A Country Lost At Sea, Non-Profits Taking a Slice of the Opioid Pie: It’s Time to Stand Up and Be Counted

“We have to stand up against the status quo. We have to call on Congress and keep calling until they hear our message. If you can speak, speak. If you can march, march. When you can vote, vote” (Student nationwide rally for gun control legislation, March 14, 2018). Paraphrasing our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, the time is ripe to speak loudly and carry a big stick.  Leave it to the late Howard Zinn’s to put his finger on the solution: “The really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but… who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating…”

These days a surprising number of Americans, young and old, have signaled their agreement.  Fast backward to March10 as a sturdy crew grabbed the headlines— “Protesters at Metropolitan Museum Chant ‘Shame on Sackler,’ Targeting Donors Who Profited from Opioid Crisis” (Hyperallergenic.com)

Today no need is more urgent than the one that rises from the opioid crisis. For those of you who were reading Suspicious Angels way back in June, 2017, when we first broadcast the shocking facts of the U.S. opioid epidemic (“Drug Companies: Killing Americans in the Name of Profits”) or tuned in November 2, 2017 for our update (“The Opioid Epidemic”) you’re in the vanguard of understanding how dire the situation is, how much we need help from our elected representatives. The problem isn’t likely be wished away (as, judging by their inaction most of the pols hope it will be) especially since the rising number of drug addicted users has paved the way for two straight years of a decline in average life expectancy in the U.S.

People sit on the steps at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The protestors at the “venerable” Metropolitan Museum in New York were responding to the evils of an unbridled free market capitalist system that sanctifies profit while downgrading public needs. Riding on the capitalist train are a boatload of wealthy non-profit institutions. Think of them as a public/private exchange entity—society benefits from the good works and unselfish devotion to public service of organizations entitled to non-profit status and they, in turn, receive tax deductions and other benefits from a grateful government.  Except the actual working out of this mutually beneficial scheme is often more hype than reality. President George W. Bush had the novel idea of eliminating government social programs and letting private non-profits take over. For once, wiser heads prevailed and the Bush administration moved on to other bright ideas, like privatizing Social Security.

To dissect the capitalist system, non-profits deserve a fair share of attention, appearing benign at worst and downright praiseworthy at best. Unfortunately, a darker side of America’s largest non-profits has escaped our notice. Until now. In public, they capitalize on lofty mission statements, and adept pitch men (and women), in private they are partners in a corporate crime spree — for a price (usually an enormous one) handing out charitable deductions and image make-overs to corporate malefactors.

Can good works ever flow out of transactions so irremediably evil? Many of America’s foremost non-profits have answered with a resounding YES. A few of the more scandalous tradeoffs: in 1974 the Metropolitan Museum accepted a $3.5 million gift from the [Oxycontin] Sacklers, the family whose drug company, Purdue, is responsible for thousands of mostly young Americans becoming the face of an epidemic and the means to a $13 billion family fortune. When it comes to serial beneficiaries of a “devil’s hoard,” the Metropolitan Museum takes a back seat to no one soliciting and receiving a plethora of gifts from the dregs of the corporate swamp. In 2014, in exchange for a load of “filthy lucre” the Museum renamed a portion of its public space (adjacent to the main entrance), the “David H. Koch Plaza.” The swag that prompted the naming — 65 million tax-deductible dollars from the premiere supporters of climate denial, with a penchant for endowing far-right conservative networks (the NRA, evangelical right to life and anti-gay marriage groups, and a bunch of political action committees out to unseat progressive incumbents). Lest we heap all the credit for misbegotten philanthropy on the Metropolitan Museum, how about the redoubtable Harvard (cost to attend $67,000+ per year, endowment $38 billion) housing the stand-alone Sackler Museum or The Guggenheim (New York City) with its Sackler Center, the Museum of Natural History (New York City) with its Sackler Educational Lab, the Smithsonian (Washington D.C.) with its Sackler gallery. And the Sacklers aren’t the only corporate criminals to get white glove treatment from some of the biggest U.S. non-profits. The Koch brothers, in addition to the enormous fortune they’ve poured into the art world, they have plenty left to endow top shelf colleges and universities including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Behold the ravages of free market capitalism —inequality, social and economic, running rampant, unimaginable wealth of a minority (home to five of the six wealthiest people on the planet) while 41 million are “food insecure,” a defense budget bigger than that of the next seven nations combined, the highest incarceration rate in the world, a booming gun industry that happens to be the major exporter of guns in the world, Americans who own the most guns in the world, and an infant mortality rate that lands the U.S. in 26th place among other high income economies.

The winds of change may still be a breeze but take heart there is much to buoy our spirits. The young people who marched out of their classrooms on March 14 to signal their solidarity with the fight for gun control, the continuation of that protest that will come on March 24th in Washington, the West Virginia teachers who faced down the establishment and won, the protestors who stood in the Metropolitan Museum: “We call on the Met to not accept any more money from this…family which has profited from intentionally lying…resulting in countless deaths.” Taking a leaf from the Me-Too and Times Up movements corporate profiteers deserve the same fate as sexual predators: banishment.

Somewhere Howard Zinn is smiling down on us.

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