24 Jun 2009
by Colin Greer
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Public Accountability vs. Private Privilege

On NY1’s “Road to City Hall” the other day, I listened to former New York senator Alfonse D’Amato, former mayor Ed Koch, and former Comptroller Carl McCall, recently agreeing that there was no difference between billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s use of personal money in his mayoral campaign in New York, and Obama’s use of private fundraising activity during his campaign.

Who would have thought you could equate a billionaire’s multi-million dollar campaign in pursuit of his own political ambitions with a  campaign that raised millions by mobilizing small donors across the country thanks to a man and a message that resonated with a very large public? As far as I can see the only similarity is that each opted out  of public campaign funds.

Unrelated directly to his political campaigning, Bloomberg is also a philanthropist. He has a foundation with an endowment that has been established through the exercise of tax exemption, which allows money to be stored privately in order to fund public good.

For good and ill, foundations themselves chose whether or not – and to whom – to be accountable in spending from their treasuries. Whether the accountability be to advocacy on issues, constituencies of grantees, or communities of colleagues. So, it would be a mistake to think that because  these private institutions are established for public purpose that they are democratic institutions like governments.

With the echo of that television conversation in mind, I’m reminded that this is no time to blur the lines between private goodwill and  government accountability. Especially as we try to slog our way out of a deep trough of government unaccountability in recent years.

Rather this is a time for great distinctions between public accountability and private privilege. Especially as we witness the  Gordian knot that ties bail-out, stimulus and recovery expenditures so tightly to the still very privately-determined financial sector.


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