I’m a writer focused on feminism, politics, philanthropy, and culture. I've written for The Atlantic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, The American Prospect, Salon, and many more places. I've lamented the decline of American Girl Dolls, fought with Alan Dershowitz over free speech on college campuses, broken a story about the eviction of an artist collective in Bushwick, and documented the ongoing meme-ification of Hillary Clinton. My work has been picked up by The New York Times, New York Magazine, Jezebel, The Hairpin, and Buzzfeed, among others.
I am currently developing two book-length projects, one on the disconnect between feminism as a brand versus feminism as a political movement, the other on the influence of philanthropy on the division between public and private financing of the social good. The latter topic is the focus of my graduate research towards a Ph.D. in political science.
Alongside my academic and journalism careers, I have eight years of experience as a major gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer. I’ve also done extensive copywriting for fundraising and marketing purposes. Additionally, creating Hey Girl Happy Hannukah (the Jewish-holiday-themed Ryan Gosling photoblog) is among my proudest accomplishments to date.
You can find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter (@justaschill) or email me at amybessschiller [at] gmail [dot] com.
If this isn’t the REALEST THO
America Is Becoming Jurassic Park, says New York Times and me
Say it with me, kids: Jurassic Park teaches us suspicion towards scientific research funded exclusively by the superrich.
As I’m sure you recall, JP’s sole funder was John Hammond, the billionaire CEO of a bioengineering company, acting out of a combination of noble inquiry and totally misguided ego. I’m not necessarily equating oceanic research vessels with an island dystopia overtaken by murderous T-Rexes, although Ray Dalio “lending his mega-yacht to hunts for the giant squid” does have sequel potential.
The larger issue at hand is the opposing trajectories of public versus private financing for scientific research, as reported in this weekend’s New York Times. The piece, “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science,” examines the context of how and why more private money is flowing into scientific research. Refreshingly, it also explores the downsides of private support, and therefore private control, having a larger role in fields that are intended to support the social good.
The reporter, William J. Broad, manages to do something I’ve found challenging in the past: explain skepticism about philanthropy writ large, not just charity integrity and effectiveness. Conceptually, there’s a clear contrast between publicly-funded basic research, wherein projects are chosen based on urgent health problems and most at-risk populations, and privately-funded research, which is often more specialized based on the aims of the individual donors. In racial terms this means prioritizing research into melanoma versus sickle-cell anemia. Sometimes the comparisons are even more whimsical: A $35 M telescope to map the cosmos, as funding for basic research at the National Institute of Health and elsewhere was cut by nearly 25% in the past year.
Science requires a lot of up-front spending, while its benefits may result in saving lives rather than recouping dollars. There are dozens of ways to conclude the headline, “Billionaires With Big Ideas Privatizing American [BLANK],” but scientific research is the perfect microcosm in which to examine the public-private funding tensions.
Any critique of philanthropy’s influence on the public good has a lot of threads, which can be broken out from the Times piece itself:
- We have no idea how much money is being spent or where it goes
- Philanthropy is ultimately no match for government support
- On the other hand, if you’re looking to gut government spending, now you have an excuse
- Elite donors support elite institutions, which may already be flush with cash
- Scientists have to spend time becoming major gift officers
Then there are the critiques that don’t get as much play in the piece, but still play critical roles:
- What’s the opportunity cost of forfeiting billions in tax revenue to loopholes and deductions, only to have it channeled into philanthropy at the donors’ discretion?
- How does philanthropy reinforce the power of private wealth-holders to influence public policy?
Most interesting to me is when Broad writes of “philanthropy in the age of the new economy “ and “its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed,” with donors who pride themselves on taking risks the government will not consider.
Philanthropy taking on a larger role in scientific research should complement, not undermine or even compensate, for publicly-funded research. When we talk not just about the amount of money and its direction but the allegedly superior research methods allowed by privately funding, using terms like individual, entrepreneurial, and impatient,” we reinforce the idea that ultimately, private capital is more effective at curing social ills than the government. That’s a dangerous corner to round – lurking on the other side are the raging velociraptors of capitalism, looking for any opportunity to expand their power, no matter how cute their just-hatched babies are.
"When I think of my favorite writers these days—the people from whom I learn the most and whose articles and posts I await most eagerly—I think of Seth Ackerman, Peter Frase, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lili Loofbourow, Aaron Bady,Freddie de Boer, LD Burnett, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Adam Goodman, Matthijs Krul, Amy Schiller, Charles Petersen, Tom Meaney…I could go on. For a long time." -
A particularly gratifying shout-out in Corey Robin’s brilliant piece about the state of academics, the opportunities for us to think out loud for broader audiences and the economic demands that increasingly undermine our ability to do so (all of which has apparently escaped Nick Kristof’s notice)."
Like I always say.
from “Ode to a Beautiful Nude”
Snapshot 1, 1995: A headstrong eleven-year-old, who sleeps covered in a blanket that reads “Book Woman,” grabs a tome off her mother’s bedroom shelf. She starts reading these short essays, about the magic of fireflies, and schoolteacher nuns. She reads more, about what it’s like to have young children and go to work, and the concept of a tuning fork, a frequency that people put into the world when they are anxious about life’s meandering directions.
Somewhere deep down, our young heroine realizes that she is getting some clues to understanding her mother.
Then she reads the next book by this author, this time getting an education in Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, encroaching limits to abortion access, the Central Park jogger - all the tumult that had been swirling around what it meant to be female and a citizen while she was learning her colors in preschool.
And then the girl thinks, wow. This Anna Quindlen person knows how to take everything I think, or my parents think, and make it sound like the only reasonable position in the world. That’s about the coolest thing someone can do for a living.
Snapshot 2, 2002: First year at Brandeis University. Now an admirer of Madeline Albright and Kate Chopin, girl is proud to proclaim her feminist leanings. She is equally committed to not working in the dining hall as her on-campus job. She submits a long-shot application to be a research assistant for a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center - and is hired largely on the strength of her essay about Anna Quindlen’s influence on her life.
She goes on to help edit a book, write a curriculum, and facilitate informal teen groups, all revolving around becoming a confident Jewish woman. Her name appears in book’s credits for the first time.
Snapshot 3, 2007: In a long story best told in another meandering entry, this now-22-year-old-woman gets a tremendous hiring offer from New York City: a consultant with the top nonprofit fundraising firm in the country. It’s the job of her dreams.
Well, some dreams. She loves the world of power and capital, particularly when it’s channeled to causes that improve the world. She loves learning the landscape of influence within this center of the universe. She learns to wear good suits and make clean Powerpoint decks. Her friends envy her for making a good living, in a position that combines generous autonomy with unparalleled mentorship. Oh yeah, and helps nonprofits succeed on a highly strategic level.
She begins to describe her career with two role models, representing two trajectories: Ruth Messinger as the nonprofit and political powerhouse, and Anna Quindlen as the influential feminist and intellectual.
And then after 5 years of pretty great practice at becoming a fundraising expert - she decides it’s time to return to the Anna ambition. Before it’s too late. Before she has to support a family, before her position at the firm only gets harder to leave.
Snapshot 4, 2012: February 1, 2012. Our woman pitches an idea to an acquaintance at The Nation, a clarion call in response to Susan G. Komen ceasing their funding of Planned Parenthood. The pitch is accepted about 12 hours before she has to get on a plane to Florida to visit her grandparents.
"Why the Komen-Planned Parenthood Split Was Good for Feminism" was written in under 24 hours, on a plane and at her grandparents’ kitchen table. It was the most-emailed article on the site for the four days, with thousands of Facebook shares and Tweets.
It was this woman’s first major success as a political writer - an Anna Quindlen.
Snapshot 5, 2013: At lunch with one her former supervisors, both on a second glass of Sancerre, supervisor asks, “can you do a pro bono project for me?” And our now-cynical heroine demurrs.
"It’s for Planned Parenthood." "Oh, well of course, then."
Drafts and revisions and conference calls ensue over the course of 6 weeks, where our heroine is tasked with articulating the case for raising an enormous sum of money for Planned Parenthood’s centennial. None other than Cecile Richards, the charismatic and deeply respected President, calls her draft an “excellent piece of work.”
Then our heroine looks at the attendees for the upcoming committee meeting. And who do you think she sees?
Which brings us to today. Snapshot #6. September 26, 2013.
Otherwise known as, the day I sat next to Anna Quindlen, Development Chair of Planned Parenthood, told her what she meant to me, and heard her lavishly (but discerningly) compliment a piece of my writing.
In front of those old colleagues who had made lots of other dreams come true.
A mere hour in a stark midtown office, and yet it was a moment where every age I have been, every seemingly divergent path in this eclectic and blessed life of mine - flowed together.
Nothing more can be said. Except gratitude for every person - every mentor, my parents and brother and grandparents and family - and God, who sustained me, nurtured me, and without my realizing, guided me to reach this moment.
What’s hotter than Eva Marie Saint sassily purring at Cary Grant as they cling for their lives to Mount Rushmore?
Regarding the Giving of Others
I’ll say this for the Buffetts: they really know their way around a third rail.
In August 2011, Warren Buffett published an op-ed in the Times entitled “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” Buffett makes a straightforward case for raising taxes on households with more than $1 million in income, and additional increase for those making $10 million of more, noting that due to tax credits and loopholes applicable only to individuals with very high incomes, he paid proportionately lower taxes than his secretary.
The Buffett paterfamilias is plainspoken enough to require no paraphrasing, a trait not shared by his son Peter, who penned an op-ed last Sunday entitled “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” Granted, the younger Buffett has a way more complex case to make than “I should pay a higher tax rate than my secretary,” one that will take me 5+ years and a doctoral dissertation to get into a coherent body of work.
P. Buffett acutely places a lot of dots of a full-fledged critique but in 800 words simply doesn’t have (or find) the space to connect them:
- Hubris and blinkered optimism on the part of philanthropist, who misguidedly attempt to “solve” major multifaceted problems and (unwittingly) place their egos at the center of those charitable effort
- Silence around philanthropists’ complicity in exacerbating the very inequality whose effects they now want to mitigate
- Charity as a fig leaf for economic exploitation
- Paternalism about giving resources like food/water/education to beneficiaries without considering what it might mean to allow them power and authority over how to spend philanthropic capital
- (And another thing!) The vanity of techno-optimism
Credit where it’s due: P. Buffett is taking his dad’s example of self-critique and puncturing our reverence for wealth. He tries to pivot into a more complex argument, one that only makes sense if you look at philanthropy not as an unprompted act of goodwill but as a point in the cycle of wealth creation and distribution.
(If Zizek is your jam, check out this snappy illustrated talk of his on this exact subject - he uses the same “make money with the left hand, give it away with the right” framing.)
But here’s the radical question that Buffett fails to pose: does philanthropy promote a political agenda in which private individuals - not democratic governments - assume control of the social good?
Philanthropy has always been a form of PR and “conscience laundering” for the wealthy, whose gains have almost always come at the exploitative expense of labor and the environment. What’s new is that this generation of philanthropists are also a generation of capitalists who have been able to limit the role of central government more than any in recent history, and to frame the role of government as the enabler of commerce rather than the protector of labor.
The central concern of both Buffett op-eds is the social contract. Maybe the strongest op-ed would be co-authored by father and son, making a case for private wealth to stand down, pay taxes, support a strong social safety net in the countries where its holders reside, and stop co-opting the role of government for their own whimsical, egotistical desires.
Preamble: Why Blogging About A Chautauqua Lecture Series Is Kind of Futile But I’m Doing It Anyway
I’ll be posting my thoughts from this week’s lectures at the Chautauqua Institution regarding Markets, Morals, and the Social Contract. I figured I’d start with a preamble, mostly because I started writing and realized if anyone was going to read anything it would have to be broken up into sections.
A rather obvious lesson learned: you can’t have your lakeside resort cake and eat your leftist political theory too.
It is, admittedly, a tall order for the Chautauqua Institution to represent a rigorously critical view of markets, (really anything beyond the thesis that “everyone benefits financially and morally when we all follow our better angels.”) First of all, the population consists of people with the means to spend nearly $2,000 on a program pass alone (to say nothing of rent, transportation, and food) for their summer vacation. Second, the whole gestalt of the place is a combination of old-fashioned Main Line virtues and a Norman Rockwell nostalgia-fest. The result is the exactly the kind of benevolent status-quo ism that you would imagine from a group of Episcopalian burghers who enjoy the ballet.
Nearly every lecture I’ve seen in 20-some years – some enlightening, some pleasant if not penetrating, and many entirely derivative – has concluded with the convenient resolution that we need more civil conversation of the type that takes place at Chautauqua. Last year’s tepid lectures on Radicalism led me and my brother to term Chautauqua’s version of controversy “rocking-chair radicalism.”
Therefore, despite my cultish devotion to the place, I readily acknowledge that Chautauqua’s intellectual ambitions often outstrip its capacity for truly penetrating critique. Credit where it’s due, this is changing, as more people are vocal about the lack of racial and class diversity on the grounds, more pointed in their lecture questions. I had my hopes up slightly for a week on “Markets, Morals, and the Social Contract,” thinking that perhaps Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy (aka “Criticizing Neoliberalism for Not Dummies, Exactly, But Moderately Educated People,”) would challenge our deference to the market and indulgent hand-wringing as though it were a disobedient child with so much potential.
And another thing: Speaking of morals and markets, the high-profile lineup was secured with the sponsorship of Wilmington Bank, in a move that puts the market value of ticket sales and institutional luster over a free discourse. Given that fact, it’s a wonder we’ve had any criticism of markets at all.