Monday, March 25, 2013

Something Jesus knew but Republicans forgot

Why the Rich don't give to charity
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.
Does this surprise anyone but Republicans (and their condottieri, the Beltway punditry)? Because in that book which so many Republicans claim to love, we find:

Mark 12:41-44

41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
I swear, it's like they don't even read the thing.

I'm kidding a bit, of course. The article goes on to explain that rich people who are exposed to the problems of poverty are just as generous as the poor. So apparently it is not just being rich that makes you an asshole, but being isolated. Again, not news; but the point is that America's rich are increasingly isolated from the rest of the country, in where they live, work, and even in the media they use. And of course this goes a long way to explain the current Republican bubble; the problem with Fox is not so much that it is wrong so often, but rather that it is so isolated from the rest of society.

And again: Jared Diamond makes clear that one key to a society's ability to cope with environmental damage is making sure the decision makers suffer the effects of their decisions.

The echo chamber destroys everything human. This is because human beings are auto-calibrating feedback loops; they must have healthy input to generate healthy output. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, because absolute power operates in a vacuum: with no power to oppose it, with no useful feedback, every control circuit goes haywire.


  1. I'm pretty sure the definition of charity you are using is specifically skewed to favor the bottom 20% you mention here. The wealthy very frequently pay more than is necessary for any given good or service because of that sense of charity you claim they do not have. They leave generous gratuities, they pay their housekeepers "Christmas bonuses", they pay their gardeners more than the prevailing wage because they like him. Charity does NOT have to tax deductible. Charity is a state of mind. It's knowingly being generous because you can afford it. By that measure I suspect your numbers would tell a very different story.

  2. The definition of charity actually favors the top, since they get to deduct their charity, and the bottom doesn't.

    (The article also points out that religious people, regardless of economic level, donate more than irreligious.)

    Your definition of charity - rewarding people economically as a whim - is in fact the definition of privilege. Furthermore, the tiny crumbs doled out to stroke their egos at the expense of the people who make their life possible hardly amounts to a measurable sum in an economy measured in trillions.

    As an atheistic liberal, I am totally against charity*. Charity is a crippling, demeaning exercise of ego, in which one party demonstrates its power over another.

    Fairness, on the other hand, is an ennobling and empowering act. Asking for handouts to save the victims of a hurricane is asking people to judge whether someone is worthy of being saved; raising a tax levy to help the victims is stating that as a society we value everyone.

    I have no desire to contribute to charity. Instead, I have a desire to see that the world is fair, and that everyone gets the level of assistance when they need it that I would want for myself. If that means higher taxes, then so be it.

    Unemployment insurance, for example, can be either: a) a charitable gift to those so pathetic they can't even feed themselves, so we'll keep them alive for the same reason we keep house pets, or b) your share of the fee paid to society to maintain a fluid labor market.

    Which one of those is ennobling, and which is demeaning?

    * Cultural activities aside: there's nothing wrong with voluntarily supporting an opera or some other activity that is not popular/necessary enough to justify public taxes.

  3. I see what you did there. If a rich person gives they are stroking their ego and if a poor person does they pious and charitable. That double standard doesn't exactly scream fairness.

    We agree though that fairness should be the stated goal. We would very likely argue about what policies ought to be created to impose fairness, but I suspect we could both suffer each others best efforts to create that just society.

  4. No, no - poor people use charity for the same reason: as a demonstration of power over others.

    If any person gives in a principled and consistent way that's fair to everyone (i.e. social programs, donating blood, etc.) then that is less an act of charity than an act of investment in the future, in my view. But again, poor people win on this measure, because they pay a higher percentage of taxes. If rich people want to be view as socially responsible, they don't need to endow a building with their name on it; just paying the same percentage of income tax would be fine.

    You are correct that pretty much any attempt to base society on fairness would be better than what we have. And I suspect you are right that either of us could do a better job than Congress... :D