How To Use Millions To Make A Better Philadelphia

(December 2019)

On Thanksgiving Day, The Philadelphia Inquirer published the answers some of the city's philanthropic notables gave when asked what they might do with $25 million to make a positive difference in Philadelphia. Laudable ideas included investing in schools, supporting an organization to provide food for hungry citizens, and giving to entities fighting addiction. Each proposal seemed incredibly well meaning but entirely insufficient in a city with so much need. All the ideas together underlined the reality that so much of Philadelphia philanthropy is spent to compensate for the very real failures of our government. Spending $25 million once may feed some hungry families or purchase some books for students, but it will take spending billions of dollars every year to dramatically reduce poverty, to transform our schools, and to expand opportunity for our citizens. Spending $25 million once may not be enough to make much progress toward solving these problems, but our city government has billions to spend each year and if we did a better job spending those funds, we might not have as much crushing need for charity and munificence. However, investing $25 million to ensure that our city actually works for Philadelphians in need could leverage the power of those billions efficiently and effectively for a better Philadelphia.

An oft-told motivational story speaks about a man walking along a beach littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the tide. He comes upon a young boy throwing starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Curious, the man asks the boy what he is doing and the boy replies simply, "I'm saving these starfish. If I don't throw them back, they will die." Dubious, the man observes the miles of beach and the thousands of starfish on the beach and asks, "What difference can you make?" The boy picks up a starfish, tosses it into the water and turns to the man to say, "I made a difference to that one."

We know the moral of that story. Each of us can make a difference. Everyone should try. Every little bit helps. All are worthy sentiments that have become shibboleths. Each of us really can make a difference, everyone really should try, and every little bit really does help, but resolution better focused can make a bigger difference and effort better exerted can leverage much more important change.

The man honored with a statue atop Philadelphia's City Hall had some smart things to say about government and how it works -- or fails to. "Governments," wrote William Penn, "like clocks, go from the motions men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them are they ruined too."

The city that suffers in so many ways below Penn's statue is a testament to the founder's wisdom. So many in Philadelphia would not require the charity of the philanthropic set if our government spent its billions better, managed governmental services more effectively, and avoided the collegial corruption that hampers government's work at every turn.

If the Inquirer reached out to me for a recommendation about what to do with $25 million, I missed their messages. But I've been busy so maybe I missed the call. If I had been asked, I would have eagerly remarked about how, invested properly, $25 million could fundamentally transform Philadelphia so that billions of dollars each year could be dedicated to making ours the city it should be.

If I had $25 million, I would invest in the political organizing and campaign infrastructure necessary to elect a mayor and majority on city council who would move beyond the lackluster leadership that has failed our city. If Philadelphia's future leaders did not have to kowtow to the insipid and insular class of moneyed interests, hacks, and pals who currently define Philadelphia politics, they could articulate a better vision for our future and -- much more important -- could govern to improve life in our city for the benefit of all of us instead of for the benefit of a handful of connected power brokers and ward heelers.

Providing charity to make up for the fact that our government fails us in so many ways is small thinking. Even worse, it lulls us into compliance by making us feel good that we are helping some without acknowledging that our failure to make government work hurts so many that we then need to assist.

Let me spend that $25 million once and I promise you that Philadelphia government will better invest billions in the future to truly make a positive difference in our city. I bet I would even have about $15 million to spare to spend on something important like middle relief for the Phillies 2020 season. Now, that's the kind of change that would give Philadelphians a real reason to be thankful.