The Kaiser System

The Complications of Big Philanthropy in a Small City

by Michael Mason -

Illustration by Laury Denoyes

“It is a truism to say that Tulsa is the most American of American Cities. All the forces that have gone into the making of the Republic have been intensified here.” —Angie Debo, Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital

April 20, 2020, was an unimaginable day for most Tulsans. An essential economic engine had suddenly been thrown into reverse. For the first time in history, the price of oil plummeted so far that futures went negative. Though Tulsa is no longer the oil capital it once was, the oil and gas industry still provides income for 150,000 Oklahomans. News of the price collapse stunned the community.

“There will be some very big problems,” former Tulsa mayor Dewey Bartlett told Tulsa World. “The oil and gas industry has been one of the most philanthropic-oriented groups. That will immediately go away.”

That same day, the current mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, announced that he had formed an Economic Recovery Advisory Committee to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic—a news item that barely elicited a yawn. Michael Bates, a local blogger, caught notice though and posted a scathing analysis.

“The mayor’s picks for his Economic Recovery Advisory Committee are yet another expression of the tunnel vision of this city’s ruling class,” wrote Bates. Almost none of the 23 members on the council had any actual experience in economics. The committee represented, in Bates’ eyes, Tulsa’s architects of inequality, and they were now poised to exploit a vulnerable city.

In the eyes of many other Tulsans, however, the same people are responsible for the city’s greatest accomplishments in philanthropy and industry.