerPoint Disease

by Nathaniel Zelinsky
A conference for young philanthropists illustrates the dangers of oversimplification.

Last week, the New York Times ran a fawning article by Jamie Johnson about a daylong conference the Obama administration hosted at the White House in March for young heirs to family fortunes — like the 19-year-old Patrick Gage, a freshman at Georgetown who is set to inherit the Carlson hotel empire.

The event was closed to the press, but Johnson — who descends from the founders of Johnson & Johnson — wrote that the day consisted of meetings between “the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans” and senior administration officials on how the rich could best direct their philanthropic giving. Breakout workshops on sexy topics like climate change led to this gem from the 19-year-old Gage: “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,” he said. “And when I told her about [human] trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that.’” 

Let’s get a couple of things straight: If the Bush administration had organized a similar event, the New York Times would have led the berserk media mob decrying the influence of money in politics.

You can even imagine the sanctimonious NYT editorial citing both Citizens United and the recent SCOTUS decision in McCutcheon before launching into an attack on the Koch brothers and the ability to buy access in a Republican administration.

President Obama, on the other hand, gets a free pass — not only from the Times but also in the liberal blogosphere. The usual suspects over at Slate haven’t ripped up Johnson’s piece with their typical doses of snark. That a double standard exists in these outlets isn’t news — but the degree to which the story is going so quietly into the night is a perfect example of it. (Editors at the Times probably assumed that by placing the article in the Style section they could avoid criticism — and it seems they were correct.)

Johnson described the conference and its breakout sessions as being like an “Ivy League honors seminar.” As a recent graduate of Yale, let me tell you what that looks like: a series of 20-minute PowerPoint presentations in which complex issues — like human trafficking — are simplified to the point of idiocy and solved in four bullet points.

One administration official told the audience of breathless billionaires that he wanted to facilitate their “moon shots” — in other words, overly ambitious, ill-thought-out projects likely to do more harm than good.

In a December column, Peggy Noonan coined the term West Wing Disease to explain the ineptitude that pervades the HealthCare.gov website. For those who haven’t watched the TV show she referenced, it depicts crises — introduced, dissected, and cured in 40-minute segments — and it focuses exclusively on the White House. Today’s generation, Noonan points out, sincerely believes that the collection of real-life policy wonks and speechwriters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can as easily and quickly tame the tangled bureaucracy that is the federal government.

Well, the analogue to West Wing Disease is surely PowerPoint Disease — epitomized by TED Talks and the slick but shallow McKinsey consultant. And it seems that vapidity is exactly what prevailed at the White House’s conference for “the young and the rich.”

We can’t know for sure because, after all, the administration closed the meeting to all reporters but Johnson — a wealthy socialite playing at being a journalist.

I’m not averse to philanthropy; in fact, it’s one of this country’s greatest strengths. Americans give more money than our peers around the globe. And this isn’t a new phenomenon. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote eloquently about our nation’s ethos of civil society.

So let’s applaud all those who do contribute their wealth to worthy causes. Let’s encourage Americans to give back to their communities. But let’s not pretend philanthropy isn’t as complex and problem-ridden as, say — I don’t know — building a health-care website.

— A 2013 graduate of Yale College, Nathaniel Zelinsky is a master’s student in history at the University of Cambridge as a Yale-Clare Mellon Scholar.

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