Ruthless Capitalists Can't Donate Their Way Out of Trouble Anymore

The Sackler family behind OxyContin is accused of brazenly jumpstarting the deadly opioid crisis. In the era of endless scams, elite philanthropy like theirs is hitting roadblocks.
April 10, 2019, 7:17pm
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates
Warren Buffett plays ping pong with Billionaire Bill Gates on Sunday, May 1, 2016. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Until a few years ago, if you knew about the Sackler family at all, it was probably because their last name was chiseled above art-museum entrance halls and attached to some of America’s most prestigious universities: the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical, and Engineering Sciences at Yale University, and the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia, to take a few examples.

But the Sacklers, a vast clan that includes several co-owners of Purdue Pharma—the company that produces OxyContin—and has assets estimated at $13 billion, are now better known as villains. They have been accused of shamelessly profiting off the ongoing opioid epidemic—a crisis they themselves helped spark. Reports suggest the Sacklers and their company provided lush incentives for the widespread prescribing of a drug they knew to be addictive, and, as the New Yorker reported in one definitive 2017 account, paid researchers and doctors to spin the emerging opioid crisis as exaggerated, and their medication as a lifesaving pain pill with barely any side effects. The company is the subject of hundreds of lawsuits, and two recent statewide legal actions, out of New York and Massachusetts, have targeted the family members directly: Eight Sacklers have been named as defendants. While they fight to have the suits thrown out, they have stepped down from the board of their company.

"I think today we're just much more sensitive to the origins of money."—Louis Hyman

Far more remarkable is that these mega-donors to the arts and academia are also seeing their perch atop the world of elite philanthropy threatened. It’s the first step, perhaps, in a broader cultural reckoning many have argued is long overdue—a refusal by an increasingly class-conscious society to let corporate wrongdoers donate and philanthropize their way out of being called out for their profit-seeking sins. That strategy was honed by the robber barons of the first Gilded Age in the 19th century, who seemed to give away just enough to temper mainstream pushback on their exploitation. It’s what might be described as a kind of laundering of privilege: In the Sacklers’ case, it meant using their earnings to purchase tables at far-flung charity galas and weasel their way into benevolent foundations, earning plaudits along the way.

In this Gilded Age, though, that kind of two-pronged strategy—raking in money by any means necessary and ostentatiously dishing some back out—may not cut it anymore.

The Sacklers are in trouble at the moment because they are linked in the public mind to what Louis Hyman, an associate professor of labor relations, law, and history at Cornell University, described as "a cackling, evil conspiracy to make poor white people drug addicts." (They’re such a cliché of an upper-class American family that multiple male scions have been named “Mortimer” over the years.) Simply put, they're one of the most tangible entities onto which Americans can graft their worry and anger about the system of late capitalism they find themselves stuck in.

But even if the Sacklers might be unique in their contemporary, arguably grotesque greed, they have not been that original in their attempts to obscure it.

America’s collective memory sometimes appears to have lapsed when it comes to the pernicious activities carried out by families like the Vanderbilts (trains), the Rockefellers (petroleum), and the Carnegies (steel) in shaping today’s world. We enjoy the fruits of their work (libraries, schools, city landmarks), even as we seem to have forgotten about Cornelius Vanderbilt’s tendency, as Steve Fraser noted in the Nation, to “[champion] capitalism by decrying it,” as he attacked his rivals in the press for actions similar to his own, like "using his detailed knowledge of ship construction and the vagaries of the sea to drive established franchises into bankruptcy." And John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic streak with Standard Oil, which critics said he accomplished by defeating his competitors with low prices, worker exploitation, and collusion with the railroads. And Andrew Carnegie’s penchant for union busting. (According to one biographer, deadly accidents in Carnegie’s steel mills made up 20 percent of all male deaths in all of Pittsburgh throughout the 1880s.)

Meanwhile, for decades, the Sacklers were able to give millions of dollars without anyone asking whether the money represented the family’s benefiting from other people’s pain. Now, “the Trustees of the Sackler Trust have taken the difficult decision to temporarily pause all new philanthropic giving, while still honoring existing commitments," Theresa Sackler, the chair of the Sackler Trust, recently wrote in a statement on its website.

In recent weeks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has said it's reviewing its policies about donations amid simmering rage against the family’s presence there. Other cultural institutions, including Britain's Tate museum and New York's Guggenheim, where the artist Nan Goldin led a protest of the Sacklers’ involvement in the museum in February, have already vowed to stop accepting funds from them. Fourteen thousand signatures have graced a petition for Harvard to pull the plug, and some colleges (like Columbia) have stated they would look into the matter. Last year, even a major hedge fund cut ties.

But does this represent a mere moment of blowback or the beginning of a true cultural shift? In a year of debacles that reached their peak during the so-called Summer of Scam, Americans increasingly started latching onto characters and events that seem to reveal how irreparable their society is: Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the absurd college admissions scandal, and the gleeful failure of the Instagrammable Fyre Festival, among other highlights. These are typically alluded to as part of a string of outrageous, contemporary exceptions rather than a long-standing norm—a troupe of modern-day idiot savants borne from the chaos of the financial crisis who grifted their way to the top and got caught.

That may just be a reassuring way to soothe ourselves about what’s really—and what’s always been—happening in the world.

"It is hard to make a compelling villain out of a structural system (unless you want to go full Marxist)," Hyman said. "Saying the problem is a bad apple, rather than the tree itself, reassures people that the problem of X (whether selling addictive drugs, college admissions, fantasy medicine, etc.) can be solved. The irony, of course, is that the problem can be solved if we just create the correct bundle of incentives and regulations. It doesn't have to be a morality tale." In his 2018 book Winners Take All, the writer Anand Giridharadas popularized a similar theory: Perceiving billionaires to be generous distracts people from the actual problem, which is that their governments should be publicly funding the sorts of institutions we typically turn to the wealthy to support.

The Sacklers aren't exactly a rarity, then; they are a group of boogeymen (and women) whose destructive business on one hand and penchant for public giving on the other made them a perfect fit for the societal structures in which we live.

But their activities were also tailor-made targets for outrage.

"Many would insist that in a purely 'economic' sense, money can't be dirty," Rebecca Spang, a professor of history at Indiana University who primarily studies the interaction of politics, culture, and consumption, said in an email. But, she clarified, "there’s a significant sociological literature that suggests people in day-to-day life do often distinguish between their salaries, their bonuses, and money received as a gift."

"When it comes to the Sacklers, the issue, it seems to me, is accepting gifts, rather than the money itself," agreed Peter Jaworski, an assistant teaching professor of business ethics at Georgetown University. “In giving the gift of money to a reputable and ‘clean’ organization, like a museum, they are hoping to both ‘launder’ the money and also ‘launder’ themselves. When the museum accepts, that plays a role in either effectively cleaning up the reputation of the Sacklers or, as sometimes happens, dirtying up the reputation of the museum.”

In other words, accepting a gift tends to be viewed as an endorsement of the means by which the money was made in the first place. To give a present is to express care; to take it is to acknowledge an implicit generosity. This crops up a lot these days on college campuses especially, where taking money is more complicated than it used to be. “If it's a real college, where the board of trustees runs things, then there is a certain amount of vetting that takes place [in terms of the people and institutions from which gifts are accepted]," a higher-up in alumni relations and giving programs at a major public university, who requested their name be withheld for fear of losing their job, wrote in an email. "However, that's if the person gives their name. For anonymous donations, it's very rare that any scrupulousness is used."

So whether or not money is considered “dirty” depends on how it is marked. The Sacklers didn’t just spread their wealth around; they did so while getting their name plastered everywhere, all while the opioid-related death toll kept rising.

Some donors are easier to forsake than others, though. “How can Duke divest itself from big tobacco?" Hyman asked me, rhetorically. "It's impossible.” Likewise, if you step right outside the Met, the same museum now changing its mind about the Sacklers, you’ll come across the David H. Koch Plaza, the namesake of another controversial philanthropist who has not yet come under quite the same level of scrutiny when it comes to his charitable giving. (His politics are another story.) In 2007, around the time Brooklyn was set to crown a new basketball arena, some local politicians protested that the British bank Barclays had deep-rooted ties to slavery, and could not ethically sponsor the center. It did anyway.

Plenty of the modern-day One Percent manage to escape cartoonish villainy, thanks in part to having made their riches in less-than-deadly—if still questionable—fashion. Bill Gates is often portrayed as the Good Tech Billionaire who supports higher taxes on the rich. Meanwhile, he founded a company (briefly) ordered broken up by a federal judge for monopolistic practices. Likewise, Warren Buffett remains a sort of model citizen for American capitalism—the “most charitable billionaire” who counsels presidents like Barack Obama, even as his mobile-home empire is accused of preying on the poor.

But even some of these luminaries are starting to see their antics more heavily scrutinized. Gates was mocked by everyone from Giridharadas to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when he scoffed at the notion that charity-heavy capitalism was in trouble. Reporting on the nature of Buffett’s wealth has grown more scathing, too—as in this Nation article from last year, with VICE contributor David Dayen writing that “companies in [his] portfolio have extorted windfall profits, evaded taxes, and abused customers.” As Hyman emphasized, while past giants like Andrew Carnegie donated money to deflect blame for violent conflicts in industry, people were less attentive then they currently are. "I think today we're just much more sensitive to the origins of money,” he said.

Whether or not that newfound sensitivity will result in substantive change—in drawing attention not just to the bad apples but also the rotting tree—is a question that has not yet been sufficiently answered.

“Certainly the institutions that accepted this money don’t want to give that money back,” Hyman said. “It’s going to make it very hard.”

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