“You would think that there would be enough data and enough history to see that a little more clearly,” he added. “But it also suggests that times are changing and they are changing fast and more dramatically.”

Strong consumer spending may have saved the economy from ruin during the pandemic, but it has also led to enormous excess and waste.

Retailers have begun to slash prices on inventory in their stores and online. Last Monday, Walmart issued the industry’s latest warning when it said that its operating profits would drop sharply this year as it cut prices on an oversupply of general merchandise.

above a reclaimed strip mine dating back to when this region was a major coal producer. Today, the local economy is home to dozens of e-commerce warehouses that cover the hilly landscape like giant spaceships, funneling goods to the population centers in and around New York and Philadelphia.

Liquidity Services, a publicly traded company founded in 1999, decided to open its new facility as close as it could to the Scranton area’s major e-commerce warehouses, making it easy for retailers to dispense with their unwanted and returned items.

Even before the inventory glut appeared this spring, returns had been a major problem for retailers. The huge surge in e-commerce sales during the pandemic — increasing more than 40 percent in 2020 from the previous year — has only added to it.

The National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail calculate that more than 10 percent of returns last year involved fraud, including people wearing clothing and then sending it back or stealing goods from stores and returning them with fake receipts. But more fundamentally, industry analysts say the increasing returns reflect consumer expectations that everything can be taken back.

burned in incinerators that generate electricity.

stock price plummeted nearly 25 percent in one day. Other retailers’ share prices have also fallen.

Target’s stumbles have been an opportunity for people like Walter Crowley.

Mr. Crowley regularly rents a U-Haul and drives back and forth to the liquidation warehouse from his home near Binghamton, N.Y.

Mr. Crowley, who turns 54 next month, focuses mostly on discounted home improvement goods, which he resells to local contractors, like multiple pallets of discontinued garage door openers, tiles and flooring.

But on a sweltering day earlier this month, he stood outside the warehouse in his U-Haul loading up on items from Target.

“I saw its stock got tanked,” said Mr. Crowley, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and sweat pouring down his face. “It’s an ugly situation for them.”

He bought several cribs, a set of sheets for his own house and a pink castle for a girl in his neighborhood who just turned 5.

“I end up giving a lot of it away to my neighbors, to be honest,” he said. “Some people are barely getting by.”

The buyers bid for the goods through online auctions and then drive to the warehouse to pick up their winnings.

It’s a diverse group. There was a science teacher who stocked up on plastic parts for his class, as well as a woman who planned to resell her purchases — neon green Igloo coolers, a table saw, baby pajamas — in the Haitian and Jamaican communities of New York. She ships other items to Trinidad.

The Pennsylvania warehouse, one of eight that Liquidity Service operates around the country, employs about 20 workers, some of whom have been hired on a temporary basis. The starting pay is $17.50 an hour.

Charles Benincasa, 39, is a temporary worker who has had numerous “warehousing” jobs, the most recent at the Chewy pet food distribution center in nearby Wilkes-Barre.

Mr. Benincasa said his friends and family had gotten in the habit of returning many of the goods they buy online. But as he’s watched the boxes pile up in the Liquidity Services warehouse, he worries about the implications for the economy.

“Companies are losing a lot of money,” he said. “There is no free lunch.”

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How India’s Farmers Got Narendra Modi to Back Down

NEW DELHI — Om Prakash relied on relatives and neighbors to tend his wheat and vegetable fields. He ate food donated by sympathizers at home and abroad. When he felt feverish, he turned to volunteer medical workers huddled, like him, near a noisy overpass for months, through heat and cold and a deadly viral outbreak.

Now, his year away from his farm and his family has finally paid off.

Mr. Prakash was one of thousands of farmers in India who used their organizational skills, broad support network and sheer persistence to force one of the country’s most powerful leaders in modern history into a rare retreat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said lawmakers would repeal new agricultural laws that the protesting farmers feared would leave them vulnerable to rapacious big companies and destroy their way of life.

Their victory won’t help India solve the deep inefficiencies that plague its farming sector, problems that leave people malnourished in some places even as grain in other parts is unused or exported. But it showed how a group desperate to preserve its hold on a middle-class way of life could successfully challenge a government more accustomed to squelching dissent than reckoning with it.

fast-tracked citizenship for some groups but excluded Muslims, were plagued by violence.

The effort isn’t over yet. The farmers have vowed to continue their protests until the government submits to another demand, that it guarantee a minimum price for nearly two dozen crops. Rather than retreat now, they sense an opportunity to push even harder on a prime minister who is nervously watching his party’s poll numbers dip in a string of states with elections next year. The government has said it will form a committee to consider the matter.

India’s farming system still needs to be fixed, a fact that even many of the protesting farmers acknowledge. Initiated during a time of widespread starvation in the 1960s, the system created centralized markets where farmers could sell their crops. Some of the proceeds are funneled back to farming communities though infrastructure projects, pensions and programs providing free technical advice on matters like seed and fertilizer.

in debt. With city and factory jobs hard to find in a country still struggling with poverty, many farm children emigrate to find a better life.

Mr. Modi’s laws were aimed at bringing more private money into agriculture and making it more receptive to market forces. Mr. Singh, the protest leader, said many farmers would prefer subsidies over a wider range of output.

“The root of the agricultural issue in India is that farmers are not getting the proper value of their crops,” said Mr. Singh. “There are two ways to see reforms — giving away land to the corporations, the big people, the capitalists. The other is to help the farmers increase their yields.”

The movement started in Punjab, home to a large community of Sikhs, the religious group, and some of the country’s richest agricultural land. The protest leaders leaned on both to organize and finance their yearlong demonstrations.

farmers rode tractors over police barricades into New Delhi, leading to the death of one protester. Political analysts declared the movement dead. But organizers retreated behind the barricades, and resumed their peaceful protests through the harsh winter, a devastating wave of the coronavirus, a scorching summer and into the fall.

rammed into a group of protesting farmers, resulting in the deaths of four protesters along with four other people, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation in connection with the episode.

That incident, which came after the protesters decided to shadow campaigning B.J.P. officials to draw cameras, may have been a turning point. The B.J.P.’s poll numbers soon dropped in Uttar Pradesh, where the deaths took place. Party officials began to worry that they could lose the state in elections set for early next year.

A day after Mr. Modi’s surprise announcement, the mood near Singhu, a village in the state of Haryana that borders the capital, was somber. Religious music and political speeches blared from loudspeakers across the makeshift village of bamboo huts, where people hawked T-shirts and flags that said, “No farmers, no food.”

Outside one of the huts serving free vegetarian lunch, Mr. Prakash, the farmer, described sleeping though cold weather and rain next to a busy road, leaving his farm in the care of his brothers’ children.

Mr. Prakash, who lives off his pension from 20 years in the Indian Air Force, does not need the farm to survive. Instead, holding on to the seven acres he and his siblings inherited from their parents ensures they can maintain a middle class life in a country where the vagaries of the economy often suck people back into poverty.

Mr. Prakash said that the family farm had supported his ambitions, and that he wanted the same for his children.

“To save our motherland,” he said, “we can stay here another two years.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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The Consulting Firm Billionaires Turn to When They Give Away Money

MacKenzie Scott stepped out of the long shadow of her former husband, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, by handing out billions of dollars in grants over the past two years to charities, community colleges, food banks and progressive nonprofits led by people of color.

Advising her was a team of consultants at a firm that is hardly known outside philanthropic circles but highly influential within them, the Bridgespan Group.

Spun out of the consulting firm Bain & Company as a nonprofit, Bridgespan is one of a host of groups that arose in the early 2000s as a new wave of giving led by tech billionaires was beginning to crest. Two decades later, the consultants working behind the scenes are more important than ever.

Ms. Scott pulled back the curtain a bit in June when, among the 286 groups receiving more than $2.7 billion in donations, were a host of organizations that are basically the plumbing and wiring of the nonprofit world. Among them were the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Charity Navigator and Bridgespan itself, which said it would use its gift mainly to pursue research meant to benefit the sector as a whole.

spreadsheet of gifts and a full-blown foundation with offices on Fifth Avenue.

“Bridgespan occupies a unique perch in the landscape of professional-services organizations serving foundations and high-net-worth families,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. Mr. Walker, who has worked with Bridgespan since he was with the Abyssinian Development Corporation two decades ago, said no firm had been more influential in the past 20 years.

When a group of billionaires and scholars gathered last year to brainstorm reforms for the charitable sector, they met at Bridgespan’s offices in New York. When the Open Society Foundations, by most measures the second-biggest foundation in the United States after Gates, recently began a significant restructuring, it brought in Bridgespan. And, of course, there is Ms. Scott, who shook up the world of philanthropy with donations of more than $8 billion in 11 months.

Credit…Evan Agostini/Invision, via Associated Press

But some philanthropy experts say relying on consultants can skew which groups get the most funding. “Consultants at places like Bridgespan are setting the menu of what philanthropists can and should do,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy and scholar of philanthropy at the University of Michigan. “The organizations that are stamped with the managerial brand are more likely to get funding.”

Bridgespan was started in 2000 by three men with ties to the for-profit management consultant Bain & Company, including Bain’s then-worldwide managing partner Thomas Tierney. The founders received $1.3 million from the consulting firm and $5.5 million from a group of foundations to see if a dedicated nonprofit could do a better job than for-profit consultants dabbling in pro bono work.

Bridgespan got its start during an era of “venture philanthropy” and “philanthrocapitalism.” In essence, the billionaires knew best and they were going to bring their vaunted analytic practices to the world of nonprofits. A whole crop of groups came up at around the same time, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Center for Effective Philanthropy and the consultants FSG among them. (All received funding from Ms. Scott in her last round of giving.)

Bridgespan itself received a gift from Ms. Scott. Bridgespan’s latest tax filing for the year 2020 showed contributions and grants leaping to $74.7 million from $12.5 million the year before, nearly doubling the group’s total assets as of the end of last year. Bridgespan said the increase reflected a five-year capital campaign with multiple donors and not just Ms. Scott’s grant.

Giving away money used to be approached as a distinct enterprise from making money. The strategies, language and reams of analytics do not always translate to the nonprofit world, where “return on investment” could be harder to quantify.

“We were getting into bidding wars. ‘I can serve 500 kids for a million dollars.’ ‘I can serve 500 kids for $400,000,’” said Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone and one of Bridgespan’s first clients. He said he found his initial encounter with the group “predictably demeaning — they come in, lay out charts, don’t give you the chance to answer back.”

What was different from other firms his nonprofit worked with, he said, was Bridgespan took his “brutally honest” feedback to heart. In turn, they persuaded him to abandon the bidding wars and ask for more money, trusting the donors to respect his candor.

Attitudes toward billionaire philanthropy shifted after the Great Recession, with populists on the left and right more suspicious of the ultrawealthy. Yet management consulting for philanthropists and nonprofits continued to thrive. That is partly because the pie keeps growing.

From 2000 to 2018, assets held by private foundations more than doubled, according to the research group Candid, to $950 billion from $421 billion. Total giving tripled over the same period, the most recent for which complete data is available, rising to $72 billion from $23 billion, according to Candid, which also received a grant from Ms. Scott.

Instead of establishing big foundations, many of the richest Americans now want to use limited-liability companies, like Laurene Powell-Jobs, and donor-advised funds, which Ms. Scott has used for some of her gifts.

“Bridgespan seems exceptionally able and well-disposed to take advantage of the shift from big family foundations to L.L.C.s that don’t want staff but are still giving away a huge sum of money,” said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University.

Groups like Bridgespan can also step into the gap and serve as outsourced staff for new foundations finding their footing.

In March, the recently formed Asian American Foundation had just five full-time employees. After the killing of eight people at Atlanta-area spas, six of Asian descent, the group was inundated with pledges and commitments, including millions more from prominent board members including Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, and a further $1 billion committed to their cause by foundations, corporations and individuals in an eight-week period.

Mr. Hussein of Bridgespan served as an informal adviser, joining calls with board members.

The foundation brought on a team from Bridgespan full time over the summer. “My ask of them was understanding what is happening in the field and what are things we should be paying attention to. Where were the gaps?” said Sonal Shah, the foundation’s president. The Bridgespan team provided a thorough analysis of Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations in the United States.

“I think it was over a four-week period, which is not a small thing to do in a month,” Ms. Shah said.

Ms. Shah said she appreciated the fact that the team from Bridgespan was staffed fully with people of Asian descent. Mr. Hussein said that was intentional. He drew from Bridgespan’s internal affinity group, people with “firsthand experience of what it means to be othered, what it means to have the model minority myth,” Mr. Hussein said.

That was not the case in the group’s early days, said Mr. Walker, of the Ford Foundation.

“When I first met Bridgespan, it was primarily white men at the top and that’s not a surprise given their origin,” Mr. Walker said. “I had a Zoom call with the Bridgespan team on a matter last spring and a majority of the people on the little Hollywood Squares on the Zoom were people of color and women.”

Bridgespan’s self-reported diversity figures show two-thirds of the group’s staff are women. White people make up less than half of the overall staff, as well as less than half of those in leadership positions.

Both Mr. Walker and Jeff Bradach, one of Bridgespan’s founders, used the word “journey” to describe the group’s embrace of diversity and inclusion as central tenets of the work. Mr. Bradach, who was managing partner until October, when he stepped down from the top post, stressed in an interview that this was still a work in progress and that Bridgespan had made mistakes in the past.

For instance, one of Bridgespan’s big pushes was for donors to make “big bets” rather than spreading the money around. But that standard tends to favor big institutions. “If in your criteria, you say, ‘We only fund people that do random control trials,’ if you have these barriers to capital on general operating support, then a whole bunch of organizations led by people of color have actually never been given the money to do that,” Mr. Bradach said.

Ms. Scott has made it a priority to give to such previously underfunded groups. But she has no website or headquarters or way to apply for grants, leaving groups scrambling for a way to get on her radar. People in the field noticed, for instance, that Bridgespan has advised the YMCA and Ms. Scott gave grants to YMCA’s across the country last year.

While avoiding directly discussing Ms. Scott’s giving per company policy, Mr. Bradach rejected the notion that nonprofits could work with Bridgespan as a way of getting the attention of the big donors they advise. Mr. Bradach said that just 5 percent of the nonprofits that Bridgespan’s philanthropic clients gave to were also Bridgespan clients.

In that 5 percent of cases, Bridgespan policy is to tell the donor that it also represents the nonprofit. The notion among nonprofits that they could cozy up to Bridgespan and then receive huge sums from Ms. Scott is wrong, Mr. Bradach said, and also betrays a misunderstanding of how much sway Bridgespan has over the donors who seek its help. “It’s not,” he said, “a black box that they’re kind of scratching their head going, ‘I can’t wait to see what comes.’”

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