As members of American society, we should acknowledge that we are not powerless individuals governed by static rules, but rather, the very individuals who make, remake, and reason through the rules that govern us. If foundations commit themselves to financing public pensions—much as earlier foundations funded public secondary education and public libraries before Americans committed themselves to securing and paying for them as public goods —then they can start by educating Americans about contemporary bankruptcy law, how it can be amended, and what they have at stake in securing public pensions from any future threats. In other words, foundations can view their Detroit pledge as the first step towards a long-term commitment to seeing Americans commit themselves to city and state pensions as publicly-supported and securely-safeguarded public goods.
In the coming months, philanthropic managers and trustees will discuss their pledge to Detroit’s pensioners and likely will try to make sense of it. With Keppel’s reflections in mind, they can feel assured that there is precedent and justification for this pledge: They just need to decide how they want to remember it.
This pledge was made in a moment of national economic emergency, and, in such moments, Keppel noted that philanthropies have functioned (and perhaps will continue to function, from time to time) as charities relieving individuals’ immediate needs. If philanthropic organizations, however, want to memorialize this moment as one of actual philanthropy, they have options. They can continue to argue that their aid is going towards both pensions and the DIA as a means of ensuring the long-term health of Detroit. This argument confirms their commitment to a certain long-term vision of societal progress and, by blending pensions and the arts, deflects criticism that they are serving the role of civic savior for Detroit pensioners. From this lens, foundations are in Michigan to preserve the long-term vitality of a city and of a region.
Alternatively, the foundations can make their support of pensioners blatant. In this case, Keppel’s Foundation suggests the blueprints and significance for such a gesture. Much like the Rockefeller organizations with public secondary education and the Carnegie Corporation with public libraries, the foundations today could perceive their pledge of support for city pensions in Detroit as one step in securing an important public good throughout the United States. Much like in these earlier cases, they would commit themselves until Americans would take on the responsibility of safeguarding public pensions themselves. This is a longer, and more nation-wide project than perhaps they had imagined, but it would be a meaningful one.
Clearly, foundations have some thinking to do. And far from remaining passive observers, the rest of us should chime in and opine on how we think foundations should understand and remember their Detroit pledge. After all, these conversations have the potential to affect the future of city and state pensions across the country.