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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “Charitarian, humanitarian American patriot,” as one leading industry publication profiled, my guest today’s altruistic nature makes him a passionate champion of education, equal rights, and improving the lives of others, a moral conscience in an age of degrading moral fiber. He is Lawrence B. Benenson, co-owner and principal of Benenson Capital and founding member of and advisor to the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of Americans with incomes over $1 million dollars who are leading the charge to raise taxes on the rich and to combat political and income inequality. On the most pressing issues facing the American people. Economic fairness, environmental security, and educational access Benenson is admirably on the front lines. Moreover, he is chiefly determined to uphold fundamental American values that are eroding today: combating the resurgence of bigotry, deescalating the climate crisis and facilitating civically intellectually and democracy revitalizing media options unrigged to the latest tweet, including here on The Open Mind – for which I must disclose, he is a critical benefactor from the next generation, something for which I am eminently grateful. Lawrence, thank you for all you do.
BENENSON: You’re welcome and thank you for having me on the show.
HEFFNER: It’s a pleasure to have you here. You consider yourself a charitarion not a philanthropist. What is a charitarian? Why are you a charitarian and not a philanthropist?
BENENSON: Well, I hope I am a charitarian. A very close friend of mine and I were speaking about this and I said to him, what is the difference between philanthropy and charity, and his immediate answer, so beautiful, he said philanthropy is about the giver, charity is about the receiver, and it was like a thunderbolt, lightning bolt in my brain. I think I want to be someone who cares about charity and about the receiver. I don’t need publicity, I don’t want publicity. I just want people to be helped and to suffer less. So I’ve taken to calling myself a charitarian, which is very distinct from being a philanthropist. I have nothing against philanthropists, as long as they give money to help people directly. That’s, that’s all there is to it.
HEFFNER: But your work is really fundamental today because they’re institutions, not just people, but they’re institutions that are suffering the moral values that are not being upheld in the way that I think they resonated with our country men at one point. Do you see that erosion of values as something that’s unmistakable, unavoidable right now that we have to consider?
BENENSON: Well, I agree. It’s unmistakable. I do think it is avoidable, however, and I am encouraged. Just this week, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group in Washington gathered over 180 CEOs of major corporations, the five biggest ones that spring to mind immediately, and all of these CEOs signed a pact saying that all stakeholders of a corporation are equally important, not just shareholders anymore, communities, customers, employees, everyone is on board the bus or the boat or whatever metaphor you want to go into the future and have it be a bright future. Not just the shareholders getting in the lifeboats and everyone else fending for themselves. So I think that this is a bright spot. I also think a very bright spot, huge encouragement is from the large automakers and the state of California who have recently banded together and said no to the President. They have elected to keep emission standards what they are, not degrade the emission standards. So why would someone want to create more smog and more air pollution?
These emissions standards have been, you know, used by the carmakers for many years now and they’re not going to go back and make big gas guzzling pollution makers because the people wouldn’t buy them.
HEFFNER: We can have a morally compassionate capitalism, right; I mean that’s one of the great political questions today as to whether or not,
BENENSON: Well, when I was growing up, there was a moral to every story. There was a moral to every sitcom because Happy Days, the Brady Bunch, All in the Family, there was always a moral at the end of the show and you learned from it if you were paying attention. And most of these shows were also taped for a live studio audience, which means there weren’t, wasn’t canned laughter. It wasn’t the joke writers saying, okay, if I can get 17 jokes in this show, you know, I’ll be able to take that trip to Argentina next week. People were writing to make the world a better place. They were trying to get somewhere and have our children grow up with morals and you know, I don’t know if it’s 20 years or 30 years ago on television, there started to be television shows that were more slice of life and were reality-based, but they weren’t reality-based because of this canned laughter stuff. And they weren’t reality-based because kids wouldn’t talk to their parents the way they do on these shows. And if they do, the parents would do something about it. It wouldn’t be all sarcasm all the time. So I think that the people of the United States, the vast majority, you know, if there are 300 million people in the country, I know there are more, but call it 300 million, 295 million really want to take their kids to school or go to work and have a nice time on the weekends and get home for dinner. They’re not worried about all the stuff that the media seems to just pound us with every day. I live in New York City and if you get in an elevator now there’s a screen on the elevator telling you how, God forbid, an athlete who plays for the Colorado baseball team has, his ankle, is broken.
What do I care? I’m sorry for the guy, I’m sorry for his family, but there’s no hierarchy of importance. You know, the next line on the ticker below the, you know, on the bottom of the screen might be about how, God forbid a grocery store in Mumbai, India had just been robbed. I’m sorry that that grocery store was robbed. I think that’s worse than the broken ankle of the Colorado baseball player. But you know what, I just want to get to the first floor so I can try and get my train.
BENENSON: One of the things that’s top of mind is Patriotic Millionaires and it addresses the systemic economic dysfunction right now in our political system. And the fact that those people who have to prioritize aren’t being represented when we elect office holders. You know, you have been outward and pioneering when it comes to considering a government that truly will be of, for, and by the people. How can we get there, charitarianism and philanthropy, are they the vehicles through which we can propel a better public policy?
BENENSON: The charity and philanthropy is a wonderful vehicle to make the world a better place and people are trying really hard to make the world a better place through foundations and giving money away and helping other people. A lot of foundations though have been created in the last 20, 30 years, tens of thousands, and they are, in my opinion, tax avoidance vehicles. If someone is smart enough to work for a huge financial institution and to get a $10 million dollar bonus, say, they don’t want to pay taxes because, oh my gosh, so they put the $10 million dollars in a foundation and God forbid their sister-in-law has arthritis. So make it Arthritis Foundation. By law the IRS regulation states that the foundation must spend – it’s very tricky – spend, not give, spend five percent, which would be half a million dollars, but in that half a million dollars, the person who creates the foundation can rent office space, can pay his sister-in-law $100 thousand dollars to be the president of the foundation, give his brother-in-law $50 thousand dollars to be the treasurer. Pretty soon you only have $200 thousand dollars that goes to arthritis research. And guess what? I’m pretty sure the person who works for this financial institution that made this big bonus isn’t going to go out and hire doctors. $200 thousand dollars is going to go to a different arthritis foundation that does have doctors.
HEFFNER: That’s what, it feels like that’s what’s happening in the political realm, that there’s just a lot of musical chairs of funding, but really not tackling the central problem right now.
BENENSON: The central problem is money,
HEFFNER: Political sphere.
BENENSON: It’s all about the money. It’s just is, it’s always been. And you take all these foundations that have all this money in the bank, like this, nine and a half million dollars in the bank. The guy’s smart enough to earn a $10 million dollar bonus. He can probably earn 5 percent on his money a year. So the nine and a half million dollars never goes to help anyone. Never goes to feed hungry people if it’s a food foundation, never goes to cure arthritis. It just stays in the bank and it’s just really tough. So I was, I joined this Patriotic Millionaires group ‘cause I signed this petition by email. I had never signed one before and haven’t signed one since, but I was one of only like 70 people nationwide to respond to this email, which asked for a petition to President Obama, to not extend the tax cuts on incomes over $1 million dollars that their previous president, President Bush had put in place.
Unfortunately, the president did extend those tax cuts, and I wish the trickle-down theory worked. I wish tax cuts created jobs, but the way of the world today is people are going to buy another home in Montana, really rich people, or they’re going to buy a boat. They’re not going to buy a factory in Tennessee and hire 400 people to make a better coffee cup. And all this money that people think are going to, you know, tax cuts are going to spur you know, investment, it’s not going to happen. But all that money is what would have paid for teachers and fixing bridges and policemen and firemen. And it’s crazy to that I’m about, it’s not crazy that I’m about to say It. It’s crazy that from 2017 to 2018 the federal deficit went up by 17 percent. I haven’t seen hardly any articles about that and that’s horrifying and it’s because of all these tax cuts, you know, and you talk to people in Indiana and Utah and real people, they’re proud to pay their taxes because they’re being part of society, civil society and the fringe, which is on Twitter and Instagram and the, you know, far left and far right people, I don’t for the life of me understand why the media concentrates so much on them.
HEFFNER: It’s just like, jet them concentrate on this disconnect, what you said, the fundamental disconnect that it is anti democratic economic policy right now.
BENENSON: It is because it’s against the will of the people.
HEFFNER: We need to somberly, passionately, persuasively, just as you did eloquently, lay out that factual basis for a politics. How can Patriotic Millionaires like yourself spur on the electoral energy to elect a congress and a president who will wipe out the Bush-era tax cuts and the Trump-era tax cuts?
BENENSON: Well, I think that inspiration has to come from somewhere and people in Congress, the vast majority who really want the American values and believe in the United States of America as it was founded and on its principles, really want the world to be a better place. But there are very few acts of courage anymore and there’s very little bravery anymore. And I’m not talking about our wonderful service men and women. I’m talking about standing up in Congress and saying this is wrong.
And, you know, there’s got to be crossing the aisle, as they talk about. And it’s not about, oh my gosh, if I cross the aisle then you know, the senator of my state or the president is going to come down, come down hard on me on Twitter – ‘cause people are worried about their images on Twitter. And you know, Twitter is a very small universe and It’s not, I don’t know if it’s been proven that, you know, people vote by what they read on Twitter, which at the last Tweet that gets in right before the polls open, but the people aren’t even going to the polls.
So hopefully then go to the election polls, not the polls where they say who they’re going to vote for, because that’s untrue also, but they got to go in and vote. You get in that little booth behind the curtain and, or maybe it’s behind you know, some other thing, by computer, but make it foolproof or make it so people can fool around with it, and just vote your conscience. People have consciences and they use them when they’re allowed to and when they’re shown, hey, it’s okay to use your conscience. It’s okay to go to a baseball game and watch the game with your eyes and your mind and not watch it through your screen because the experience of being present is much more enriching than going home later and you know, figuring out how to get your, your video into your video file that you think you’re going to watch three years from now to remember when the Yankees played the Indians on August 10th. No one cares.
HEFFNER: The American people are being tested right now, aren’t they? In some unprecedented fashion.
BENENSON: The American people are being tested. They’re being tested by their limits of tolerance of stupidity. It’s just this drivel, as my father would call it, and he used to call television drivel, but now we have so much more drivel. It’s crazy and it’s just, you can call it crap because you know who knows what drivel means anymore, right? They say that people under 25 only use 2000 words. I have hope because I am on the board of a couple of museums and I pay attention to the art world and in the art world, something wonderful is happening.
Museum attendance is skyrocketing. People are coming from everywhere to go to museums. More and more people, they climb up the stairs, they moved the Mona Lisa two weeks ago and they are climbing up the stairs to go see the Mona Lisa and they take Instagram and they take a picture of them – selfies with it, but maybe they’ll look up Leonardo Da Vinci. Maybe they’ll look up Rubens, who’s in the room, whose paintings they don’t even pay attention to, but maybe they’ll get sick of all the people cramming around. There’s one thing and 10 of them will go look at the other paintings and they’ll try and understand and they will understand that there was no electric light when these people made these paintings and there was no running water either. But the human mind and the open mind is a bastion of hope and goodness and the BS, we’ll call it instead of drivel that is going on nowadays, I am confident because of a couple of bright spots. I mentioned earlier that the world is going in the correct direction. Many diseases have been eradicated in the last 20 or 30 years and the poverty line has risen, but there are a lot more people now and I just want people to understand that there’s so much excess money. These Patriotic Millionaires and billionaires, do you really need $30 billion dollars or $5 billion dollars? Why not just have $1 billion dollars and give away the other $4 billion dollars and you’d be Gandhi or you’d be Princess Diana or Mother Teresa. You’d be these heroes of humanity and it would be real because you’ve actually helped people.
HEFFNER: The problem is they’re not all heroes like you. They may sign the giving pledge, but then they’re not advocating for the Patriotic Millionaire agenda. You have to do both, right?
BENENSON: Well, you have to actually give them money away. The giving pledge is funny to me because people sign as giving pledge and billionaires and I admire them and I know they’re trying their best. I hope. And I think they are. The giving pledge says that they’re going to give away half their money before they die. Have they given away half of their money yet? Do they know when they’re going to die? ‘Cause you know, you don’t have to. It’s really a big secret. If these billionaires know the secret of when they’re going to die and they’re going to give away half the money right before, that’s great. And for sure they have no idea when they’re going to die. And they have, they just keep all their money, but they get all this free publicity cause being such a great guy.
HEFFNER: And they support public policy that will multiply their net worth and, and not the livelihoods of the most Americans. And they’re not focused on tunnels and bridges and school buildings. That’s a primary concern of yours right now about the stupidity of the discourse and the lack of prioritization. I mean your elevator analogy is a good one.
BENENSON: Well I think that it’s all about t-shirts, bumper stickers and postcards and there are these wonderful slogans and people have created these things and people wear these t-shirts and put on these bumper stickers and these postcards and the best bumper sticker I ever saw was “remember who you wanted to be.” And it was a command, it wasn’t a question, it was “remember who you wanted to be.” And we all read the same books and we all read the same books when we were six years old and everyone I’m sure wanted to grow up and be the good king or the good queen in the book.
No one wants to be the bad evil king or queen, but there are an awful a lot of bad kings and bad queens running around these days because people have forgotten who they wanted to be. And the best postcard I ever saw had it written on it. “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore him on Monday?” And it’s astounding to me. People go to church and they pray and they talk about doing the right things and then they don’t call their parents. They don’t call their friends, they hold grudges and they don’t give of themselves. Not just money, but a lot of people do. But the media concentrates on the people who don’t, you know, the Police Athletic League in Oklahoma I’m sure does a very good job of helping little boys and girls play baseball or you know, clean up parks and stuff, but you don’t read about them.
You read about people who are trying to go to the moon or people who are, you know, proposing ridiculous real estate deals.
HEFFNER: How do you catalyze that pro-social, progressive energy in a politics that’s workable? You know, we’re anticipating this 2020 election year and the moral compass at which you’re driving ought to be front and center in folks minds as they nominate a candidate for president the Democrats nominate a candidate for president. How do you catalyze that progress in a way that’s understandable and that folks are going to rally behind?
BENENSON: You catalyze it by convincing people to vote and voting is the, by far, least onerous obligation of a civilian. There’s paying taxes, being on a jury and voting and all. No one likes to pay taxes. Who wants to go on jury duty? Voting? You get a half a day off from work, hopefully a day off from work.
You get to be with other people who, and you get to talk and be part of society. People don’t want to go and vote because they’re convinced it won’t lead to any progress, but people understand the climate is getting worse. Recycling helps. So people recycle – they say, oh, what if I don’t recycle this one can, what’s it going to hurt? Well, if everyone does. So if people don’t, if I don’t vote, what’s it going to hurt? Well, we’ve seen in the last election in New York City event, 60 votes is the difference. So voting is my passion and that’s how you catalyze people.
HEFFNER: An educated electorate showed up in 2018 aware of the central challenge and how can we ensure that they show up again in 2020 and that those malignant, malevolent forces do not depress them as they tried to with some noxious notions of false equivalency in 2016. How do we do that? How do we push against the depression of voting, because if, if the current President had his way, he would depress turnout and win reelection.
BENENSON: Well, there were a lot of big words in that question.
HEFFNER: (Laughs) More than 4,000?
BENENSON: (Laughs) A couple more, Yeah. I haven’t heard a bunch of them lately. I think that people are paying more attention to what is going on and the opioid crisis is really gotten to people and those are you know, painkillers. And maybe if people get off these painkillers and they get treatment, the wreck, they’ll be like, oh my gosh, my eyes are open and I’m not as depressed anymore, and depression is a very serious mental illness, but you can be depressed without having depression.
HEFFNER: How do we avoid depressing turnout, electoral turnout? The folks who oppose Patriotic Billionaires, they don’t want folks to turn out. How do we ensure that there is a full electorate voting in 2020, to come back to education?
BENENSON: Keep trying. Well, education is the foundation of everything and just like there’s air, water, food, shelter, and then there’s education and education is the key to everything. Teachers need to be taught how to be able to teach and how to educate the children. Children must go home and tell their parents to vote because they want the world to be a better place. And I am hopeful that the lessons of 2016 and the last couple of years will stick around for 2020.
HEFFNER: Thank you, Lawrence.
BENENSON: You’re welcome, Alexander, and thank you for these astute questions.
HEFFNER: And your astute answers, most appreciated. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time (and remember to vote) – for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.