January 22, 2016

Showtime’s ‘Billions’ Offers a Cynical View of Big Giving

Jeff Neumann, SHOWTIME

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in "Billions."

It’s no wonder some people think philanthropy is too often carried out by people with no real love of humanity.

Take Bobby Axelrod. He has it all: good looks; a beautiful wife; billions of ill-gotten (we think) dollars; and a keen sense for making just the right business deal, no matter who he takes down or how he does it, always keeping a razor-sharp balance between reckless disregard for the law and self-preservation.

Mr. Axelrod is a central character in Showtime’s new miniseries "Billions." Played by Damian Lewis (best known for his role in Homeland), Mr. Axelrod is engaged in a high-stakes game with Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who thinks Bobby’s smart-money reputation on the street is maybe a little too smart. (For those who follow the New York financial scene, think of Mr. Rhoades as Preet Bharara, the real federal prosecutor for the Southern District, and of Mr. Axelrod as Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund manager who pleaded guilty a few years ago to insider trading.) Mr. Rhoades knows of Mr. Axelrod’s financial perfidy, but he needs the right time and circumstances to come together to make his move.

Mr. Axelrod’s soft side is burnished when we learn that he is the sole surviving partner of a financial-services firm that was decimated when the Twin Towers came down (think Cantor Fitzgerald). But we also see Mr. Axelrod’s instinct to mark his territory, as he watches his dog marking his (in the house no less). And mark it he does. Stretching and breaking the rules comes easy to a man known as "Axe." Learning that Mr. Rhoades has finally opened a case file on him, he responds to the challenge with a gusto-filled, "I’m ready."

But it takes more than telling a few people of his 9/11-related sorrow to buff the image of a wheeler-dealer like Mr. Axelrod. After all, what else can he say about surviving the most horrible experience in New York’s history? And, Axe being Axe, how likely is it that people will believe him?

Charity is the go-to for billionaires (and many of lesser means) on a quest to look good in the media, and last Sunday’s episode of "Billions" — entitled "Naming Rights" — brings home that message in a way only television can. At least, I hope this is amped-up screen drama and not the real world.

In keeping with the show’s decidedly intentional resemblance to actual people and events, Mr. Axelrod becomes a philanthropist. Here, think David Geffen. Axe, upon seeing a name on a building that looks very much like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, approaches the museum’s director with an offer: a $100 million donation if the museum replaces the current name with his. The problem: The original gift was made on the condition that the building would be named after the prior donor in perpetuity.

The director, dramatic and pompous (of course), begins his defense of the current name by telling Mr. Axelrod that names on buildings are "not just identifiers," but "signifiers of a grander age." Mr. Axelrod breezily tosses aside every bombastic assertion the director throws his way. "I’m here with $100 million," he says, "which you need to extract somehow without giving me what I want."

"Why is this so important to you?" asks the director. "There are other naming opportunities that would give you the status and sense of permanence that you need."

"Here’s why it’s important to you: It’s the only way you’re getting even a dollar out of me. I’ve discovered that the remaining members of the original family are in a financial pinch. Tell them to allow me to give them $25 million to replace their family name with mine. Then I will donate the hundred ... and you can begin your renovations."

And so, in what is clearly not philanthropy’s purest hour, the deal is done.

This, of course, brings to mind the members of the very real Avery Fisher family, who a little over a year ago relinquished their claim on naming rights at Lincoln Center’s principal performance hall, accepting $15 million from the nonprofit venue in return. (Mr. Fisher’s gift, in 1973, was $10 million.) Thus was the way cleared for Mr. Geffen to donate $100 million and turn Avery Fisher Hall into David Geffen Hall.

Aside from the way the deal in "Billions" eventually turns out — which is downright ugly and does not end well for the original philanthropist’s family — viewers would be excused for wondering if the show’s take on how the negotiation went down might not be entirely fictional. We can all connect the dots to the actual deal — the people, the organization, the amount, perhaps even the give-and-take of it all — but is the execution of charity actually this ruthless?

I suppose it depends on your perspective. I’m convinced that the driving force for most philanthropists — and I’ve advised hundreds over my career — really is their desire to make the world a better place.

But donors of all types have their reasons to make gifts, many of them complicated and some not closely connected to altruism. There is no doubt that philanthropists are getting more sophisticated as they demand more from the charities they support, and that’s as it should be. People have a right to know how their money is being used, especially when a charity makes promises on that point. Without entering into a discussion, at least here, of whether the ends justify the means, if the charity — and, by extension, society — is better as a result, then an argument can be made for hard-nosed philanthropy.

But are the likes of Bobby Axelrod, and all those real-life billionaires with a challenged moral landscape, the dominant players in a world of bigger and bigger gifts?

I don’t think so. But it sure is fun to watch.

Doug White directs operations in the fundraising management program at Columbia University and is the author of Abusing Donor Intent: The Robertson Family’s Epic Lawsuit Against Princeton University.