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The Great Chicago Gas Giveaway and the Return of Stunt Philanthropy

Wilson was expected to announce another run for mayor shortly, and if this looked a little like a vote-buying stunt, plenty of others lined up to reap its benefits. As the news conference began, Wilson stood off to one side, watching cheerfully as person after person stepped forward to celebrate his efforts. Richard Boykin, Wilson’s candidate of choice for Cook County board president, served as a kind of M.C. There was a prayer led by Cicero’s police and fire department chaplain. The town president spoke, expressing his admiration for Wilson’s generosity, his disgust at gas prices and some quick thoughts on energy policy (“All they got to do is open up the pipeline. Why don’t they open up the pipeline?”). Representative Danny K. Davis talked about Wilson’s long history of philanthropy. Cicero’s police chief spoke. Someone from the town’s board of trustees spoke, then a local reverend, then a gas-station owner, then the town president’s wife, then another gas-station owner, then a representative from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition.

Finally it was Wilson’s turn. The government wasn’t moving fast enough, he said. “If gasoline prices go up again,” he said, “then we’re going to be compelled to do this again.” As for the people who needed the fuel, he said: “I’m enjoying it more than they’re enjoying it. Because the Lord has blessed me to be able to do it.”

It wasn’t long ago that gestures like Wilson’s felt like products of a bygone era of American life, when it was common for the wealthy to sprinkle money down on the masses in ways that, in addition to doing real good, might distract from their rapacious business practices and make them look like champions of the common man. The political “machines” that ran many cities and states had their own versions of this game, dispensing money and jobs to buy votes and curry public favor. But at some point these approaches came into disrepute, at least in their most overt manifestations. Respectable charities put some degree of separation, however cosmetic, between wealthy donors and good work. Respectable politicians are expected to back helpful policies, campaign by explaining their benefits and, sure, show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies to claim credit for every dollar funneled toward constituents. But anything that looks too much like a handout from the powerful risks seeming like the stuff of robber barons and back-alley politics.

Maybe that’s changing. As of 2018, a stray tweet at Elon Musk about the water supply in Flint, Mich., could draw a response pledging to “fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels.” The billionaire Robert Smith finished a 2019 Morehouse College commencement speech by saying he would cover student debt for the entire graduating class. (A year later, he would pay millions to the federal authorities to settle a tax-evasion case.) Similar exercises extend into politics. During Wilson’s 2019 mayoral campaign, he gave out money at a South Side church and City Hall, saying he wanted to help people with their property-tax bills. (He argued that because this money went through his nonprofit, and not his mayoral campaign, it was not subject to campaign-finance laws; the Chicago Board of Elections agreed.) That same year, Andrew Yang, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, promised to give 10 families $1,000 a month each as a proof-of-concept for a universal basic income. After leaving the race, he started a nonprofit that gave 1,000 Bronx residents $1,000 each; less than a year later, he was running for mayor of New York. You can even make a show of distributing public money, as politicians have long done with things like tax rebates and stimulus checks; in 2020, days before the first individual pandemic-relief checks went out, White House officials scrambled to make sure Donald Trump’s name was printed on them.

Wilson’s willingness to drop big cash on gas giveaways says little about how he would actually govern, or address such costs overall. It is intended to broadcast that he cares, and that he acts. This explains, in part, why so many public officials participated in his news conference. (When, in the popular consciousness, government means out-of-touch inefficiency, even insiders want to brand themselves as outsiders.) But like so many shows of generosity, there is a gamble here. Some may see you as a populist savior, but others may be convinced that you’re a huckster, more interested in self-aggrandizement than in actually changing anything. Which reaction prevails will depend: How much frustration and desperation are out there?

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