The Price of Pritzker


On this year’s Giving Day, the sudden change in Milton’s atmosphere surprised me. We often steer clear of conversations about money to avoid discomfort and othering. At a school where the tuition exceeds that of many colleges, money seems to be one of the most taboo topics on campus. However, on Giving Day, we celebrate money and our gratitude for those who give money. I was reminded once more of the people whose names appear on our buildings for their generous donations to Milton.

As many people already know, this year’s graduation speaker, Jay Robert Pritzker, funded the construction of the Pritzker science center. Pritzker worked in business before immersing himself in political life and becoming the governor of Illinois last fall. He is heir to the Hyatt hotel chain and has a net worth of 3.2 billion. Pritzker has accomplished a lot of good for others. Five years ago, he founded 1871, a non-profit which helps startup businesses. 1871 has generated 7,000 jobs so far and in 2018 was ranked the best business incubator by UBI global, a company that supports business programs worldwide. He also established the Illinois Holocaust Museum. As governor, Pritzker wants to create a fairer tax system, promote education, rebuild social services and preserve health care. However, he also currently faces allegations for fraud. During Pritzker’s 2018 campaign for governor, several of his past dealings surfaced.

AP News reported that in 2008 the FBI wiretapped a phone conversation between then-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich and Pritzker. In the conversation, Blagojevich offered Pritzker the Senate seat vacated upon Obama’s presidency. Pritzker, who had donated $100,000 to Blagojevich’s campaign, responded that he was more interested in the position of State Treasurer. About a month later, Blagojevich was impeached and sentenced to 14 years in prison due to corruption charges.  Pritzker was not charged with any crime, but his donation and phone conversations indicate the entrenchment of money in his political career .

In his campaign for governor, Pritzker once again took advantage of the relationship between money and political success. According to NPR, he spent 161.5 million dollars on his own campaign, more than any other self-financed candidate in history, including Donald Trump, who spent only $66 million. Given that Pritzker paid $80 million on advertisements, his unparalleled expenditure raises the question: do politicians like Pritzker win by merit or by money? Unfortunately, it seems that money has become integral to candidates who hope to run a campaign. Politics has always been an area where the rich find the easiest success, a trend which contradicts the intentions of the democratic system. The correlation between wealth and political success is not Pritzker’s doing but rather a flaw in our election process which the wealthy use to their advantage.

This past October, the Inspector General of Cook County, Illinois, reported his launching of an investigation of Pritzker, his wife, and his brother-in-law. The Washington Examiner reported in April that the investigation now involves federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office. In 2015, just 3 years before his gubernatorial race, Pritzker and his wife bought a mansion and supposedly had all its toilets removed; the removal enabled them to declare the house uninhabitable and allowed the Pritzkers to receive a $230,000 tax break. Ironically, as the Illinois governor, he advocates for a tax plan that many predict would result in a tax increase on the middle class. Pritzker allegedly used his wealth to sidestep certain laws, but he still sees fit to enforce such laws on others. His familiarity with corrupt politicians, excess campaign spending, and, most especially, his shady tax breaks all promote the idea that the rich get to play by their own rules.

Pritzker’s appointment as our graduation speaker makes me wonder about the ways we favor our richest students. For example, I frequently hear students say that others ‘got in only because their family is rich,’ and I’ve begun to wonder just how often this assumption is correct. Yes, as a school we need money and have a limited amount of financial aid to award, but isn’t there a way to raise the amount of money needed and still admit applicants based on merit, not economic class? Additionally, wealthier students with the ability to pay for out-of-Milton tutoring may have an advantage in academics, tutors helping these students earn higher grades and avoid being left behind. The privilege and unfair advantage that family money brings should not be accepted or left undiscussed. Of course, people will always be born into different levels of privilege, and we shouldn’t blame anyone for employing their circumstances to gain success. But a line is crossed when people believe that their privilege puts them above the responsibilities of a normal citizen. Unfortunately, no matter how powerful Pritzker’s speech or the undeniable good he has done, his previous actions make him symbolic of the growing belief that wealth leads to greater success and power because affluent individuals can ignore moral principles.

The committee responsible for choosing the graduation speaker, consisting of ten students, Mr. Tyler, and a representative from the development office, did not know of Pritzker’s possible tax evasions. The committee sent a list of six possible speakers to Mr. Bland, who made the final decision. Mr. Tyler explained that the committee focused primarily on philanthropy and that Pritzker has undoubtedly done “a tremendous amount of giving.” But again, Pritzker’s presence shows our seniors and our whole community not only that Milton values generosity but also that Milton’s notion of success is money, even money used inappropriately. I urge Milton to vet its speakers, particularly its graduation speakers, more thoroughly in the future.

Image Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times

Image Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times

Mark Pang