OPINION | Do billionaires belong at Book Festival?

Nathaniel Miller, Contributing Writer

Emma Clark Luster

The Tulane University Book Festival is returning to campus on March 9. Soon, Tulane students will embody the work hard, play hard mindset and swap their beads for a book or two. The organizers say the festival’s mission is to “attract and captivate book enthusiasts of all ages from all over, especially in New Orleans, Tulane and surrounding communities.” The festival will run from March 9-11, starting Saturday evening, featuring celebrations of world-renowned authors and emerging, local writers.

 This year, the festival boasts several high-profile guests, including billionaires Bill Gates and David Rubenstein.

David Rubenstein is slated to discuss investment practices. Rubenstein is an American billionaire and private equity titan who has become well-known for using part of his fortune to refurbish famous American landmarks. He has frequently been referred to as the “patriotic philanthropist.” However, funding grand projects should not make up for unethical business practices and worker exploitation.

So how did Rubenstein make his money? It turns out, not entirely through hard work and investing prowess. Rubenstein exploited a tax loophole in Alaska state law that took advantage of native Alaskans; his critics have dubbed this the “Great Eskimo Scam” of 1983. The move came out of a brief, curious tax loophole that permitted Eskimo-owned Alaskan companies to sell their losses to other American corporations for hard cash. By offsetting the Eskimo losses against their gains, American corporations such as Rubenstein’s avoided income taxes and raked in a fortune. 

That’s not all — Rubenstein has also been publicly criticized for his work with The Carlyle Group, of which he is the chairman, and has been accused of various unfair practices, deceptive tactics and corrupt behavior. The Carlyle Group owns several mobile home parks and has been accused of pushing poor people out by hiking up the rental price in recent years. A pension fund even sued the Carlyle Group in 2022 over a shady $344 million dollar payment to its own founders. 

Bill Gates has an excellent reputation in the media, and many have recognized his philanthropic efforts. To be fair, the near eradication of polio worldwide is partially thanks to Gates’s 1.2 billion dollar contribution to end the disease. Although his generous charitable contributions have been widespread, his business practices have often been questioned

Various private equity organizations, conglomerates and billionaires, including Bloomberg, Liberty Bank, Amazon, United Airlines and Hyatt Regency, fund the New Orleans Book Festival. On the festival’s website, there is even a special thank you written to Jeff Bezos for his charitable contribution toward the event. 

Having such immensely wealthy billionaires with questionable business practices headline a book festival has mixed implications. It begs the question: do financial tycoons and billionaires best represent the book festival’s goal of supporting emerging, local authors and encouraging education and intellectualism? Perhaps Tulane should rethink what values they are trying to exemplify through the annual book festival, and decide whether or not billionaires should be headlining this type of event.

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