That Wile E. Coyote Moment: Predictions for Social Good in 2017

For a few happy seconds, it seems like nothing has really changed: then Wile E. Coyote looks down and sees that he has run over a cliff edge and is about to suffer a nasty fall.

That sequence, from the Road Runner cartoons, keeps appearing as we look into the Philanthrocapitalism crystal ball in search of predictions for social progress in the year to come. Discontinuity, much of it decidedly unpleasant, will be a dominant theme of 2017, along with its close associates uncertainty and unpredictability. Blame the election of Donald Trump and the broader rise globally of a populism that seems determined to turn on their heads many of the trends that have become established around the world in the past quarter century and more.

This sense of discombobulation will be stronger for those philanthrocapitalists who politically are of the liberal centre or to the left of it. Yet those who lean more rightwards may also find the going bumpier than they would like. America’s incoming President, for example, is not the disciplined ideological standard bearer that conservative foundations have been awaiting for half a century. He has strong opinions, full of sound and fury but often signifying nothing, and almost as often later reversed. He ran against the mainstream of his own party, which controls both houses of Congress and has an agenda of its own, much of it the result of those decades of effort by conservative philanthropists from Olin to the Kochs. How much of that agenda will coincide with Donald Trump’s? A lot will depend on how the President and his counterparts in Congress get along, and on whose terms.

All of which makes forecasting harder than ever. Yet we will not shrink from the challenge. Here are Philanthrocapitalism’s tips for the big trends in doing social good in 2017:

Philanthrocapitalism versus Misanthrocapitalism In terms of the net worth of its members, Donald Trump’s government will be the richest the world has ever seen. Yet will this governmental C-Suite of tycoons use their business acumen and even their personal resources to advance the public good, like Michael Bloomberg did as mayor of New York City? Or will they instead fill their pockets in classic kleptocratic, plutocratic fashion, or implement the sort of crazy, out of touch ideas that people insulated from the real world by too much wealth often embrace? Whilst the President Elect’s tweets and campaign rhetoric claim he wants to help the average American, there is little evidence in his past of much commitment to benefiting the average Joe, let alone the average Joanna. Even as he prepares to enter the White House, he has being looking to close his charitable foundation, which is being investigated by New York’s attorney general over alleged “improprieties”. His claims to have given away millions of dollars to good causes have encountered plenty of scepticism. And he has filled his cabinet with far too many dinosaurs of the business world, throwbacks from the 1980s era of “greed is good” Gordon Gekko-ism. Today’s leading businesses have largely embraced a more modern view of society that includes broader corporate responsibilities than merely maximising short-term profits – and the Trump cabinet members plucked from those companies (albeit hardly the most tree-hugging of firms, such as Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs) may find themselves at odds with those who still remember fondly the Predators’ Ball. Starting with its agenda for slashing taxes and regulation, but not carbon emissions, it is easy to imagine this being the most misanthrocapitalistic of governments. Yet perhaps the need to satisfy an angry public to win re-election will lead to an unexpected embrace of philanthrocapitalism. Many educational reform donors seem (at least) intrigued by the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, as it seems likely she will try to create new growth opportunities for the charter schools so popular with philanthrocapitalists. And in so far as the new administration wants to make government perform better, rather than just shrink it, pay for success (social impact) bonds have won bipartisan support in Congress, and perhaps could be expanded fast. As for investing in infrastructure, another Trump campaign pledge, whether that proves to be misanthrocapitalism or philanthrocapitalism will depend on what sort of infrastructure and what incentives govern how it is built and operated. Watch this space.

Business to the rescue? In recent years, business – especially large Western multinationals who care about their reputation with customers and/or potential employees – have become one of the more progressive forces in society, at least in terms of promoting inclusivity on gender, race and sexuality, and increasingly (outside of the carbon-based industries) on seeking solutions to climate change. If the Trump administration is determined to lead the world into a turn-back-the-clock Regressive Era, much will depend on whether today’s mainstream business executives step in to fill the Progressive leadership void. The worry is that, fearful of a public Presidential Twittering, they will instead conclude that discretion is the better part of valour and stay away from anything potentially controversial. The good news is that lately a few more enlightened business leaders have joined Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, in making a public stand for building a more inclusive and sustainable society. They include Marc Benioff of Salesforce (on issues ranging from homelessness to LGBT rights); Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani (refugees); Emmanual Faber of Danone (which is experimenting with how to turn a large public company into a mission-driven B Corp) and Larry Fink of BlackRock, the world’s largest fund management company, who is leading efforts on long-termism and impact investing which may be especially significant. If the capital markets can become active supporters of company bosses who do stand up for social progress, then they are far more likely to do so. Making the profitable achievement of social progress, rather than maximising short term profits, a core part of mainstream investment behaviour is an urgent challenge for 2017.

The birth of the resistance movement Surprised and depressed by the success of Trump and fearful that he will tear down much of what they hold dear, many American philanthrocapitalists are likely to throw money at efforts to fight ignorant populism and combat the worst instincts of the new administration and a Republican Congress out of touch enough to try to undermine its own ethics watchdog on the first day of its new term. Ironically, much inspiration will be taken, and lessons learnt, from the successful efforts over the past 40 years of those conservative and libertarian philanthropies to undermine popular support for Progressive government. In Europe, the bigger foundations are likely to increase funding for efforts to fight back against the populist forces that are threatening to tear apart the European Union. On both sides of the Atlantic, expect to see the deployment of the sort of stealth capacity building strategies for making civil society stronger that in the past were reserved for China and countries under Soviet domination.

It’s the climate, stupid The top priority for the new resistance movement is likely to be stopping the Trump administration destroying what had been an increasingly concerted global effort to combat climate change. Here, enlightened business leaders and investors will have an especially important role to play. So will state and city governments, which can implement policies based on very different assumptions than those of the federal government about the threat of climate change. Finding ways to convince a sceptical public that climate change science is reliable will be essential. The American legal system may prove crucial in this, as efforts accelerate to prove that oil companies knew of the risks of climate change but deliberately set out to suppress the evidence and mislead the public. With ExxonMobil now being pursued in the courts by several state attorneys general, 2017 could be the year when Big Oil starts to experience the kind of massive fines and widespread stigma that was hitherto reserved for Big Tobacco.

Fighting fake news There will be a vigorous philanthrocapitalistic effort to fight the plague of “fake news” that has been credited in part for Trump’s win. Facebook and Google algorithms will be scrutinised and attacked for their ethical lapses. Foundations and other values-driven investors may threaten to divest from companies whose advertising dollars support fake news creators. One leader of this campaign will be one of the fake news movement’s most prominent targets: as well as launching the Barack and Michelle Obama Foundation, Trump’s predecessor in the White House is said to be mulling creating some sort of media-focused entity committed to restoring integrity to news.

Uncharitable deductions Now he is getting out of the charity business, and given what he will regard as an obvious bias of philanthropic organisations against him, what could be more tempting for the new President than to demonstrate his egalitarian tax-cutting credentials by getting Congress to abolish the tax deduction for charitable donations?

Charity begins at home As many hitherto internationally-minded donors refocus on strengthening the resistance to Trumpian destruction at home, giving to support social progress overseas will suffer. Cross-border giving has already been under fire from the sort of populist, anti-global governments that America’s incoming President seems to admire; but this will now be reinforced on the supply side. Bill and Melinda Gates will continue to stand out as an exception: indeed, they may double down on fighting health problems abroad with some high profile funding announcements and ambitious new goals, on everything from reducing child mortality to stopping pandemics and ending malaria. The appointment of former Gates Foundation executive and head of USAID, Raj Shah, as its new head encourages the hope that Rockefeller Foundation will continue to build on its historic commitment to doing good globally.

Arrested development Overall, a Trump administration seems likely to cut back on American foreign aid. It would be no surprise were USAID, America’s overseas development agency, reabsorbed into the State Department with a much reduced budget, or even scrapped entirely. There are potentially three exceptions to this trend: first, aid tied to explicit political goals may come in from the cold; second, if a case can be made that a particular aid program has a high return on investment, especially one that benefits America as much as the donor country, and better still in narrow economic rather than broader social ways, spending on that might be increased (pandemic prevention? investing in educating girls?); third, more weight may be given to the personal passions of those close to the President (veep Mike Pence is apparently fond of the Pepfar HIV/Aids program introduced by George W Bush, along with various other causes beloved of committed Christians; Ivanka Trump reportedly wants to see child care for working mothers expanded, and – though this does not seem to have influenced her father’s actions so far – worries about climate change). Meanwhile, there may be significant changes at the World Bank: Jim Kim’s reappointment has already been followed by further internal struggles, and he is likely to face pressure to quit from the Trump administration. Given that even President Obama was unwilling to allow a non-American to run the multilateral development bank, it is hard to imagine his successor doing so. If Paul Wolfowitz seemed a bad choice from a global development perspective, wait and see who Mr Trump picks.

Moon shadow, Moon shadow It was not just a female American president that the world missed out on last year; there had also been high hopes that a woman would be appointed as Secretary General of the United Nations. Instead, we have Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who most recently was UN High Commissioner for Refugees. With a default hostility likely from the Trump administration, he will have his work cut out, though perhaps he will be able to rally the world’s remaining progressive forces around him. Certainly, appointing as his deputy Amina Mohammed, the driving force behind the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals, was an astute move. But making the UN even slightly relevant in the current climate may be a task beyond any mere human. How long before the recently-completed terms of Ban Ki-moon are viewed with an increasingly fond nostalgia for the Good Old Days?

‘Gina’s gonna be HUGE China, or as Donald Trump calls it, ‘Gina, is potentially the big winner globally from the pending disruption at the heart of American government. Expect to start to see it fill the leadership vacuum first by embracing freer trade but also by being in the vanguard of action against climate change and for providing foreign aid to poorer countries, especially in Africa. Much of what it does will be far from perfect, of course, but at a time when America turns inwards, China will seem one of the more committed drivers of global social progress.

Machine learning for good As the hype grows around the disruptive potential of Artificial Intelligence, the doom-mongers predicting robots taking all the jobs and complaining about the pernicious role of unethical algorithms in everything from news consumption to law enforcement will be joined by philanthrocapitalists who see the possibilities of using AI to do good. The phrase “machine learning” will become commonplace in grant applications to big foundations and Silicon Valley tycoons.

From UBI to Moonshots The most discussed topics among the big thinkers of philanthrocapitalism will be “universal basic income” (UBI) and “moon shots”. Paying everyone a “universal basic income” seems like a brilliant idea, especially if we face an increasingly jobless future, but how would you actually implement it? And announcing “moon shots” to solve all manner of big societal problems is deliciously ambitious, but how do you get the balance right between setting challenging but achievable goals and sloppy Utopian wishful thinking?

Comeback kids Last year, the Clinton Global Initiative was held for what was billed as the final time. After all, how could it continue once Hillary Clinton was elected President? As a result, a lively contest has kicked off to fill the vacuum for a private-sector-led philanthrocapitalist shindig in New York during UN General Assembly week in September. The hot favourite is a turbo-charged version of the existing Concordia Summit backed by philanthrocapitalist Nicholas Logothetis. But a dark horse candidate may emerge: a re-branded Clinton Global Initiative. After all, now they will not be returning to the White House, why shouldn’t Bill, Hillary and Chelsea put the band back together? Meanwhile, though he remains unpopular at home, Tony Blair still sees an opportunity for himself to lead the global fightback against nasty, nationalistic populism: watch out for efforts to launch a new “Blair Initiative” to revive the evidence-based political centre. And if you are looking for something seemingly even less plausible, how about a reconciliation between the leading couple of celanthropy? Yes, you read it here first: announcing Brangelina 2.0.

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