Q&A: Maxim Thorne ’89 LAW ’92

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(The following Q&A is part of a series of interviews with professors that will be published every other week.)

Maxim Thorne ’89 LAW ’92, teaches the Yale College seminar “Philanthropy In Action.” The buzz behind the class began when those who chose it learned they’d have the chance to donate $100,000, a grant from the Once Upon A Time Foundation. Thorne is a senior vice president of the NAACP, worked extensively on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, and has written for the Huffington Post.

Q. How did you decide to create this course? Did you know about the $100,000 beforehand?

A. I wanted to share my passion for philanthropy, and the fun involved, with students when I created the syllabus. I thought this was a good time to broaden the discussion to the academy and with young people. We face serious and growing inequality in America and across the globe and now more than ever we have to incorporate active philanthropy into our lives and get young people involved in the conversation. The donor came after.

My students are creative and full of ideas. They get theory and insights from the study of philanthropy, but ultimately they select the issues they care about and who and what ultimately will benefit from the $100,000. They also get to debate each other, as much of the class is built around the exchange of ideas.

Q. Have you encouraged the class to donate to any cause in particular?

A. My students will be the ones who will determine how much they will weigh different elements. For example, is emergency relief a priority for them? Or perhaps saving lives in Sub Saharan Africa through the purchase of Malaria pills and mosquito nets? Perhaps investing in preserving the study of civil rights and ethnic studies in the American South given recent actions in Arizona, by endowing say the Julian Bond Chair for the Study of Civil Rights? Or perhaps Yale Professor Dean Karlan’s work at Innovation for Poverty Action in New Haven that focuses on research to enhance the impact of donor investment economic development? Perhaps there is a startup venture business like (http://bcorporation.net/) that takes their fancy … ultimately it is their decision.

Q. You’ve argued in the Huffington Post for an increase in the estate tax. Once money is earned by someone who wishes to save it for his/her children, why do you think it should be taxed again?

A. I believe — and this is not part of my course — that we have to address the growing inequality in America. The fact that folks who run hedge funds pay less tax than our dining hall workers is ridiculous. The fact that the United States is moving away from our roots — a commitment to the common good and equal opportunity — to creating a sort of European gentry of “lucky sperm” with wealth who did nothing to create such wealth is something that has to be addressed. None of us birthed ourselves — we need to remember that — and we need a society that ensures that the least and most lucky among us can have a harmonious relationship. The society that provides all the tools to create extraordinary wealth for some (and extreme poverty for others) must have a mechanism to continually redistribute and return wealth into the community so that we can maintain the common good.

Q. Is there any cause generally promoted by the progressive movement that you oppose? Any major conservative cause you support?

A. I believe in philanthropy the labels “liberal” and “conservative” are meaningless. The incidence of poverty, inequality, disease, child welfare for example concerns everyone – how we resolve it may be different. I believe other factors affect philanthropy and who engages in it: for example religion and gender.

Q. Americans, as a percentage of GDP, donate more money to charity than any other country on Earth. If we’re so generous, why do we still struggle with poverty to a greater extent than many rich nations? What do you think of Ron Paul’s belief that private charity would make up most/all of the gap left by a massive reduction in government social spending?

A. We Americans are a very generous people but we negotiate income redistribution very differently. I think many other countries are also very generous and that folks play with the numbers to deflate the giving of other countries (or of people who aren’t wealthy — poor people give too!). For example, it is the case the private citizens in the US give private charity more. On the other hand, Western Europeans give more responsibility to the state to do what private charity attempts here in the US, and hence we see that European nations, as a national act, give more say to fight world hunger. I personally believe that we Americans can, and should, do more from both positions.

And I think Congressman Paul’s beliefs are not supportable by any advanced nation’s experience. The notion that private largesse will provide social security or Medicaid for example, or serve the function of the National Institute of Health is ridiculous. As Americans we believe in a certain dignity, and a view of democracy, that allows us to have a country that treats us as equal citizens, not serf and lord.

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