Charitarian Patriotism – Lawrence Benenson | The Open Mind

HEFFNER: 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 because 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 – because 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? Beause 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 even, 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 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.

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