California is in the midst of a massive budget shortfall -- $16 billion to be exact. Fifteen big parks around the state are going to be closed. But now for the really bad news. A businessman named Dan McCranie has just offered three-quarters of a million dollars to keep one of them -- Henry W. Coe State Park, California's second-biggest state park, near San Jose -- open. Several more donors chipped in the remaining $150,000.
A recent segment on NPR's All Things Considered offered a sympathetic interview with McCranie, who clearly loves the park, but everyone on the segment, including McCranie himself, suggested that it would be a disaster if more philanthropists followed in his footsteps.
McCranie and his interviewer, Melissa Block, take a lovely hike together and exchange their concerns that the state will never give funds to parks again once they realize private donors are available. They worry that selfish donors will demand "naming rights" to bodies of water or other natural landmarks in the park. They worry that only parks in richer areas will be funded. McCranie, who says his views on economics are "to the right of Attila the Hun," whatever that means, believes turning the park over to private hands would be a big mistake.
The piece is odd for all that is left out. For instance, so far no donors have asked for naming rights. For many philanthropists, having a lake in a state park named after them is the furthest thing from their minds. Second, there is no mention of the success of private involvement in park use. The Central Park Conservancy, which is perhaps the most famous example of a public-private partnership to benefit public land, provides 85 percent of the budget for Central Park, while the city of New York maintains complete control over park policies. Here's a description from the Conservancy's website.
Since its founding, the Conservancy has overseen the investment of more than $600 million into Central Park, of which more than $470 million was raised from private sources — individuals, corporations and foundations — and more than $110 million was contributed by the City. The Conservancy has also prescribed and carried out a restoration management plan for the Park; managed the capital restoration of much of the Park's landscapes and facilities; created programs for volunteers and visitors; and set new standards of excellence in Park care.
It sounds self-serving but few who have visited Central Park in recent years would quibble with its accuracy or the accomplishments of the conservancy.
Still, even if the parks looked nice and even if no one demanded naming rights and even if the state retained control, there are those who would have a problem with such gifts. All of which brings us to the strangest part of the NPR segment, an interview with Rob Reich, co-director of Stanford University's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. He worries that, as the interviewer puts it, "private philanthropy [could] replace the common good."
"You get lots of people like [McCranie] or others who do this who have great intentions and are civically minded and spirited," Reich explains. "But acting one by one by one, they set into motion this dynamic . . . where suddenly we're not acting collaboratively or collectively as a public. We're acting individually as philanthropists to benefit the thing we're most passionate about. And suddenly we don't have a civic sphere anymore. We don't have political participation. We don't have an 'us.' We have a bunch of 'I's.' "
It seems that the guy in charge of Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society doesn't really think philanthropy and civil society are actually compatible. How do the gifts of wealthy individuals to causes they are passionate about eliminate the civic sphere or preclude political participation? We have to make sure that the only dollars spent on public causes are tax dollars? Does paying taxes create a sense of "us"? Perhaps only in the sense that we can all object to how high they are.